Exclusive: Nintendo Gives Us "Battalion Wars 2" (First Impressions Of Finished Game)

Battalion Wars 2There are times when the mighty Nintendo company actually reacts to little old me.

That includes today, because I have here on my desk a finished, retail copy of "Battalion Wars 2."

I have it a day before Nintendo is sending it to other reporters, probably because I wrote an article last week questioning the lack of promotion for the game. The game is shipping to stores on October 29.

Do I have power over Nintendo? Well, not really. For the record, other times that Nintendo may have reacted to me: There was a time during a speech from Reggie Fils-Aime two years ago, when he announced that he wasn't going to put "Brain Age" commercials on MTV, and having chatted with me before the speech, ad-libbed: "Sorry Stephen." Oh, and 1up.com apparently thinks the makers of "Super Smash Bros. Brawl" do my bidding.

But that's not why you're reading this post.

You're probably reading because you want to know about "Battalion Wars 2." Is it a the next great hardcore Wii game after "Metroid Prime 3" or a dud? Did I find whatever fatal flaw that may have kept Nintendo from marketing the game more aggressively?

I've played the game for three hours so far and am ready to spill the beans...

The Basics

To get everyone up to speed, "Battalion Wars 2" is published by Nintendo and developed by Kuju London, the same outfit that created the first game in the series, which was released for GameCube in 2005. Both games are third-person action games that put the player on a battlefield where they can both directly and indirectly control a small battalion in skirmishes against enemy military forces.

Many action games might give you a single super-soldier to control. Tthe "Battalion Wars" games let you control, say, a single machine gun soldier, while six guys with flamethrowers, five guys with bazookas, three assault commandos, two tanks, a recon buggy and an attack helicopter -- all marching, rolling and swooping in concert with you soldier's steps. On the fly, you can tell each of your units to attack different enemy units, stand guard, or capture bases. Or you can take immediate control of any of the other allied units yourself and control the battle from thier point of view.

That makes the series an unusual mix of near-simultaneous shooting and strategic planning. The games are broken into missions which usually pit your army against another. And, oddly, everything is done in with cartoon-ish graphics, so that the war looks kind of ... cute?

Fatal Flaws?

I received "BW2" from Nintendo yesterday but wasn't able to pop it into my Wii until 6:45AM this morning. I couldn't help but immediately start searching for flaws. What was wrong with this game?

Nintendo hadn't let me play the game's single player game two weeks before release. Were they only, begrudgingly relenting now, hoping I would be too flattered to overlook the problems?

Three hours in, here are the most negative things I can say:

  1. The game is only for one player per Wii. It has a single-player campaign and multi-player options. But the "BW2" multiplayer Co-op, Skirmish and Assault missions are only available over Wi-Fi. I couldn't play them because no one else seems to have the game.
  2. Like just about every Wii game, there is at least one motion-based control command that doesn't make sense to me. While controlling a foot soldier, you can manually capture an enemy base, which is accomplished by standing near a flagpole, "Battlefield"-style. You can send your men to do this (only males fight on the ground in "BW2," as far as I've seen). But you can do this yourself by running to the flagpole. You're then encouraged by the game to shake the nunchuk control in order to enter the flagpole. This seems strange in theory, and it is in practice. I don't really get it.
  3. The game may be short. I have completed the prologue mission, the first five-mission campaign and the first mission of the second campaign. My save file indicates I am 35% through the game. But maybe it's not counting hidden missions, if there are any? It also may not be counting the multiplayer missions, of which there are four in Co-op, six Assault and six Skirmish.
  4. I've found one counter-intuitive change made to the series' controls and display. In the first game you could order your fellow troops to follow or wait with the simple click of the GameCube controller's X-button. In the new game, you have to point the remote at a non-combat part of the TV screen and tap the Wii remote's A button. That's not so bad. But what I'm still not used to is the big icon on the right of the screen that always shows an A-button icon with the word "Follow" or "Wait" below it. The word doesn't indicate that your squad-mates are doing what it says. In fact, you squad-mates will always be doing the opposite. The button icon and the word are there to remind you what pressing the button will do. I'm not sure why that needs to be on the screen the whole time, and it keeps making me think my squad is set the wrong way.
  5. As in the first game, your commanding officers will talk to you a lot. I'm already wishing they'd shut up and just let me play.

Other than that, the game has been very fun and looks like a nice but modest graphical step up from the first one. The quick pace of the action, the satisfying chaos of battle and the charm of the visual design all intact. As of the fifth campaign mission I lost my first vehicle and have started to have to think about how I go through missions, rather than just plowing through them.

My First Three Hours -- In Brief

Keeping spoilers to a minimum, let me lay out the campaign for those wondering what the single-player experience will be like.

The game opens with a prologue mission that is designed to explain the controls. As in the first game, you will start the game in control of just one soldier. Unlike the first game's opening mission, your objective is to storm a tower that looks like it should be holding the Eye of Sauron.

The first campaign puts players in command of the Solar Empire, the game's stand-in for the Japanese military. Your missions involve saving island bases from a surprise attack by the forces of the Anglo Isles, aka the British, who believe the Empire is creating a super-weapon. You'll primarily control ground troops and light tanks in the campaign, though the final mission starts you off with a battleship and two frigates.

The second campaign involve the Western Frontier forces (Americans) against Tundran Territories (Russians). I've just begun that one.

I'm staying in car-review, explain-the-features mode for most of this write-up, but I did want to offer a little something from the Vs. Mode cultural critic side of my brain: I sensed echoes in the campaign not just of World War II but of the recent hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The game is fairly well-stocked with connections adults will appreciate, even though everything is presented with Tonka-truck playfulness. By pushing that split tone, rather than, say, high def graphics, it seems like Kuju has found another way to evoke the Pixar vibe that so many games are after.

Brand New Stuff

Two major additions have been made to the gameplay:

  1. Battles include naval units. I've only used battleships, which are essentially artillery at sea, and frigates, which are great against flying craft and useless against ground forces. I've yet to access dreadnoughts and subs (according to the instruction manual, I will be able to shake the remote nunchuk to submerge subs -- sounds neat).
  2. Many of the game's missions include "facilities," a feature that nudges it a little closer to its spiritual predecessor, "Advance Wars." So far, I've used my soldiers to capture headquarters, barracks and a factory. These facilities kept replenishing troops and vehicles when I lost them. The instruction manual indicates that I can use airbases and docks to reinforce air and sea vehicles.

Small Touches To Delight Veteran Players

I played the GameCube original to completion and have found quite a few improvements in the sequel.

  1. The map is much-improved. It may be the best map in a Wii game. A press of the remote's minus button brings up a field map. You scroll the map by pointing the remote at any edge of the screen and zoom in and out with the nunchuk's analog stick. You can see the full battlefield, and zero in on unit and base locations. (The campaign map is good too, as it functions like the globe in the Wii's Forecast Channel)
  2. The game's front-end lets players access dossiers for each unit type as well as unlockable concept art. The unit types seem to include one special soldier each. The Solar Empire's forces include a staff bearer, who I used in the prologue. His staff didn't do anything special. Maybe it will, if he shows up later. The Western Frontier dossier lists a Private Hazard, who is apparently featured in a mission that involves sending "him home to his grief-stricken mother."
  3. When in battle, units that you set to guard something can be selected to attack a specific enemies. That isn't new. But they do so without forgetting that they should revert back to guarding when their target is destroyed. I don't remember the allies being that smart in the first game.
  4. You are still given a letter grade when you complete the mission. Your performance is based on ratings in Power, Speed and Technique. Unlike the last game, however, you can see a breakdown of your performance. After one mission I was given a 99% in Power because I had destroyed 76 of 77 infantry and 14 of 14 ground vehicles. I was given a 90% in Speed, because I finished the mission in eight and a half minutes instead of seven and three quarters. I forgot to jot down my percentage completion in Technique, but I know I was marked down because I finished with only 11 of my 18 soldiers. Overall, I was given an "A" rank for the mission.
  5. Attention was clearly paid to even small details. By pressing the remote's plus button, a pause menu pops up. The menu allows access to three sub-menus, including an objectives list and a schematic of the game's controls. Pressing plus again will let you return to the action. Pressing plus to pause once more brings you directly back to your chosen sub-menu. This is a shortcut you will appreciate.

Things I Haven't Done Yet

As noted above I haven't played this final build of the game online, so I can't offer any insights about multiplayer. I also haven't controlled any air units, which, according to the instruction manual, seem to have much of their flight maneuvers mapped to tilts and rolls of the remote and nunchuk.

What Next?

I haven't written about the game's basic controls, because they are sound and because I think they've been covered well elsewhere. But if anyone has questions about them or anything else related to the game, fire away.