Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising – Review

The original Advance Wars distinguished itself as one of the most complex and sophisticated titles on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) by bravely doing something few other carts have dared to do: it rewarded gamers for their intelligence and careful observation instead of their digital dexterity. The turn-based strategy game was indeed my first bonafide GBA addiction, not because I have an affinity for war or strategy games (I love neither), but because it was the first GBA game to convince me that a handheld game could provide an experience just as deep and rich as most console games.

Boasting only one new vehicle—the spider—like Neo Tank-and a few new Commanding Officers, the follow-up is closer to a revision—call it Advance Wars 2.0—than a full-blown sequel. The developers decided against giving the game an overhaul and instead chose to subtly tweak and refine what they already had. Considering how solid and polished the original was, it was probably a wise decision. The most obvious tweaks and refinements come in the form of new gameplay elements like missile silos, death-ray lasers, massive cannons, and even lava-spewing volcanos. The missions in Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising are more varied and dramatic, and it has everything to do with these new elements. In the case of the missile silos, for example, only infantry units can set them off, so a mission featuring missile silos becomes a frantic footrace to see who can reach the silos first. With each successive map in Advance Wars 2, I felt like I was doing things I hadn't done before, and encountering challenges I hadn't encountered before. It seems strange that a handful of minor elements can make an already great game significantly better, but they somehow do. Aside from the sometimes frustrating artificial intelligence (A.I.)—the enemy armies can be just as ruthless as they were in the original—I'm hard-pressed to find fault with the first-rate Advance Wars 2.

The aspect of the Advance Wars games that I've always appreciated most—and I realize this sounds odd, so bear with me—is the sheer amount of learning that the game asks me to do. Most games, especially GBA games, take a dumbed-down, simpler-is-better approach. But Advance Wars has never been shy about asking gamers to learn; the tutorial alone in the original was longer than some GBA games are in their entirety. Though I've been playing Advance Wars games for more than a year now, I'm always discovering new uses for the vehicles, ships and aircraft, always figuring out fresh ways to use the terrain to my advantage, always devising more effective strategies for dismantling my foe. I'm still gathering information, still appreciating the game's many nuances, and still marveling at how ridiculously deep this game is. The reason why the games have such depth is because they present me with a simple problem (capture the enemy headquarters), along with a set of tools to solve the problem (tanks, helicopters, infantry, etc.). Then I'm turned loose on the battlefield and encouraged to experiment my way towards a solution. That experimentation is the heart of the Advance Wars experience, and it's exactly what makes the game so absorbing and addictive.

Thom, in his review of the original game, traces the Advance Wars lineage back to the old Mac game, Strategic Conquest. I'll go further—all the way back to the grandfather of all turn-based strategy games: Chess. Like Chess, the Advance Wars games feature pawns (infantry), rooks (the bullish tanks), bishops (the long-range rockets and aircraft), and knights (the APCs). The most basic lesson in Chess—that the game isn't about eliminating my opponent's pieces, but gaining a spatial advantage—absolutely applies to Advance Wars. The more territory I control, the more likely I am to win the battle. I also found myself pressuring opponents the same way I pressure opponents in chess. During a recent battle, I was confronted by a blockade of enemy tanks. I didn't try to rush the blockade, but instead I pressured my opponent by discretely using a transport helicopter to move infantry units across the mountains to the north. Once the enemy realized this, a few tanks were dispatched northward to confront my advancing infantry units. My infantry units were destroyed—I knew they'd never stand up to the powerful tanks, so their mission was one of sacrifice—but once those tanks headed north to deal with them, the blockade was weakened enough to allow me to break through.

About those sacrificed infantry units...Thom questioned the ethical implications of taking such a light-hearted approach to war. War is hell, but you certainly wouldn't know it from playing the Advance Wars games. Without a drop of blood or any trace of guts—the Advance Wars games are probably the most antiseptic war games ever made. When I first started playing the game, I was surprised by how blithe the Commanding Officers were about the loss of their troops. Personally, I was loathe to lose any of my "men." Like any good soldier, I didn't want to leave anyone behind, and I actually spent my early missions escorting wounded units to safe places so they could heal or be repaired. Whenever they "died," I actually felt a small sense of remorse, certain that I'd failed them.

My bleeding-heart sentiments naturally didn't get me far and I was mercilessly crushed by the enemy A.I. I quickly realized that in order to play and play well, sacrifices were inevitable. My ethics and values had to be put aside. Now, as a veteran of Advance Wars and Advance Wars 2, I've become rather heartless—"salty," as they say in the military. I no longer have any quandries about putting a puny infantry unit in the path of a rolling tank either to buy myself time or gain an advantage elsewhere on the map. The anime graphics and bouncy tunes create a chipper, up-beat tone which can seem completely incongruous to the inherently violent gameplay underneath. Light on the outside, dark on the inside... maybe that's a better way to describe the Advance Wars games. And maybe that's what makes the games so compelling—they're ultimately contradictions; they're mature, complex games masquerading as kiddie fare.

I'm giving Advance Wars 2 an 8.5 because of the game's lack of any significant innovation (the missile silos and volcanos are nice, but one new tank doesn't cut it for me). The developers decided not to take any risks, which I can't really fault them for, since the first game was so damn close to perfection to begin with. The 8.5 doesn't mean the game is flawed, only that it hasn't been improved in any dramatic way. Rest assured, I'll absolutely still be playing Advance Wars 2 whenever the third game in the series is released a couple years from now—no game makes dull bus and train trips fly by faster. Let's hope that the next installment will boldly take a risk or two with its well-proven formula. As it stands, Advance Wars 2 is best thought of as an excellent extension of the excellent original. Rating: 8.5 out of 10