I’m going to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room: Advance Wars. Any time we’re talking about a 2.5d turn-based strategy game, if you don’t think I’m going to bring up the greatest turn-based strategy series of all time, then you’re wrong (for the avoidance of doubt, best real-time strategy game series is, of course, Command & Conquer or Age of Empires and I don’t care if you think I’m basic). And for good reason, no game before or since has quite managed to perfect the blend of varied map design, in-depth AI, a surprisingly involving story and most importantly, it was actually fun to play.
With no AW games since 2008’s Days of Ruin, with only the, admittedly very consistent, Fire Emblem series to frequently scratch that itch*, every time a similar game comes out I begin to wonder, could this be the new successor to Advance Wars I’ve been waiting for?
Warborn makes a good argument for being that game I’ve been looking for. Essentially it’s Advance Wars but with Gundam which is a powerful combination. You play through four campaigns as a variety of plucky young mech pilots who also happen to lead battalions of other mechs to victory or imminent destruction.
I like that the core dynamic is something of a classic for this type of game, Rock-Paper-Scissors dynamics as you have your three core types of infantry: footsoldiers, bombastics and snipers. There is a fun range of other units throughout the game including artillery and medics though especially early on in proceedings, you may find yourself consistently using your somewhat overpowered commander units, able to tear through two or three enemies in a single shot and also absorb a ridiculous amount of enemy punishment.
The map designs have a nice difficulty to them, starting off on reasonably flat terrain and by the end of the game forcing you to make some fiendish tactical decisions, almost making one move the difference between success and defeat. The AI, while not quite fiendish enough to be too taxing, does at least follow unique patterns making them harder to predict. Though this does result in some baffling decisions on their part such as attacking a unit with full health when two with barely any are within range.
The story is somewhat standard Star Wars-style operatics involving republics, rebellions and people having to come together to defeat a common foe but it works enough to provide context to the individual levels and a small element that many games forget is the actual dialogue has some differentiation of rhythms to make it feel like they are a range of people and not just sounding like the same one writer (perhaps my only criticism of Death Stranding).
The best part is that it is very good fun. With the serialised storytelling and quick, skirmish-style levels, it’s perfect to pick-up-and-play for half an hour or get lost in a marathon gameplay session. While it’s not a perfect experience, the thing is that the downsides do not compare to the upsides either in terms of quantity or importance. The core gameplay is good, the maps are well-designed, the map editor has a good level of detail and even though the story isn’t fully involving, the gameplay makes finishing the game feel like an achievement.
Ultimately, it comes down to one thing, does the phrase Advance Wars but with giant mech suits fill you with joy? If it does, get yourself a copy of Warborn, you’ll probably love it. If it doesn’t, I hope you find something in your life that does.
*I should make it clear, I adore much of the Fire Emblem canon and especially some of the complexities of its Class system mixed with a predominance of using Rock-Paper-Scissors logic but some of the recent games, bar Fates have felt like they’ve been treated water a bit, especially when it comes to exciting map design.
Also if you were wondering what the best Advance Wars replacement is, it’s Wargroove. It’s the only one with a dog army.
Warborn is out now for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC & Xbox One