Getting into the Wargroove.
Advance Wars made turn-based tactics not only portable but accessible. It’s pretty criminal that we’ve had to wait a decade since the last one. Tiny Metal attempted to take up the baton earlier this year but it was far from an outright victory, as Andrew’s review will attest. We can only hope that Wargroove can do better – and if my recent hands-on with a preview build at EGX Birmingham is any indication, the odds are looking good.
I’m playing as Mercia, a warrior queen with the ability to deploy a healing aura to units in her nearby radius. My mission tasks me with protecting civilians as they flee the ghoulish ranks of the Felheim Legion. It’s a simple setup, a tutorial of sorts to get me into the swing of things: battle the undead scourge to the south and west as they march on the town, while deploying a wagon to ferry refugees to safety.
The town barracks recruits the units necessary to support my Commander: swordsmen, spearmen, archers and paladins. Structurally, these all feel very familiar. Regular infantry are your bread and butter; inexpensive soldiers with modest movement potential. Paladins, meanwhile, are horseback knights that can cover great distances.
A tried and true rock-paper-scissors system denotes the efficacy of each: archers are effective against infantry, spearmen make short work of horseback units whilst said horseback units steamroll most other infantry. Why reinvent the wheel? This stuff works.
Chucklefish do, however, explain to me that there’s an extra layer of depth in the form of criticals. Rather than basing these on simple percentage chance, criticals in Wargroove are situation-dependent. Soldiers are rallied into a critical by the proximity of their commander. Paladins unleash a critical after a 5-tile charge. As if positioning wasn’t important enough in turn-based tactics, Wargroove ramps up its significance by another notch.
I’m getting into the flow of battle, deploying units to the frontlines, rescuing civilians and sending the Felheim horde to their final resting place. But in a damning reminder of how one wrong step can have fatal consequences, I get too cocky and let Mercia charge ahead solo, only to be slain in battle. I’ve lost my Commander, the battle and my dignity. What a moron.
But that’s not all I see of Wargroove – I also spectate a 1v1 local multiplayer match. I could enter into one myself, sure, but why embarrass myself in front of a complete stranger?
Multiplayer is where I really see the game come alive. It’s not the fastest-paced of experiences, I’ll admit, a product of inexperience and indecision in equal measures. Two friends-turned-foes agonise over the best units to build in order to counteract their opponent. I can clearly sense their excruciating risk/reward decisions: advance and capture buildings, or maintain a defensive position?
Here I’m introduced to other units, like attack dogs, agile anti-infantry which perform criticals when travelling in packs. Affectionately dubbed ‘Doggos’ by the Cherrystone Kingdom, they’re a firm favourite of the two battlers. If this early look at Wargroove is anything to go by, however, units seem thoughtfully balanced. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, with nothing clearly overpowered.
Other strategic elements come into play too, such as the influence of weather and terrain. Mountain ranges and forests are slow to traverse across but offer a defensive advantage. Changes in the climate happen over time and affect unit power, for better or worse – Mages, for instance, unleash criticals when it’s raining. I’m won over by both the accessibility of Wargroove’s core mechanics and the extra depth palpable just below the surface.
Of course, this is where Advance Wars’ DNA really presents itself. The visual influence is unmistakable, too, from the cutesy pixel art to the side-on battle sequences when units clash. A switch to a fantasy theme helps differentiate the franchises, but regardless it would be a disservice to dismiss Wargroove as a copycat. Its style is downright lovely, the kind of timeless animation that endears you to it immediately. Units are somewhat chibi-like with exaggerated features, a playful take on war that keeps the tone light-hearted and fun.
Whereas I evidently need to spend a lot of time in basic training when Wargroove rolls around next year, it’s a boot camp I’m looking forward to. If you’re an Advance Wars veteran and Wargroove wasn’t already on your map, it should be.