Full Title: Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: June 24, 2003
ESRB Rating: E

The sequel to 2001's Advance Wars (itself a sequel to Super Famicom Wars), Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising takes place in "Wars World", a planet consisting of six nations, each of which occupy an entire continent. In the previous game, the Black Hole Army instigated war between the other five nations, attempting to weaken them so it could take over. In this game, Black Hole takes a more aggressive approach, attempting to conquer all five nations with brute force and superior weapons technology. In the role of various COs, you must repel the invasion and drive the Black Hole Army back to their island.

Gameplay consists of battles in a very large gridded "map. In each map, you control a small army with a C.O.. In the single-player campaign, the C.O. you use is often pre-determined, though you can choose one for certain battles; in multiplayer and "war room" battles, you can choose any C.O. that has been unlocked. Each C.O. has his or her own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. For instance, Sami's infantry can do more damage than average, and can capture cities and other properties 50% faster; however, her troops are more easily damaged by non-infantry units. Each C.O. also has one or two special "C.O. Powers" which can be activated when the meter reaches a certain level. Being attacked raises this more than anything else; the idea is to give you a chance to counterattack strongly enough to repel an enemy force, even a larger one. C.O. Powers vary widely; Andy's automatically repairs all units, Colin's increases the army's funds for one turn, Sensei's allows infantry to paratroop into all captured cities, etc.

As with most games of this type, each player gets as long as they like to position their troops, create new units, etc. without interference. There are three main structures: HQs, bases, and cities. HQs don't really do anything, but if you capture the enemy's or vice versa, it results in an automatic win. Bases produce land units; cities provide funds each round, as well as providing terrain defense and resupplying occupying units. In addition to these, some maps have airports (to produce helicopters, bombers and fighter jets), seaports (for ships), and missile silos (which provide a one-time missile attack anywhere on the map). Finally, in the singleplayer campaign, players will often come up against special buildings or weapons created by the Black Hole - laser cannons and giant factories, among other things.

There really is a lot of strategy to the game. Unlike real-time strategy games, which often consist simply of building up enough resources and units to overrun the opponent, Advance Wars limits the amount of income you can take in; only cities provide wealth, and it takes at least two days to capture any one of the limited number of cities on the map. Then, too, each unit has a provision of gasoline and ammunition that must be periodically replenished either by an APC or a friendly city (or in the case of planes and ships, a friendly airport or seaport). Land units which run out of gas will stop dead until they are resupplied; air and sea units will simply crash or sink, and any unit that runs out of ammo will either be forced to use their secondary weapon or be completely defenseless. All of this means that attacks must be planned carefully.

So far I've been rather dryly describing the game, so let me just say right now that this is a fantastic game, and one of my current GBA favorites. However, that is not to say it doesn't have some problems.

Let me start off by saying that the dialogue in this game is pretty abysmal. Bad translation is probably part of this, but I'd say the main problem is that the writers were trying to write for young children, but don't really know how to. However, the dialogue (and the plot) are rather trivial to the actual game, though you have to pay some attention to it to understand what's going on in some maps. In addition, if you lose a map in the single-player campaign, the losing army's C.O.s will have a conversation that gives you hints as to what to do next time.

The other big issue is the difficulty level. I personally don't find it as hard as it's often made out to be, but there are nonetheless many maps in the campaign which took me many tries, and I'm still struggling to complete the Green Earth missions. The main reason for the difficulty is balance, or rather, a lack thereof. Almost every map starts with the Black Hole having the advantage - more cities, more bases, more units already on the field. Then too, Black Hole has several "superweapons" that are used on certain maps, which make those all uphill battles, and they can build "Neotanks", against which there is no land counterunit. (Bombers and Battleships can both inflict heavy damage on Neotanks, but are not always available, and are more expensive.) As well, in maps where "fog of war" is active, the computer player nonetheless knows where everything is. Black Hole C.O. Powers are also sometimes a bit unfair; in particular, Lash's "Prime Tactics" power makes her units almost invincible as well as giving them highly increased firepower. Finally, the last map in each nation features a Black Hole "Factory". Whereas a Base can only produce one unit per turn, and that unit cannot move until the next turn, a Factory can produce three units, and they all get a move in that turn.

In addition, the AI can be rather stupid at times, which is probably why the developers made the maps so unbalanced in the first place. It will often attack the weakest units first instead of the strongest, sometimes puts units needlessly in harm's way, and in some cases can be tricked into doing silly things like leaving its base completely defenseless. (As an example: In one Green Earth level, I beat the computer by having a few soldiers capture cities near my base in the lower-left of the map, while mounting a large army upper-left. The computer massed its army in the lower-right, gradually working its way to my base, taking the time to capture the cities I had taken. Due both to its own stupidity and the terrain, I managed to hold off a much larger force from my base with only a few units. Meanwhile, it had nothing at its own base except what it had quickly created as a response to my advancing army. My forces rolled in and quickly crushed what little was there, occupied half of its bases, and within three days captured the HQ. If I had tried to destroy its army I would have been easily defeated, but instead I simply strolled into their command center and performed a nearly bloodless coup.)

So, the bottom line: With a very challenging single-player campaign, infinite replayability (even if you don't want to replay the campaign, you can play against the computer in a variety of matches), single- and multi-cart play multiplayer for up to four people, and the ability to create your own maps, this is a must-have GBA title. The only concern I'd have is that owners of the new Nintendo DS may have traded in or sold their GBAs already, and the former can't play GBA games in multiplayer mode1. If that's the case for you, and the multiplayer is really important to you, you may want to wait for Advance Wars DS; however, there's no known release date on that at the moment. So if you don't care about multiplayer or simply can't wait, go for AW2. It's only twenty bucks anyway. Trust me, it's well worth it.

1: I've been informed by two people now that there is apparently a "hotseat" multiplayer mode. By my own admission, I have no experience with the game's multiplayer mode, but this turns out to be correct. I would personally find it annoying, but it's an alternative if you have a DS (or simply don't own a link cable). For that matter, it would allow you to play multiplayer on a GameCube with the Game Boy Player, which for all I know is the reason it was implemented in the first place.