Warborn has a tantalising hook: it’s Advance Wars but with giant mechs. What more could you want from a game? The strategic perfection of Advance Wars is hard to replicate – heck, even Intelligent Systems struggled over several diminishing sequels – so does Warborn do enough to establish its own identity, or is this more Regressive Wars than Advanced?
Over the surprisingly substantial campaign of Warborn, you’ll take on four different commanders battling for their faction in the war-torn Nebula system. There’s 90’s anime inspired talking head cut-scenes to sit through that follow the escapades of each faction’s protagonist, but there’s frankly so much exposition that I struggled to invest myself in the proceedings. There’s a lot of tedious chatter about past wars, political conflict, pirates, rebellions and peace treaties and not much in the way of characterisation. It reminded me of the dreary trade dispute of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, but fortunately, with Warborn being a video game, you can skip all the chatter and get to the good stuff.
And the strategic core of the game is definitely good stuff. It’s also refreshingly simple to get into. Many Turn Based Strategy games get bogged down in their own systems, requiring a huge time investment from the player to even understand what is going on, let alone harness those same systems to their advantage. Warborn, to its great benefit, doesn’t bother with any intense tactical navel-gazing, instead its straightforward pick up and play nature allows the player to get straight into the action, whilst also making it the perfect entry point for a TBS newbie.
Warborn plays pretty much as you’d expect. Each player takes turns marshalling their forces around a hexagonal landscape, each unit able to move and attack in a turn. You have to consider each unit’s resistances and strengths, as well as defensive modifiers and terrain types when choosing when to engage. When you do engage or when your opponent attacks, you get to watch some cute and well animated little battle scenes as mechs unleash a barrage of missiles, spew copious streams of energy beams and hack away with laser swords in an effort to fell their foes.
Each commander has a special ability that, upon charging, will benefit the entire army by boosting their abilities, but significantly more exciting is that they each control a Variable Armour V2 mech. These are delightful bad ass killing machines that can carve through pretty much anything in a satisfying orgy of destruction.
It’s familiar, it’s immediate, and thanks to the relatively small maps and the lack of fog of war, each battle is done and dusted in around fifteen minutes. This is a fun and pacey strategy game built on sturdy gameplay fundamentals. The problem is that, after the first handful of levels, the game doesn’t add very much to the formula.
Take the units as an example. The game initially drip feeds the player with a new mech during each encounter. There’s interesting variety between the units, from nippy light weigh scout mechs to vast behemoths that rain down fire and fury from afar. The problem is, that once you’ve completed the first chapter, you’ll be using the same handful of unit types for the rest of the game.
Sure, you’ll receive a new and exciting Variable Armour V2 with each commander you fill the boots of but that’s your lot. There’s not even an aesthetic change to separate each faction’s mechs, instead Krukov Mining Corp has the exact same units as Nethalis. You might be told you’re facing a fearsome band of pirate mechs but to all intent and purposes they look the same as your mechs, just painted purple. It fails to establish any real identity for the different factions, and you’ll have seen most of what Warborn has to offer far too soon.
Push on a bit though and you’ll find some nice variety in the mission objectives. You might have to navigate mine fields whilst judiciously protecting your weak scout mechs – the only unit capable of scanning for said mines – or escape from a more powerful foe with numerical superiority, or the standard epic brawls with control of the income generating silos deciding who has more staying power. It’s just a shame that the map designs don’t vary enough, and there’s some suspiciously similar layouts that crop up from chapter to chapter.
There’s also some curious omissions from the established Advance Wars formula. Why, in the name of Zeus’s fuzzy soup strainer, is there no way to check the movement or attack range of enemy units? It’s just plain weird for this feature to be absent and leads to needless frustration when cooking up an effective strategy. The AI is also a little on the dim side and will throw its best troops into a very obvious kill zone or spread out its attacks rather than focus on wiping out a specific unit. It’s just not quite ruthless enough, failing to capitalise on obvious weaknesses in the player’s strategy. It’s like it doesn’t really want to win.
These issues can of course be explained away by the limitations and restrictions that a tiny development team must face. There’s no doubt that the trio behind Warborn have accomplished a great deal. But I’m a greedy gamer in 2020 who is used to having more content than he can possibly consume and Warborn left me wanting more; more units, more variety, more challenge. What’s here is good, but what is frustrating is that it could have been brilliant.