Review: Warbits14 Apr 2016 15
Released 14 Apr 2016
There once was a very popular series of games released for Nintendo's series of handheld devices. The first, at least in North America, was called Advance Wars and it was rather popular. It suffered from a few issues, most notably the length of the character dialog (leading to it being called Advance Wars and Peace) and the asinine nature of the protagonist Andy which made me want to smack him every time he appeared on the screen. Despite these problems the core gameplay was a radical change from many of the games available for the Gameboy Advance and it remains one of a very popular series of games.
I mention this, not only because I have only now just finished clicking through the opening text from Advance Wars Dual Strike's third mission, but that the game and its antecedents clearly made an impact on the developers at Risky Lab. Their first release is an iOS game called Warbits which takes many cues from Advance Wars but is itself a throughly modern game which builds on that series and creates what is possibly the best online multiplayer game ever released for iOS.
Warbits' pretense is that the game is a war simulator used by the denizens of the galaxy to settle important disputes like whether tomatoes are vegetables. The galaxy is inhabited by beings from the Red Bear Republic, Blue Whale Empire, Green Cactus Army and Orange Sun Union who all act as belligerently as they want, safe in the comfort that any affront or affray they cause can be safely reconciled via the Warbits war simulator. [So, it's Taste of Armageddon without all that nasty disintegration. -ed.]
If you have played any of the Advance Wars series then you are familiar with the basics of Warbits. You conquer cities, factories and airfields to gain income which is then used to build your forces and smash your enemy. Games are played out over square and rectangular maps of varying sizes and you have a wide range of infantry, armour and aircraft at your disposal to enforce your opinions about the nature of tomatoes or other weighty subjects.
There are 16 different units in the game, from the lowly Light Infantry to the Heavy Mech and Ballista missile launcher. Each unit has its particular niche and all units are rated for attack strength, fuel, ammo, movement vision and armour. Additionally the game lists the cost of the unit as well as its relative strength against infantry, vehicles and air units. As you play, your units use fuel and ammo as they move and fight and you will need to resupply them using an APC lest they lose effectiveness.
Warbits has a 20 mission campaign that you can play to hone your skills and get ready for the true test of the game which is its online multiplayer component. Warbits offers two forms of online play. Custom Matches that you create and play using your Game Center contacts or AI opponents or Tag Matches that let you create--or join--a game using a tag such as #FFA, #2v2 or anything you want to use [how about using #PocketTactics? -ed.] to distinguish games. Tagging an online game lets you get matched with players using the same tag. Currently Risky Labs is using tags to match people who want to play with Fog of War enabled, set turn limits or beginners looking for games against other new players. When you start a tagged match the system either connects you to a game that is waiting for players or, if none is available, gives you the option to create a new game. This match tagging is a great feature and it will be interesting to see how this develops after release.
There are 29 multiplayer maps for 1v1 games and an additional 11 maps for four-player or 2v2 team games. They range in size from the aptly named Knife Fight map which is 9x5 to Scramble with is 21x18. You can enable or disable Fog of War to limit what you can see of your opponent's moves and also disable or enable the Powers in the game. In the Advance War series each of the Commanders had Powers they could activate after they had accumulated enough energy. In Warbits there are no Commanders so there is a set of 16 Powers that all players have access to that you can activate from your Headquarters. Powers are, well, powered using Charges that you get from destroying enemy units or the Reactor terrain elements that are on the maps. The Powers all have varying effects from buffing your infantry, healing units that are resupplied, allowing all units to move a second time or making transport units immune from attack. None of the Powers are truly game-changing but can be cannily used to inflict a punishing attack on your opponent. With a few exceptions most require some planning to get the most use from and they tend to reward careful gameplay.
The art style of the game is a unique blend of sci-fi, vector art and has an oddly retro feel. Everything from the terrain to the units themselves are crisp and visually appealing. The graphics scale well regardless of the size of your display which is critical when moving from device to device as you play. The game looks just as good on a iPad 2 as it does on a iPhone Retina display. The game's UI also scales very well to smaller displays and I have not had any issues playing the game on my iPhone despite suffering from what can only politely be called 'hot dog fingers'.
The server system that Risky Labs has built for Warbits lets you seamlessly change devices and carry on asynchronous games without a hitch. Server communication is very fast and I have played upwards of 100 games and several thousand turns without any communication issues. I have been lucky enough to be part of the beta-testing team for the game for some time now (hence my elevated gameplay stats) and Risky Labs could have shipped this game some time ago. They have spent over a year since the last beta test cycle working on the game, fine-tuning the maps, removing first-player-advantage where it existed and polishing Warbits to the point where it is almost perfect. There have been some network issues but those are almost all the result of a long-known, and only recently fixed, iOS Game Center bug. Updating to iOS 9.3.2 will solve any Game Center problems you might encounter. The update is not available as of the release date for Warbits but it should be released soon.
Despite the clear influences from Advanced Wars, Risky Labs have stood on the shoulders of giants and created something that is a throughly unique game. Where games like Front Wars, Rogue Planet, or Mecho Wars seem more like a reskinning of the Advance Wars experience, Warbits takes that core gameplay and modifies it for mobile gaming while, at the same time, adding their own features to give the game something extra. For example, the split-screen combat results animations from Advance Wars have been scrapped and battle results are shown on the map as they occur. This works to speed your turn up and over the course of multiple online games is a blessing. The Wall and Reactor terrain items add a new twist to the maps. Walls block all units from crossing them and Reactors give Charges and add another map element for players to contest. Finally where Advance Wars had an extensive, and often difficult, campaign game, Warbits has focused on online multiplayer.
Despite this focus on multiplayer, Warbits has a very good AI system, and by "good" I mean "utterly brutal". There are no difficulty levels available when playing against the AI and the computer simply goes for the throat every game. In some titles, the AI is a welcome break from online human opponents. Not so for Warbits. A four player free-for-all game with three AI opponents is a ruthless, Darwinian affair in which you may often feel like the least fit.
The closest comparisons one can draw to existing iOS titles would be Outwitters or Hero Academy and while those are both excellent games I find Warbits to be a leaner and more polished game experience. If you are a fan of turn-based strategy titles then Warbits has everything you need. it is available at a discounted release price of $2.99 US and will revert to its regular price of $3.99 US soon after. There is no IAP, no currencies, gems or timers - only pure gaming goodness. Oh, and no annoying characters like Andy.