Indie Wonderland: Future Wars

A few hours in

Hey, welcome back! I did some more of the campaign missions. I did nine of them in total, as a matter of fact!

I’m *at* mission nine, but that’s actually mission ten, because there’s a mission zero, and… listen, just forget about it.

Were cool new things introduced during the seven missions you guys weren’t here for? You betcha! How about an sweet indirect mortar launcher, an even more indirect and sweet distance rocket launcher, and a straight-up floating plasma battle tank? Guys, it’s pretty sweet.

Give me five of these and I can win *any* war you care to name.

Are any of the concepts it’s introduced in any significant way different from Advance Wars? Eh… not really, if we’re being honest. So far, Future Wars’ unit line-up reads a little like a game design undergrad’s ‘original game design’, where original art assets and anime cutscenes can’t really conceal the fact that the game you’re playing feels awfully familiar.

I mean, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Infantry. Rocket infantry. Scout. APC. Tank. Move-or-fire 2-3 range mortar. Move-or-fire 3-5 range rocket. Heavy tank. I could go on.

So maybe I will! Infantry can move across hills and difficult terrain, vehicles can’t. Infantry captures cities and factories, in a number of turns related to their health. Cities provide income, factories allow you to create certain units, depending on factory. Cities and factories heal friendly units. Different terrain types have different defensive values and movement allowances. Unit health is unit strength. And so on, and so on, and so on…

If pointing out these similarities in this way feels a little like nitpicking, well… that’s because it is. It’s not a major game design sin by any stretch to copy particularly the mechanical aspects of existing games; hell, it happens all the time. And Future Wars’ ‘like Advance Wars, but’ status needs in no way to impact your own experience with it.

It does impact my experience with it, though, because being this much like Advance Wars almost necessitates direct comparison between the two. And the unfortunate reality of it is that Advance Wars is just the better game. It has much more tactical depth, more systems that simulate aspects of warfare that Future Wars ‘handily’ skips over, cool side-stuff like the CO powers, and probably a better story to boot.

(To wit: Future Wars doesn’t have systems for: fuel amount, ammo amount, any representation of supply lines and fronts, unit repairing through merging, and any sort of out-of-game ‘powers’.)

I do really like how Future Wars has to visually very distinct sides to the conflict, from the general unit design and colour use down to weapon feel and aesthetic effect. Sure, the two sides are functionally identical, but that’s kind of what you want in a game like this. Having the sides at least feel different is a good differentiating step, that I feel a lot of games skip over for it not being ‘important’ enough.

The fact that my artillery unit’s volley looks, feels and sounds significantly different from theirs is seriously a major point in favour for me.

But yes, functionally, Future Wars is ‘like Advance Wars, but with less interesting functionality’. Not a scathing indictment by any stretch, especially if you don’t own any of the consoles required to play Advance Wars… but if you were looking for ‘like Advance Wars, but significantly different and/or better in any respect’, I can save you some time reading the rest of the review.

Alright, with that unnecessarily long — and yet longingly necessary — tangent out of the way, we can get to the main question: divorced from any comparison to other, more prominent games, is Future Wars in and by itself good?

Eeeehhhhhh…

It has moments like this, so you know it’s not going to go for the unqualified gold.

The long and the short of it is that Future Wars is, at best, average. Run-of-the-mill, if you’re so inclined. It’s a functional tactical turn-based war game, designed and built on the mechanical scaffolds of other games and created and implemented with some degree of competency. It’s not bad, not by any stretch, but it’s unlikely to turn any heads either.

Mechanically, controls-wise, Future Wars works just fine. I’ve already mentioned the clear movement allowance overlay, the ease with which you cancel moves, the radial options menu, the your-damage-and-enemy-damage overview you can see before you battle, and the blinking ‘all units done’ checkmark that signals it should be safe to end your turn. Particularly the quick unit information screen in the top right — which shows the battle information and/or environmental details — takes a while to get used to, but is pretty invaluable once you get going.

Enemy movement information is a little less clear initially: the green squares in this case don’t show you where the enemy can move, but where it can attack. And trust me when I say I had to learn that lesson one exploding shell at a time.

Also, I do really like the blue circles under units that haven’t moved yet. It’s really cool visual shorthand.

The only complaint I’d have controls-wise is that it’s impossible to revert a ‘confirmed’ move where you took no action after moving, even though I can’t think of a good gameplay reason for why you’d want to prohibit that. Beyond that, everything is just functional and fine in Future Wars. Moving units, attacking, capturing cities, building units…

The information flow in Future Wars is a little more obtuse at times. It’s really easy to see how much damage your attack will do, and it’s fairly easy to extrapolate the damage of the counterattack. And we’ve gone over movement allowance. But other crucial pieces of information oftentimes seem hidden: the remaining health of cities you’re trying to capture, for instance. Or your total turn income. Or how much health cities and factories repair to units, and whether or not there’s any difference. Or what the appointed ‘par time’ is for each mission. And so on, et cetera, und so weiter. For much of this information, I still don’t actually know if it’s in-game at all.

Narratively, Future Wars is… well, its story is more or less tripe. Let’s not pretend it’s anything else but mission-filler. No matter how much dialogue and characterization you throw at us, nor how meticulously crafted each individual line, a game that includes a character called ‘Roy Wienersmith Jr.’ loses all narrative credibility, forever.

And that’s before we get any further into the ridiculous ‘war school for teens’ trope, which I really don’t feel like deconstructing here.

The one girl we’ve seen so far is the principal’s daughter? Whaaaa? *record scratch*

Also, I find I’m a little annoyed a game ostensibly simulating ‘military school’ to forego teaching you any actual tactics. It’s fine and all to tell me that I need to ‘use the terrain to defeat this enemy’, Future Wars, but why aren’t you telling me how? I’m not asking you to hand-hold me too much, but something in the vein of ‘tanks can’t reach these areas, allowing you to maneuver your fragile tank-killing Troopers into position, while using Hoppers and Patrols to create a disposable bottleneck slash bullet shield’ seems like it could be beneficial to people with no prior military strategy. I suppose there’s something to be said for letting people figure out tactics on their own, but in games like these — long missions, limited manual saving, easy to mess up early in a mission — a little guidance could go a long way.

As far as mission design is concerned, Future Wars is unremarkable in the best way. All missions so far have been variations on ‘kill all enemy units or capture HQ’, which is either a disappointing lack of variety or a refreshing lack of stupid gimmicks, depending on viewpoint. Missions are instead made interesting through terrain design, unit allowance choices, and starting setup. Here’s a straight-up fight with an equal rival, but with rivers that hamper mobility! Here’s a fight against a larger, limited force, that you can only defeat through smarts and terrain use! Here’s a fight on a series of land bridges, pitting long-range artillery against the mobility of patrol bots and tanks!

Land Bridges: The Silent Killers.

It’s very basic, very functional, very well-executed mission design for tactical turn-based war gaming. And it’s only held back a tiny bit by all the AI opponents being complete blubbering idiots.

I’m serious! The AI is so bad at this game! They never seem like they know what they’re doing. They don’t display any sense of a clear long-term strategy, they have no tactical sense, they can’t seem to keep a good plan going. They ride and walk their units around without much of a seeming care in the world, just shooting at what happens to be nearby when the wheels stop squeaking. On multiple occasions I have seen enemies run away for no reason, park perfectly combat-viable units close to mine without attacking, or even place long-ranged artillery units in direct melee range of my soldiers.

The green squares show where the enemy is going. The blue guys nearby show that this artillery piece is about to commit plasma-assisted suicide.

Let me give you an example. A few missions in, you fight an unbalanced battle against Comic Relief Buddy. Because of reasons, you start in the center, surrounded by water, while he starts on one of the sides, really close by.

Like so.

Buddy starts with more buildings and income than you, including two unit-production factories. He also starts with more infantry units than you, including two APC-type Hoppers; you have none of these. There are four clusters of unclaimed cities on the edges of the map.

Buddy’s base and your base are separated by river. Vehicles can’t cross this river, but infantry units can. And both of you have a potential arsenal of everything up to and including tanks and basic artillery. Pop quiz, hot shot: if you were Buddy, what would be your play?

See, my general plan would be something along the lines of ‘Use my two Hoppers to quickly capture outlying cities, knowing full well that blue is literally incapable of stopping me in this. Use my funding and infantry superiority to cross the bridge and harass blue’s base, pressuring him so he can’t afford to go out to claim the other cities. This way, build up an significant monetary advantage. Parlay that advantage into artillery, which will make harassing blue’s base even easier, and might even allow me to claim some of his cities. Make more infantry to cross the river, make tanks to go the long way around, and cut off any of blue’s expansion attempts before they even start.’

Buddy’s plan, as it turns out, was more along the lines of ‘Leave my Hoppers to rust forevermore. Walk my infantry units in various disjointed directions, without any immediate sense of purpose. React to every new emerging danger or opportunity with a hypothetical goldfish’s memory, diverting any and all of my troops that way regardless of distance or function. This way, allow my scattered military to be easily picked off by blue’s forces, do nothing to prevent the capture of cities and the creation of a line of artillery, and finally lose.’

“That’s our Buddy!” *laugh track*

The AI in Future Wars is dumb. It doesn’t seem to understand battle plans, it doesn’t seem to grasp overall strategy, and it doesn’t even seem to have a too clear idea on what its own units do. It routinely diverts its entire army to one side of the map in order to deal with one ‘threat’ — which could be as dangerous as a low-health soldier slowly capturing a single city — before making a full 180 the next turn to chase another butterfly-like line of thinking.

The AI in Future Wars is dumb. And this significantly impacts the enjoyment I get from playing its missions. Because what fun is there in beating something that can’t fight back? It’s one thing to beat a clever opponent through tactics and luck… but when I find myself playing an AI that tries to ram artillery units into me, or an AI that thinks a conga line of low-level patrol cars is a good counter for my tank invasion, I start to feel I should be checking my hands for any snatched baby-candy.

The conga line went back-and-forth over many turns, in response to which side had more of my units on it. What is long-term planning, again?

Final thoughts

I find I enjoy playing Future Wars to a degree once I’m in-mission. The sharply limited AI is ever-present, and ever-annoying, but even that can’t dull the whole fun of moving units around, claiming bases, and making the enemy go boom in colourful squares.

It’s not entirely unlikely that Future Wars would be a much better multiplayer game, if I think about it like this. I haven’t actually tried this, because relatively few of my friends share my level of bad taste in games. I feel like I should, do… if only to take full advantage of Future Wars’ exceedingly rare ‘play by email’ function.

You’ll notice that that’s the *only* non-local multiplayer option.

I also find, however, that I’m not entirely enthralled by Future Wars at any other moment. Partially because of its bland ‘competence’, partially because of the long duration of its baby-AI-beating missions, and probably partially because of the nonsensical story and trope-ish characters, I never really felt like I wanted to go back in during this review-week. And now that the review is over… chances of it and me reuniting in the future are slim.

Future Wars is a competent, lackluster, bland, noticeable, fun, boring tactical turn-based war game. It’s four euro fifty on Steam, there’s a demo on the publisher’s page, and I think I’m pretty much done talking about it now.

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2 comments

  1. I’d just like to point out that that the Bechedel Test is not a reliable metric for determining sexism in any given work, and that even many feminist-acclaimed works fail it.

    That said, the teacher’s outfit is stupid and pandering, and it’s really hard to pull off characters acknowledging their archetypes in-universe. And boy does Dark Girl not manage to pull it off. It reads, to me, exactly like the writer temporarily gave up. And it’s not like they were putting lots of effort in in the first place.

    There seems to be a trend of games ripping off older, popular games, in hopes of cashing in on nostalgia. Such as Xenonauts aping XCom classic, while EU actually modernizes the game in a way that fans of the old game can enjoy, as well as new players. This game, from this review, seems to take the former approach, which isn’t strictly wrong, it just seems, I dunno, lazy. Take old game, file serial numbers off, slap some admittedly well-done art over it, and bam, “new game”.

    Also, BSOA is down.

    1. I’m aware of the Bechdel Test’s limitations, yeah. I mostly used it as a quick and easy example to get my point across, which seems to have worked. :)

      I don’t even know if Future Wars was made to cash in on Advance Wars nostalgia. Is that even a thing, nowadays? I honestly don’t know how long ago the last proper Advance Wars was. I see it more as trying to enter an otherwise relatively sparse genre-field, which is not by any means a bad thing to try and do. But they do so by slavishly adhering to ‘established genre limitations’, and that is rather unfortunate.

      On the official website, the publisher’s blurb talks about ‘stripping the genre down to its roots’ and ‘making it more accessible to new people trying to enter the field’. I guess Future Wars achieves that a little? Though I don’t know if many non-Advance Wars-veterans would have gotten past the first level, with the current lack of explanations.

      BSoA has been having weird bandwidth overuse problems, and it’s been dropping on- and offline like clockwork the last few weeks. Once it’s back up again, I should probably investigate what that’s about. But gut feeling, some of our images probably got hot-linked on some higher-traffic source somewhere. Regardless, thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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