Battalion Wars is the GameCube iteration of the Wars series (initiated by Famicom Wars, but, before BW, known in the US only as Advance Wars). Though it immediately bears a resemblance to the Battlefield franchise, it is also one of a small but growing number of games that mesh the Real-Time Strategy and Action/Shooter genres. In short, you're not only the commander - you're also a unit.
The plot of Battalion Wars is in a similar vein to its predecessors: what begins as an average, every-day battle between lifelong foes becomes a tense alliance when a new foe, one powerfully and dangerously evil, threatens to take over the world. BW creates some interesting characters, and presents story development in corny-but-fun dialogues and cutscenes, but for the most part the plot exists only as a kennel from which to loose the dogs of war.
The game begins with a temporary truce between the Western Frontier Army (Green, obviously American) and the Tundran Army (Red, obviously Soviet Russia). There are three Generals on each side who give you advice while you play as Commander. On the Western Frontier there's Brigadier Betty, Colonel Austin and General Herman. On the Tundran site of the DMZ, there's the old ruler Tsar Gorgi, the heir Marshall Nova, and the rather large Major Nelly. Tsar Gorgi, before retiring from office, goes against his sons wishes and breaks the stalemate/truce with the Western Frontier, prompting an all out war.
But it hardly matters because they're both about to get attacked by the Xylvanians (Think vampire Germans) anyway. Both armies unite against this common enemy when they are both attacked at the same time. They even bring in a 4th nation, the Solar Empire (Asia), a longtime rival of Xylvania.
Don't be fooled by the soldiers' smiling faces - while the look and feel of the game is upbeat and friendly, the combat is anything but. While there's no graphic violence of any sort, enemy forces will not hesitate to kick you down, make you cry, and beat you with your own shoe whenever given the opportunity. After the initial breezy tutorial missions, Battalion Wars provides a challenge rarely found in modern games. Luck is not an option: Battalion Wars demands tactical skill.
There are three basic types of units in Battalion Wars. Infantry, from basic rifle grunts to flamethrower troops to missile launcher veterans, are the most agile and the most fragile part of your fighting force. While they can't match the pure firepower of a heavy tank, infantry can be surprisingly hardy, especially when in the hands of the player - you can lock on to a target, strafe around him, and duck-and-roll to avoid fire before sending him to kingdom come. The basic shooting control scheme is very similar to that of Metroid Prime, using this lock on instead of dual stick shooting.
Ground vehicles come in two varieties: speedy recon units, which zip around the battlefield and perforate enemy infantry, and slow-moving assault vehicles (like tanks, anti-air, and artillery). The sluggish ones present big, easy targets, but they're also big, scary harbingers of destruction to your opponents. They can be more difficult to aim, especially in vehicles without independently-rotating gun turrets, but who needs to aim at all with that kind of blast radius?
Airborne units are slim pickings, but a blast to pilot. Gunship helicopters are fairly versatile, if easy to take down with a handful of missiles. Bombers are like the tanks of the sky - as a target it's the broad side of a barn, but if you see the payload heading for you it may already be too late. Fighters can't do much to ground units, but they're the fastest things around, and can take down other air units with deadly precision. Holding the R button to adjust the altitude of an air unit doesn't afford the level of control that a dual analog stick configuration might, but it's easy enough to use that it's still fun just to fly from one mission objective to the next.
So controlling the units is fun. What about controlling your army? While the AI isn't nearly as good at targeting or dodging incoming fire as you can be, they're usually apt to obey your orders, which are issued in a brilliantly simple yet deep system. At the bottom of the screen is a display of the units under your command, grouped by unit type. You can use the C-stick horizontally to navigate by type, then vertically to select individual units. Orders are dispatched using the X and Y buttons - X will toggle between a Follow (follow you, that is) state and a Sentry (hold position) state, and Y will either order a unit to move to a specific location or, if you have an enemy targeted, to attack said enemy. These orders can be issued one unit at a type, if you want to send a rifle grunt into a gun emplacement; one unit type at a time, if you want your missile veterans to take down an incoming bomber; or even to All units, if you want to focus the full force of your battalion on a vital target.
Though most missions have you leading a force into an area, some have you defending bases from enemy invasion. In these situations, if you push your buttons right, you can fairly easily manage to maintain multiple positions, put units in strategic locations, and keep everything guarded with precisely the firepower it needs. In all missions, either by targeting a friendly unit or selecting it with the C stick, you can transfer manual control to any member of your battalion with the Z button. You can even use the Z command transfer from the pause screen map (which is also a good source of intelligence on enemy locations and strengths).
if it sounds like a lot to take in, don't worry, the first few missions will bring you up to speed in no time. Up to speed on the mechanics, anyway - it's still up to you to get good at them. As the game progresses, the missions become very hard, sometimes ridiculously so. Battalion Wars consists of 20 missions separated into four campaigns (plus one bonus mission for each campaign, which you can unlock by getting good combat scores in other missions), and on average should take five hours or less to complete; but though the numbers make it seem insignificant, the amount of trial, error, and retooling you'll have to put into missions to actually succeed, let alone perform well, will keep you busy enough.
That said, it isn't a terribly long game, and, aside from the bonus missions and the sheer fun of dropping bombs on enemy infantry, it doesn't have a lot to offer in the way of replay value. A multiplayer mode was initially planned, but scrapped in favor of completing the main game - hopefully a sequel will implement this feature.
Graphically, Battalion Wars is a work of art. Even the loading bars look good. Every piece of animation is fluid and vivid, and not only is the graphical style visually appealing, it uses exaggerated action to draw the player's eye exactly where it needs to be. The cutscenes are incredibly well rendered. The game's soundtrack is very cool too, as are sound effects, not only explosions but also idle phrases from soldiers like a meek-sounding "it's quiet... TOO quiet!" Unfortunately, the voice acting in the game's key characters is hit-or-miss, but for the most part the audio doesn't disappoint.
In the end, Battalion Wars is very fun while it lasts. And, with ranking criteria for completing missions, the "end" of the game doesn't mean you have to stop playing it. It's unfortunate there couldn't be more to the package, but Battalion Wars is still a satisfying play.