Review: Hit? Miss? Tiny Metal seeks to advance war

Tiny Metal has ideas.

That hasn’t been a given in the post-apocalyptic landscape of games seeking to fill the void left by the disappearance of Advance Wars. Some have brought style, and others have delivered faithfully on the sort of combat Wars perfected, but rarely have we seen a game that both seeks to follow in that franchise’s footsteps and further explore the tactical space within.

Of course, ideas aren’t everything. There’s also execution of those ideas, and Tiny Metal isn’t particularly consistent about that.

In Tiny Metal, you take over an military force and send it out to conquer others. There are bases that produce units, HQs to protect and capture, cities to provide income and all sorts of terrain bonuses. It’s certainly a familiar setup, but it plays with a number of Advance Wars‘ core systems.

First, it really works to restrict movement. Generally speaking, units with wheels or treads don’t move any faster than units with legs, making two big shifts in strategy. Dominating the air becomes a priority, since they have a lot more mobility and land units have limited ways of dealing with them. More significantly, though, this works with the game’s commitment to always-on Fog of War to make hiding units in forests much more important. You can’t move that tank seven spaces and hit the enemy, so you have to find another way to keep the opponent off-balance.

Second, it builds around a “Focus Fire” system to make hitting a unit with a whole group of your own a lot more important. Essentially, you can get other units in position, then fire with the last one to have all that damage done before there’s a counterattack. It keeps your units healthy, and it’s also a way to give more units in-map “promotions” for combat and exploration achievements that increase their stats slightly. You can combine this with its bonuses for hitting units facing other directions to really deal a lot of damage.

Third, it re-imagines its base units. Artillery units are merged to hit ground and air, and facing is important for aiming them. Infantry are joined by ranged snipers who can only shoot in a straight line but can hide in mountain ranges like melee foot soldiers. You want transports or sea units? Yeah, not here. But instead you have radar units that can mark enemies in Fog of War. And you also have special, named units! They’re upgraded versions of base units that you can spawn by capturing specific buildings.

It’s actually really refreshing to see a game that has thought through these systems enough to want to change these sorts of things. Even if a lot of them didn’t turn out so well.

It’s actually really refreshing to see a game that has thought through these systems enough to want to change these sorts of things. Even if a lot of them didn’t turn out so well.

That commitment to Fog of War? It’s really important in the game. So it’s disappointing to see that your movement in fogged areas is obstructed when you try to move in, letting you find enemy units through trial-and-error. It’s worse when you summon a named unit, since you can place it literally anywhere you can see; you can know exactly where every unit on the map is in one fell swoop.

Air units being so important is made much more frustrating by the game’s 3D presentation. There’s a range of camera zoom you can use, but none of them make planes properly line up in their intended square. Get ready for… that whole thing! That camera also makes it difficult to tell units apart. Sure, it’s an infantry unit, but which type is a matter of looking at a very small weapon they’re holding or how many divisions are in their tiny health bar.

It’s clear throughout the Tiny Metal experience that the game just isn’t done. It’s missing entire menu features (like multiplayer) that are supposed to be coming soon, but that’s not what we’re talking about. The in-game interface is illegible, especially when showing green text on green backgrounds, which it does often. Even when it doesn’t, it looks cool, but nothing about it was designed with quick reading in mind, and that kills a strategy game like this.

There are no transitions between screens, and you can sometimes see units clipping through the blocks of Fog of War. The game’s strange insistence on showing you your medals and win percentage for campaign maps is undermined by both bugs showing the wrong information and higher performances not earning you the lesser medals. We’re supposed to go back and play a map worse? Why would someone do that?

Tiny Metal tries to tell an interesting story, full of betrayal and commentary on the nature of war. Unfortunately, it does so with zero brevity. You’ll be used to hitting the fast forward button well before it gets too far, because at some point you do actually need to get to playing the game.

It’s clear throughout the Tiny Metal experience that the game just isn’t done.

There’s a decent amount of skirmish maps to play outside the campaign, which could become even more fun with multiplayer options. Without a map editor or the variety of CO powers, the staying power may be limited, but it’s at least an interesting diversion.

Some of the issues with Tiny Metal could be fixed in patches, and we hope they will. Still, though, we remain on the lookout for the true revival of the painless fun of Advance Wars.

Score: 6/10
Publisher: Unties
Release Date: December 21, 2017
Developer: Area 35
Platform(s): Switch, PC, PS4
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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