I was surprised a few weeks back to see the announcement for Mobius Front ‘83, a new tactics game by Zachtronics. I’m even more surprised now to find that it’s not only already out, but that it’s incredible.
Nintendo’s continued abandonment of its once-cherished mobile franchise has been a decade-long disappointment, one that other games — from Wargroove to Tiny Metal — have tried and failed to emulate. Sure, they’ve come close in one area or another, but they’ve never been able to nail the perfection of Advance Wars’ ruthless take on turn-based tactics.
I think, looking back, it’s because games like that have been made from the ground up in Advance Wars’ likeness, as much an exercise in adoration as innovation. And as such, like even the most detailed forgery, they were never going to be quite the same.
Mobius Front ‘83, on the other hand, while appearing for all the world like an Advance Wars clone — from the squishy unit visuals to the between-mission chit-chat — is actually a serious wargame in disguise.
I know that seems very unlikely at first glance, but that’s the beauty of this game. It starts very humbly, introducing the player to a few basic turn-based tactics concepts at a time, slowly drip-feeding you new units to play with. I blew through the first few missions, eager to see what was happening next in its mysterious USA vs USA storyline.
And then, before the tutorials were even over, I got my arse kicked. I recovered, retried that mission, nailed it, went onto the next…and got my arse kicked again. I had approached this like a standard turn-based tactics game, one based on a simple rock-paper-scissors mechanic which I like to think over the decades I’ve gotten pretty good at, and Mobius Front simply picked me up and stuffed me in a locker.
This is not a simple rock-paper-scissors game of turn-based tactics. It has hexes. Its units are based on actual military hardware from the early 80s and are fully realised, right down to the last letters in the name of each machine gun and anti-tank weapon. It makes serious use of terrain — forests especially — when allowing your units to move and shoot.
I should have realised something was up when the game ships with digital copies of actual 1980s tactical handbooks from the US Army. This isn’t a game about casual tactics, this is a game about war.
Every single move in Mobius is agony. There are no breezy scouting runs, or tanks that are able to crush everything in their path. Everything is vulnerable to everything else at all times, and a single wrong move can see half your army wiped out instantly. With no way to get them back, since in this game your units are deployed, not built.
It’s hard, but not unfair. Just relentless. Mobius never takes its foot off your neck, so you need to deeply consider every single move, no matter how trivial or safe you might think it is.
Most units in Mobius have deeply specific purposes and a multitude of weaknesses. Tanks might look like all-conquering death machines but are actually made of glass and need to be protected at all times, and infantry are able to punch well above their expected weight but are slow as hell to move across the game’s expansive maps one hex at a time. Some jeeps have anti-tank missiles but they take a turn to set up, and helicopters can see over the tops of trees but are made of wet paper.
Your progress through levels is entirely dependent on how you’re able to deploy these forces in a way that lets them cover each other and have their responsibilities overlap, almost like a puzzle, which won’t be too much of a surprise to fans of Zachtronics’ other works.
This is great fun when it’s all working and I’m zipping along, but that was always on my second or even third attempt at a mission. Thanks to limits on which of your own units you can pick from and how the enemy is deployed, I found I was having to replay missions a few too many times just to get a feel for how it was going to work, since Mobius’ reliance on elaborate tactics never let me just wing it (well, it does to a point, before you inevitably get stuffed in a locker again).
Which kinda sucks after a while, because while there’s a persistent narrative running through Mobius, and a cool story playing out between stages, your objectives themselves become incredibly repetitive as you play the same type of missions over and over and over again. Not helping the grind is the fact that your surviving units don’t accrue XP or improve, and that the story doesn’t appear inside missions, only before and after them.
Boy, I’ve sure spent a lot of time talking about a game that sounds pretty different from Advance Wars, but deep down I think this is as close as anyone has come to matching it, if not literally beat-for-beat, but in overall feel. It’s more complex, sure, but it’s still an exceptional exercise in the optimisation of movement, planning strikes and riding your luck. It takes a different path to get there, but very nearly ends up at the same destination as Nintendo’s series: turn-based tactical perfection.