Among Advance Wars' accomplishments - which are many, and notable - one of the most distinctive is that it made military strategy cute. Exuberant. Sort of... happy-go-lucky. Even when battling the creepy, gas-masked menace of the Black Hole armies in Advance Wars 2 and the first DS instalment, Dual Strike, you felt that you were annihilating each other in an atmosphere of playful sportsmanship and bug-eyed manga enthusiasm. The girls were sassy, the boys were silly, the villains comical, and you just wanted to hug those adorable little stubby-barrelled tanks. Aww, my own little death machine, to wub forever and ever.
Well, those days are over. The first thing that will strike you about Dark Conflict is that Advance Wars has grown from clean-cut childhood into an angsty and melodramatic adolescence. Scrapping all the characters and storylines of past games, Dark Conflict is set in a doom-laden post-apocalyptic future. A meteor strike has killed 90 percent of the human race, crumbled civilisations, and coated the world in ash. Armies and bandits pick their way through the rubble, squabbling over food and trying to survive.
A perverse father-and-daughter villain pairing drug their underlings, and everyone under 20 is at risk from being infected by parasitic flowers. Our hero, military cadet Ed, is a feather-haired, foppish teenage refugee from a '90s Square game, and spends a good deal of his time mooning around after a mystery girl with amnesia and a spy database for a brain. Meanwhile, heroic army commander O'Brian takes time to discuss moral philosophy and the politics of survival with corrupt town mayors in some lengthy and excruciatingly leaden dialogue scenes. It's all so very Final Fantasy, and it all takes itself so very seriously.
Even the deliciously crisp artwork that is the series' trademark has been fudged; the colours have been drained, the COs are drawn in more detail and with less character, the soldiers are portrayed more realistically, the clean lines have been thickened and smudged with faux depth-of-field effects. The steel-plated front end is just functionally dull, and the music - admittedly, always a bit strident - has taken a definite turn towards shouty, pop-metal crunch.
Of course, dispiriting as all this is, it has little to do with Advance Wars' meat and potatoes - its exquisite balance and simple-yet-deep design for turn-based strategy. And the good news is that, although Dark Conflict is trying a bit too hard in its presentation, in gameplay terms it tries a lot less hard to reinvent the wheel than the rather overcooked Dual Strike did.
Twin-screen battles are gone, in favour of a useful information readout on the top screen. Dual Strike's convoluted system for CO powers - with its overpowered tag-team moves, levelling, and attribute modifiers - has been stripped out. In its place is a toned-down line-up of CO powers that, we're told, will have a much less pronounced effect on battles, and are so far down the running order that they aren't even introduced in the course of the half a day we spent playing the Story mode. Dark Conflict concentrates instead on a subtle, back-to-basics rebalancing and fine-tuning of Advance Wars' classic tactics.
Units now level up individually in the course of a single battle, gaining a level each time they defeat an enemy unit: from zero, through levels I and II, to Ace. These provide minor performance boosts without significantly changing the range and function of the unit. It's a nice touch, but a minor tweak that sensibly retreats from any threat to the game's impeccable balance.
More exciting perhaps are a handful of the new units in Dark Conflict. Motorbikes are fast-moving infantry divisions that make speedy base-captures possible without needing to load troops on and off APCs or helicopters - a very welcome new freedom. Anti-tank batteries are extremely powerful indirect combat units, without the close-range blind spots of standard artillery and rockets, and with a savage counter-attack. They should prove an antidote to the inevitable descent into tank-rush of so many maps. The mobile workshop can construct temporary airports and ports for re-supply and defensive cover, while the flare gun can illuminate whole areas of the map under fog of war.
Alongside a less remarkable handful of new sea and air units, these new designs preserve balance and greatly improve flexibility without resorting to simply upping cost and power. They're the best introductions to the series since the original GBA game, and typical of a game that is a lot less showy but a lot more smart in its application of new features than Dual Strike was.
Dual Strike's two new modes - the terrible Combat, and brilliant Survival - have both been ditched. The famously challenging War Room maps have been rebranded as Trial Maps and opened up as optional diversions in the Story campaign (though also accessible outside of it, as indeed all the main Story maps are). All this streamlining has made room for the single mode that must be top of every Advance Wars fan's wish-list: online multiplayer.
We haven't had a chance to test this yet, though the feature list - including voice chat, and the ability to share user-created maps online with friends and strangers - is impressive. Local multiplayer with multiple carts is a given, of course, though download play does not seem to be possible (you can always play pass-the-DS multiplayer on a single machine though, sweetly enough).
It's hard not to have mixed feelings about Dark Conflict. Wi-Fi multiplayer aside, it's somewhat unexciting as a package, and if you feel Advance Wars ennui setting in then Dark Conflict will do little to reawaken your enthusiasm. On the other hand, purists will be delighted that it has unbroken all the stuff that didn't need fixing in the first place, and tinkered with this near-perfect strategy template with both restraint and imagination. In pure tactical terms it's shaping up to be the best game since the first, and the better of the two DS versions by some distance, and we're sure that will be borne out by more extended and deep play come the game's release next week. It's just a shame that, in finding its way again, Advance Wars has lost so much of its soul, and its style.