Version tested: DS
So, Nintendo spends years making bright and bouncy games, and as soon as the bright and bouncy approach starts to rule the world again, Advance Wars - among the most inexplicably bright and bouncy, given that it's about nasty old war - decides to toss out the catchy music, surfer dude dialogue and cuddly accoutrements in favour of crunchy guitar and meditations on the futility of war in the aftermath of an apocalyptic meteor strike. Signature colours: brown and grey. Typical.
Still, it's not all bad. In fact, there's very little bad at all. Intelligent Systems has rolled back a few of the features that made the first DS game, Dual Strike, a bit too complicated, and then rolled forward again with some sensible new units and a few of the things Advance Wars fans have been aching for, like online play. Gone are the tag-team CO (Commanding Officer) powers, multiple-front battles, black bombs, pipe-runners and stealth fighters, for instance, but in come things like a motorbike gang that can move vast distances and play the city-capture role previously reserved for infantry and mech units, which speeds up that side of the game considerably. There's also an indirect-fire anti-tank unit that can - gasp - counter-attack when fired upon, and the battleship can now move and then fire from a distance in the same turn.
But before we get bogged down in the detail, let's give our friends the newcomers (hi there!) the benefit of a pleasant refresher. Advance Wars - terrific in two instalments on the GBA, mostly terrific on the DS and rather popular for rather longer if you trace it back to the original Japanese versions on old-days consoles - is a simple turn-based strategy game where you move a collection of units (which still bob up and down, happily) around a playing grid square by square, trying to dispatch an opposing force comprised of a similar assortment. It appeals because defeating your enemy is about carefully weighing each unit's strengths, weaknesses and potential exposure once it's performed an attack against the strengths, weaknesses and exposure of your enemy's units. Tanks are good against recon units, but poor against aerial bombardment, but then choppers and planes are toast if there's an anti-aircraft unit on the prowl. Subs are great for sinking battleships, but cruisers can smash them to bits in a jiffy. And so on. It's very easy to grasp, and the satisfaction of being good at it is considerable.
As with previous instalments, Dark Conflict features a story-driven single-player Campaign mode with main missions that unlock one by one. Between (and sometimes during) these, your characters chat to one another and so the story progresses. Our tie-wearing fancy-haired hero begins the game by surviving a world-ending meteor strike, and then quickly joins up with the noble Captain Brenner. There's also a girl with amnesia, a virus that kills you with shrubbery, and lots of sinister, self-involved or pantomime bad-guys plotting against you.
Unlike past games, however, this particular crew is rather achingly sincere, and more than a little bit like the ones found in Intelligent Systems' other turn-based strategy series, Fire Emblem. They're not particularly likable, but worst of all they have finally decided that killing is rotten and war is horrible. Yes it is and yes it is, but nobody's saying anything we haven't heard before, and they're not saying it over and over again across far too many dialogue screens. You can press Start to skip these exchanges, but Advance Wars fans have come to enjoy the silly banter and daft characters like Jugger and Lash, so it seems a shame for them to have to do that because someone at Intelligent Systems has decided that bouncy tank commanders ought to have a conscience.
The missions themselves, though, are well worth experiencing. Right from the start, it's obvious the rules have changed a bit. Status-affecting CO powers are ignored almost completely (and only make themselves apparent a good few hours into the game - and in a diminished role that won't turn the tide of battle so simply), with a stronger focus on the basic rules of engagement; that one thing is stronger at this, while another is stronger at that, and that you must use things in combination to dispatch the enemy without running out of units yourself. Deployment maps where you can manufacture reinforcements obviously return, but now you can set up temporary bases and ports to re-supply and patch up your troops (the latter stepping in for the banished black boats with their repair abilities). The fog of war, which shrouds enemy movements from you and yours from them on certain maps, also returns, but now there are more ways to puncture it than sending vehicles blindly into the gloom or positioning infantry on a mountain: you can also use a special truck to fire a flare, while fires burn in certain areas, illuminating the immediate vicinity.
These additions - along with some new planes, different terrain types that mask or inhibit movement, and sensible refinements like a War Tank to replace the similar Neo and Mega Tanks - couple well to mainstays like basic tanks, artillery, APCs (now known as Rigs) and aerial units like the bomber. A typical encounter is no longer quite so tank-friendly, and many of the factory-deprived maps are set up nicely for balanced encounters that call upon your restraint as well as your knowledge of which unit is best at what and over what distance. CO powers are reduced in scope, as we mentioned, but the COs themselves can eventually take to the battlefield, influencing troops around them in a manner that adds another layer of strategy to the higher end of the game, without forcing new players to struggle with years of complicated legacy features. Another new element helping to make up for the reductions there is a single-level experience system that ranks up individual units based on the amount of kills they accumulate, which gives you slightly more pause before sending them off to cheap deaths to facilitate an easier next move.
The Campaign mode also integrates a number of "Trial" maps, which are like the War Room maps of old, and pop up away from the general flow of the story missions. These provide a sterner test of your abilities, meaning that existing fans can get into the trickier stuff earlier on, while first-timers can return to them later once their skills have developed - aided by some well-illustrated in-game tutorial screens, too. There is also a Free Battle mode, where you can play on the game's maps right from the start, and a Design Room for creating your own battlefields, even setting up the enemy AI.
Then of course there is the wireless multiplayer. Locally it supports up to four players, and over the Internet you can go one on one with your friends. There's even voice communication using the microphone, which actually works quite well. Not many of our friends were online when we played through the game (it only launched in the US, where it's known as Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, on Monday, and isn't out here until Friday, 25th January), but the games we did manage to engage in didn't appear to suffer from any debilitating lag.
However, for all the positive changes and additions, the decision to redesign the game in greys, browns and other grumpy colours and put the story in the hands of a jarringly earnest and slightly depressive goth blogger is bound to cause consternation in some quarters. It's not just the tone of the writing: the graphics are a bit Command & Conquer: Red Alert (with a fairly useless 'zoom' element that reduces your range of vision too much for my liking); the bits where the COs chat are illustrated with forgettable, Fire Emblem-style character drawings that brighten up when someone speaks; the soundtrack (main menu music aside, perhaps) is pretty generic; and the menus, for that matter (thanks, brackets), appear to have been an afterthought.
That makes a big difference, too - the important statistics and visual explanations of which unit-types your current charge is effective or ineffective against are harder to read at a glance, and this can be fatal. It's genuinely bizarre to find ourselves berating Intelligent Systems for a lack of attention to detail, but there we go. You may also run out of game to play quicker than you did before, thanks to a relative lack of unlockables, and the loss of the shop where you could buy new toys.
All of which adds up to an Advance Wars game that we had just as much, if not more fun playing than ever, but one that proves a bit too grimy and unfriendly for our bright and bouncy taste. Fortunately though, Dark Conflict remains hospitable in most of the areas that really matter to its fans and the people finally tempted to give it a go, and the result is probably the better of the two DS versions. It may have lost some of its soul and style, as Oli put it after a few hours in its company last week, but the gameplay has lost very little of its charm, and the result is one of the first really good new DS games of 2008. Cheer up next time though, eh?
8 / 10