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.