Pokémon Diamond/Pearl

Game Freak's pocket monster evolves.

With most shops already stocking little but air where their Nintendo hardware should be, the Japanese firm is silencing critics with its impressive sell- through, with both the shiny new Wii and the loveable DS Lite being about as easy to track down as hen's teeth this Christmas. So with the installed base of the DS flying up faster than Sony would like, we look to next year with just one word on our collective minds - Pokémon. Diamond and Pearl are undoubtedly the most anticipated portable titles of 2007 and we've spent the last few months ploughing through the Japanese versions to give you the low- down on just what to expect come Easter. Or whenever the hell Nintendo decides to let us have the games in English. Maybe next Christmas. We just don't know. But every day that passes without this game makes us a little bit sadder.

A lot has changed in the world of Pokémon since we last visited in Emerald. Obviously, the addition of over a hundred new creatures - many of which are baby versions or evolutions of older Pokémon, such as a pre-evolution of Mantine and new forms for single-stage monsters like Lickitung and Aipom - make up much of the excitement that surrounds the coming of these new adventures.

But it runs a hell of a lot deeper than just a few new arrivals. The battle system has been reworked in the most significant change to the basics of battling since the Special stat was broken down into individual attack and defence values after the first games turned out to be a bit broken. Where before each move would use a particular stat based on its type alignment (so, fire type moves would use Special Attack while Rock moves would go on Attack), now each move is classed as either Physical or Special and uses the appropriate stat. This opens up move set possibilities that would never before have worked and opens the door for many previously overlooked monsters to step up and be legitimate possibilities for competitive play.

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And just as new evolutions and move sets attempt to level the playing field somewhat, so too does the addition of a host of new attacks and abilities. Bug and Ghost types are now far better catered for with a plethora of new attack and support moves, and many older attacks have been given elemental counterparts, such as Fighting and Water versions of Quick Attack. There are also a host of new attacks that make once unusable Pokémon viable, especially in 2 vs 2 battles. Power Trick can turn defensive legend Shuckle into a demon by swapping its minimal attack stat with its astronomical defence; Trick Room lets slower Pokémon attack first for several turns, making the likes of Snorlax and Steelix that much more imposing; moves like Bug Devour and Hurl make use of held items (both yours and the opponents) to deal damage accordingly. Whatever type you tend to favour, you'll find at least a couple of helpful new moves here to complement any move set.

Another new feature is one that draws distinct lines between male and female monsters for the very first time. Instead of only being a consideration for breeding purposes, gender now has several new implications. The first of these is purely cosmetic, with some species having different markings, features or colourations depending on their gender. This gives avid hunters even more variations to look out for and of course catch but some of the new evolutions are also gender-specific. A male Kirlia can now evolve into a new Psychic/Fighting type knight Pokémon instead of Gardevoir, for example.

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The single player experience pans out more or less as it always has, seeing the player tour eight Gyms before heading out to the Pokémon League where the Elite 4 and the champion lie in wait. While previous ‘bosses' have been exclusive users of a single type of monster, the new Elite 4 is far more liberal with its Pokémon selection and each has an emphasis on a certain type of move rather than monster. This makes them far tougher adversaries than you might be used to facing at the end of the regular stories and generally better opponents than the single-type losers of previous games. The world map as a whole feels that much larger too, with loads more optional routes and hidden crannies in which elusive monsters can hide, and if it's completion you're after, you'll need to be hunting high and low both day and night (since the full day cycle from Gold and Silver also returns) to catch them all.

But the whole ‘Gotta Catch 'Em All!' thing has become something of a misnomer with Diamond and Pearl. To complete your Pokédex this time around, you only have to see them all. All 200 occupants of the local Pokédex can be seen without trading or even venturing away from your single cart and once you clock the lot, the game opens up like nobody could have predicted. New areas become open, teeming with older monsters to round up, and characters will inform you of flocks of otherwise unobtainable creatures gathering in a certain spot to help you hit the new target of 492 Pokémon. In addition, Pal Park is unlocked as well, enabling you to transfer over any six monsters per day from GBA games which can then be caught in their own mini- Safari Zone. All these extras mean that even without swapping monsters or transferring them across, there are over 400 monsters available in each game, a record number and one that puts the longevity of Diamond and Pearl through the roof.

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And despite all this relentless positivity, we've not even touched on some of the game's more intriguing features. A sprawling underground system now plays host to the secret bases (and a Wi- Fi Capture the Flag game) as well as offering unlimited quantities of evolution stones, fossils and certain items through a touch screen mining mini- game. Online functionality is superb, allowing trades and battles using friend codes or simple Pokémon swaps through the Global Trade Service or GTS; you can post a single monster online along with whatever you require in return and other users can then browse the archives and make trades as they wish. This is somewhat broken at the moment, with everyone making impossible requests for level 10 legendaries, or asking the earth for even the most basic of monsters, so hopefully something can be done to level this out before a domestic release. As great an idea as it is, it's being ruined somewhat by people that think that trading their level 5 Caterpie for your level 100 Mew is a fair deal.

With touch screen menus making everything that much simpler, and minimal use of the more gimmicky features like the DS' microphone, Diamond and Pearl are pretty much everything you could want from a new Pokémon title. More monsters, a hugely refined battle system and access to more Pokémon per cart than ever before make us very happy gamers indeed. In fact, the only down side is that Nintendo is remaining so tight-lipped about an English release date. The clever money is on an Easter date in the US and a late summer release over here but with the multi-region functionality of the DS, there's no reason for English speakers not to get online and get your US pre-order down now. With promised connectivity to Battle Revolution for Wii (which looks to breath much-needed life into the Stadium series) you'll need all the training you can get if you fancy your chances against the big guns online - as in the people that have been playing this for aeons (as in us). However long the wait turns out to be, it'll be worth it.

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