Advance Wars: Dark Conflict

It's been coming up to a decade since we last saw Advance Wars, the brilliantly characterful turn-based strategy game from Intelligent Systems, and it seems it might be a little while longer until there's a new one. We at least have some insight into why it's taking so long, though.

FeatureComing Attractions: Strategy and Simulation

Part 1: Real-time highlights of 2008.

Last week, you may recall, we put on our robe and wizard hat for a look at this year's most promising RPGs. We've done shooters, racers, action adventure and sports games too, if you missed any of those.

Advance Wars: Dark Conflict

Advance Wars: Dark Conflict

They're smiling inside.

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.

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Advance Wars: Dark Conflict

War of the poses.

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.