Advance Wars: Days of Ruin review
Darker and Better


Advance Wars is a series that's been going since the Gameboy Advance for us in the west and for even longer in Japan where it stretches back to the NES days and has always tried to provide accessible strategy to gamers. The DS now has its second entry in the series called Dark Conflict (or Days of Ruin if you're not from Europe) and suffice to say it is a distinct departure from the norm.

The graphics make it immediately evident that things will be different. Gone are the almost luminous happy colours the series has stuck to before, and the friendly designs of the characters are no more. Dark Conflict provides a much darker visual presentation. The character halfbody artwork, while still clearly being of an anime style, has moved closer to a more realistic representation, which in turn has allowed for more detailed designs. Speaking of which, the designs themselves are less over the top than before, with a guy with white hair and a deathly pale complexion being the most extreme character around. The cast looks more like army officers and less like cosplayers now.

The map view has seen some slight improvement as well. Unit icons seem to have been redone and updated for the new game, several new tile icons are in force and a new "ruins" tile set helps convey the seriousness of the setting. There's even an option to zoom out with the R shoulder button to give a better view of the surrounding area, which is a nice addition. Other aspects haven't changed a great deal but then they were good in Dual Strike anyway. Squares light up to show a selected units movement and attack ranges, captured properties have the lights on to show that it is active and unit explosions are still good to see.

The dual screen allows the map view to remain free while all the technical details can be plastered onto the top screen. The information provided depends on what the cursor is resting on currently and will show either unit data or terrain data. The X button handily switches between the two screens when unit data is available so you can check the terrain they are on. The layout is clear with a bigger reliance on icons for some of the details. This also ties in to when you declare an attack, as the damage indicator uses a colour system to indicate the danger of the counterattack. A red colour, for example, indicates that the target has a good chance to cause some serious damage on the counter.

The one thing I would say hasn't come across as well is the use of colour, or lack thereof. Intelligent Systems apparently prescribes to the school of thought that post apocalyptic means everything must be awash in browns and greys. Yes, everything. Even the "blue" units are grimy and have more than subtle hints of these shades. While one can appreciate the attempt at a darker theme, more colour variation would have worked wonders.

The music makes genuine efforts to match the theme, with tunes befitting rock and metal spread throughout either to boost the story scenes or as CO themes, and to this effect the soundtrack is mostly successful. However, I just can't place it higher than the music in Dual Strike. I can still remember tunes like Sonja's classic Japanese styled music or the epicness of the tag power music blasting out to back up your annihilating the enemy army. Here that is simply not the case. While this does not mean that Dark Conflict's soundtrack is bad - far from it - it simply does not stick in the mind once the game is switched off and that is an unfortunate step back.

The story ditches the unusual happy go lucky mixed with serious drama of previous games and just goes with the drama. Meteor strikes wipe out most people on Earth and cause severe climate problems. The survivors are left clinging to life however they can, which can mean bandit raids and other such problems. Ed, the sole survivor of his military academy, joins with an indepedent army legion to help the other survivors. Along the way we face twisted army officers, bandits, a mystery illness and a superweapons plot to rival that of any evil villain. The seriousness of the plot isn't conveyed quite as well as it could be and I'm sure AW veterans will miss the friendly banter that would otherwise be spread around, but it does serve as a good backstory and gives us something a little different from the norm.

Lin provides hints to rookie CO Ed in the current battle.

The core gameplay of Advance Wars is still here. Each side takes it in turns to build units, move, attack and carry out any other actions available to them, with the restriction of one action per unit. Armies can be constructed out of a variety of unit types and the key to winning is always to figure out the strength and weaknesses of individual units and how to apply them to the situation to push through and win. Success comes either by capturing the enemy HQ or wiping out every one of their units on the map. This will sound pretty familiar to veterans of the series but look a little deeper and there are significant changes.

The unit selection has drastically changed, for a start. Available units still come from one of three categories - either ground, air or sea - and are still deployed from relevant bases. However, whereas earlier games added and slightly upgraded units, Dark Conflict has completely redone the list. Numerous units, such as the stealth jet and pipe runner, have been removed entirely. Many other units have undergone changes, like the mobile workshop (formerly the APC) can now build temporary air/sea ports to restock and repair said units or the battleship, which trades firepower for the ability to move and fire at range in the same turn. Then there are the new units, like the anti-tank that can fire at range and still counterattack or the missile boat, which is a one shot ship capable of severely damaging other ships. Things feel notably more balanced as some of the changes try to deal with the overpowered nature of certain others. Bombers are less threatening when you have the new fighters which are cheaper to produce.

A basic level up system has been introduced with these. Any unit that delivers a kill goes up one level, going through one, two and finally ace. Each level provides a stat boost that makes them more effective and adds some sense of attachment to the army, making you slightly less likely to send that ace level tank into an obvious rocket trap just to provide an opening. It does seem a bit unbalanced at times though, like you can get an infantry to level up off taking the last bit of health off a missile launcher even if a bomber had just done most of the work.

The terrain options have seen some changes, though not quite as extreme. All the Black Hole stuff, like the large factories or the pipes, are gone. In exchange several new terrain types are introduced, like the plasma that forms impassable barriers or the radar towers that are designed for improved fog of war recon gathering. For those not in the know, all terrain decide movement cost or defensive bonuses, although this depends on the unit. Air units typically have the standard movement costs but do not benefit from defensive boosts, while tyre based ground units tend to be more restricted than those on treads.

Properties also form terrain types and serve secondary purposes. Aside from the HQ, which is essentially the win button if you manage to break through and capture it, you have deployment properties that you can build new units in, cities to gain funds for building units, missile silos for long range one shot hits, com towers boost unit performances and radar sees into fog of war. These properties don't do anything unless under your control, and your infantry troops are the ones to capture properties. Think of it like resource gathering, and it forms an excellent aspect of the gameplay.

These red shirts aim to win.

CO influence has been changed a lot too. Previously, each CO affected units in certain ways and this was uniform across their entire army. This time COs have to be added to one of the units on the map at a cost, and then only affect units within the CO zone that extends out from their unit. The boosts, such as an increase to all air units or strengthening all direct combat ground troops, are still as powerful as they were before but the limited reach of the CO zone means most of your army won't benefit. Likewise, the CO power gauge only increases when units inflict damage within the zone, and the likes of super and tag powers have been stripped out. These powers can still prove quite powerful but you can't abuse them quite so easily this time, you don't get anything as overpowered as an Eagle-Sami dual strike and since there is no longer a power increase when taking damage it definitely serves only to benefit those playing with good tactics. It helps to keep things a lot more balanced, as even the powerful COs can only affect a limited number of units.

Conditions have been tweaked. Weather can still sweep in and affect the battles, with changes to varying degrees. Rain throws in limited vision ranges and snow reduces movement of unit by one space, for example. Fog of war makes a return and is improved. Basically, this setting limits your vision on the map to the vision ranges of your deployed units along with certain terrain features. You can still make out the layout of the map but you won't know whose control properties are under until you scope them out and enemy troops will be hidden unless they wander into your vision ranges. Changes from before include a new flare unit designed specifically to light up areas, new terrain features like the raging fires that provide vision to all and more hiding places to make use of. Even better is that the computer players have been altered so that they truely are limited by the fog and will run into ambushes, as opposed to the earlier games where computer troops were largely unaffected by the limited vision. It certainly makes FoW maps a lot more interesting and enjoyable to play.

That leads us nicely onto the computer AI, which has seen a boost in intelligence since the last game. They are no longer keen to rush straight into death traps for a start. Have rocket launchers on standby and enemy tanks are more likely to hang back and try to find a way to break through. They also seem to adapt to the situation, especially in terms of deploying troops in that they will send out troops more suited to deal with your forces. If your army consists mostly of air units then you can expect more fighters and antiairs on their side. Come in with war tanks and expect to be met by bombers and rockets. It's still no substitute to playing real human opponents but it does make taking on the computer armies. There are still some weird behaviour issues, like destroying meteorites even if it's to their benefit to leave them, but nothing game breaking.

The campaign mode is still here, though now going by the name "Story", which is where you'll discover the evil plots in progress. CO selection is pretty much forced on you in these missions but you are provided a healthy variation in those you use as different officers take charge depending on the mission. An extensive tutorial is provided too that is not overly intrusive but introduces newbies to the series mechanics. The war room mode of previous games seems to have been dropped and integrated into this mode, as trial maps pop up as you progress to test your skills. Each missions awards a medal depending on your success, although this will just be for bragging rights than anything.

My main gripe with this mode is the sheer level of difficulty that will undoubtedly catch out even long time AW players. To put it in perspective, even some of the early missions in this game can prove harder than many of the missions in Dual Strike's hard mode. Make a slight mistake and you can find yourself heading for a loss. Part of this is the improved AI, which isn't actually a problem but many of these maps put you at a severe disadvantage at the beginning of battle. Taking on an army twice your size might have been fun with an easily abusable AI but not quite so much here. The missions that provide you with an AI partner tend to go sour too, especially as said partner has a tendency to not do what you want them to.

Free battle is the other single game card option and lets you wage custom war with up to four armies. There are loads of maps on offer already, including numerous classic maps from past games, and various options such as funds per day, weather and AI behaviour can be set prior to playing. As expected this mode is a tremendous amount of fun as you play through and blast the other armies without worrying so much over lopsided conflicts expecting you to pull through ridiculous odds. You can also design your own maps for use in this mode, which is far more flexible than before as you can now choose the map size instead of being limited to a preset size, set the default rules and can save loads of designed maps instead of just three.

Multiplayer options include being able to fight wirelessly in local play multicard or finally we can go over WiFi and duke it out against armies online, which is a welcome addition to the multiplayer clash options. Sadly it seems the single card download play has been dropped, but it is a justifiable loss in exchange for WiFi.

Unfortunately, that seems to the extent of the play options and it seems more barebones than before. Extra COs beyond the default four can be unlocked in story mode, but as you unlock them simply by completing standard missions then it seems less like unlocking. Additionally the ability to buy maps has gone, along with any kind of shop system. While having all free play maps available right away might seem like a good boon, it does mean there is less to work for and little reason to shoot for high ranks outside of pride. The loss of game modes like the combat mode or the time attack is another big hit. These modes helped extend the lifespan of Dual Strike, especially as the gameplay in combat mode was so different.

Overall I think this was a definite step in the right direction. While I might lament the loss of certain aspects, other improvements have overtaken them and produced a more balanced strategy title. The story mode difficulty can be quite unforgiving and their is less variety in options, but the reworked unit selection, improved AI and online play is enough to make the experience worth it.

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