If real warfare was this much fun, we would all be doomed.
The last time Intelligent Systems made an Advance Wars game was back in 2003. That game, subtitled Black Hole Rising, enjoyed generally positive reviews, but one complaint in particular would show up again and again: the game was too similar to its predecessor. It felt more like an extension of an existing game rather than a fresh new experience, bringing practically nothing new to the series or to the turn-based strategy genre, for that matter.
Intelligent Systems obviously didn’t want to listen to that complaint again. One glance at the main menu reveals this desire. Alongside the well-known Campaign and War Room modes, you now see two brand new modes, called Survival and Combat, coupled with some intriguing wireless multiplayer modes.
Survival mode presents you with a certain number of levels and a limited amount of time, turns or money in which to play through them. These three types of challenges require different skills from the player. When playing the money challenge for example, you always need to think about spending as little money as possible. If you buy lots of expensive tanks in the first levels, you’ll get in trouble upon reaching the latter ones. This makes for some interesting tactical decisions and forces you to get the absolute utmost out of every unit.
Combat Mode represents a huge departure from the standard Advance Wars gameplay. You start by developing a small army with the money assigned. From here on, you send a single unit out to the battlefield. You guide this unit in real-time, using the D-pad for navigating and tapping the touch screen where you want to fire. Stopping at allied cities replenishes your unit slowly, and stopping at other cities makes you gradually capture it. Should your unit die, you simply pick another one from your army. It’s quick and seamless to play. Unfortunately, the mode does tend to get tiresome, when played for long stretches due to the lack of depth. Basically, standing still in an allied city and hammering away at the touch screen seems to be the best recipe for success. Nonetheless, the mode can give a nice break from all the head-scratching needed in the other modes, and with a little more work it could develop into a winner in future instalments.
While both these new modes offer interesting twists on the established Advance Wars gameplay, the meat of Dual Strike is still the Campaign Mode. With twenty-five levels on offer, it’s quite comprehensive. You’re slowly eased into the game mechanics, so beginners won’t feel lost. They’ll learn all the basics such as how to move, attack, and supply units as well as how to capture buildings and study unit information details. Experts might find this portion a little tedious. In fact, the entire campaign as a whole is probably too easy for advanced players on their first run through, but fortunately a harder difficulty does become available.
In the campaign, you’re treated to the usual conversation-based story, involving the Black Hole Army’s invasion of Omega Land. It’s not the most gripping tale, but at least the script is solid and humorous, and it sets you up nicely for the upcoming battles. You’re also introduced to the new COs of the game, as well as the new units, of which there are quite a few.
As always, the units themselves are divided into sea, air and land, and they are as balanced as ever. Each unit is highly effective against another but also has its own weak points. It’s like a giant rock-paper-scissor system only with knives, and glass, and clothes and a dozen of other things thrown into it. The Mega Tank, which is one of the new units, is obviously incredibly strong against smaller tanks and infantry units, but it’s notably inferior to bombers. It also can’t move very far and has low ammo supplies. Bombers, on the other hand, are easy targets for anti-air rockets and defenceless against other airplanes, such as the new stealth fighter, which can make itself invisible, but – in that case - uses up a lot of fuel. All in all, the battle system is undoubtedly the result of extensive play-testing and developer experience, and its excellence is the backbone to the overall brilliance of the game.
You’ll quickly learn that Commanding Officers play a much more central role in Dual Strike compared to its predecessors. You still choose COs before a match, and each CO still possesses different strengths and weaknesses as well as varying Super Skills that drain your power meter. New to this instalment is the experience that a CO gets from every battle he wins. With this he can level up and learn new skills. These typically boost a certain unit’s abilities, so equipping the right skills for a certain battle can have serious consequences.
The possibility to choose two COs for one army is an even more drastic addition. Only one of the COs is “active” at a time, but they can be switched at the end of every turn. When they both have full power meters, a Dual Strike can be unleashed. It effectively gives you two turns in a row with each CO doing his Super Skill. Suffice it to say, Dual Strikes can really turn the tide in a battle if used at the right time. Figuring out the appropriate occasion to unleash a Dual Strike is a challenge in itself, and certainly adds another layer of strategy to the game.
That is also the case with the new, so-called Dual Screen battles, where you’re battling on two fronts. Here the two COs are split up. The action on the main front takes place on the touch-screen, while the secondary front is displayed on the top screen. The CPU will typically handle your units on the secondary front (although you can often opt to control these as well), however you can send units from the main front to the secondary front if back-up is needed. Winning the secondary front is not essential, but it will unite your COs on the main front, thus increasing the odds of winning that one too.
This new emphasis on COs and Dual Screen battles obviously brings a whole new level of depth to the Advance Wars gameplay. Ironically, it also happens to make the gameplay a little too complex at times. This is especially true in the latter levels of the campaign, when you’re in control of three different armies each with two COs at the helm. Add to that the enemy COs, and you end up having eight COs in a battle. That means eight COs whose strengths and weaknesses have to be remembered and eight power meters that preferably need constant monitoring. The insane complexity is further multiplied by the level design. Some levels have giant cannons, destructible health generators, devastating missile silos, as well as a huge, timed, mass destruction weapon that threatens to blow up everything within thirty minutes. There are also communication towers that – once captured – give an attack boost to your entire army, and pipes on which to mount cannons. Add to that all the new units, including the aforementioned invisible fighters and B-boats with navy-repairing capabilities as well as strange blob-like creatures that aim to completely consume a nearby unit. Then there’s the usual terrain factor to take into consideration. Some terrains give defence boosts, and some are hard to travel through for certain units. Keeping track of ammo and fuel supplies is important as well. Finally, the weather might change all of a sudden. Blizzards limit your movement range and heavy showers hamper your vision, changing the battle completely into a “Fog of War” skirmish, in which forests prove perfect for hiding and infantry units on mountains have a greater overlook of the surrounding area than units down below.
The bottom line is that the player is faced with so many decisions that his brain just might short-circuit right before the end of the campaign. As a result, the purity, simplicity, and accessibility that characterise the earlier instalments can be hard to find here. Whether this development is a good one probably boils down to personal taste, but I find the simpler, back-to-basics style levels to be more enjoyable. Fortunately, the game has truck-loads of those levels as well.
Technically, Dual Strike closely resembles its predecessors. The simple, cute, toy-like art direction and the manga look of the COs have been kept completely intact. This combination fits the light-hearted pick-up-and-play nature of the game well. You won’t care for your units, like in Fire Emblem, but that’s not the point. The idea is not to give the player a cinematic experience nor is the he meant to immerse himself in the universe. That is why the quality of the graphics tends to play a relatively small role in this game. It could even be argued that advanced graphical effects would make it more difficult to intuitively identify different units and terrain types on the map. From this perspective, the developer’s decision to keep the visuals relatively clean and simple is understandable. With that said, I do think Intelligent Systems could have done a little more work sprucing things up. The battle sequences in particular would have benefited from, say, some fancier lighting and explosion effects. That wouldn’t hamper the gameplay or mess up the art direction.
As for the controls, they work great – but not because of the touch screen. The idea of picking and commanding units using the touch-screen certainly sounds terrific, but its implementation falls short for a number of reasons. First of all, as with any game, having to hold the DS with only one hand for long playing sessions can become uncomfortable. Secondly, the squares that make up the maps are so small that touching the desired one requires both concentration as well as a very steady hand. In Advance Wars, you want to focus on what to do – not how to do it, so this proves to be an irritating flaw. Controls have to be instinctively intuitive, which is something the D-Pad controls handle much better. They’re both less cumbersome and actually a lot quicker too.
The multiplayer modes are the game's tour de force. As usual, multiplayer battles can be played using just one DS by passing the system around. It’s a real blast playing against another human, because his actions are so unpredictable compared to those of the computer AI. Doing it wirelessly is of course even cooler. Regular battles can be played with up to three friends, but, sadly, require each player to have a copy of the game plugged in. The Combat Mode, though, can be played with up to eight players using the Single Pak Download Play. A demo of this mode can also be sent. The big focus on Combat Mode in multiplayer makes sense, since it’s the most pick-up-and-play-oriented mode. It’s very frantic and something that every player - regardless of skill level - can enjoy. The regular battles, on the other hand, have a tendency to turn into hour-long affairs, which make them a little less multiplayer-friendly. Players with equal skill levels are recommended here. The final feature of the wireless multiplayer is map-trading, which obviously lets you send maps you’ve created to another player.
All in all, Advance Wars: Dual Strike obviously faces the same challenge as every other sequel faces. The game has to be different enough from its predecessors – more so than Black Hole Rising was - but not too different and thereby alienate fans of the series. This balance is something Dual Strike handles beautifully. It retains the series’ renowned easy-to-learn-yet-difficult-to-master gameplay formula, but also adds an extreme amount of new modes, levels, and units to try out, options to tinker with, and statistics to look through and improve upon. The end result is a huge, compelling game that feels fresh yet familiar at the same time.