The fact that Advance Wars: Dual Strike has spent more time in this writer's Nintendo DS than any other game to date - despite being virtually impenetratable thanks to the endless reams of Japanese text - says a lot. But perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised that a good forty hours has already passed by on the game's clock. After all, Advance Wars and it's equally brilliant sequel are two Gameboy Advance games that can make marathon train journeys shrivel and feel more like all-too-brief sojourns to the neighbouring village. Games that make hazy Sunday afternoons melt into hazy Sunday evenings without players even realising.
'Nintendo Chess', many reviewers called it, and they weren't far wrong. Both games sold in respectable numbers (particularly in Japan), but not as well as they deserved. But for those of you who haven't yet tuned in to the delights of Intelligent Systems' extremely intelligent series (shame on you, by the way), here's the gist: players are given a map, divided into a grid of equal-sized squares. On the map, there may be forests, mountains, cities, factories, all occupying a square each. Usually, the player also starts with an army of some description. The player moves his army, then the opponent (human or AI) move theirs, then back to the player, until either one army captures the opposing base or destroys all the enemy units. Each unit of the army can move a certain number of squares, and inflict a certain amount of damage. Certain units do less/more damage to other units. And that's it. It's fundamentally simple, but compulsive and hugely strategic. You can see why the chess comparisons were made.
It's a massively successful formula, one that will require some particularly careful tinkering if the finely balanced magic isn't to be wrecked. So it's almost a relief when you find, within the first few minutes after switching the game on, that things don't seem terribly different. Presentation-wise, the maps are virtually the same as those seen in the GBA games, apart from the odd (admittedly pointless) visual trick - the occasional bird flies overhead now, and the shadows of clouds creep slowly across the landscape. There's also a slightly isometric look to the new maps, though it's hardly substantial - PALGN only noticed this after two hours of play.
Aside from that, it's genuinely difficult to spot many significant aesthetic improvements, but criticising this would be churlish, considering how visuals hardly play a primary role in the game. We can only thank the heavens Intelligent Systems didn't try some kind of grotesque Lemmings 3D-style experiment. The front-end is comfortingly familiar as well, boasting the slick menus and presentation of the two GBA titles.
The two-screen battles genuinely add to the experience.
Delve a little further, and it's clear the gameplay is where the majority of changes are to be found, and they appear to be largely sensible. Central to these modifications is the 'Tag-Team' function. Whereas in the two GBA games, players would assume the identity of a single CO (Commanding Officer) for each battle, here we're given control over two COs from the start. With each CO possessing different abilities and strengths, choosing which to use on which turn cunningly adds another layer of strategy to the experience. Players can only swap their COs at the end of each turn, meaning good forward planning becomes essential, particularly on later missions where a wrong choice can prove fatal.
There's more than just swapping your two COs about, however. After your army has taken a decent amount of flak from the enemy, you're given the chance to combine the two COs for a special, two-turn attack, an epic special move that can genuinely change the tide of battles. It works wonderfully, for if there was one criticism we could have levelled at the two GBA games, it was that battles would often reach a point where the eventual winner became inevitable, yet the victor-to-be still had to complete the conflict, despite having truly triumphed eight or nine turns ago. It felt like a chore in some ways; there was no realistic way back for your opponent, yet the remaining turns still had to be completed. Now, the Tag-Team option can turn battles on their head, if used at the right time. Things are suddenly a little less inevitable, and the result is more tense, unpredictable battles.
There are new units as well. Aircraft carriers now patrol the seas, and whilst only offering limited attacking capabilities, they're tough little buggers to sink. Like submarines, the new stealth jets can slink out of sight of the enemy, though their offensive power isn't quite as impressive as the bomber or jet fighter from previous games (and that are still here). There are unmanned missiles to use, and gun turrets that run along the pipes on maps, as well as another breed of tank, though whether the Megatank will really add much to proceedings is debatable. When Neotanks (previously the beefiest tank available) first turned up in Advance Wars 2, they offered little more than some extra power on top of what the Medium Tank already had. The shift from Neotank to Megatank is similar: more power, but little else.
The huge gun turret on the top screen will continuously bombard ground units
until it's taken down by air units. A neat touch.
until it's taken down by air units. A neat touch.
There's an odd new mode to complement the usual selection as well, with 'Campaign', 'Vs. Mode' (including maps from the first two games - hurrah!) and 'Free Battle' now joined by 'Combat', which is basically (as far as we could tell with our very limited knowledge of Japanese) a real-time version of the game. It's also, uh, a bit rubbish, though the gameplay did remind us slightly of the Atari 2600 classic of the same name. Sadly, playing Advance Wars in real-time defeats the very essence of what makes this series great. There's no careful forward planning, no strategic masterstrokes carried out over several turns. Rather, it just feels a bit like a useless 2D shoot-'em-up, as you steer your little units about the map, hitting the 'fire' button when other enemy units become visible. Maybe we're missing something, but for now it's a case of: Oi, Intelligent Systems: NO!
Sadly, as 'Combat' is the only mode we could play in multiplayer with a single DS cartridge (and the PALGN budget won't stretch to two copies of the game - Brendan has to fund his libertine lifestyle somehow), we suspect we've not been truly able to experience the multiplayer at its very richest. Having said that, playing another human or three was outstandingly good fun in the GBA games, so we can hardly see ourselves not being engaged by the multiplayer in Dual Strike.
It's a big thumbs up to the use of the extra screen as well. Usually, the top screen acts as a panel for quick-reference battle intel, which is a handy enough feature in itself. But with players now being given the chance to take control of battles spread across both screens (see pictures) is superbly enjoyable, with fleets of fighter jets patrolling the skies while troops clash with the enemy on the ground far below. Units can be deployed from the ground to the skies above, or vice versa. It's more than a novelty, and it works well.
Finally, if any readers are considering importing a copy (the PAL version won't be with us until September, and the Japanese version is hardly what you'd call English-friendly), then we'd urge them to wait for the American version, which is out in the next month. Our review will be up then, but until that moment, here's to another forty hours.