How do you improve upon perfection? Strictly speaking, there's no answer to that oxymoronic query, but that's precisely the kind of question the Intelligent Systems team must have felt it was facing when it came to providing the world with a Nintendo DS version of it's masterful Advance Wars games.
As any clued-up gamer will know, there's quite a history for Advance Wars: Dual Strike to follow. Ina nutshell, the two GBA titles that preceded it proved to be the most confident, graceful rebuttals yet to the elitist crowd who had always insisted that the strategy genre was at it's very best on a PC, with both titles so well-suited to the Game Boy Advance it was as if the two were separated at birth. Trying to improve upon such perfection is a dilemma many developers would enjoy having of course, though attempting to tweak a winning recipe can be a double-edged sword: change too much, and the final package can become bloated. Alter too little (something that Advance Wars 2 was arguably guilty of), and you're a rip-off merchant.
So, it's a balancing act. And for the most part, it would be fair to say that Intelligent Systems has just about pulled it off, despite the odd totter on the tightrope. We'll say this much: ignoring the odd instance of filler content, Dual Strike is probably the most complete game in the series to date, if not the most well-rounded. But ultimately, it is a success, and considering that the underlying gameplay model that provides the foundations for the Advance Wars series is so solid, it was hard to imagine many other possible outcomes.
Crucially, the fundamental rules and mechanics remain the same: players are given a map, one divided into a grid of squares. Usually, the player also starts with an army of some description. The player moves his army, then the opponent (human or AI) moves 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 or more damage to other units. On the surface, just like the two GBA games, Dual Strike is simple. Beneath, it possesses a level of depth and complexity that is difficult to find elsewhere on a handheld gaming platform.
Just to make things that little more complex this time, Intelligent Systems has chosen to overhaul the CO system, a move that has not only supplied the game with its Dual Strike moniker, but one that has also multiplied the number of possible outcomes in each battle many times over. By forcing players to use two COs in each battle, even seasoned Advance War veterans will find the increased number of possible events bewildering at some stages; choosing the right COs can often prove decisive in battles, particularly as the levels become harder. With certain CO pairings working together better than others, it adds yet another level of strategy and intricacy to what is already a considerably mind-bending experience.
Elsewhere, some of the new additions are rather less well-executed. We mentioned in our preview how much we disliked the new Combat mode, and we stand by that judgement. Essentially, Combat mode is Advance Wars with it's shoot-'em-up trousers on, and the results are as awkward as you'd imagine. Controlling one unit at a time (you have a set number, and choose which order to use them in), the player is given the task of charging around a map and firing (in real-time, as opposed to the turn-based structure used in the rest of the game) at enemy units. The end result - even in multiplayer - is charmless, removing the layers of strategy and forethought the rest of the game requires. Frankly, it feels like a diabolically bad shoot-'em-up, and we're still not entirely sure what Intelligent Systems was trying to achieve.
Thankfully, we have the new Survival mode to balance things out, and it's comfortably the best new addition to the series since the first GBA Advance Wars came to take over our lives back in 2001. With a limit enforced on either funds, battle duration or active playing time (or a mixture of those), the player is charged with completing as many maps as possible, before they can no longer continue. It's simple, objective-based fun that suits the Advance Wars template perfectly, without ever feeling like a thoughtless add-on in the same way that Combat mode does.
The thinking behind the use of the two screens is also laudable. It's great to see a selection of the maps on offer sprawling across both screens, a format-specific feature that genuinely enhances the experience, even if it doesn't make it feel especially original. The designation of the top screen to air battles (as seen only in the Campaign mode) is also gratifying, with your planes controlled by the CPU once you've placed them where you wish in the skies. Most of the time however, the top screen will be a panel for quick-reference battle intel, with the touchscreen displaying the combat itself (incidentally, PALGN prefers the D-pad over the stylus).
Other parts of the game have simply been expanded. There's another seven units to fight with - PALGN's favourite being the Piperunner, a turret gun that runs on the pipelines constructed by Black Hole armies - and another nine COs to play as (all of their abilities are more well-balanced than those of the the cast in Advance Wars 2), numbers that easily supercede the changes made from the first Advance Wars to the 2003 sequel, Black Hole Rising. And with a Campaign mode that's the largest in the franchise to date, it certainly steers clear of the 'not enough new content' criticism.
Indeed, it'd be reasonable to say that this is a more courageous step forward from it's predecessor than Advance Wars 2 was from Advance Wars. And, in general, it's a step taken in the right direction. Admittedly, there's the odd addition here that was never necessary, and we only hope Intelligent Systems are perceptive enough to know which parts will need trimming for the follow-up. As for achieving perfection, well that can wait: right now, we've another Advance Wars to get through.