Turn-based strategy was proclaimed by many to be a dead genre a few years ago. The popularity and prevalence of its real-time cousin caused many spectators to presume that the slower-paced, less hectic game was one that had had its day. It was an opinion strengthened by the moribund state of the few examples drifting around – innovation within the genre was hard to come by, with those developers still creating for it failing to bring anything new to the mix.
Recently, however, TBS has seen a huge improvement in its fortunes. At the one end of the spectrum lies Nippon Ichi and its revolutionary series of games – Disgaea, Phantom Brave and so on – which provides a sense of liberating freedom in terms of character development and allows the player to manipulate and ‘cheat’ the traditional TBS ruleset. At the other lies Intelligent Systems and the Wars series.
While the Nippon Ichi games place most of their emphasis on levelling characters up and learning to manipulate their underlying statistics – and, as a result, mainly preach to the converted – Advance Wars: Dual Strike’s focus is purely on the battlefield itself, making it perfectly suited to the ‘pick up and play’ nature of its host system.
A series that’s been around for a number of years and on a number of different Nintendo formats, the first official chance for European and American gamers to enjoy Wars came with the initial GameBoy Advance version. While there are obvious differences between that outing and this DS iteration, the core of the experience remains identical.
The basics are as follows. Units are pre-defined, with no way of altering their attacking power or health. An element of resource management is borrowed from real-time strategy, although here it’s far simpler and far more accessible and memorable than similar ideas in RTS games. Infantry units can capture cities, factories and bases. For every city your side holds at the beginning of each turn you gain a set amount of cash. This money can then be spent in your factories to build and deploy more units onto the battlefield.
Advance Wars is perfectly balanced, each unit type slotting into an intricate, but intuitive rock/scissors/paper system of weaknesses and strengths. Recon units have a high range of movement and can take down infantry with ease, but are likely to be wiped out in one attack from any other foe. Submarines can destroy battleships with ease, but need to be kept out of the range of cruisers.
The combination of this supreme balancing act and the simple, effective resource management allows you to improvise your own solutions to problems and play in a manner entirely your own. Do you barricade yourself into a small space around your HQ and build up an army capable of destroying all before it in a few short moves? Do you try and gain control of all the cities, thereby cutting off your opponent’s cash flow? Have heavily armoured units sit on enemy factories, preventing them from creating new units? Send one infantry unit around the outside of the map in a transport ship to capture the enemy HQ while their attention is elsewhere? Unlike almost all other strategy titles in which resource management is a concern, any of these plans can be used to achieve victory. The infamous “tank rush” – the first of the plans outlined above – is no longer the only, nor the most effective solution.
Much of this is exactly the same as in the previous games. The look is still the same, with an appealingly colourful, jolly cartoon design to characters and units. There are small touches to remind you that this is a more powerful system – battlefields on the bottom screen now have a slightly three-dimensional aspect to them, for example – but they’re barely noticeable. Not that it matters, as the visuals were more or less perfected with earlier games in the series. The most important thing is that you can tell unit types and terrain features apart from each other at a glance, and that the small amount of essential statistical information is presented clearly.
Instead of beefing up the graphics, the DS has been used to bring new additions to the gameplay. Certain of the battles now take place on two fronts, with one visible on each screen. During most of these, the fight on the upper screen will be commanded by an AI partner, although a few missions in the campaign allow you to fight on both fronts yourself. This is the most drastic of the changes to the gameplay and it’s a shame that it’s not used more often. Instead, the upper screen is frequently used to present information about selected units or terrain features. It’s nice to have that information present without having to go into the menus, but it’s nothing particularly imaginative.
The most important thing that the new hardware has brought to the series is touchscreen control. The entire game (with the exception of one or two of the submenus) can be played with the stylus, bringing an immediacy that was perhaps missing from the earlier entries in the series. The increased physicality involved in commanding your troops allows you to feel more involved with the miniature wars. The touchscreen is so well implemented that it’s obvious this was a game that Nintendo had in mind when it designed its hardware. Bar the odd accidental double tap that can lead to your issuing an order you didn’t mean to and the aforementioned submenus, it’s flawless.
This is also the most generous iteration of the series so far – and they’ve never been particularly stingy. Points gained in the campaign can be spent on a huge number of new maps, powers, colour schemes and background wallpapers. New maps can be played in the War Room, success in which provides you with yet more points to spend. War Room battles can be configured however you desire, meaning there’s always something else to try.
New for this version are the Combat and Survival modes. The first of these is little more than a temporary distraction, its real-time, arcade reinterpretation of the main game feeling too light and inconsequential for it to be anything other than a snack between meals. The second provides a puzzle-style twist on the regular game, requiring you to make your way through a set number of battles with a limit on money, turns or units. As a result, it’s a mode that feels more restrictive than the others – battles are more likely to have one solution, with less of the freedom that’s present in the main game – but may appeal more to those who find the others daunting.
Throw the endlessly customisable multiplayer modes and the extensive mapmaker into the mix, and you’ve got a game that could honestly last forever. It may not do anything particularly new, but it’s the most expansive and enjoyable Wars to date. Equal parts Cannon Fodder and chess, the tagline from the advert for the former provides an apt summary: war has never been so much fun.