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Advance Wars: Days of Ruin

Platform(s): Nintendo DS
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Intelligent Sys.

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NDS Review - 'Advance Wars: Days of Ruin'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 27, 2008 @ 2:29 a.m. PST

Advance Wars is a turn-based strategy game, sequel to 2005's original debut title on the NDS. Lead your new Commanding Officers to fend off latest invasion, as massive battles sweep across both of the DS screens.

Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: January 21, 2008

Advance Wars may not be one of Nintendo's most famous properties, but it is certainly among one of its most addictive. There's something about sending those adorable little tanks and soldiers to battle one another that can cause a gamer to lose hours at a time. While Advance Wars is certainly addictive, though, it has never been quite warlike. The characters have always been bright and cheerful, the graphics colorful and happy, and death was nonexistent. This may sound unusual, considering it is a game about soldiers battling for king and country, but somehow, Advance Wars pulled off being a child-friendly tactical war game that appealed to all ages. There's certainly nothing wrong with this, but it was always a bit unusual to go from seeing a battalion of soldiers slaughtered by tanks to seeing Andy cheerfully congratulate his opponent and wish for future battles. It seems like gamers weren't the only ones bothered by this unusual incongruity. The latest game in the franchise, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, couldn't be more different.

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin is quite a departure in tone from the previous Advance Wars titles. Despite technically being about war, the older Advance Wars were more along the lines of a fighting anime, with all sorts of friendly rivalries and nobody ever dying. Advance Wars: Days of Ruin opens up with meteors obliterating 90% of all life on the planet. From there, it descends into a shockingly dark story involving human greed and morality, involving such things as a murderous cult, a horrible parasitic plant that grows within a human being before fatally bursting through his skin, and various other surprisingly horrific things. It isn't quite Silent Hill, but it certainly has a more mature and interesting tone than the earlier games. It's not particularly innovative, and indeed the story is rather predictable at times, but it is also interesting enough to keep your attention, and that alone is quite an improvement over Advance Wars: Dual Strike and its ilk.

Be warned, right off the bat. Advance Wars: Days of Ruin basically constitutes a reboot for the franchise. All of the old commanding officers and dual-screen battles are gone, and many of your favorite units from the other games have been either redesigned or flat-out scrapped. Black Bombs, Stealth Fighters, Neotanks and the like have all been dumped, focusing on a less unit-heavy, but more balanced game. In their place are new units, such as the Duster, a light anti-infantry aircraft and the Flare tank, which has minimal combat capability but can fire flares to drive away the Fog of War effect. Even better is that these units can now power up on the battlefield. Every time a unit successfully kills another, it gains a level, from Rank 0 to Rank III, or "Veteran." Higher levels mean higher damage and defense, and it adds an interesting new variable into gamers' strategies.

While most of the units strike a careful balance between their strengths and weaknesses, it is impossible to deny that a few of the game's units border on being over- or underpowered. For example, the anti-infantry Duster has such limited usage that I only made one in the entire game, since infantry are rarely a major threat, and the Duster's big advantage is that it can attack them without being attacked back. On the other hand, the new Anti-Tank unit approached ridiculous levels. The Anti-Tank is an artillery unit that does extra damage to tanks, massive damage to anything else, is strong against everything but Bombers, and is the only artillery unit that can counterattack. These units are not game-ruiningly powerful, but it can be extremely aggravating, and one can't help but wish the developers had done a bit more to ensure everything was a bit more balanced.

The biggest change to Advance Wars: Days of Ruin is in the game's trademark COs, who lead your army and have special abilities that boost the power of their troops. In previous Advance Wars titles, these powers were so exceptionally strong that they basically ruled the battle. Tactics and strategy barely mattered next to the overwhelming strength of a CO's Super Power or Tag Power.

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin attempts to alleviate this problem, but with mixed results. COs now take to the battlefield, instead of being distant observers. A player equips a CO onto any unit in the game, which promptly gains maximum level and begins to emit a "CO Zone" in a radius around it. Any units within that CO Zone receive the benefit of his special power, be it a defense boost or the ability to ignore weather effects. Similar to the previous games, as the CO fights, he or she builds up CO energy, which can then be unleashed to use on special powers. A CO power grants a special bonus, such as additional movement to friendly allies, or dropping a firebomb on an enemy, in addition to granting the CO Zone effect to every ally on the battlefield for one turn.

So, all of this sounds like a fairly good balancing compared to the insanely overpowered COs in Advance Wars: Dual Strike, so why isn't this all good? The problem is that the COs themselves are exceptionally unbalanced. Will, for example, gains a minor attack boost for all of his ground troops, and his CO power is a paltry +2 movement. Compare this to Brenner, who not only boosts all units in his radius, but also does so by more than Will, and has the CO power to heal every unit by 3! There are 12 COs in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, but their balance of power is so skewed that you'll probably only find players using two or three of them online. The "good" news is that the most powerful CO is actually banned from random online play, although you can still use him to absolutely dominate offline and against friends. This is "good" only in that it prevents everyone from using the same overpowered and poorly balanced commander, but bad in that it takes Advance Wars: Days of Ruin's already paltry number of COs down to a mere 11, compared to the 20+ that were in the previous title.

All of these changes combine to make the single-player campaign quite a bit different. Its difficulty is going to vary depending on how you played the other Advance Wars titles, and indeed, from player to player. Personally, I found Advance Wars: Days of Ruin to be significantly easier than its earlier counterparts, but at the same time, one can easily see how gamers who relied on the power of COs and Neotanks might find themselves frustrated when the game throws you into a battle against overwhelming odds. It's also fairly short, with only 26 missions, over half of which function as playable tutorials, and many of which can be taken down in a matter of turns. The game's difficulty jumps up toward stage 20, but even then, it isn't too tough. However, besides the story mode, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin doesn't offer much appeal for offline gamers. The built-in "trial" maps are fun but offer little reward for completing them other than the satisfaction of smashing an enemy. Days of Ruin's real replay value comes from its online play.

Online play has been a long time coming to Advance Wars, and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin thankfully gives gamers the multiplayer they've been waiting for. By and large, the online play in Advance Wars is pretty good. Both skill-matched and versus anyone online matches are available, as well as battles against friends. Friend battles require DS Friends Codes, but come complete with voice chat, à la Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. Battles play out fairly lag-free in all my tests, and the gameplay is kept running fast and smooth by a turn timer. The aforementioned CO balance problem causes issues, but assuming you can get past that, online play adds nearly infinite amounts of replay value to the title.

Even better, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin also offers downloadable content. Players can create their own maps and upload them to Nintendo, or download recommended or randomized maps from Nintendo's servers, which is a fantastic addition. Naturally, not all of the maps you download are going to be good, but with thousands of people creating their own levels, there are bound to be some gems.

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin forgoes its usual adorable sprite-based warriors in place of slightly more realistic designs, as befitting the apocalyptic tone of the game. The sprites are larger, grayer and more serious, but this isn't necessarily a good thing. In fact, the battle sprites are shocking pixelated and jaggy, causing them to look quite ugly in battle cut scenes. Most of the units look plain bad, both pixelated and blurry at the same time, and even before the fifth mission, I found myself skipping most of the battle cut scenes just because of how disappointing they were. The actual map screen is relatively unchanged from the last Advance Wars, with the exception of a slightly darker color palette, and so it still looks quite good, thankfully. It's not enough to render the game unplayable, but the new combat scenes are certainly a step backward for Advance Wars. The soundtrack is catchy and has a few good tunes to it, but it feels a bit bland compared to the earlier games in the franchise, although there are certainly no bad songs, except maybe flyboy Waylon's rather screechy guitar solo.

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin is an unusual mix of the good and the bad. The more mature storyline, revamped unit list and redesigned CO system are all quite positive, and online play is something that Advance Wars has needed for a long time. Unfortunately, these good points are countered by the poorly designed COs themselves, the wacky unit balance, and the lackluster number of single-player offerings, which mean that unless you really enjoy playing Advance Wars online, Days of Ruin isn't going to have much appeal for you beyond a single playthrough. However, if the concept of waging pint-sized war on your Internet friends sounds great, then Advance Wars: Days of Ruin may be just what you're looking for … assuming you don't end up facing the same CO in every round.

Score: 8.0/10


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