Review by Eric43

"Great turn-based strategy in dire need of balancing"

Advance Wars: Dual Strike is the third in the series of non-violent war strategy games for Nintendo handhelds. If you've been remotely interested in Gameboy or strategy games in particular, you'll have heard of the game's captivating turn-based strategy in which little animated sprites do battle. The game's formula implements the dual screens while leaving the traditional gameplay mostly intact, but Intelligent Systems preferred to sweep some problems under the rug rather than address them at all.

What makes Advance Wars so great is its simple board-game mechanics, like in chess and checkers. Up to four armies can play and in this grid-like setting, you deploy units to either destroy the enemy's units or capture the enemy's HQ. Forces include land, air, and sea units such as infantry, tanks, artillery, APCs, battle copters, fighter jets, submarines, and battleships, each represented by a cute animated sprite. Players take turns moving out their units, either capturing properties, attacking other units, or setting up defensive formations. Each turn (or day, as the game calls them), you'll move each of your units and earn money to buy units from any factories you own. You'll earn cash each turn depending on how many cities are currently under your control.

The depth of the game is staggering. Each unit has its own pros and cons. For instance, battle copters deal heavy damage to ground units but are trashed by anti-airs, which are terribly weak against tanks and other armored units. Artillery and rockets are unique as in they can attack units from afar, but cannot defend themselves directly. Foot soldiers are fairly weak against most other units, but they are the only units that can capture cities. Consider that on each turn, getting the first strike on an enemy deals more damage to him than it does to you. Terrain in the form of plains, forests, cities, and mountains can give you defensive bonuses but can also stifle movement as well. Also, Fog of War, weather, and refueling are just some of the minor details that mix up the strategy.

Before each battle, you can choose from a wide variety of Commanding Officers, each with its own personality, music, and unique abilities. Most give attack and defense boosts to specific units, while others may have additional benefits such as greater vision or greater movement ranges. Throughout the battle, you can charge up devastating attacks known as CO Powers and unleash them, and each CO has two different attacks which generally turn the tide in your favor for that day only. Playing as different COs changes the strategy and makes the game more intriguing to play. Even though Advance Wars does not contain the fast-paced, razzle-dazzle micromanagement of Starcraft and other RTS games, the cartoony representation of war is highly addicting, and that alone guarantees this game is a recommended look.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike offers features more of the same from the original. Plenty of options are available in the menu, such as Campaign, Versus, Survival, and War Room. This time, the war takes place in Omega Land with a vastly different campaign and brand new COs. New COs for each nation has been added, and old ones have been slightly changed. Jake and Rachel, the game's protagonists, are two new Orange Star COs. Jake gets attack boosts on plains while Rachel can launch missiles with her powers. Sasha, the new Blue Moon CO and Colin's sister, gets monetary advantages like his brother. Green Earth CO Javier gets defense boosts against indirect attacks and Yellow Comet CO Grimm trades off defense for powerful attack boosts. Also, new villainous COs from Black Hole are similar to their Advance Wars 2 counterparts with the exception of Kindle, who gets attack boosts from buildings. Overall, there are about twenty-five different COs in AW:DS, and the variety is a welcoming addition to the series.

However, for the third game in the series, it's remarkable that Intelligent Systems couldn't balance the COs any better. For instance, COs such as Grit, Colin, and Hachi, are broken because they can spam one unit (particularly artillery) with effortless success. Also, some COs were unnecessarily nerfed, such as Max, Lash, and Drake. One particular CO, Olaf, has had his snow abilities replaced with mere power boosts. The CO selection is only a slight improvement over Advance Wars 2, and the changes mean that some COs will be banned from competitive play.

The game's campaign is like AW2—Black Hole has attacked the Allied Nations and they must fight them back. All the new COs like Jake and Sasha are available for play and they have their own silly discourse. Throughout the campaign, several new units are introduced. Probably the most plot-relevant would be the oozium, a jelly-like blob that moves slowly but instantly devours any nearby units. They can not be built individually and therefore serve as gimmicks more than anything else. There's also some more contemporary units such as the megatank, the stealth bomber, the black boat (an APC-esque naval unit), the black bomb (a missile that damages any unit within a limited range), and the piperunner. However, with the exception of the black bomb, all new units are fairly pricey and only suitable for wars of attrition, so they hardly influence the traditional gameplay.

To suit the game's title, you can tag up two COs in control one one army. When you do this, you can swap between the two COs at the end of any turn, which means that the primary CO's strength and weaknesses apply until you swap him with the other CO. When both COs filled up their power bars, they can unleash a Tag Power (aka, a Dual Strike). One CO uses his Super Power, switches to the other CO during the same turn, and the other CO uses his Super Power, meaning that units can move twice in the same turn. The flaw with this is that some Tag Powers don't work well together, plus the game gives additional attack boosts when you tag up specific COs, such as Jake/Rachel or Sasha/Colin, so in competitive play, you would opt to play with single COs only.

The campaign isn't so spectacular in terms of missions. Most involve defeating the Black Hole army in disadvantaged situations. You can boost your COs' strength by giving them Force Ranks. By beating missions with COs, you boost their "XP." Boosted COs can be given defensive, offensive, and movement boosts, but that makes the campaign even easier. Combine that with Tag Powers, broken COs like Grit and Colin, and an obligatory set of missions with little variety and the campaign is an unfortunate drag. A few unique missions, such as a two-front mission (where the AI fights another enemy on a completely different battlefield) pop up now and then but there's nothing revolutionary about them.

The War Room is just like in previous games—you play against the AI on a multitude of maps and try to get high scores by winning quickly and cleanly as possible. The AI has been slightly improved from AW2, which is a welcome change. However, the scoring is weak—you can spam infantry and whatnot to improve your score easily. Perhaps if they scored you on the amount of money spent and lost rather than the number of units you lost (infantry are the same worth as a megatank), then it would be better.

Survival is another good idea but one without much value. For each run, you play through a bunch of short, quick maps and you have to try to beat each level while spending the least amount of time (yes, actual real-life time), money, or turns. You can see how fast it takes you to beat eleven missions, or how long you can go before you run out of said resource. However, the maps are really weak and gimmicky, and usually rely on AI exploits to beat quickly, making this mode more of a chore than anything.

The bulk of the game's value lies in Versus mode, where you can play any of the game's maps against the game's AI or against other players to a multitude of settings. There's plenty of maps to play on, but most of the available maps aren't very balanced—on mirrored maps, the first player (red) gets a distinct advantage by moving first and reaching the properties sooner. You can also create your own maps and play them in this mode, but for some reason, the game still only allows up to three custom maps, which is another disappointment.

The game's visuals are revamped from Advance Wars 2—now the game has a faux 3-D perspective complete with the same sprites of old days. At first, the game's look is actually quite pretty but there's no option to switch to the traditional 2-D view. The perspective makes interpreting the map a bit more difficult than usual. Otherwise, the interface, which includes plenty of information on the top screen, all the way down to the pointer is revamped and quite the eye candy. There's also the option to view battle animations and skip through them as you wish, which is something that was impossible in AW2. The game also boasts some new landscapes, as you can now play in a desert, a snow cap, and a wasteland, rather than the typical green visage. While the changes in this game are purely cosmetic, they give the game that extra oomph to make the game look great.

The sound effects are carried over from AW2, with little footsteps, treads, and plane engines as units move out. The music, however, is easy on the ears. Existing COs have remixed music, although that on the light, jovial side. New COs have some interesting tunes that don't draw any negative criticism. I was especially impressed with Jake's rock music, something unprecedented in the series. Unfortunately, none of the music sounded entirely suitable for the military setting. In Advance Wars 1, the game's menu played a military drum beat, but nothing in AW:DS really came that close; just a lot of video game techno beats that didn't fit perfectly.

If you've been a fan of the the series or are looking into it yourself, then this game is heartily recommended. The basic Advance Wars gameplay is highly addicting, but the real problems with this game lie in the balance and the less-than-spectacular features. I believe that Intelligent Systems could've improved this game further, but as it stands, it's a recommended game for strategy connoisseurs and Nintendo DS owners alike.

Presentation: 9/10 – Nice, edgy menus with plenty of options to play.
Gameplay: 8/10 – Great Advance Wars gameplay, but with some balance issues that still stand uncorrected.
Graphics: 8/10 – Cool, new 3-D look that could be improved. New landscapes and interface are great.
Sound: 8/10 – New music with neat unit sound effects. Still, I miss that military-themed music.
Replay Value: 8/10 – Campaign and Survival modes aren't that great, but the War Room and Versus mode is fun and will consume lots of time.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 07/16/07, Updated 11/21/07

Game Release: Advance Wars: Dual Strike (US, 08/22/05)

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