Review by gbarules2999

"I love the smell of Medium Tanks in the morning."

While the strategic discussions of Advance Wars and its multiplying sequels have become commonplace on forums and tweenage hangouts for Nintendo handheld aficionados, it becomes to reason that the series would have to eventually grow up. Between the abstract ebb-and-flow of the violent depictions of war hidden behind the kiddie masquerade and funny-looking anime heads happily spouting nonsense to each other, there needed to be a new level of complexity, something to bring in more people. Another entry of the same in the series might just prove how ridiculous it all really is.

Days of Ruin (subtitled Dark Conflict in Europe) takes the game to a new level, but not without casualties. It seems for everything the game gets right, another relic from the past is discarded; the Wi-Fi battles replace the specialized War Room skirmishes, and the quality of the new campaign replaces the purchasable maps rewarded during quick and smart play. And regardless of all the new wiz-bang visuals and post-apocalyptic plot, too much of the game feels like a cheap jigsaw puzzle: too complicated, and the pieces never really come together. This doesn't mar it from being a good game, but it does mar it from becoming a great one.

With the new era of nuclear fears and terrorist activities, the game becomes a near mirror in what the worst-case-scenario might be in our own lives. After the bombs have dropped and the smoke clears, what walks from the ashes of civilization turns out to be much darker than anyone realized. Gangs roam the dusty plains, preying on innocent lives for the sake of amusement. The leaders of the new world care less about their people as they do about their egos, interested only in recreating their respect in a world that has nothing at all. The main character stumbles across this land and nearly dies at the hands of a biker gang, only to be rescued and promptly put into command of an army. Within this frightening apocalypse, however, the battles seem all the more potent and vicious.

Against the game's best intentions, the Advance Wars roots never actually leave. The plot is never quite sure whether to embrace Akira's hopeless dystopia or attempt to reconcile with the series' greatest fans who only want more of the same. What we end up with is a battle of forces in the narrative for a dark or light game, a plot that debates humanity's worth in one hand while fooling around with angst-ridden teenage friendship in the other. It doesn't help that large amounts of text in the long, drawn-out cutscenes are usually juvenile and dull. Because of this, however needed this new take on Advance Wars might have been, it's hard to take any of the game seriously, especially when the new characters are so short-sighted and unbelievably self-centered. Of course Our Noble Heroes need to save the day while looking better than everyone else, but that's no excuse to make the rest of the entire cast a bunch of idiots.

The presentation of the game echoes this confusion. Cartoon-like characters and animations depict scenes of bloody battles and brutal violence, trying to become a more mature experience while still staying within its narrow E-10+ range. But while the screen shakes a little more and explosions are bit scarier, there's nothing more to really keep it in place; there's no unified feeling to the look of the game that the rest of the series had. Bloody explosions on cartoon landscapes; horrible nuclear devastation using a Mickey-Mouse-land color-pallate. Even the music is still trying to figure out what a metal/prog version of Advance Wars MIDI tunes would sound like, and never quite finds out.

But while the themes didn't pan out to plan, the game still succeeds in spite of these shortcomings due to its ability to bring brilliant turn-based strategy to handheld simplicity. There's nothing horribly deep about Advance Wars to begin with, especially compared to hex-based wargames regularly played on the PC, but rather takes a chess-like mentality to distilling out a simple but hard-to-master experience. Removing many of the overwrought units and rules, the game takes some of the irritating complexity of Dual Strike and replaces it with a simple, yet effective balance of units and tactics. It's fun turn-based strategy, and what more could you ask for on the handheld system where we pet dogs all day long?

Unfortunately, there are faults within the solid concept once executed. Games like Total Annihilation took multiple patches and community modifications to refine to the online RTS masterpiece it is today. Advance Wars similarly requires several balancing tweaks, but without a patching system in place many of the game's issues will be there for its life. Air and sea superiority often feel like additives thrown in after the ground battle has been won; too many units in these categories feel either under or overpowered. It's too often after every battle there's a single enemy boat lying in the ocean nearby, and while I have won the match, I cannot finish off that last craft because there is no possible way of getting to it. These situations are much too common.

Balance problems like this are all too familiar in Nintendo strategy games, however, and Advance Wars has always been a showcase of this. Dual Strike was reduced to child's play after Intelligent Systems again and again ignored their mistakes and threw more specialized - but ultimately useless - units into the fray, such as the Pipe Runner. At least in Days of Ruin these issues are diminished, if not completely irradiated in some areas, with new units and a few modifications to create the best strategy game on the DS yet. While there's not much to compare it to, it's still better than nothing.

The Wi-Fi system is pretty good in most parts, only held back by Nintendo's astounding talent to screw up every Internet-related video game they come in contact with. The player, through the magic of Wi-Fi, can download player-created maps and upload their own, and then challenge players to battles. While the map sharing idea is well-founded, there's no easy way to find maps, and the game automatically disconnects when its done downloading. Irritating when the game has fifty empty slots to fill up. The online play isn't so bad, but being a turn-based game is very slow and sometimes nauseating, even with the time-limited-turn option. The best way – still by far – is to swap the actual DS system back and forth using only one card, which is the most rewarding and easiest to set up.

It's hard for me to recommend Advance Wars: Days of Ruin outright, however. It's a fun game in most cases, with solid gameplay and some good modes the mess with. But nothing really feels like it came out right; while many gamers enjoy the series, I feel that most of this stems from the fact that they haven't played much else. While the improvements are small but effective, Days of Ruin still stands as a good game, not a great one; but when we're discussing the DS, isn't a good strategy game enough? In the end, that's all we really have!

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 08/06/08

Game Release: Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (US, 01/21/08)

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