If you've been clamoring for a new Advance Wars to hit the Nintendo DS--and we suspect there are a lot of you--you're in luck. Developer Intelligent Systems is back with a second game in the massively popular, cutesy strategy series due out early next year. Except Advance Wars: Days of Ruin isn't so cute anymore. The core strategy gameplay here remains largely unchanged, but the wide-eyed anime stylings and jubilant, juvenile commanding officers of the past games have given way to a far more serious visual style and a lot of doom and gloom in this new sequel.
Days of Ruin has no connection whatsoever to the past series installments. It takes place in an entirely new world where a large-scale meteor shower triggered massive global destruction that eradicated 90 percent of the population. After the catastrophe, the survivors have formed together into militaristic bands that are warring over the last remaining scraps of civilization. You'll take control of Will, a young military cadet (whose hair is admittedly just a little spiky) who quickly becomes embroiled in the conflict at the outset of the game. The storyline is still conveyed through dialogue-heavy cinematics, but the characters have a much more rough-and-tumble look and a dourer attitude. One of the enemy commanders, affectionately known only as "the Beast," at one point makes a reference to wearing a necklace of human ears. Look at you, Advance Wars, you're all grown up!
We got to play a sample mission from early in the game and found the gameplay in Days of Ruin to be almost exactly like you'll remember from Dual Strike. There are a lot of subtle improvements, though, and of course some new units. You can now zoom in and out of the battlefield to get a wider view of the overall tactical situation or focus on one local skirmish. Nintendo has also "optimized" the stylus controls in the game, which will supposedly make the game much more playable via the touch screen than in the last game. On the new-unit front, we saw a new light-armored vehicle that can fire a flare to reveal a large part of the map (by eliminating the fog of war), and it can also lightly attack with machine-gun fire. There's also a new motorcycle with a sidecar that's one of the most nimble units in the game. In addition to its speed, the bike's biggest advantage is that it can capture enemy buildings, just like infantry. Of course, there will be plenty of other new units in here, but Nintendo wasn't ready to show them off yet.
Some of the new gameplay changes won't reveal themselves until you've spent more time with the game. For instance, individual units can now level up as they gain combat experience, and then you can bring them into subsequent missions with you. For instance, a powered-up tank unit that only had seven tanks in reserve might still be able to best a 10-strong tank unit with no previous experience. The commanding officers' special powers have purportedly been greatly reduced in potency as well. You'll gain them much later in the game now, and they won't have the potential to completely swing the flow of battle in the opposite direction the way they did in the last few games. Now the focus is more on your overall strategy, and though you can use a CO power to aid your combat effort, you won't be able to rely on using a carefully timed power to turn the tide all by itself.
How about online multiplayer? Of course, it's in here--you can go head-to-head over Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection service to get your online battling on. We were surprised to learn you'll even have full voice chat during online matches via the DS's built-in microphone and speakers--no external headset required. The game will also offer a full map-creation utility as in past games, and this time you can upload them for others to download directly. We didn't get a look at the multiplayer firsthand, but it certainly sounds as if Nintendo is giving online COs the full spectrum of options.
So far, Days of Ruin looks like the perfect example of how to jump-start an established franchise without messing with the core features that made that series great in the first place. You'll notice little touches here and there that make the game feel fresh. For example, the combat animations now depict the units attacking from a variety of angles, which makes for a more cinematic presentation. You'll get to find out what other changes have been added when Days of Ruin hits shelves in the first quarter of 2008.