Advance Wars: Dual Strike Final Hands-On

As the release date for the first Nintendo DS installment in this fantastic strategy series draws near, we take a closer look at some of the game's finer points.

Ever since Advance Wars quietly appeared on the Game Boy Advance in the fall of 2001, it's been one of our favorite Nintendo properties. Combining deep gameplay elements with clean, simple controls, great characters and storylines, and tons of content, Advance Wars is easily on par with the very best strategy games out there. Now the third installment in the series is nigh, and in many ways it looks like it's going to be the best one yet. Advance Wars: Dual Strike is careful not to ruin the delicate balance or significantly alter the outstanding mechanics that made the previous two games so terrific, but it adds a slew of new twists, including tag-team matches, dual-screen battles, the real-time combat mode, and much more. We've previously reported on many of these nuances, but let's take a closer look at some of the key differences that we expect will make this new Advance Wars worthy of the name.

Dual-screen battles are one of the most obvious new features in Dual Strike.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike is clearly built on the foundation of its predecessors and recycles a lot of the same visuals and underlying mechanics. However, some new sound effects, an original musical score, and nifty 3D effects help give the game a new feel. All the different military units slugging it out still look great. As before, the bread and butter of your military arsenal includes an infantry and tanks, but you'll also get to use jets, ships, armored transports, helicopters...practically everything you can think of. Each unit has inherent strengths and weaknesses, so it's only through the careful use of combined forces that you'll win the day. However, you'll also have to take into account the unique format of each battle. For instance, some battles have a fog of war, severely limiting the view distance of most units and creating many opportunities for sneak attacks.

New to Advance Wars: Dual Strike are the dual-screen battles, in which action takes place on both the top screen and the bottom screen. As in previous Advance Wars titles, your armies will always be led by a commanding officer--though this time, you can have two or more COs on your side in a given skirmish. In dual-screen battles, one CO typically manages the action topside, while another CO takes care of business on the bottom screen. The bottom screen is where the main battle is waged, and the top screen is an ancillary battle. By default, the computer will control what happens up top, and actually does a very competent job of it. All you need to do is send units from one front to the other, if you wish to reinforce the battle for the top screen. Taking control of the top-screen battle often grants you additional resources, or at least frees up your second CO to tag-team with your first one. If you'd rather not relinquish control to the computer, you can personally take command of the action on the top screen, which you'll get to do as soon as you decide to end your regular turn.

Tag-team battles are also unique to Advance Wars: Dual Strike. As you may recall from previous Advance Wars titles, each of the game's colorful COs (most of whom return in this installment) has his or her own unique strengths--and weaknesses, in some cases. For instance, one of the first new COs you meet in this game is Jake, whose tendency to speak like an Internet forum regular is a little irritating, but whose ground units actually gain an advantage when fighting in wide-open spaces. There's also Rachel, a peppy new CO and sister to the brilliant Nell from previous Advance Wars games; Rachel's units regain hit points more rapidly than usual. In a tag battle, you get to determine which CO is taking the lead and plan your strategy to take full advantage of both CO's powers. For example, the inexperienced but wealthy CO named Colin has weaker units but can purchase them for lower-than-usual prices. You can put him in the lead whenever you need to buy reinforcements, and then switch to a tougher CO, like Max, in order to dish out the damage.

The big news about tag-team battles, though, is that you can unleash both of your COs' super powers at once. Your COs build up a power meter as they fight, and if you can get both COs' power meters full, your tag-team ability will let you take two turns in a row...which can lead to devastating results. Being able to capture facilities or advance into enemy territory twice as fast as usual can spell utter destruction for your opponent. Of course, tag powers can be predicted, since it's possible to see how your opponents' energy meters are doing, but all this serves to add still more layers of depth to the game.

The campaign starts out nice and easy, but there are far more challenging missions later on.

Given all the new and old COs, the tag battles, the dual-screen battles, and new units like the stealth fighter and the megatank, Advance Wars: Dual Strike should have plenty of original content to satisfy hardcore fans of the previous games. Meanwhile, those new to the series ought to appreciate that the campaign takes a fairly gentle approach at first, letting you learn the ropes in the context of a good story in which the evil Black Hole Army somehow reemerges as a threat against Omega Land. For experienced Advance Wars players, the campaign will seem very easy at first, though it'll still serve well as an introduction to the game's new modes and features. Rest assured, though, that more challenging missions await...

As you win battles, you rack up points with which you can purchase stand-alone maps and unlock other bonus extras. The game actually has two full screens of main menu options, so there are a ton of different features to explore. There are plenty of multiplayer options, including download play, to help you get your friends as addicted to the game as you probably will be. At any rate, we've really enjoyed the many hours we've already spent playing Advance Wars: Dual Strike, so we're reasonably confident that this is going to be one of the best reasons to own a Nintendo DS upon its release later this month. But we're not making any promises just yet--stay tuned for GameSpot's full review and video review

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