Advance Wars: Dual Strike marks the third triumphant contribution to the stellar Advance Wars namesake.
Advance Wars: DS' gameplay is identical to its predecessors', which can only be a good thing. Like Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising, and the original before it, Dual Strike utilizes a rock-paper-scissors mechanic that balances simplicity and depth beautifully. On paper, it doesn't seem like much. You'll take turns with your opponent deploying units from friendly bases, capturing neutral and hostile properties, and attacking units until you either destroy all of your enemy's forces or capture their HQ -- or until they do the same to you. In actual practice, however, the ensuing battles will have you mustering all your military prowess and tactical know-how for hours and hours on end. Even better, up to four players can get in on the action on one DS for countless hours of fun and endless replayability.
Advance Wars: DS addresses the chief complaint many had with Advance Wars 2 in that it comes armed to the teeth with new COs for each of the five armies and a boatload of new ground-pounding, airborne, and nautical units. The gameplay has also received a significant tweaking by having the player command two COs' armies at once, and allowing them to switch out at the end of each turn. And since every mission will see you in charge of two COs instead of just one now not only can you unleash a CO Power attack after filling your power meter (which fills automatically when you attack or defend) but you can dole out some serious pain with the Dual Strike attack by allowing both of your forces' meters to fill. This allows for some seriously brutal attacks, and some great strategic opportunities that effectively allow a player to take two superpowered turns at once. It's a fun mechanic to be sure, but it certainly does tip the balance in favor of certain CO combos over others. Naturally, some COs share an elevated level of synergy, and figuring out how to best utilize everyone's unique abilites on a given mission applies a great puzzle element to the strategy.
For the first time in an Advance Wars game, the ability to level up your COs is available. For better or worse, leveling up COs effectively means having a wider selection of "abilities" (Vision +1, Direct Attack +2, Capture +2, etc.) to choose from at the onset of each match. Whether you find this exciting or not will depend on your own tastes, but die-hard fans will likely see these "abilities" as training wheels, and you'll eventually realize they render some COs rather useless. On the topic, the COs themselves are often hyperextended to the point that they're almost charicatures instead of characters. Toward the end of the game, you'll notice Jake can't say anything without cramming in some funky hip-hop slang, ala "you got dropped like a phat beat", Sensei's comments usually revolve around him being extremely old and decrepit, Max and Grimm don't want to touch anything unless they can crush it, and Kanbei wants to defeat anything and everything -- samurai style. Sometimes it's funny, but too often it's grating and a bit painful to see our beloved characters behaving so idotically. Max's "let's kick some Black Hole" was priceless though.
The Nintendo DS hardware also lends itself to new gameplay twists. Some missions will take place on both screens under a variety of scenarios. For example, sometimes a battle will take place on two fronts and you'll have to deploy units from the main front to the secondary front to help solidify its advance. Other times the secondary front will consist only of air power whose sole mission is to take out a devastating weapon on the top screen before the ground forces on the bottom screen can advance. Finally, a couple of missions use the top screen as a timer and nothing more. Touch screen funcionality is available for all areas of gameplay, but the only time it beats out the traditional method is in the design room. Once you accidentally tell a mech to attack a megatank instead of a recon a few times you'll understand why.
Unfortunately, and quite curiously given the circumstances, the Advance Wars graphics of yore did not hold up nearly as well as the gameplay did during the jump from Game Boy Advance to Nintendo DS. Intelligent Systems has employed a quasi-three-dimensional effect to the overworld maps as well as to the individual units. It appears the intention was to provide a sense of roundness to the levels, so that they resemble a very large globe as opposed to a flat map. The result, however, is jaggy, sloppy, lifeless images whose "details" are so far from discernable it might make die-hard Advance Wars fans take a moment of silence. The bad kind of moment of silence. Word to the wise: jaggies do not look cool, even if they do produce a weak scaling effect. On the up side, however, the silly animation sequences that occur between feuding forces are still as nice and sharp and endearing as ever, so the graphical package is not entirely wrecked.
Audio accompaniment is top-notch in Dual Strike, providing not only crafty musical arrangements for each and every one of the game's 27 COs, but songs of victory, defeat, and everything else in between. Newcomer Sasha's theme song is a dainty arrangement of xylophone and bells with a two-step beat, old-timer Sensei still marches to his thump-clap-thumpa-clap trumpet and tuba mix, and too-cool-for-school Jake rocks hard to his own surprisingly cool rock riff. Listeners with a keen ear will also discern subtle differences in the lesser sound effects as well. A scrappy recon unit moves with a high-pitched whine befitting its stature, while the mighty megatank churns forward with a low, devious grumble. Likewise, the difference in explosions varies among vehicles. To put it simply, bigger vehicles sound bigger and cooler when they explode, and that attention to detail marks the difference between a "blasé" and "blazin'" sound set. It's a small miracle that the sound technicians were able to conjure such a variety of music and effects then put it all into one tiny little package, but they did. And they did it with style.
Overall, Advance Wars: DS comes chock full of enough goodies to keep you coming back again and again. Between the normal Campaign, Hard Campaign, War Room, Design Room, Map Trading, character development, and the almighty multiplayer mode, Advance Wars: DS has enough fully realized goodies to warrant your attention for as long as you own your DS hardware.
What we wind up with here is yet another solid game in the Advance Wars lineup. There are a couple of missed gameplay opportunities, some minor issues of imbalance, a few perplexing additions, and some downright fugly graphics, yet the charm and classic gameplay secure Advance Wars: Dual Strike a spot among the best strategy games around on any platform.