Advance Wars DS is quite simply a fantastic sequel and an amazing game in its own right. It adds an incredible amount of new features, modes, content, COs and units, structures, scoring, and depth. Unfortunately, the game stumbles in difficulty factor, and will disappoint any player looking for a serious Wars challenge.
Expanding on the classic AW formula are new gameplay systems that are integrated very well into the game. You now select up to two COs per team, and can swap between them at the end of your turn. The Tag CO power allows both COs to execute their super CO powers one after the other for absolutely devastating attacks. This opens the door for a number of new strategies which are integrated well into the vs CPU modes.
Also new are DS battles, where you fight two battles at once, one on the top and one on the bottom screen. The CPU has control of the allied units on top by default, but thankfully on a few DS-style maps you can set an option to force manual control of the top. While a bit gimmicky, you do get some strategy involved with the capability to send units from down below to the top screen. Unfortunately I haven't seen a very good use of this 'transfer' feature yet, since you are usually just given a bunch of units down below at the start of the mission that are obviously meant to be shifted to the top screen.
Another new feature are Force Ranks, which are slight bonuses that your CO can turn on for the duration of a mission. As your COs win missions, they're rewarded with experience points that increase their CO Rank, giving them access to more (and better) Force Ranks. Unfortunately, this opens up a can of worms in terms of level standardization. In AW and AW2 missions, there was nothing you could do to gain an 'upper hand' over another player by spending time elsewhere building up your COs powers. But with the introduction of Force Ranks, it's possible to spend hours beefing up your COs in the War Room, for example, then moving onto Campaign and having slight to moderate advantages over someone who has just started playing. In some cases, these Force Ranks can significantly unbalance gameplay. This is especially true of the two most powerful Force Ranks, which allow you to negate movement penalties over forests and plains.
The new allied and Black Hole COs are fun and well designed, although two of the new Black Hole COs seem like carbon copies of two of the previous ones. The new units are cool, adding in diversity and new gameplay strategies, and there are a bunch of them, not just the sorry 'neo-tank' offering of AW2.
The normal campaign maps are a fun mix of classic AW predeployed-style maps and war room style unit deployment. You get to fight a number of allied COs through the campaign, which is a refreshing change from the whiny-goth punting of AW2. You're also allowed a huge range of CO choices per map, which allows for multiple effective strategies to be dreamt up and executed. Often you'll come across a fancy new Black Hole technology to destroy or seize, and funky new BH 'amoebas', which only move one space per turn, but instantly kill anything they move onto. The difficulty is somewhat higher than AW and AW2 campaign, although not quite as nasty as AW2's final levels in terms of getting a perfect score. There's none of the AW2-style lousy map design where you're given rows and rows of powerful units and ordered to go make a mess, or enormous blank war room style maps with no personality to them. I didn't find one map that wasn't fun, engaging, unique, thoughtful, and just all around kick ass.
Unfortunately, the Hard Campaign, which in previous AWs has been an uber-challenging set of the original campaign levels, is fairly easy. I had no problem destroying most HC levels on my first try, with a perfect score. You are usually given more units, and the enemy slightly more as well, with not much change in actual difficulty. One of the biggest problems with the Hard Campaign is that you're allowed to use any CO pair and set of force ranks you like. This leads to abuse of the best COs against the enemy AI – Hachi, Javier, and Kanbei. Grit, Colin, and Sami are also extremely effective when paired with Hachi, Javier, or Kanbei. Not to mention the force ranks which make your units quite simply superior to enemy forces that just don't use force ranks at all. The speed score requirements are extremely lenient, and you'll only get penalized if you take a ridiculous amount of time to finish a mission. Note that there are a few levels that are at least somewhat difficult.. but nothing is going to twist your brain into a pretzel and give you turn-based nightmares for weeks.
Overall the CO selection/force rank imbalance combined with a pitiful increase in difficulty makes the Hard Campaign a walk in the park for any players worth their salt. Although this won't stop any serious fan from getting the game, it's a major bummer for anyone expecting a heavy workout of the likes of the original AW Advance Campaign or even some AW2 Hard Campaign levels. I honestly can't say I'd be that enthused about going through the Hard Campaign again with one hand tied behind my back (choosing not to use Hachi, Javier, or Kanbei, and choosing not to use force ranks at all).
One thing that struck me as strange is that you aren't shown your campaign average score. But you are shown each individual level and individual score in the end credits, so you can make a quick tally of what you got right there. The game still makes no distinction between an imperfect S-rank and a perfect, 300 point S-rank.
Since I'm playing an import, it's hard to get an idea of what's going on in the game in terms of storyline during the campaign. But from what I can see, the storyline looks to be fun and flagrant, while adding a touch of maturity and serious issues not seen before in the playground of the AW universe.
War Room mode is back, with the same old maps remixed with new COs, along with new one-screen maps and new DS-style maps. You can also choose handicaps for a higher EXP bonus, offering more flexibility and challenge. The sheer number of maps means this mode is worth many, many hours of time investment alone. Some of the new War Room maps are quite difficult, as well as the old staples like Terra Maw. One thing to note is most of the old maps still have only one CO as an enemy, making your dual-CO team more capable of victory.
The new gameplay mode, Survival Mode, challenges players to complete a course of small levels in succession, with a common limitation following throughout the course. The limitations are funds, turns, and time. Survival mode is a blast to play. The levels are tricky, well designed and implemented, and offer up a unique and fun gameplay experience outside the normal mission maps we're accustomed to. Some of them are also quite hard! You get ranked for each mission, as well as an overall rank, and your best funds/turns/time score per level is also recorded.
The last new mode, Battle mode, offers a real time experience, controlling one unit at a time and blasting away enemies coming at you from all sides. I really tried to like this mode, but it's very droll, lonesome, and just isn't all that fun. Kicking up the difficulty to hard or death modes makes the enemy AI so aggressive you'll have to maneuver like crazy just to stay alive. The only really worthwhile unit on hard mode, the tank, still only has a lame pea shooter that takes a high number of bullets to drop an enemy tank. It's less of a shooter and more of a chore. Some players might find it a fun diversion, but I really don't care for it. But that doesn't matter, since the actual turn-based part of the game is just so damn good.
Graphics, Sound, Miscellaneous:
The graphics in the game are good, with a nice mix of artwork, good character designs, and cool looking Black Hole buildings/weapons. I would like to be able to turn off the isometric map perspective, as it's very hard to see the back of the map in some instances. I admit to being spoiled by playing AW and AW2 on a GBA emulator. One other problem I have is that you can't turn off the CO power and CO switching animations.. these tend to drag on after you've seen them a million times, especially considering that the CPU switches COs at the end of each of its turns just for fun.
The music is better than before, with some nice war themed music and fun character themes. While I still keep the music and animations off, the tunes in the game are very well done. My favorite would have to be Candle's theme.
The AI is smarter than before, which is a welcome addition. While it still falls easily for bait and doesn't take into account your CO powers, it uses more complex strategies when composing its unit formations. It still suffers from having to be able to adapt to any situation or map, and is thus quite predictable and easy to learn and fool. That's ok, though, as the maps are very well designed and force the player to use their noggin if they want a high score.
One of my sore points with the original AW and AW2 was the lack of multiple saves. Thankfully AW DS adds in 3 save slots for Campaign alone, with additional save slots for War Room, Survival, Combat, and three map editor saves.
The map editor is largely unchanged, and still doesn't have enemy AI scripting features, which really cripples the kinds of vs CPU maps you can create.
There's a new Stat Tracking mode that counts a number of different statistics about your game playing accomplishments. This ranges from number of allied units created/enemy units destroyed and times campaign has been completed, to number of missile silos launched and number of units sent DS style to the top of the screen. With 300 medals to pick up and an overall 'ranking' based on how many medals you have, this could be an incredibly in depth game for those who wish to complete it fully.
AW DS is a new classic S-RPG that kicks just about everything else in the genre to the curb. I commend the IS team for doing an incredible job on AW DS – they have truly one-upped themselves in almost all areas of the Advance Wars world. The game is just kick ass overall, polished to a shine, with an enormous amount of depth and challenge. The game unfortunately takes a wobbly turn in terms of score/level standardization, but this will only bother players like myself who want to compare (ok, brag about) high scores. The low difficulty of the Hard Campaign really takes the game down a few notches for me, but then again most players will likely be relieved rather than disappointed. As much as I hate to say it, any player hardcore enough to want a good challenge out of a Wars game is likely a fan enough to buy and play the game anyway.
I am hoping that the IS team takes the fantastic innovations to the Wars series and makes a DS sequel with a higher level of challenge and gameplay balance between CO selection and force ranks. There's a lot of new challenges to be derived from the new gameplay elements, it's just up to IS to design the maps to put them to use.
Score – 9.3/10