The brilliantly designed, addictive Advance Wars series of strategy games has found itself a comfortable new home on the Nintendo DS, and it couldn't be more welcome. Originally created for the Game Boy Advance back in 2001, Advance Wars now is on to its third installment, which significantly broadens the scope of this very deep and incredibly fun series while not messing with the fundamentals that made it so great. The result is Advance Wars: Dual Strike, the biggest and in many ways best game in the series yet. It offers a tremendous value and is sure to provide you with hour after hour of fun-filled, surprisingly brisk turn-based gameplay. A terrific presentation and tons of different modes of play, in addition to some great Wi-Fi multiplayer support, put this one way over the top. It's arguably the first must-have game for the Nintendo DS, and it's a perfect excuse to get the system if you haven't already.
Fans of the previous Advance Wars games will be in for a comfortably familiar experience with this installment, though it adds a slew of new features, characters, twists, and tweaks--considerably more than Advance Wars 2 did. Still, all this new content isn't evident at first, and it isn't forced on you. So those who've already spent a ton of time playing previous versions of Advance Wars might be a little put off when they first begin playing the campaign mode of this game. The brand-new campaign assumes no previous experience, starting you off gently and teaching you the ropes of how to marshal your diverse military forces (even if you already know the drill). This is done through some story-driven missions that do a great job of quickly getting you interested in the game's colorful cast of characters. However, if you're an Advance Wars veteran, the early missions of the campaign--and indeed the subsequent two-dozen-or-so missions leading up to the climactic conclusion--will seem quite easy. Regardless of your experience level, though, you'll appreciate the diversity and surprises that Advance Wars: Dual Strike's campaign delivers from one mission to the next. There's some sort of a unique twist or angle to just about every one, so you realize during the course of the dozens of missions that this game has a whole lot to it.
The campaign's two main characters are both new to the series. The male lead, Jake, can take some getting used to, thanks to his knack for leaning on overused Internet slang ("Owned!"). Still, the otherwise-well-written dialogue and endearing characters shine through, and in the end, even Jake turns out to be likable. Advance Wars has always had a unique style to it, and this latest game carries it forward, once again deftly accomplishing the seemingly impossible and ridiculous task of making modern military warfare kid-friendly. For what it's worth, the story of this game pushes farther into the realm of science fiction than its predecessors, distancing the subject matter of Advance Wars: Dual Strike from anything resembling real-world conflict. That's probably for the best, since what's left is a great mix of new and old characters all wrapped up in an interesting storyline that hits some serious themes while still being fit for all ages. You must help the commanding officers of the Allied Nations in their attempt to thwart the wicked schemes of the Black Hole Army, which has mysteriously recovered its military might and seems to be draining the land of its very life.
At its core, the gameplay of Advance Wars: Dual Strike is much like that of the previous games. You take turns with your opponent maneuvering your various military units about a tactical map, trading hits with opposing forces, capturing factories and other buildings, and ultimately attempting to either destroy all the enemy forces or capture the enemy headquarters. At your disposal are all the different types of military units you can imagine: infantry, tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, battleships, submarines, fighter jets, and more. Advance Wars: Dual Strike features every unit from the previous games and makes a number of key additions, such as stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, and the appropriately named megatank--the biggest and toughest Advance Wars unit yet, but one whose firepower is tempered by a steep cost, slow movement, and limited ammunition. Perfectly tuned balance is the key to this series, after all, so there isn't a single unstoppable unit in the lineup. Each has a valuable purpose, but none can help you outsmart your foe. Many of the units are elegantly simple and yet very interesting in their own rights, like chess pieces packing unique weapons and defensive properties. Since most units can automatically retaliate when hit, you're constantly having to consider the possible repercussions of your every move.
There's an impressive array of different units available, but when multiplied by all the different commanding officers in the game--each of whom has his or her own unique specialties--the variety becomes incredible. Besides being memorable characters, the various COs of Advance Wars can have a significant impact on how you play. For instance, Advance Wars fans will recall that the laid-back gunslinger, Grit, is an expert with long-range combat units like rocket launchers and battleships. However, he's relatively weak with direct-fire units like tanks. The new COs are equally as interesting. For example, one of the new Black Hole COs, Kindle, is a snobbish socialite whose units fight more fiercely than ever when stationed in cities--and her superpower lets her cripple enemies recovering in their own cities. Each CO has two different superpowers that can be used every several turns, once the CO has gathered enough energy.
In addition to the great new units and characters, Advance Wars: Dual Strike introduces some intriguing new types of battles. For starters, it's possible to fight tag-team battles using pairs of COs. One CO is active at a time, and you can alternate between them in between turns. So if Grit gets into uncomfortably close quarters, just bring out his buddy Max, who's got a knack for doing serious damage with his tanks. Being able to mix and match different COs' strengths makes for many more interesting variables to consider and experiment with. Plus, when both your COs fully charge their power meters, you're free to unleash their devastating tag attack on your foes. These let your COs take their turns one after another, before your enemy is able to act. The new tag-team matches allow for wider, faster shifts in a battle's momentum, making for more-exciting skirmishes. What's more, your COs now gain experience points after every victory, and once they've earned enough, they get promoted. As COs rise in rank, they gain access to an increasingly larger variety of different skills, which they can mix and match to subtly but noticeably tune their fighting styles.
Dual-screen battles are another welcome addition to the series. Normally, the top screen is used to display contextual data about the terrain and also whichever unit you have highlighted at any given time. Most of the action takes place on the bottom screen, where you may either use the directional pad and buttons or the stylus to move your units around. However, in dual-screen battles, there's combat happening on two separate maps at once. Once you're done maneuvering your forces on the main screen, the battle switches over to the second front, where the computer will move your forces by default. However, you can command them yourself if you like. Usually the two fronts are linked somehow, and whoever wins the battle on the second front will gain an advantage on the primary front. You can send units to the secondary front to help guarantee that happening. The dual-screen battles are a nice twist to the tag-battle gameplay that's the mainstay of Advance Wars: Dual Strike.
Different weather effects and, of course, the great variety of maps compound the complexity of the game without complicating it. Fog-of-war maps have a totally different feel to them than the standard maps, where you always have full visibility. When there's a fog of war, you can use forests and reefs to hide your units, which will lie in ambush; also, you can move your infantry into the mountains to gain a better vantage point on the fight. In other types of maps, snowstorms and sandstorms can hinder some of your units' movement, which keeps you from getting too comfortable with the way your mechanized forces normally work. The difference between maps that test your tactics by limiting you to a specific set of units and those that let you strategically use funds to build reinforcements is quite dramatic as well.
It's also important to point out that the game's artificial intelligence is very good. The computer makes shrewd use of its forces, exploiting the weaknesses in your defense while attempting to steer clear of your deadliest forces. It's a little overzealous with its use of CO powers, but apart from that, the AI makes for entertainingly challenging, unpredictable competition. Taken all together, Advance Wars: Dual Strike's numerous well-implemented game mechanics make for one of the best strategy gaming experiences available--one that has what it takes to draw in both hardcore strategy game players and those who never would have expected to enjoy such a game.
Apart from the lengthy campaign, Advance Wars: Dual Strike offers a war room, a versus mode, and a survival mode for experiencing all the possible variations on the strategic gameplay. For good measure, as you win single-player battles, you earn credits with which you can unlock tons of new maps and many new COs for use in the various modes of play. In keeping with this whole "give you everything and more" theme, extensive multiplayer options are available. You can pass-and-play with other people using one DS and one copy of the game, or you can compete with up to three players in wireless Wi-Fi battles. Using Wi-Fi, you can also trade maps you've created in the game's design room (which are easier to create than ever thanks to the stylus), and you can also download the new real-time "combat" action game to any unfortunate DS owners who don't have the game.
It's possible to have up to eight players in a combat battle with just one copy of Advance Wars: Dual Strike between the lot of you. Combat takes some of the units and mechanics of Advance Wars and translates them into a fun little arcade game, where the object is to capture the enemy base. You directly control one unit at a time, firing on your enemies and recovering damage at your cities. There aren't many units or maps in the combat mode, but it's a fun diversion, and it represents another solid addition to the series.
Advance Wars: Dual Strike borrows many of the same visual elements from the previous games, but it's still a great-looking game, thanks partly to plenty of wonderfully drawn new artwork for all the characters, as well as some nice 3D touches to the battlefield. The game's various units are smoothly animated and entertaining to watch as they lay into one another, and the maps themselves are clean and colorful. The game sounds at least as good as it looks due to a surprisingly rich musical score that pairs each character with his or her own unique themes. Some very catchy melodies and even some choice use of vocals in some of the tracks make this one of the best musical scores on the Nintendo DS so far, though you'll recognize some of the tracks from the previous games. The military units sound just right, too, with their throaty engines and powerful guns. Advance Wars: Dual Strike's actual gameplay is the main attraction, but the care that's gone into the presentational elements certainly doesn't hurt its case.
In short, the latest Advance Wars game somehow succeeds at making a well-worn formula as fresh and exciting as ever. Intelligent Systems, the developer of the series, deserves tremendous credit for crafting such a deep yet approachable gameplay experience. Those who haven't yet played an Advance Wars game shouldn't hesitate to start with this one, while the series' dedicated fans will find that there's lots of great, new stuff here to play around with, get really into, and share with their friends.