A great one-two.
With console battles raging on all fronts, it's easy to forget that you don't actually play the systems themselves. Sure, we rant and rave about the sexy design of the PSP versus the inelegance of the DS, going on and on about battery life, sturdiness and dead pixel problems, but this is just fat to chew while we wait for what matters most: the games. And thank God, because a great one finally arrived for the DS, and we aren't talking about Nintendogs
Shipping alongside the puppy sim is its polar opposite, Advance Wars: Dual Strike. The third in the series, this is an accessible but deep turn-based strategy game bristling like a battleship with powerful, far-reaching features. The only thing that doesn't separate this game from every other DS title is its price - which, at $35, is standard. It won't blast your wallet, but it will definitely destroy your spare time.
Of course, if you played either of the two previous Advance Wars for the GBA, you're used to all this and will happily offer up your open hours for the conquering. You'll also be used to most of what Dual Strike offers, as many of its features were present in previous versions. Instead of revolutionizing the series, Dual Strike makes it at once more accessible and more difficult. What's new is good and what's old is even better.
For example, Dual Strike's single-player campaign is fundamentally the same as the one found in Black Hole Rising. The Black Hole army is still trying to take over the world, while the Orange Star, Blue Moon, Green Earth and Yellow Comet factions remain united against them. The opening levels do a wonderful job of introducing you to the galaxy of elements, units, structures and tactics at work within the Advance Wars universe.
This time around, the plot focuses on two new Commanding Officers (commonly referred to as COs), Rachael and Jake. The Black Hole Army, using some sinister new technology that sucks the life out of environments and transforms that energy into metal, recently ravaged their home, Omega Land. With the help of COs from the other factions and tons of witty banter, you'll battle your way through a linear but satisfyingly long progression of increasingly difficult and imaginative scenarios, culminating in an ultimate battle against the forces of evil. Ultimate, at least, until the next Advance Wars game ships.
The on-field action is the same as ever. You start off with a base, a couple factories and some cash. You spend the cash on units and send them to capture cities. The more cities under your control, the greater your cash flow, which in turn allows you to buy stronger and more expensive forces at your factories. Everything is turn-based, and victory is achieved by either killing every enemy unit or capturing the enemy base.
While "same" doesn't usually equal "awesome," you have to make an exception in the case of Advance Wars, because each game in the series has managed to maintain total unit balance and attention to detail. Not only do units relate in a rock, paper, scissors fashion, vehicles also have limited amounts of ammunition and fuel, which can be supplied by APCs. Infantry units, on the other hand, are the only ones who can capture territory.
You still choose a CO before each battle, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, as well as a couple chargeable super powers. For example, one of the COs, Colin, is extremely wealthy but also very young. Accordingly, units are cheaper when he's in command, but they don't hit as hard due to his lack of experience as a Commander. He also has two super powers, one that instantly grants his force one-and-a-half times more cash, and another that increases his force's firepower in direct relation to the amount of on-hand cash.
If you love your forces of attrition and decide Colin is the CO for you, he'll gain lots of experience as you win battles and eventually level him up. When he does, you'll be able to choose a "Skill," which generally provides his units with another advantage, like higher resistance to missiles or better mobility. This foundation is the same as ever, but Dual Strike goes big by expanding the number of COs from eight to over a dozen, increasing their max number of levels from two to ten, and allowing two COs to preside over the same force at once.
That's right - instead of just choosing Colin, now you can choose Colin and another CO, like Jake. When you begin a battle, one will be active while the other sort of waits in the background. Only the active CO's advantages and disadvantages apply, which is crazy, because you can buy tons of stuff with Colin at his cut-rate prices, and then switch to Jake at the end of the turn to avoid Colin's firepower problems. Plus, Jake comes with some perks of his own. All of his units get a damage boost if they attack from the plains (the most common terrain in the game aside from water), and his special powers enhance all units' firepower. If you know you're about to get into a big fight, switch to Jake. If you want to make a big purchase, switch to Colin.
Each CO has a power meter, and if you manage to fill both you can use the Tag function. This activates your current CO's special power, after which you take your turn with them. When you finish, the game automatically switches to your other CO, activates their special power and lets you take another turn. This can completely alter the course of a game. If you have infantry near an opponent's headquarters, you can capture it in one fell swoop, ending the battle. The Tag system adds a huge oh s**t factor to the series.
It also ties in with the second screen. Normally, the second screen displays all sorts of information about whatever object, terrain or unit your cursor is resting on, but sometimes the battle will take place on two fronts. In these cases, the second front takes up the top screen, although you can still switch to the info window with the push of a button.
Second fronts never have factories, airports or shipyards, instead requiring you to ship units over from the main front. There's usually an enemy contingent present on the second front at the start of a battle and you have to figure out what you'll need to defeat it while still fending off the enemy on the main front with reduced forces. When you finally conquer or lose the second front, the winning CO joins the main fight while the losing CO is forced to flee the field. Plus, the winner's second front units are converted into power, filling up their CO's special meters.
Not only do you gain the advantages of having two COs to your enemy's one, you also get to unleash a bad-ass attack to quickly sway the tide on the main front. It's worth mentioning that you can set the CPU to control your second front units along a parameter like "Defensive," or "Aggressive," or you can elect to control them manually, which is always the best option.
The dual-screen battles add intensity to the campaign, effectively doubling your worries at any given time until the second front is won. Together, the twin fronts and Tag attacks add much appreciated doses of depth and chaos to a series already brimming with both.
The maps themselves can also change the dynamics of a battle. In sandstorms, for example, units like artillery and missile launchers take a big hit to their firing range, while snowy levels cause vehicles to burn through gas more quickly. Fog complicates matters by only allowing you to see within the visual range of your units, except in the cases of forests and reefs, which will hide units on foggy days unless you're sitting right next to them. And if you order a battalion into a forest where an enemy waits concealed, they'll ambush your guys and completely destroy them.
For a Nintendo game starring a bunch of anime army brats, Dual Strike has all the depth and nuance of a hardcore PC game.
But with more features. In addition to the huge single-player campaign, there are several other single and multiplayer modes. If none of your friends are around, you can jump into the War Room and set up single or dual-screen skirmishes on any map you've unlocked, or test your military metal in a Survival mode that's playable along three different limitations (money, time, turns). You can also take points earned from winning campaign levels and skirmishes to the Battle Maps menu and purchase any of the forty available maps.
If you don't feel like buying one, you can always design your own with the handy map editor. Using the stylus, you can easily draw units, terrain and buildings, making, naming and saving a custom map in almost no time at all. You can save up to three at a time on your game card to trade between friends wirelessly.
Of course, if you'd rather give your friends hell than help, you can enter Versus mode and set up a pass-and-play game, battle them wirelessly as long as they all have copies (which they should) or take on up to seven other players in Combat mode with only one copy of the game. Combat mode isn't normal Advance Wars, but an arcade-style game controlled in real time. Everybody gets a few units but may only control one at a time, the object being the eradication of your enemy's units or conquering of their base. Combat isn't a deep or nuanced game, but with enough players it can be good, chaotic fun and, best of all, only requires one copy of the game.
Dual Strike looks much like the other Advance Wars titles. Its 2D sprites aren't flashy or impressive, just clear and effective. The sound effects are as utilitarian as the visual ones, although the fact that each CO has a particular musical theme that plays whenever they're commanding is a cool touch.
If I didn't know Intelligent Systems made Advance Wars: Dual Strike, I'd think it had been made by the Swiss Army. It builds on one of the most solid foundations in recent gaming history, expertly incorporates the second screen, puts the stylus to good use, tells a decent story, and magically transforms your dust-collecting Nintendo BS into the powerful and creative Nintendo DS we had been promised all along. Talk about playing with power.