This is the way the world ends.
“Starvation, raiders, and flowers that kill you. Gotta love this place.”
Those are the words of the normally stoic (and, as a direct result, strangely hot) Lin – one of Days of Ruin’s principals. They set the dramatic tone for this newest installment of the Advance Wars series. It’s dark, bleak, and nasty – all the more so when compared to the AW titles that have come before it.
[image1]Good portable games are all about surviving (indeed, enjoying) otherwise-dead times as best you can, aren’t they? And what ‘deader’ potential time-sucker is there than ‘The End of the World As We Know It’?
Turns out, popular literary conceit notwithstanding, that the ‘World As We Know It’ ends with both a bang and a whimper. After a devastating meteor strike not terribly far from what annihilated the dinosaurs, the planet is left in your typical post-apocalyptic shambles: nuclear-winter skies; blasted wastelands; shortages of everything; a hungry, ragged population of desperate survivors; and sporadic clashes between scraped-together military forces. Hopefully, they’re commanded by noble soldiers from the pre-Doomsday era, but pompous, old-boy warmongers, selfish self-aggrandizing survivalists, and bloodthirsty psychopaths are just as likely.
There’s also a lot of earnest, expository dialogue between characters on the horrors of war, and a nasty bit about a virus that causes flowers to grow on and in (do you hear me, in?) the bodies of the afflicted. Yeah, unpleasant stuff for an unpleasant world. While it’s good to see some real attitude creeping into the Advance Wars series, you may find yourself marveling at just how much raw, unabridged yammering goes on between characters and between missions – yes, War Is a Bad Thing, we get it. If and when you can’t take it anymore, simply hit the Start button to blip past all this stuff, even at the risk of not getting the whole story.
If you’ve somehow missed out on the Advance Wars experience entirely thus far, it’s all about turn-based strategy, surrounded by visual simplicity totally belying its surprising, absorbing depth. Those miniaturely rendered tanks and iconic infantry avatars may look like little toys, but the strategic possibilities of attacks, counter-attacks, ambushes, support-fire, territory-grabs, air strikes, amphibious assaults, bottlenecks, arms-races, and attrition-grinds are numerous and fiendishly interconnected. A battle that begins with just a handful of opposing units on a tiny 10×10 map-grid can easily turn into an hour-long, knock-down-drag-out brawl. If you don’t get your money’s worth out of an Advance Wars game, make no mistake: There is something wrong with you.
As the terrain variables, size of the battlefield, and number of combatants start to creep in, clashes will usually become epic. All the while, the accessible Advance Wars style of strategy remains intact, with the same clean, breezy interface that makes the experience deep enough to be rewarding without actually tipping over into the abyss of hardcore, obsessive, never-see-a-real-girl-naked ‘wargaming’.
[image2]Days of Ruin is a teetering, half-and-half case of ‘out with the old, in with the new’ – with mixed, if generally positive, results. Some welcome new units and mechanics include the Infantry Bike, which can attack and capture cities with greater mobility than regular infantry, with but can’t cross some rough terrain or use transports; the ‘Duster’, a prop-driven plane that can attack both air and land units; the Anti-Tank unit, an effective tank-killer than can both fire indirectly and counter-attack (finally…); the ‘Rig’, which can knock up temporary airfields and ports; and tweaks such as giving Battleships the ability to move and make a ranged attack in the same turn. Carriers can also now produce the handy Seaplane, and the irritating Pipe Runner is – thank a great, slobbering and bleeding Cthulhu – part of the Ashcan of History.
Unfortunately, some truly positive aspects of the previous games have gone by the board, and some of the new changes are, well, questionable. Units like the Neo Tank, Stealth Bomber, and Black Bomb (essentially, a cruise missile) are gone, as is the ‘shop’ where players could trade in their hard-earned war income for maps and commanding-office (CO) goodies. And speaking of COs, their previous, nigh-godlike powers have been scaled back both in terms of effect and their sheer omnipresence. Your officer of choice is actually assumed to be present on the battlefield in the form of a unit who has a zone-of-effect on nearby units. It’s more realistic and less ridiculous than the cartoonish CO-as-god scheme of the other games, and probably makes for a ‘better’ strategy game overall, but fans of the series will definitely have to adjust their drawers a bit.
Another unfortunate fact – arguably minor but difficult to ignore – is that the stylistic quality of the ‘tutorial’ concept has suffered here. The in-mission hints that pop up are functional, but they assume a familiarity with the game’s long-standing mechanics. Advance Wars veterans will benefit from the pop-up info on new units, but those completely new to the series may well flail around before they even discover these lessons-of-opportunity. A stand-alone tutorial separate from the main game, as has been provided in the past, would still have made more sense.
The cute, candy-colored presentation and cast of anime-inspired and apparently teenaged commanders found in the previous games have both been altered in favor of a more realistic palette: sick-earth tones and metallic Doomsday grays. While there are still a handful of young-looking characters clinging to the last vestiges of their anime-inspired stylings, idealisms, and improbable post-apocalyptic fashion sense, there is a balancing cast of considerably older, grizzled adults, both military and civilian. Some of them are real pricks – you know, they way they probably would be in real life.
[image3]Likewise, the art style for all battle maps, troops, and war machines, and the minimally animated battle-exchange screens has been given a stern makeover of dulled military hues and more realistic combat-unit designs. All are rendered in a muted cel-shaded style against believable backgrounds. No ‘adorable’ tanks this time around, for good or ill.
Even the music, on the whole, has taken a harder, darker turn. In fact, certain tracks of Days of Ruin’s high-energy Rawk audio are so aggressive, martial, and Pahmp-Yoo-Ahhp that I had to turn it down or off entirely during some of the more intricate, demanding clashes. Just as you would instinctively turn down the car radio when slowly cruising a block, checking street addresses.
Note that I praise the music ‘on the whole’. Amid the greater setlist of harsh, raw rock numbers and suitably orchestral tracks, there are one or two inexplicable standout electropop ear-gougers, which I can only describe as ‘sub-eurogay-dance-club’.
Earlier games in the Advance Wars series have been more or less consistently excellent in terms of both single-player and multi-player missions, but Days of Ruin takes the long-awaited step of upgrading multiplayer from mere hot-swapping, or local wireless, to full online competition with opponents all over the world, courtesy of your Nintendo Wi-Fi connection. If you’re a real approval-whore, you can even upload your own custom maps, and then obsessively track exactly how popular they are, you sad, attention-starved creature, you.
[image4]Competition against live human opponents is where the Advance Wars brand of deep-yet-breezy strategy comes close to a religious experience. The AI in skirmish games is perfectly sound, save the occasional weird use of a Commanding Officer power, but in the end, there is nothing in a four-way match to quite compare to the desperate wiliness, Captain Kirk-worthy hubris, brick-shitting cowardice, or occasional, sheer, face-planting stupidity that only a real human opponent can manifest on the battlefield. As if that weren’t enough, the DS supports a low-fidelity but perfectly serviceable brand of voice chat (!) with a simple press of the Y button. What the %*@& else do you want, a parade?
Advance Wars: Days of Ruin makes some serious assumptions on the familiarity of its users with the franchise, and alas, leaves some good bits of the past out to the elements. But it’s a bottom-line, top-notch, kick-ass portable strategy experience that finally breaks the online-competition barrier, and brings some new and long-awaited ‘dark cred’ to the traditionally cutesy series without losing its essential streamlined, battle-hardened goodness. This portable-gaming gem is as good a way to survive a long flight, dead-ass lunch-hour or boring court-appointed substance-abuse class as you’re likely to find anytime soon. As possible portable near-ends of the world go, Days of Ruin is a must-have.