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Advance Wars grows up, has a makeover, and streamlines its experience. Dark Conflict is still your favourite turn based strategy game, but now with a darker, edgier aesthetic. Ultimately though, Advance Wars: Dark Conflict succeeds on the strength of its innovative new ideas, rather than its updated wardrobe.
If you've not already sampled the joys of Advance Wars you are missing a treat. The series stems from a game on the original purple buttoned Gameboy (in the 90's) called Gameboy Wars. Although it was never available to a western audience, other than through import, it had enough success in the land of the rising sun to spawn a more widely distributed franchise on the GBA - Advance Wars.
The series came to the DS soon after the system's launch. Advance Wars: Dual Strike provided the fullest and most feature rich outing the game had seen. Not only were ideas continued from the two GBA games but a new layer of combat in the skies kept players tied to their portables for the majority of last year. Although this certainly provided plenty of entertainment the somewhat bloated delivery lacked the focus of earlier games.
A number of new elements combine to make Dark Conflict the thinking man's Advance Wars.
This leads us nicely to the gameplay of Dark Conflict. Rather than another revision of the same assets and gameplay, Intelligent Systems have striped things back to the bare bones. Gone are the overbearing options, gone are the plethora of different game types and gone are some of the intricacies of the campaign. This is all replaced by a simple Single Player or Multiplayer choice. Furthermore, start the game proper and you find the battlefield has had the same back-to-basics treatment. The more refined selection of units focuses the player on appropriate strategy rather than strength of arms.
This hints at what is a larger theme for this release. A number of new elements combine to make Dark Conflict the thinking man's Advance Wars. Firstly your Commanding Officer (CO) can actually board a vehicle on the map and affect the battle. Any nearby units receive a boost from their presence and can accrue. You quickly learn that protection of your CO is key to success. Secondly, each time you wipe out an enemy unit your own troops receive experience and gain a boost to their performance. It then becomes key to protect and use these super units to your advantage.
In this and a number of other ways Dark Conflict focuses the player's mind on their tactics. No longer is it possible to win by sheer weight of numbers, you really need to apply proper theatre of war mechanics if you are going to progress.
Although these changes may initially frustrate seasoned players, give it the time it deserves and Dark Conflict proves itself to be a classic Advance Wars rendering. We were initially disappointed to loose the detailed performance tracing for the single player maps. But this obviously had its desired effect as we soon turned our attention to the main campaign instead. The success of these changes is all to Dark Conflict's credit and demonstrates how well Intelligent Systems understands the seed of their game.
It wasn't until we experienced the new characters and graphics that we realised how tired the game had become.
The innovations to gameplay may at first make the game a little harder to comprehend for new players. But with the help of the inclusion (finally) of a decent help system and a little bit of practice and most people will quickly slide into what is a very stream-lined experienced.
The game itself (being at the mature end of its franchise) has allowed itself to err towards the harder end of the spectrum. Although early missions are quickly conquered they soon ramp up and become something of a challenge. Apart from the campaign, the one off maps too can be a little hard, taking a few hours to complete unless you get them absolutely right. That said, there is enough here to satisfy most abilities and plenty to keep everyone occupied for many years.
Visually, Dark Conflict is the bearer of a complete makeover. It wasn't until we experienced the new characters and graphics that we realised how tired the game had become. Much like when an old friend gets a new haircut or wardrobe refresh, they initially appear to be an entirely different person. But underneath they are still the same person, just slightly re-invented. Although the new CO's and units don't have a huge effect on the game itself, they do give proceedings a little more weight and gravitas. After all you can always go back and play Dual Strike if you hanker after Amy's dulcet tones.
As often is the case on the DS (with its tiny speakers) it's not until you pop in a pair of headphones that you really appreciate the detail and fidelity of the sound-work on Dark Conflict. Again this is not a million miles from what has gone before, but attention has obviously been paid to matching the visual reworking with some suitably sober audio freshness.
The illusion would have been complete if they had taken the step of letting you fight it out with the DS held laterally (book-style).
The various button presses required to navigate your way around the battlefield are all logical and quick to access. If you are ever in any doubt about a button shortcut there are visual clues provided at the top of the bottom screen. Switching to the stylus however is where the game really starts to flow. As was true of Dual Strike, this control mechanism just feels so much more direct, as if you are pushing your unit-pucks around the theatre of war with a battle-wand, to a World War Two bunker scenes. The illusion would have been complete if they had taken the step of letting you fight it out with the DS held laterally (book-style). But even without this innovation Dark Conflict is a pretty smooth mover in the control department.
One of the biggest new features for fans of the series (who are less attracted to the window dressing) is the inclusion of proper multiplayer via the Nintendo WiFi Connection (WFC). This lets you play against someone not in the same physical location. The action is still strictly turned based, but that doesn't detract from the excitement of springing a trap on your nearest and dearest, or the frustration of having your younger siblings trip up your plans.
This is a well considered and satisfying revision of a classic game. As with any franchise of this age, those who have enjoyed the previous games will be first to notice omissions and changes to their beloved game. Given the chance it deserves however, and most players will agree that this is a game that nails what advance wars has always been about - a focused battlefield reincarnation of chess on a grand scale.
This review was originally published on 11th September 2007.
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