Advance wars, part of the longer running Nintendo Wars series, has always been an extremely well put together and fun handheld strategy game, with its detailed, well balanced gameplay, varied scenarios and cheery, likeable presentation. That last one has always seemed a tad out-of-place though- this is after all a series about large scale war, so having a bunch of grinning kids as the main characters made the whole thing feel more like a school basketball game than a worldwide conflict. (A point made more eloquently than I ever could by this: http://www.awkwardzombie.com/index.php?page=0&comic=092208)
If you hadn’t already guessed from its title (and if that’s the case then I question how you are managing to use a computer), Advance Wars DARK Conflict isn’t exactly subtle about trying to take things in a new, edgier direction. I guess someone in Nintendo took a look out the window of their Tokyo office and realised that POST APOCALYPTIC GRITTY REALISM was big in gaming in 2008 and decided to get in on the fun. So this time, the bright colours and primary school pupils are done away with in favour of a post-apocalyptic setting with real, grown up characters and a plot involving meteors and viruses and (shock horror!) some of the heroes actually dying. Spoiler alert. Yes, it’s all a bit of a drastic turnaround, but frankly it’s no bad thing. I don’t mind a bit of silliness and I’m one of the few people not obsessed with realism in games (I see the idea as something of an oxymoron), but the new style just makes Advance Wars Dark Conflict all the more engaging as a story as well as a series of cool battles.
Plotwise, as well as being much more serious, Dark Conflict is actually rather good. I won’t go into too much detail (mainly because it’s been a while since I’ve actually played this one) but the story is always engaging and at certain points it really does capture a sense of utter hopelessness in a way you don’t often come across in a medium all about empowerment and fantasy. It starts off with just a few survivors of the meteor shower that destroyed most of the world banding together and fighting off bandits and stuff (bandits who have a surprisingly large amount of tanks), and to be honest the opening chapters are pretty boring and don’t fit with the combat system at all. The characters are ok though. Protagonist Ed is a fairly mundane sort of fellow but some of the other characters are pretty well developed and much less black-and-white, and main villain Stolos is genuinely a massive prick, which is always good, but he’s also a believable prick, which is just as important.
More important is the gameplay: are the battles as insanely awesome as in previous instalments? Well…not quite. By and large things are kept much the same: an extremely well balanced array of land, sea and air units are at your disposal, you capture cities to get extra funds each turn, and you win by capturing the enemy HQ, wiping their army out, or by completing mission specific objectives. There are a few new units, mostly good additions; motorbikes for fast capturing, fighters for mid-level anti air and anti tank guns for, well, taking out tanks, are all useful additions whilst not making other units obsolete. Missile boats are a less successful addition- literally serving no purpose that a cruiser can’t do better. This is a small gripe though. More troubling is a lack of variety in the missions compared to the series touchstone Advance Wars 2. In that game you’d have the enemy devising crazy new inventions like giant cannons and lasers every few missions, and even in normal missions there would be unique objectives like capturing a number of cities, or destroying enemy battleships while they’re being repaired. There’s very little of that to be found here. Ok, things get going in the last act, where you start fighting Stolos and his crazy minions directly. You get some pretty tense battles with a giant lasery thing, a giant bomber, and the final mission has the requisite fortress with lasers and gas bombs we were all hoping for, but there’s still not enough of all this, perhaps reflecting the more realistic and down to earth tone of this game. Overall I’d say that the difficulty level is a bit lower than AW2 as well, with most missions only requiring a single play. It’s not a big complaint but most of the tunes aren’t anything special either. Certainly nothing you can hum to yourself in the shower.
Once you’re done with the main campaign, if you have no friends you can still play one of many challenge maps, but a difference between how this works and how it was done in AW2 reveals an interesting psychological point about gamers. In AW2, beating a challenge map earned you points depending on how well you did. You could use these to buy more maps and the ability to change the uniform colours of the commander characters. Here, all the maps and the customisation option are already unlocked from day 1. You’d think this would be better, but really it just takes away any incentive to play these challenges. Sure the reward last time was pretty arbitrary, but it was still a reward- a reason to play. Here, there is none. Still, the campaign is definitely the focus of this game, and will certainly occupy you for long enough on its own. I’ve never played the multiplayer but I’m sure it’s just lovely.
Advance wars Dark Conflict takes the tone and look of the series in a new and frankly better direction. If the gameplay was as varied and challenging as previous instalments we’d have a new series best, and a true classic on our hands. As it is, it’s just pretty darn good. Well worth a play.
– Review by Paul Ewbank