Advance Wars: Dual Strike DS Review

The Advance Wars series has a huge following of fans and is a critical darling as well, but 2003's Advance Wars 2 was criticized for only being a marginal improvement, and for feeling more like a cash-in than a sequel. Developer Intelligent Systems appears to have taken this criticism to heart, for the DS sequel Dual Strike. The game features a huge amount of new modes, features, and COs, making it the best Advance Wars game yet, and the best value currently available on the DS.

At certain times playing AWDS it seems impossible to think that Intelligent Systems was designing the game for anyone but extremely hardcore Advance Wars fan base. Features such as the "history" menu which keeps track of virtually everything you've done (100 stats are tracked in all), and awards medals based on cumulative performance is a hardcore player's dream. A quick glance can tell me how many Infantry units I have built or destroyed, how many S-ranks I've ever earned, the total amount of funds I've spend or damage I've dealt, plus plenty more. As of right now I have 92 of 300 medals.

Yet the real trick is that the game still manages to be the most accessible of the franchise, for the uninitiated. The early campaign levels organically introduce new layers of complexity at a steady pace, only explaining the ins and outs of specific units the first time you build one of encounter one. The campaign is also thankfully easier than that of its predecessors, saving the mind-bending challenges for the unlockable hard campaign.

Campaign also adds a variety of changes to keep veteran players on their toes, while removing some of the more frustrating addition to AW2. Communication towers for example, when captured, give all your army's an offensive and defensive boost, but are often in significantly out of the way areas, adding a further level of strategic depth to many maps.

The game also introduces tag battles and force ranks into the mix. The more a CO is used, the more abilities they gain access to, such as a 5% direct attack boost, greater vision range, or cheaper units. Customizable before each battle, it is possible to use the perfect set of equipped skills to turn an otherwise frustrating battle into something much more manageable. Likewise, most battles are now tag battles, meaning you take in two Cos of your choice before beginning, with the second fighting on a "second front" (the top screen) or waiting in the wings to be tagged in for a turn, or to be used for the uber-powerful "tag" CO powers.

The most notable change Dual Strike makes to the winning AW formula is the addition of several new modes to complement the returning Campaign, War Room, and Vs. gameplay options. The first, Survival, comes in three flavors: Turn, Money, and Time. Turn gives gamers a total of 99 turns to complete 11 maps, or at least to clear as many as they can. Likewise, Money Survival gives gamers one large bank of funds that carries over map to map, with its own set of 11. Time Survival (which I am confident raises my blood pressure a few points each time I play it) gives gamers a half hour to complete a third set of 11 maps.

All three modes work surprising well, each one presenting a new way to approach the strategic AW experience. Once each survival variant is cleared, an even harder "champion" course is made available, furthering replay value even more.

Combat mode, the second major addition, isn't quite as easy to love. It still serves as a quality temporary distraction and as further proof of IS's willingness to continue evolving the franchise, however. It essentially functions as a realtime Advance Wars with the player assuming control of an individual unit and firing in the direction of stylus taps, while enemy units rove the map and attack or capture cities on the fly. The single player experience is moderately enjoyable (multiplayer much moreso), but it wears thin much faster than the rest of the experience.

What makes AWDS such an enchanting and addicting experience, even more than the previous titles, is the feeling of constant accomplishment, and yet knowing that the experience is still incomplete. When you beat campaign, hard campaign opens up. Beat survival modes? Try for Champion Survival. There's a Hard and Brutal Combat variant as well. There's even four different ways to complete each of the standalone War Room maps, with your high score tracked separately for each. Even if a gamer did manage to complete all the single player content the ability to make custom maps (and then use them for multiplayer) can become a surprisingly addictive experience.

Any DS owner who has found themselves even remotely interested in gaming experiences beyond mindless action owe it to themselves to pick up Dual Strike. Their social life might suffer from the sheer amount of time they pour into the title, but the time will be pure gaming bliss.

Advance Wars is still a strategic series, so action-oriented gamers who don't like to actually think when gaming won't have their mind changed by Dual Strike. For everyone else who takes even a mild interest in anything slower-paced, the game is a must own. The in-game timer says that I have poured 33 hours into the cart so far, and I estimate that I've completed half of what the game has to offer. DS owners who opt to skip Dual Strike are missing out on the most full-featured and addictive title released for the system yet.

What's Hot: Several new units mix up the gameplay without making anything unbalanced

What's Not: Graphics "upgraded" to a psuedo-3D isometric view that might turn off some