Advance Wars: Dual Strike

As part of the sole Nintendo property that offers a take on the strategy genre at its purest state, Advance Wars: Dual Strike is proof that it is possible to work within traditions while also expanding boundaries, even if ever so slightly

Successfully moving a franchise forward is an inherently hard task. After all, developers need to strike a solid balance between fresh ideas and gameplay traditions. If there is too much of the former and too little of the latter, some will say the new entry lost sight of what the property is all about; and if the formula is inverted, there will be those who complain the product is just more of the same. In the case of series like Advance Wars, though, the challenge of making a new addition to the canon worth it seems to get even more complex than that norm due to a simple reason: the sheer purity of its format, which means any significant increments to its mechanics are not just elusive, but also also potentially damaging to its essence.

The franchise was born on the NES under the title of Wars, and that simple moniker happens to be quite revealing of its spirit. While the other major strategy property owned by Nintendo, Fire Emblem, mixes the genre’s essence of moving pieces around a board with RPG elements like stats, leveling up, equipment, thick plots, and even relationships between characters, Wars has always shunned those accessories in favor of a very basic approach. This is a saga with no frills whatsoever, and to achieve victory in it, players have to concentrate solely on the task of managing their troops carefully so that the enemy does not succeed in getting the upper hand in the battlefield.

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By the time Advance Wars: Dual Strike came out, the franchise was already two installments into its rebirth, which began with Advance Wars, released in 2001 for the Game Boy Advance, and continued two years later when Black Hole Rising was published for the same console. Credited with bringing the saga to the masses due to the popularity of the handheld, these games were further boosted in their appeal thanks to a colorful visual overhaul that added a cartoonish vibe to the on-screen warring. And in the process of doing that, the two titles had also stylishly explored the property’s gameplay to a vast degree, achieving stellar critical response and already raising – with Black Hole Rising – a few doubts regarding its capacity to stay fresh.

Given that scenario, Advance Wars: Dual Strike comes in with trouble brewing on the horizon. Add mechanics that are too flashy, and the pure strategic heart of the franchise may be overwhelmed by those gimmicks. Keep on treading down the same path as its two predecessors, and while some praise is bound to come on account of the ridiculously high quality of its design, there will also be naysayers who might end up seeing the game as an expansion pack with new maps and missions. The solution the title finds to that conundrum is to, then, stay somewhere in between those extremes.

It goes without saying that, at heart, Advance Wars: Dual Strike is still a turn-based game of moving units around a board, qualifying as one of the purest slices of strategy the industry has to offer. Invariably, its missions consist of opposing armies scattered around a map, and victory is usually achieved when one side either destroys all units of the other or captures their base; the exceptions to that rule are a handful of levels in the main campaign when players are instead tasked with destroying special weapons deployed by the villains.

The game underlines those basics with the traditional strategic elements that have always permeated the saga. There is how terrain affects both movement and defense: mountains cannot be traversed by tanks and other vehicles that move on treads; meanwhile, units standing on woods or cities, for instance, will be able to resist more. There is how some units have notable advantages over others: different types of tanks are mighty, but long-ranged artillery can destroy them quite effectively; bombers are fearsome, but drop like flies if hit by anti-air missiles; and battleships can strike a wide area, but are doomed by submarines. There is how some levels offer factories, ports, and airports that – when captured by infantry – can be used to produce new units. And there is how, occasionally, missions will take place in the midst of fog, meaning players will rely on the vision-range of their units to see what lies ahead.

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With a total of more than thirty types of units that can move on land, take to the skies, and cruise through the ocean, Advance Wars: Dual Strike is – like its predecessors – a complex product made of multiple moving parts. Those who are familiar with them should be right at home from the get go, even though there are some new twists to be learned along the way. Those who are new to the franchise, however, will be happy to know that the main campaign does an excellent job bringing in concepts little by little: not only does it have a series of introductory missions, but it also slowly builds on the complexity of the stages without ever making it feel like it is throwing too much at players.

As far as pushing the franchise forward goes, it is undeniable that the unique nature of the Nintendo DS plays a major role in what Advance Wars: Dual Strike brings to the table. For starters, the entire game can be played via touch commands. Yes, there are still some actions that can be performed via buttons, but even in those cases using the lower screen is still a viable alternative. In that regard, the most pleasant change by far is related to moving units: on the Game Boy Advance entries, one had to select the piece they wanted to move and slide the cursor all the way to the destination, square by square. In Dual Strike, naturally, two taps are all that it takes: one to pick the unit, and another to point to its destination. It might seem like a silly evolution, but the smoothness of the experience is actually greatly improved.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike may not take too much advantage of the added hardware power of the Nintendo DS, since the improvement it shows in graphical and musical terms in relation to its Game Boy Advance peers is relatively minimal: the game looks and sounds good, but it is still pretty basic as a whole. However, the title does make good use of the fact there are two screens. As a smaller consequence of that feature of the handheld, the top one is generally reserved for displaying information on the unit that is currently selected, including a helpful chart that shows its effectiveness against other units, which will greatly help newcomers and veterans alike.

More significantly, however, is the fact some missions have two battle fronts, each taking up a screen, with the front whose turn is active being moved to the lower one. The first time that happens, for example, is when the enemy deploys a floating fortress that hovers over the battlefield, and players have – therefore – to use jet fighters to disable the weapon in order to advance safely on the ground. Stages like these are not so common, which is slightly disappointing given how fresh they feel; they are, nevertheless, interesting variations that add a bit of strategic variety to the proceedings. At times, gamers will need to send units from one front to the other; in a specific level, a mighty satellite will indicate it is about to attack, giving the army a couple of turns to launch a missile to hit it and stop it from charging; and the list goes on.

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The final considerable gameplay shift executed by Advance Wars: Dual Strike is related to the way Commanding Officers can be employed. These characters, as usual, are selected – before each battle starts – to lead the army, and they differ from one another in two ways. Firstly, every one of them has inherent bonuses and weaknesses: for instance, Max’s non-infantry units that work with direct attacks have 120% attack strength but those that hit indirectly have a shorter range. Secondly, each has a specific CO and Super CO Power that can be activated when a gauge is filled to a certain point: Sensei, for example, has a CO Power that increases the attack of helicopters whilst making infantries appear in allied cities around the map, and a Super CO Power that does the same but spawns stronger Mech units instead of regular infantries.

In Advance Wars: Dual Strike, however, rather than choosing one Commanding Officer for each allied army that is out in the field, players will get to select two. Because of that, it is possible to – at any point in the battle – switch between COs according to the situation to take advantage of the bonuses and powers that are more suitable. Moreover, if the gauges of the two COs are completely filled, gamers can opt to execute a Tag Move, which will essentially allow them to use all units twice on the same turn. Needless to say, the ultimate result is that, more than ever, in Advance Wars: Dual Strike it is absolutely key that players not only get to know the strengths and weaknesses of all playable characters, but that they also manage the gauges appropriately, deciding when it is best to use a CO Power and when the ideal course of action is holding on until the devastating and tide-turning Tag Move becomes available.

In many strategy games out in the wild, features such as the characteristics of each Commanding Officer would be somewhat superfluous: a micro-management twist that only those tackling the highest levels of difficulty or aiming for full completion should worry about. In Advance Wars: Dual Strike, though, that is far from being the case, because getting to the end of the main campaign without grasping those details is simply nigh impossible. Some may perceive that requirement as being too high, but the bottom line is that this characteristic is a testament to the excellent design Intelligent Systems packs into entries of the franchise: if a feature exists, it will be demanded and, thereby, players should make an effort to learn it.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike is a difficult but fair game. It knows how to teach slowly, and it starts out pretty basic: any beginner will not have much trouble clearing the first missions of the campaign. Soon enough, however, before getting to the tenth one, the heat will be turned up, and players will begin to be tested. Strategies that are not appropriate will lead to defeat; making a mistake when moving a unit will most certainly cause it be lost, because the CPU does not let many opportunities go by; picking a Commanding Officer that does not fit the level too well might spell doom; not understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a unit will lead it to go to waste; and not knowing how to effectively use CO Powers and the Tag Move will put one at a severe disadvantage, since the villains sure know how to employ those maneuvers well.

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If there is one overarching compliment that needs to be thrown at the feet of the tests Advance Wars: Dual Strike creates is how varied they are. In spite of its limited gameplay scope, the game absolutely excels in creating different missions. The twenty-eight stages that make up the main campaign never tread on the same ground, using terrain variations, unit types, super weapons that are exclusive to the bad guys, the eventual double combat fronts, and the placement of critical facilities such as cities, factories, airports, ports, missile silos, communication towers, and others to create a multitude of war scenarios that never come remotely close to one another. Advance Wars: Dual Strike just never stalls, doing more with its simple traditional pieces than most blockbusters do with their wild ideas.

Even with its major design victories, however, there are complaints to be made about Advance Wars: Dual Strike. Like it happened with its two predecessors, its story suffers from weak writing, which causes the dialogues that precede and follow its missions to be forgettable and highly skippable. Once again, the franchise does not succeed in making use of its charming cartoonish look to weave an interesting tale and create an interesting world, given all that it portrays is a group of good guys going after villains that keep revealing powerful weapons and that hide a commonplace dark secret behind their actions.

In addition, as marvelously designed as they may be, a few missions towards the end of the main campaign are perhaps a bit too tight when it comes to strategic possibilities and windows of opportunity. In some of them, it feels like if players do not execute a very specific set of maneuvers, success will be unlikely; similarly, there are occasions when failing to capture a major productive facility (factory, airport, or port) before the enemy gets there is pretty much a guaranteed automatic loss. Sure, strategy aficionados will get a big kick retrying the same stage repeatedly until they have fine-tuned their moves to the necessary extent, but the degree of frustration involved in that process might turn many away.

To those willing to dive in, though, Advance Wars: Dual Strike offers more than enough content. The main campaign and its twenty-eight missions ought to last more than twenty hours, and a scoring system that awards players a grade based on their speed, on the number of units they lost, and on the number of units they destroyed makes sure levels are replayable. Moreover, it is possible to tackle more scenarios in the War Room, where two or more armies battle in out in multiple maps where all unities need to be produced from scratch; in the Survival Mode, where victory needs to be achieved within time, money, or turn constraints; and in the Versus Mode, where the system’s multiplayer capabilities can be used. To top it off, Advance Wars: Dual Strike also brings in a totally new Combat Mode, which simulates battles with real time movement; it may not be a configuration under which the game thrives, but it is an interesting experiment nonetheless.

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In the end, the evaluation of whether or not Advance Wars: Dual Strike does enough to justify its existence and move the franchise forward will come down to personal expectations. Given the pure strategic nature of its core, the truth is there is not much Intelligent Systems can do to alter the formula without throwing the franchise’s unique characteristics away. However, considering those limitations, it is at least undeniable that the game does take a very decent shot at shaking up the series’ gameplay. It makes great use of the two screens of the Nintendo DS, be it for improved controls, for practical information display, or for missions on dual fronts; plus, it adds little mechanics that should offer a good learning challenge, even to those who are familiar with the Game Boy Advance outings.

As part of the sole Nintendo property that offers a take on the strategy genre at its purest state, Advance Wars: Dual Strike is proof that it is possible to work within traditions while also expanding boundaries, even if ever so slightly. The difficulty eventually reached by its main campaign might prove excessive to some, but anyone who walks into it is bound to notice the company’s usual suspects: the charming visuals; the excellent level design; and the creativity that is necessary to keep on coming up with new ideas inside such a limited scope. Thanks to the capabilities of the Nintendo DS, Advance Wars: Dual Strike finds not just a control scheme that is ideal for the type of experience it provides, but also the opportunity to exhibit battles in two fronts that interact with one another. And thanks to the incredible talent of the Intelligent Systems team behind it, it finds enough polished war scenarios to keep fans going for dozens of hours.

FINAL SCORE: 8 – EXCELLENT

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