E for All: Hands-on with Advance Wars: Days of Ruin

One of the biggest surprises of E for All was not only discovering the wonders of the expo’s “Grilled Cheese Taco” stand, but finding out that Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (the next Nintendo DS iteration of the classic strategy series) was actual playable on the show floor. Looking back to last week, I think I actually clicked my heels and did a little jig when I saw the game staring at me with its seductive dual screens from one of Nintendo’s glowing kiosks.

But I have to be honest; a couple of weeks ago, when I saw the first screens of the game released, I grew a little worried. The cartoon-like graphics and colorful maps of the old Advance Wars games were gone, replaced with a much more serious tone and (*gasp*) all new characters.

So how did the new, “hardcore” Advance Wars play? Was it just as solid as the games of yore, or did this revered series go the way of Bomberman: Act Zero?

Hit the jump for my expectedly overdramatic first impressions.

Of course I had complete confidence that Advance Wars: Days of Ruin would be good. All three of the older Advance Wars games are, in my opinion, perfect handheld experiences. How could a little change of scenery affect the core (amazing!) gameplay?

As I stood in front of the lonely DS at E for All, I have to admit, my confidence wavered. When I looked down I immediately saw a cutscene playing on both screens that showed a huge meteor shower raining down upon the Earth. Even though the narrative was in Japanese (which I don’t speak a lick of), the visuals did a good job of expressing what was happening: death. And a lot of it.

You see, in this Advance Wars, characters and situations don’t avoid showing the tragedy of war like in the older games. No, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin puts it all out there. The meteor shower that hits the Earth in the opening seconds actually kills 90% of mankind, leaving the few survivors to fight in a bitter war between rival factions. In this new story, people die, and the game is not afraid to show it.

Once I got over this initial shock in tone (and kissed my rosary beads) I immediately dove into the actual game.

As my stylus touched the bottom screen, every momentary worry I had left my body immediately. Who cares that the game is darker and more intense? Honestly, this is probably for the best. Although I never realized it, after three games, the series needed something to make it feel fresh again. Had this sequel sported the same graphics and style of the older games — who knows – maybe it would have even felt a little (dare I say it!) stale.

So, the great news: Advance Wars: Days of Ruin plays exactly like the older games, but with some nice added features.

Graphical overhaul aside, there are some new units to control and the demo let me try a couple of them out immediately.

First was the motorbikes. Easily my favorite new unit from the demo, these little guys move very fast and have a wide area of movement. But the coolest part about them is that they can actually capture enemy structures, a feat only previously possible by basic infantry. This alone adds a whole new layer of strategy in claiming new territories as your own.

The other new unit on display was the flare. While not a strong fighter by any means, the flare is a lightly-armored tank that can reveal large parts of the map by removing the fog of war (a mechanic used much more in this new game).

According to the Nintendo rep, there will be many other new units to command in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (as well as the old ones we all have come to know and love), but, unfortunately, the two just mentioned were the only ones I got to play. Darn.

In addition to the new units, everything about the game felt extra polished and full of subtle improvements. For example, in the first game, a lot of people complained about the touch controls. Not that they were bad, they were just hard to navigate on small maps and people seemed to make wrong moves or other critical mistakes that sometimes cost them the game.

Luckily, in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, you can actually zoom the map in and out at anytime, avoiding things being to cluttered and hard to see. Also, every time you select a unit or perform an action there is a confirmation button you have to push, preventing you from making any fatal errors. And, I know, while that sounds annoying and could potentially make the game less fast-paced, something about the way it is implemented just feels right. I can’t really put my finger on it, but it seems the confirmation box changes position to be right next to where you select, requiring you do to more of a double-click than having to move around the entire screen. This might not be right, but it just seemed that way when I was playing. Regardless, the controls felt much better this go around.

Another little improvement I noticed (and loved) was the addition of much more dramatic battle sequences. Instead of close-up, static profiles of your units as they fight, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin utilizes multiple camera angles, animation, moving backgrounds, and depth-of-focus to make each rumble really come to life. I actually couldn’t wait to fight just to see what slick visuals the game would throw at me next.

There were only two small things I was disappointed in, and they both may be complete non-issues once the final build of the game is released to the public.

The first (and this one is so small): when I finished moving all of my units and had no more moves left, the enemy would not take its turn until I opened the menu and clicked “End.” While that seems miniscule, it was a little annoying to do this each and every time. Why couldn’t there be a “hot key” on the screen that could quickly be tapped or, even better, why couldn’t the game automatically switch over to the enemy once I was out of moves? Fire Emblem does it this way and it feels so smooth. Again, there may be an option to change this that I might have overlooked.

The other issue was that I didn’t get to play any dual screen levels like in Advance Wars: Dual Strike (the first Advance Wars DS game). I really think this was just because one wasn’t available in the demo, but I am really hoping they make a grand return. Those ridiculously creative, epic battle maps were so much fun and they would be sorely missed if they don’t make a comeback in Days of Ruin.

All in all, I absolutely adored Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. It seems to improve on Dual Strike in almost every way and feels like the perfect evolution of the awesome series. While some people may freak out concerning some minor adjustments (darker tone, not as powerful CO techniques, etc.), I welcome the changes. The series is growing up in a very good way and I cannot wait to play some more.

Chad Concelmo