Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Advance Wars: Dawn of Whatever It Was - First Impressions

Yay! This is a good day, kiddies. The stock market didn't crash (yet), Persepolis was nominated for a Best Animated Film Oscar, and I picked up the new Advance Wars. Had to trade in a couple carts, but that's always been my mojo. It's best not to collect too many possessions.

So, anyway, let me just say that I'm very impressed. If you're sitting on the fence, wondering how things stand....don't worry. At the end of the day, it's just the latest version of Advance Wars. Don't let the hype fool you otherwise. Suffice to say, this is one slimmed-down game. It's much sleeker and gets to the point. The gameplay is just as solid as always; hardened vets won't miss a beat, and newcomers shouldn't worry about being left back. This isn't Virtua Fighter. You'll catch on in seconds.

Upon starting the cartridge, my first impulse was to check out the map editor. Much better, folks. Much better. You can scale the size of your maps from 5x5 to 30x30. You can save up to 50 maps; while I still insist there should be vastly more storage space - 500 at a bare minimum - it's a terrific improvement from the past. I've already printed screenshots from all of my Advance Wars 2 custom maps, and they'll have a permanent home on my DS cart.

Downloading maps from Nintendo's server is a cinch, although these maps are currently set at 10x10. I tried to be patient with this, but, seriously, this is just fucking stupid. Advance Wars is practically useless at something so small. I've only downloaded one map so far, but it was horribly crowded, and I fear this feature will be quietly forgotten unless Nintendo gets their act together. There's no damned reason why larger maps cannot be uploaded to the servers. None whatsoever.

I don't see why Nintendo couldn't change this in the future, so I suggest we politely toilet paper their houses until they cave in. I want to share my super-cool maps with the world, dammit! These are still the best multiplayer Advance Wars maps ever made. I should know; I playtested the hell out of 'em.

Online Matches

What about the online matches? No worries. We won't be forced to play on tiny 10x10 maps. I played one short game on a desert course with a lake in the middle - come to think of it, it looked almost identical to one of my own creations, Oasis. Too bad this map was horribly unbalanced. I really should have sent that resume to Intelligent Systems years ago.

I don't know if you can choose which maps to play online. I don't think I was given a choice. The only options are to play against someone at your skill level (based on your win-loss ratio, I expect), or play against anyone. The interface is so simple as to be virtually nonexistent. Yep, good 'ole Nintendo. I'm curious to experience the voice chat in action.

More info about online. Matches are set against the clock. There are only around 25 turns or so, and when it's your turn, you have just over two minutes to complete everything. Thankfully, watching the combat sequences won't count against your time. This adds an extra level of "speed chess" into the mix. Time becomes a real challenge as the game drags on, and you have to fight multiple battles, capture several territories, build and repair units, and plan your next move. You'll have to move fast. If time runs out, turn's over - no ifs, ands, or butts.

I experienced no problems with lag, and while I had to wait a moment between turns, it was always smooth. I could also look around the maps whenever I wanted.

Oh, the number of online players? Two. Unless someone discovers online multiplayer for more, you're only limited to a strict versus game. Too bad, but I'm sure Nintendo is desperate to keep the games short.

Summing up, online is terrific. This is going to be fantastic, kids.

Other Random Gameplay Notes

The stats screens from AW: Dual Strike returns, which is a nice touch. That was probably my favorite feature from that game.

Many units have been streamlined or replaced entirely. There's a new motorbike which can capture territory; a flamethrower tank that lights flares in Fog of War; three tanks, from Tank to Medium Tank to War Tank; a new artillary unit that can respond to direct attacks; units that can build factories, air strips, and satellite dishes; the naval units have been completely revamped; there are no dual-screen battles, thank heavens; and here's a real surprise...battleships can move and fire in the same turn. Ooof!

I'm pretty sure the balance between the units has been reshuffled. One great addition is a stats page on the upper screen, one that informs you the strengths and weaknesses of each unit. Damage has been evened out a bit. That battleship packs a lot less heat now, for instance.

You can collect music during the story mode, which then goes into a special music page. It's a nice feature, but, really...does anyone really listen to the sound test these days? If the DS could only store MP3's, then we'd really be getting somewhere.

The much-hearalded change in graphics style is a bit of a hype. True, everything is coated in a grim ashen way, and the character portraits are far more Americanized (instead of the old anime style), but the in-game graphics look pretty much the same. It just looks like a more polished, refined Advance Wars. The story aims to be grittier, at least by Nintendo standards, but it's nothing that you'll notice. That is, if you're used to, you know, reading actual books.

There are over 100 maps which are playable in the "free battle" mode right away. Some complain about the loss of the map store from previous episodes, but I really prefer it this way. Unlockable content is just a cheap way to pad out the playing time, forcing you to work away for something you really should be getting for free. And I never liked that old guy in the shop who kept rambling on and on. He was a real pain. Come to think of it, I never really liked any of those old characters.

The battle graphics are really neat. It's a closed-in, 3D view. Closeups are slightly pixely, but for me it's slightly nostalgic. Reminds me of the Atari Lynx. CO's are responding to the damages again, just like the first Advance Wars. Too bad I can't create my own custom messages. That should be a gimmie for online. Right?

Just wait until you sink a naval vessel. Oooh! Really cool.

Arguably the best new feature: veteran status. Every time an enemy unit is destroyed, your unit is raised one rank. There are three levels: one star, two stars, and veteran. With each upgrade, your unit's attack and defense powers are raised. Very smart move. This adds in another layer of depth to the strategy.

Oh, and have I mentioned that CO's can directly fight in the battles? Oh, yeah.

That's enough rambling for now. You have more than enough to go on. Now go out and get your damned copy so I can whup your hide online.

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