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Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (DS) artwork

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (DS) review

"It's a good thing the familiar characters from the three previous Advance Wars games didn't return for this fourth installment; most of them would be dead. Advance Wars: Days of Ruin takes place immediately after a devastating meteor shower snuffs out virtually the entire population. Massive clouds of ash and dust now blot out all sunlight, leaving those remaining to scavenge the rotting corpse of society for supplies and shelter, fighting against nature and each other for survi..."

It's a good thing the familiar characters from the three previous Advance Wars games didn't return for this fourth installment; most of them would be dead. Advance Wars: Days of Ruin takes place immediately after a devastating meteor shower snuffs out virtually the entire population. Massive clouds of ash and dust now blot out all sunlight, leaving those remaining to scavenge the rotting corpse of society for supplies and shelter, fighting against nature and each other for survival.

The main hero of this turn-based strategy game is a young military cadet named Will. Before the apocalypse, he was training to fight for his nation of Rubinelle against the hated Lazurian forces. Now he just wants to find another living soul. Fortunately, one of the first groups he meets is Brenner's Wolves, led by it magnanimous namesake, Captain Brenner. The Wolves are a battalion that abides by a strict code of honor, and they travel around dispensing humanitarian aide, striving not just to survive, but to begin reconstructing a civilization. In these chaotic times, though, they meet resistance from all sides. Members of the former Lazurian army are foolishly rallying against their now nonexistent enemy. Meanwhile, some remnants of the Rubinelle military have banded together to form a totalitarian new world order. Even the civilians the Wolves help are resentful and selfish, feelings borne from fear and uncertainty. And everyone is terrified of a grotesque plaque called the Creeper. It causes flowers to take root under the skin, slowly growing until they sprout and kill their victim.

These threats definitely make Days of Ruin the most mature Advance Wars title to date. Previous entries in the series displayed a simplistic view of good versus evil. The commanding officers were cute but shallow caricatures, dressed in brightly colored, cartoonish uniforms. And they were blessed with tide-turning CO powers: ones that granted extra turns, produced a ton of extra units, or greatly damaged enemy forces. Contrast those profiles with the realistically drab fatigues worn by Will and his comrades, the scars on Brenner's rigid face, and the hard lines of the desolate landscape. Members of the small cast can still be one-dimensional – Will is unwavering in his idealism – but their attitudes build the bleak narrative.

The outrageous CO powers were the lynchpin of Dual Strike, the other Advance Wars game on the DS. In Dual Strike, levels frequently featured two omnipresent commanding officers on each side, boosting their entire army, ready to tag in and devastate the enemy with back-to-back special attacks. Strategy revolved around utilizing these power plays to breakthrough the enemy frontline, wipe out whole battalions, or outflank the main force to stealthily sack their base. The game let you take creative risks, and you had to be wary of enemy counterstrikes, but it could feel cheap when these wild maneuvers worked.

Looking at Days of Ruin, the latitude provided by CO powers has been greatly diminished. They're not mentioned until half of the missions have been cleared in the single-player campaign; at least one CO doesn't have any special power at all. Now, officers fly solo and must be deployed with a vehicle – which costs extra funds. Under normal circumstances, they only affect allies in the immediate vicinity, mildly boosting attack or defense stats. To build up enough strength to unleash a unique special ability, you have to kill enemies within the CO's meager range, a condition that ensures it won't be triggered very often. And these won't blow away the enemy on their own. For the heroes, it will increase movement, stretch the distance of indirect attacks, or pierce the cover of fog or darkness. They are incidental enough that the computer-controlled characters rarely bother using them.

Even though these attacks and abilities are tailored to an individual, you won't get to pick which soldiers to utilize in battle during the single-player campaign. In fact, some of the non-story trial maps don't assign a CO at all. That's the plainest indication that Days of Ruin has retreated into a more basic, methodical strategy game. Of course, victory isn't simple. To march an army across the gridded wastelands and waterways (using the stylus or not), it's necessary to identify and hold strong defensive positions while you crank out infantry, tanks, rockets, submarines, and helicopters. There are over twenty-five different weapons with their own weaknesses, so production decisions are critical. And when that key moment arrives, the window when your troop strength reaches just the right advantage, you have to surge into hostile territory in a way where the enemy can't easily beat you back.

It takes brains, but mostly it takes time. The first fifteen minutes of most every fight is spent scrambling to conquer cities and secure your starting territory. Sometimes meteor shards litter the battlefield, giving off weird plasma rays that form artificial barriers and cover the enemy. It can take a half-hour to maneuver into safe positions to eradicate those impediments. After that, it'll take at least another forty-five minutes to clash over high value factories and ports, places that turn out bombers and battleships to instantly boost the side that controls them. Even then, after the point has tipped in your favor, it could take close to an hour to rout the opposition from their strongly held base. New units – anti-tank mortars, aircraft carriers, duster planes – don't provide a shortcut. New policies in leveling, whereby an individual unit will receive modest status upgrades through its first few kills, don't provide a shortcut. Both sides have the exact same arsenal, so only wit and patience can break the stalemate.

Still, there's some concern over how long the single-player mode will keep you engaged once the arduous main story is complete. Days of Ruin does have a ton of extra maps, some recognizable from previous iterations of the franchise, but there's not as much incentive to play them. In Dual Strike, racking up victories would improve a CO's abilities and provide currency for unlockables. But since the officer's role has been diminished there aren't any bonuses to be had, and unlockables have been discarded completely. Most important, though, the game does not evaluate your performance on its extra maps like it does in the campaign mode. Many of them are extreme challenges – like sandwiching you between two armies with limited resources – but winning should be only the baseline of success. The grade awarded validates the quality of your strategy; it's a huge reason to play well, and to play at all. And it's MIA for the majority of missions.

But those deficiencies are covered by the expanded multi-player options. Of course, you can face off against up to three others locally, and customize your own maps for the occasion. Now, using the Wi-Fi connection, you can battle and trade maps with any three people in the world. Turns are timed to keep the fight moving, and there's even voice chat so you can broker temporary alliances and taunt you vanquished foes. The computer's tendencies quickly become predictable. It's almost too cautious, skittish about pushing an advantage if it would take major damage in the process. It greedily churns out as many units as it can afford, rather than save for more devastating weapons. There is an option to adjust the AI on the extra maps, making it more passive or aggressive, but then you know what to expect. Playing against another human being naturally erases all of that.

That's the reason to go get this game before the pool of players dries up. The narrative in Days of Ruin delivers strong messages: that serving others is more noble than serving yourself, but the moral path is rarely lined with praise and adulation. It also provides a consistently enjoyable test of strategic capabilities, tough enough to require careful analysis, but not so difficult as to be paralyzing. With the pruning of single-player options, though, most of its longevity is going to come from playing against others.

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Community review by woodhouse (February 18, 2008)

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