Australia, February 20, 2008 - The release of a new Famicom Wars game is almost universally a reason for jubilation. This is a series that has, for 20 years now, been the quiet gameplay achiever – consistently playable, artistically approachable and very, very addictive. It's a stellar achievement to create a lasting series like this – and something that Nintendo has shown it knows how to do from time to time. It hasn't, of course, been seen outside of Japan prior to the original Advance Wars on Game Boy Advance – but since its introduction, Nintendo has been consistent in bringing the series to the west.

The latest incarnation, Advance Wars: Dark Conflict (the Aussie and European name for the US' Days of Ruin) takes the formula and shakes up the presentation – for good and ill. There are some significant changes to the gameplay too, but it's the overall look and direction of the game that will grab long-time fans most immediately. This is the darkest and largely most seriously-themed Advance Wars game yet.

Dark Conflict's main mode is arguably its single-player campaign. Taking place in meteor-scorched post-apocalyptica, Dark Conflict resets the character roster and setting completely. Now you're following the life of young military trainee Ed (Will in the US version), one of the survivors of the devastating catastrophe that wiped out 90 percent of humanity. Ed and his clean-cut CO buddies struggle to pull society back together by weeding out rabblerousers and dishing out food and aid. Thwarting that goal are numerous antagonists – a twisted family of ceramic-while tacticians and a host of other nefarious rogues and splinter militias among them. At the core of the story, however, is a strange tale of a virus outbreak, and the repercussions of genetic tampering.



The raw translation of the story is actually quite different from the US version in terms of quality and context. Interestingly, the game was actually translated by two separate teams independently for the Euro-Australian version; the result is a sometimes lifeless feel. The dialogue can also dissolve to the painfully clich├ęd – the "There's always hope" chestnut seems to come up every few sentences as an example. The US version refers to the meteors as fire from the sky, while the War Tank in the US is the Mega Tank in the UK, and so on. Character names, locations and even the personalities of the COs have been altered, due to the differing translations. For those not fussed about getting the best version of the story, the EU version is just fine. For all others, be aware there are differences, and it might be worthwhile tracking down a copy from the US.

Gone are many of the cartoony, exaggerated animations and bubblegum colour schemes on maps – replaced by dusty browns, pale greys and burnt and scorched tones. There are still lush greens and open waterways to traverse – but those are generally reserved for many of the standalone maps, rather than in the core campaign. The still frames of cutscene characters have been toned down too; each key character and many incidental characters are much more realistically proportioned. The battlefield has in some ways taken a step backwards since the last Advance Wars game, Dual Strike. The game's battlefield screen is once again a flat 2D plane, with none of the fancy-pants 3D scaling to be found. The sole exception is when you zoom in for a closer look at the action, you can view a cleaner model of each unit. When transitioning to the side-on battle view during confrontations, you're still met with the pixelated versions of each unit – disappointing when you consider what the DS is capable of graphically.

Personal preferences aside, the new setting also impacts the musical score of the game, which hops between well composed and memorable midi strings compositions and much more traditional electro-rock beats that provide ample energy during battles.

As in past iterations, Dark Conflict compels you to master the military disciplines – air, sea and land. You direct a troop of vehicles and soldiers across the battlefield against multiple opponents, and each unit on the field has its own range of movement and attack zone. In practice, it's much like a game of chess blended with rock-paper-scissors, only with infinitely more flexibility and complexity, due to different terrains and the sheer number of units and ways you can use them.

While the engine has been scaled back and the tone of the game has changed, the gameplay still shines.

Narrative is occasionally stitched into the battlefield itself too. This is interesting, since, at key moments, it feels like individual units have some degree of importance and personality; they're less pawns on a board, since they can also level up in rank, the longer they survive. Speed, Power and Technique are the three aspects your results are graded upon. Initially, your first five or six encounters are straightforward enough to net you an 'S' rank – but as the story presses on and you're gradually given the keys to airports and naval bases, battles take more turns and your losses begin to stack up – all of which lowers your score at the end.

There are only a handful of new units in the game. This may frustrate some players hoping for a fresh arsenal in addition to the new coat of paint applied to the presentation, but the upshot is that the sweet, sweet balance that we've all come to love is maintained – and even improved upon. In addition to stronger tanks and more flexible infantry units (including new bike-based units that are perfect for capturing bases at some distance away from home base), APCs are now mobile production facilities, allowing you to create a manufacturing plant within two turns of setting down on a spot – assuming you're not immediately targeted for annihilation by the opposition, which is frequently the AI's reaction to this unit's presence on the field.

There are a few small balance issues, such as the overpowered Bazooka Infantry, who can deal tremendous damage to multiple targets from across a map, or CO powers that eventually have your enemy healing 5 points of HP (out of the 10 available to all in-field arms). It can become unnecessarily frustrating in the closing chapters of the campaign. Intelligent Systems, the developer, has wisely included a quick-save option, however, so you can jump back a few turns and try to steer things back your way if needed.