Monday, February 11, 2008

Maaaannn - the new Advance Wars kind of blows

I've been sloowwwly playing Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, the recently released sequel to Intelligent Systems' long-running portable strategy series. Slowly, because despite all the attempts to reinvigorate the long-running strategy franchise with streamlined play mechanics and a faster pace, the result is inexplicably more slow and ugly than any prior entry in the series.

It's also a really cynical attempt to reboot the franchise with a spookier setting and characters more likely to appeal to non-Japanese audiences. This didn't seem like a terrible idea at first glance, but the execution - goodness, it is bad.

The premise at the outset of Days of Ruin is that a world already plagued with war between massive super-powers ends up getting suddenly smacked around by meteors. Nearly everyone dies, and those who survive have to live under massive clouds of smoke and ash.

This is a sorta-interesting premise, but it simply doesn't work for Advance Wars. The core play mechanics of the series have always revolved around the capture of cities. Cities generate revenue, which you then use to produce tanks, planes and boats, and hey - in a world destroyed by meteors, how can there still be tons of cities and factories lying around ready to crank out weapons of war? It simply doesn't make sense.

You can see the game's scenario writers struggling with this obvious problem through the first few maps. Characters lament their inability to find any survivors. All the cities they find have been destroyed. The world is a pockmarked wasteland.

Then you get to the fifth map, and suddenly you done playin' some Advance Wars. All those cities and bases that you couldn't find are suddenly in ample supply - the constraints of the game's design demand it.

Of course, the post-apocalyptic setting also gave Intelligent Systems the chance to create an entirely new cast of characters, nearly all of whom are boring or obnoxious (see image, then groan). It feels like... what was the point, exactly?

Did I mention that the graphics are totally hideous, a mess of browns and purples with weirdly amateurish, overscaled unit graphics during battle animations? Yup.

Prior to the game's release, Nintendo's PR line was that the reasons for the "radical changes" to the game's tone and gameplay all stemmed from the central idea of a creating a faster turn-based strategy game. And hey, that sounded great! My biggest problem with every other game in the series is how quickly maps would degrade into a big slog, with turn after turn after turn of tedious unit management.

So imagine my surprise when Days of Ruin turned out to be even more tedious than the previous games! Yes, there's a new bike unit that can move as quickly as tanks while still being able to capture cities. And yes, battleships can now move and fire in the same turn, making them absolutely terrifying in most situations.

None of these things, as it turns out, makes the game play any faster. I remember the last map in the original Advance Wars taking something like 30 turns the first time I played it. It was an epic slog, but it felt like a fitting conclusion to the campaign.

Map 21 in Days of Ruin, however, took me 32 turns to finish. Map 22 took about 35, and by this point my brain had had enough. I was sick of putting up with the game's annoying nonsense, sitting around in the bowels of Morgan Library between classes playing a game that I frankly wasn't enjoying.

It's a shame, too, because I was hoping for better. I'm always one to give these kinds of things the benefit of the doubt, but in this case Days of Ruin is simply a case of less being less. Bummer.

Oh, and before I forget - out of the ten games I tried playing against other players online using the "play anyone" setting, eight of them cheated in some way. They either had infantry units that dealt 99 damage, or infinite funds. Oops!


Matt Brown said...

I actually like the pace of the previous installments of Advance Wars. It's kind of like playing a large game of chess to me; so I don't mind lengthly endeavors. Keep your fingers crossed for Dr. Layton's though, that one looks promising. And if nothing else, Ninja Gaiden is on the way!

Jason Moses said...

Yeah, I dug the previous installments of the series, too. This new one just kinda put me in a funk, for whatever reason.

I'll be writing something about Professor Layton sometime next week, so look forward to it!

Grant said...

I agree, the characters are pretty lame, and the story did not live up to the "darker, more adult" tag it was given prior to the release, but Days of Ruin has more to offer in terms of strategic development than previous AW installments. If you are looking for a fast-paced game, don't look to any Advance Wars games. Look to RTS. The beauty of Advance Wars is the strategic balance, and in this game, the balance is even better than in Dual Strike since the CO's are toned down from being game-changers to being more realistic forces on the battlefield. Plus, with increased functionality of carriers and the inclusion of temp. airports and seaports, this game is lightyears ahead of the others.