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Advance Wars: Days of Ruin

You get used to it eventually. The smell, I mean. The stench of decaying bodies and burnt flesh. It’s especially bad during the day; as the heat rises off the ground, it makes everything rot so much faster. You can’t avoid it, either. There will always be corpses, no matter where you look. Millions of them, piled high in these ruined cities. Most of them don’t even look human anymore; just maggot-ridden bags of meat with their eyes eaten out and their bones exposed. If you accidentally step on one, it’ll burst like rotted fruit. You’d think that scavengers would have eaten them all by now, but most of the animals are gone, too. In fact, there is no sign of life at all; the only sound is that of the wind brushing against the crumbled buildings. The rest is silent. And silent.

Understand? Everyone is dead.

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Well, almost everyone. Following a planet-wide barrage of meteors, roughly 90% of the human population has been wiped out. The foundation of modern society went with them. Houses, hospitals, food supplies, governments, entire nations are gone. All that’s left are scattered groups of survivors wandering aimlessly through the barren wastelands that were once their homelands. One of them is Will, a former cadet of the local military academy. He’s traveling with Rubinelle’s 12th Battalion and assisting Brenner, its remarkably moral (if not slightly clichéd) commander. While the story is told through their experiences, the plot of Days of Ruin focuses on mankind’s struggle to exist after the end of the world. The 12th Battalion will come across the spectrum of humanity, ranging from beastly marauders, infected survivors, trigger-happy nationalists, corrupted militaries, to deranged madmen held bent on ruling the world. With desperation and hope constantly in the balance, things look pretty grim.

Needless to say, this dark story is a far cry from those of the previous Advance Wars games. Veterans of the series shouldn’t worry, however; all of the old characters may be gone, the core gameplay hasn’t changed at all. Though you’re initially given command of a small army of lightly armed infantry, scout vehicles, tanks, and long-range missiles, you’ll eventually be able to produce naval fleets, aerial armadas, and other forces. The new units, like anti-tank defenses, flares, and seaplanes, add even more to the assortment of usable units. The trick is learning how to craft your strategies around a given situation. Will you focus on building your infantry ranks and conquering every abandoned base in sight, or will you utilize Fog of War for guerilla tactics? Will your squadron of bombers make it to the enemy’s front line before they get spattered with anti-aircraft bullets? Can you afford to send out an army of tanks when terrain will cost you the extra fuel? You’ll have to learn every aspect of your units and the battleground if you hope to win. Since the combat is on gridded battlefields and turn-based, you’ll have plenty of time to develop the best tactics you possibly can.

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If you’ve played previous Advance Wars titles, all of this should sound familiar. There is one key difference, however: the CO Powers. In the old days, each playable commanding officer had their own magical abilities that, when fully charged, could boost their armies or bring utter ruin upon their enemies. The concept reached its high point in Dual Strike in which COs could combine powers and deliver some truly nasty offensives. Unfortunately, such a concept is ultimately a detriment to the gameplay; gamers would be focused more on charging up powers and dishing out unbalanced onslaughts than on actual tactics. Days of Ruin fixes this by greatly toning down the importance of the CO abilities; though they can make subtle differences in your units’ stats, they won’t necessarily win any battles for you. Even the new unit ranking system, which lets you promote individual units to boost their attack strengths, doesn’t figure largely into the grand scheme of things. As such, the gameplay focuses more on old-fashioned tactics, like acquiring well-placed cities, and the necessity of gathering intel of your enemies and the surrounding terrain.

Taking that into consideration, it isn’t surprising that Days of Ruin can be incredibly hard to beat. Sure, things will start off with a few poorly disguised tutorial battles, but the game’s difficulty level steadily rises with each battle. It won’t be long before you’ve gone from basic infantry tactics to launching missile strikes. The difficulty is not so much about the AI (which rarely disappoints) as it is about the challenges you have to overcome. Imagine having to evacuate survivors across a snowy wasteland while being completely outgunned by a battalion of the strongest tanks in the game. Or trying to take down a base when it’s surrounded by nigh-impenetrable force fields, long-range rocket launchers, and festering marshlands that barely allow you to move only a few spaces per turn. That’s on top of all the harrowing treks across mountain ranges, shattered roadways, and the rest of the ruined landscape. With nearly 30 story missions and extra side-battles to complete, it’ll take some time (and probably a few battery recharges) before you finally get to the campaign’s end.

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But if getting annihilated for making one wrong move gets on your nerves, you’ll probably spend more time playing through the Free Battle mode. The game sports 28 classic battlegrounds for you and the computer to duke it out. Combined with the maps that support two, three, and four players, you’re given a selection of over 150 battlegrounds. You’ll be able to customize everything from the weather conditions, number of turns, and which of the AI-controlled COs will help you during team battles. The Design Mode has returned as well, allowing you to create and customize tons of unique maps and scenarios. The flipside of this, however, is the fact that you don’t have to spend the points you earned during the campaign to unlock new maps. Considering that the dual-screen battles and the Survival and Combat Modes from Dual Strike have also been killed off, Days of Ruin might look pretty bare to series veterans.

There isn’t much in terms of unlockable content, either. Obsessive gamers will still have a hell of a time trying to get high scores (and the subsequent rankings) for the story missions, but those don’t matter much. The majority of the COs can be eventually played, but given the fairly small cast of characters, that might not be worth it either. You’ll be awarded special medals for performing certain tasks in the game, like getting several S Rankings during the campaign mode or racking up victories on WiFi. Those exist for the sake of the completionists, but will mean little to the average gamer looking for a great tactical experience. Then there’s the unlockable music to consider, but generic techno/rock tracks will get old before you’ve gone through the entire list. Overall, it feels bland, limited, and slightly disappointing.

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However, Days of Ruin has a trump card: online multiplayer. It’s easily the most important new feature; given the stunted single-player mode, it’s vital to the game’s longevity. You and a friend (with the necessary Codes exchanged) can spend many a gameplay session figuring out each other’s tactics and attacking accordingly. There are few things more enjoyable than picking apart your rival’s well-crafted strategies and mercilessly goading him or her over the voice chat. Or if you think taking on unknown opponents is a more daunting challenge, the random search option can provide plenty of people eager to riddle your forces with pixilated bullets. But in case you feel like taking a break from all the bloodshed, the game also provides you the means to trade battlefields that you’ve created, try random levels, or download a series of recommended maps. These hefty multiplayer features, combined with the single-player gameplay modes, ensures that you won’t be putting down Days of Ruin anytime soon.

Look, folks. If you have any interest in strategy warfare games whatsoever, then do yourself a favor and get this game. It’s a wonderful departure from the happy-go-lucky Advance Wars games of old; the post-apocalyptic realm of Rubinelle is certainly not what you’d expect from the series. The core gameplay mechanics, however, have not been altered much. You’ll still be in for the gridded, turn-based bloodbaths that have made previous titles so popular. With the toning down of the CO Powers, you’ll be allowed to focus more on actual tactics involved. This game will kick your ass at one point or another; it’s just a matter of how well you can deal with its demanding missions. Though the single-player modes and unlockables have been greatly diminished, the wealth of multiplayer options will keep you coming back for more. It may be the end of the world, but it’s damned fun.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2005.

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