We love Advance Wars on DS. It's addictive, well presented and brilliant fun. It appears that Ubisoft loves Advance Wars, too, because, bar a few subtle tweaks of the tried and trusted turn-based battle system, it's basically cribbed the Nintendo-made nugget and dressed it in Tom Clancy-inspired war gear for the DS version of its experimental voice command RTS EndWar.
Is that doing the game a disservice? Have a look at the screen shots. If you weren't such a keen-eyed and knowledgeable gamer, you might mistake them for grabs of Nintendo's title. Top down perspective? Check. Grid-based movement? Check. Turn-based battling? Check. Cartoony unit face offs on the top screen? Check. Taken at face value, there's a danger of labelling EndWar a "rip-off" and cast the thing aside like a cheap Wii Sports clone.
This isn't fair, of course, and doesn't paint an entirely accurate story. It's not as if Nintendo can lay claim to the entire "cartoon turn-based strategy" genre and prevent others from trying their luck. And, to its credit, developer Funatics Software, drafted in by Ubisoft to make the game more than a lazy handheld port, has come up with some interesting ideas that at the very least make you think a little differently than Advance Wars vets might have done in the past.
Chief of these is the splitting your typical "turn" into two phases. Instead of moving and then firing in the same turn, as you traditionally do in these kind of games, you have a movement phase, where you, obviously, move your units, and an action phase, where you direct attacks. While one player plans his attacks the other player plans his movements. Then, at the end of each phase the commands of both players are evaluated, via a futuristic satellite uplink thingy. The actions get priority, then the movements. Then, in the next phase, the roles are reversed, to keep everything fair.
Lost? Head starting to hurt? We don't blame you. It takes a bit of time to grasp but the excellent tutorial will get you there. The point? EndWar reckons its "phase" mechanic makes you think just that little bit harder about the ramifications of your actions. The reality? It doesn't really make much of a difference, put it's pretty cool nonetheless.
In the end, it's EndWar's less talked about "blocking" and "jamming" mechanics which prove to make the difference. Here, you're able to block the movement of enemy units with careful positioning of your own units in adjacent fields. Because a unit loses its remaining movement points if it enters a threatened field, Blocking is a technique that must be mastered.
Jamming is even more essential to your success. Here, surrounding enemy units grants combat bonuses. Place a unit behind an enemy, for example, and you'll get a 50 per cent higher combat bonus. The more units you jam an enemy with, the better the bonus. In this way, weaker units, like basic infantry, can gang up on more powerful units, like tanks, and stand a chance.
The Blocking and Jamming systems make EndWar feel more like a game of chess than the more brutish Advance Wars. There's no base building in EndWar, although there are resource granting structures to capture, like docks, that have a finite number of resources with which you're able to build a limited number of units. In Advance Wars, you're often able to win by pumping out loads of tanks and simply overwhelming the enemy with brute force. That won't work with EndWar, and it leaves a refreshing taste in the mouth because of it.
Bar this, it's as you were, soldier. EndWar, as you'd expect, features multiple units of destruction across land, sea and air types. Knowledge of what works best against what, in classic RTS rock, paper, scissors fashion, will serve you well. As your units defeat other units they will gain experience and their stats will improve, giving the game an interesting dynamic where you need to focus on taking down strong enemy units before they rank up to a level where they're almost invincible. The maps are a little tight, and without base building you won't find yourself commanding massive armies, but overall the experience is a solid one, with blocking and jamming both fun and satisfying.
Funatics' good work with the gameplay is somewhat undone by the disappointingly rough presentation, redundant stylus controls and lack of online play. While the cartooney graphics work well when viewing the game from a top down perspective, the combat animations, where the fighting units square up on the top screen, are, frankly, awful. The battle animations in Advance Wars are great, and, perhaps because of that, EndWar's are distinctly underwhelming. The poor graphics and bland presentation combine to give EndWar an overall lack of oomph that Advance Wars has in spades. EndWar might be about a plausible near-future global conflict involving three hulking superpowers, but we would have liked a bit more excitement.
Using the stylus is pretty much pointless. Selecting units and fields on the map is quite fiddly, and quite a lot of work on the wrist, so you'll soon gravitate towards using the d-pad and face buttons which, once you get familiar with what's what, is a quicker and more intuitive control system. While this is somewhat disappointing, it's a similar case with Advance Wars, so we can't criticise EndWar too much for not making the most of the DS' unique stylus controls.
The lack of online play is made more prominent because Advance Wars has it, but there is a wireless two-player mode that requires each person to have a copy of the game. To be honest, it'll take you ages to work through the three meaty campaigns anyway, one for the Europeans, Americans and Russians (a structure that mimics EndWar's more illustrious 'next-gen' cousins). And, when you're done with that, you can always create and share maps wirelessly using the solid map editor (sharing user-generated content between DS' via the internet would have been too good to be true).
Still, we can't help but come to the conclusion that while EndWar provides DS owners with an alternative turn-based strategy experience, it does not provide them with a better one. That's not to say it's not worth picking up. It's just that Advance Wars is still our preferred fodder when the handheld strategy cravings start to bite.