Dark Conflict - Back in Time? -- An article by Tommy
(Notes: Famicom Wars unit and faction names may vary due to whichever translation patch you use. When I refer to Advance Wars, it is the series, not the game. I'll refer to that as AW1 or Advance Wars 1.)
So, I finally procured an English version of the game that started it all, Famicom Wars. Released in 1988 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and developed by Intelligent Systems, who continue to publish the Nintendo Wars series today. Famicom Wars was completely original for the time, and still maintains a cult following in Japan, because it was just that good. The series still ranges today, through FW's direct sequel Super Famicom Wars, then the Game Boy Wars series for the Game Boy (although GBW Turbo, 2 and 3 were developed by Hudson Soft), and finally moving onto the groundbreaking Advance Wars series, whose current instalment, Dark Conflict, was released in 2008, just last year.
I'm going to compare Famicom Wars and Advance Wars, to see if Dark Conflict is more of a step back towards the past than towards the future in terms of game play, by playing through a little of Famicom Wars and a little of the newest addition to the Wars series, Dark Conflict (Days of Ruin to Americans, but since I'm British, I will continue to use Dark Conflict, so unlucky), and comparing elements contributing to the enjoyment of the game such as soundtrack, units, game mechanics and other elements. I'm gonna start with comparing the introductions to both games.
Having booted up Famicom Wars, I'm greeted by the familiar 8-bit graphics of the time and a bloody awesome intro, much better than any Advance Wars game up to Dark Conflict. Its cheeky Japanese charm and "innocence" (if you can get much of that in a war game) is a complete reverse to the apocalyptic tone of Dark Conflict, set after a world annihilation.
But when you start up the game, it becomes clear that the Japanese charm is parallel to global politics of the time. Analogous to the United States is "Red Star", and consequently, "Blue Moon" is a computer game version of the USSR. Considering the Cold War never brought the nuclear holocaust that was speculated, maybe Dark Conflict was Intelligent Systems' view of life in a futuristic, disaster-torn world and could be a direct follow-up to the original Famicom Wars?
Maybe not. Stupid idea. Get on with it.
Let's have a look at the units in Famicom Wars. Most of the base units in the Advance Wars games are here, Infantry (Man), Mechs, Anti-Airs, Missiles (Landrover) and the like. There are only two tanks as in Advance Wars 1, the more powerful Tank A (a Medium Tank), and the cheaper Tank B (a normal Tank). Same goes for Rockets and Artillery, their FW counterparts being Missile A (Rockets) and Missile B (Artillery). Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the Transport unit and the Supply unit, which were eventually replaced by the APC. The Transport has light arms, and can carry troops, and the Supply units supply vehicles with fuel and ammunition, vital aspects of the game which are even present here in FW.
Air units basically parallel DC as far as planes are concerned, with a Bomber unit, a Plane A (fighter/interceptor unit), a Plane B (duster/fighter unit), and a copter, which doubles up as an airborne Transport unit. Sea units in FW unfortunately lack variety (which is wholly made up for as both can attack ANY unit in the game), with just a unit entitled Ship (Battleship + indirect cruiser) and a Destroyer, which is basically a lander. With guns.
The gameplay offers a different experience to Advance Wars, because you are not told how much damage the unit is going to do when it attacks the opposition, or movement range or fire radius, making the game have a risk factor not normally associated with the AW series. Units can counter bombers, and sea units can attack any unit in the game as previously mentioned, adding a whole new dimension to the game. The lack of COs makes it more tactical, relying on tactical awareness to defeat the opponent, although it detracts tactically through the lack of Fog of War and various weather conditions. Transport units can't load and move in the same turn (much to my dismay), and there is no transport helicopter at all, leading to a slow start to game play (which of course, has been remedied for fast paced on the go gaming). Units do not heal on cities or join with other units, enabling pretty easy destruction of damaged units. The mechanics are similar yet unfamiliar, the same yet different.
Playing through Famicom Wars is a joy, to be honest, a real blast from the past. The battle animations are chirpy and funny (the shouting commanders are funny as), even if the graphics are a little bit backdated (it was 1988, what do you expect?). The soundtrack is classic 8-bit- although repetitive (such as the noise every time you move over a square with your cursor, or the siren each time a new turn begins), the music itself is easy to listen to. The game play is solid- foundations for the complexity and addiction of the Advance Wars series, although a bit rough and rugged around the edges. The maps are classic, and have been ever present in the AW series since (Bean Island, Triangles, Crater Isle, Alara Range and the Cube Keys, a selection of 17, all present in the Classics section in your Advance Wars game), which quite frankly signifies their playability and character to stand the test of time. I sometimes wonder why they didn't release this in the West, because it is a very good game, a significant landmark in turn based strategy on a video game unit.
Dark Conflict was released in January 2008, to critical acclaim. A departure from the more traditional Wars World universe that was the setting for the first three Advance Wars games, Dark Conflict spun a tale of tragedy, defeat, hope, inhumanity and determination. It seems a long way from Famicom Wars, the ancestor to the Advance Wars series, with the sort of progress 20 years of video gaming evolution could bring. Improved graphics, improved soundtrack, the fact it was on a little cartridge that was miniscule compared to the FW cartridge, the list goes on.
These sorts of things can be put down to time. Intelligent Systems had a brilliant original idea, and Dark Conflict is the continuation of that brilliant original idea. With current talk about an environmental disaster, the degeneration of the human populace and the plight of Third World countries, it seemed natural to draw away from fantasy armies and evil geniuses bent on immortality and world domination. Dark Conflict presented a more realistic taste on the previous image projected by previous Advance Wars games. It is as politically topical as Famicom Wars was twenty years ago, dealing with issues such as human cloning, a struggle against pandemics and facing up to a changed global scene.
Back to the game, then.
The units have been bolstered with the addition of new units, the restructuring of some, and the removal of others. The addition of Bikes made a fast paced game even more speedy, the Anti-Tank more spoilt for choice. The Flare is a decent tactical unit, despite its uselessness against any sort of vehicle. The Fighter (Duster for Americans) is a cheaper way to get air superiority that kicks the arse of Copters, and the Missile Boat, which I personally think is underrated, provides a valuable tool for taking out Cruisers and rushing Infantry units to bases.
Restructuring or altering some units has left battle mechanics still uneven. The Battleships controversial ability to move and fire on the same turn has provoked some comments of how unbalanced it is, albeit reducing the sheer power and defensive capabilities that it enjoyed in previous Advance Wars games. The ability of APCs (now called Mobile Workshops, or Rigs) to construct temporary ports and airports and supply anything and transport infantry is a bit remote, but it sort of works in DC, although in the interest of balancing, a split may have been wiser. The removal of the AW:DS Megatank and installation of the new Tank structure (Tank, Heavy/Medium Tank, Mega/War Tank) is better than before, in my opinion. Tanks on wheels (Neotanks) were stupid enough.
The removal of some units has balanced the game as well. No longer can people run around in invisible fighters shooting on everything it sees. That's a good thing.
Now, the game play, the crux of the matter. The CO system has been vastly improved from the previous Advance Wars games. They have done away with game-changing Super CO Powers and even more game-changing Tag Powers. The whole of the happy clappy (especially YOU, Andy!) Wars World lot have been eradicated to make way for a bunch of characters that face real moral dilemmas. The system is intriguing, though. A CO has to enter a unit for any units around it to even be boosted, and he/she can only charge their CO Power meter when killing units within that zone. It shifts the emphasis back to strategy and tactics, like the good old days of... yes... Famicom Wars. The other real changes to game play have come through the advent of new units which is discussed above, the introduction of new terrain such as ruins and flames also add a new depth, particularly to Fog of War games. The game play isn't without its detractions, however, with a lack of Hard Campaign and War Room to really test even the most hardcore player. It is really a barebones type of game.
Dark Conflict is a measure of how much a game can evolve/devolve into a well finished, well organised product. With access to Nintendo's WFC, and downloadable maps, the game strives to recompense the loss of War Room and Hard Campaign (although the Trial Maps are fun and challenging, which would have ultimately polished off an already superb game. The battle animations are gritty and desperate. The soundtrack is advancement on the usual MIDI format, now sounding a lot fresher than the same old Andy's Theme. The return to stringent tactical work and reading of the game, and a whole new universe to play around with brings a fresh and welcome addition to the Wars franchise.
There is no doubt how much the Wars series has matured. FW's initial game play set the benchmark for improvement upon improvement in the series, each taking a twist towards a fantasy world as it went along. Dark Conflict has dispensed with the cuteness, and reverted to the Intelligent Systems spin on the world, present and future, similar to Famicom Wars' take on the Cold War. The game system has become more tactical, with less reliance on super-units and SCOPs, harking back to Famicom Wars. But it retains hallmarks of the more recent developments in the Wars series, such as Fog of War, unit refinements and variety, various terrains and COs, albeit being toned down.
What Dark Conflict strikes is a balance between the rough and tumble game play, the realism and tactical awareness of Famicom Wars, and the refinements of time and the balancing of the system that the Advance Wars series has provided in the two decade gap between release dates. By no means is it a perfect game; the Mobile Workshop can do too much, and in my opinion would have benefited from a Famicom-style split and the lack of Hard Campaign and War Room cripples single player replayability (bar the Trial Maps). But Dark Conflict is a revival of the franchise- a crisp and fresh perspective that owes much of its success to the grandpappy of the Wars series.
[credit to Trance Blossom of Advance Wars Network for the awesome background on Stolos'/Caulder's image. Great wallpapers, btw.]