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Alpha Centauri was, as far as I can remember, my introduction to the Civilization series and, by some strange coincidence, released ten years ago today. In the years between Civilizations two and three, the legendary Sid Meier and Firaxis games released this dark slice of 4x strategy. Upon reaching a Space Race victory in Civilization, the completed spacecraft sets off on its journey into distant space, to escape the strife on Earth and colonise a new home for mankind. Alpha Centauri is what happens next.

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Advance Wars: Dark Conflict- DS.

For anyone who’s played any of the previous games in the series, it’s business as usual. New campaign, new units, and some mechanic tweaking, but, essentially, it’s still the same game. For those of you just joining us, it’s a deceptively simple, turn-based strategy game, where you build up an army of cartoon-ish soldiers and tanks, and command them through a series of story-linked scenarios, the various skirmish modes, or the online multiplayer.

Oh yes, online multiplayer.

As well as being able to upload and download custom maps, you can now, bloody finally, take the fight online. This alone makes it the definitive version of Advance Wars, despite the changes; the obvious one being the visuals.

From the colourful, upbeat world at war of the previous games we are transported to a new world of desperate survival against bandits and plagues in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It would be silly to call the new style “realistic” as the main character looks like he’s had a face transplant from Mickey Mouse, but it’s a step in a slightly more mature direction.

It’s as if the game has suddenly developed from a young child to a fourteen year old, and started listening to Linkin Park. And speaking of music, more turn based strategy games need rock music. Nothing starts a turn off better than your Commanding Officer’s signature tune blasting out of the DS speakers.

Anyway, ignoring the “Advance Wars: The Angsty Teen Years” shell, it’s a still Advance Wars at its core, but Intelligent Systems have been tinkering with more than just the visuals. DC doesn’t fall for the dual screen gimmick, like Dual Strike did, and has disposed of dual screen battles; the top screen is just for map and unit info. There is a new assortment of units, but they are actually functional, as opposed to the increasingly bigger tanks that have appeared previously.

A few of the highlights include: Motorcycles, which are fast semi-infantry that can capture cities; Flare Tanks, that can fire flares, surprisingly, to remove sections of the fog of war; and APCs, which aren’t new, but have been renamed Mobile Workshops and now have the ability to setup temporary docks and airbases on the map.

The biggest changes arriving with Dark Conflict are those to the CO (Commanding Officers) powers, after the “Eagle’s power is so good let’s make it even better and give it to everyone” of Dual Strike they’ve been toned down a bit, and are more difficult to activate. COs have to possess a unit on the field in order to build up their CO powers. It’s very similar to how the powers were generated before, but it requires you to think about what type of unit they should commandeer and where they would be most effective. It also carries with it the risk of losing your CO, and losing all the power they’ve built up. The best thing about this new system is that it effectively stops matches turning into CO power ping pong; you can use them to break through the enemy army without worrying about doing enough damage to set off the their own power the following turn, making them rarer, but more significant.

And briefly touching on the story, it’s shite. On one hand it’s trying to be more serious, with characters droning on about how “War is so terrible, blah, blah, blah”, but then there’s some utter nonsense about a mysterious flower virus that turns people into bouquets. It’s also riddled with the usual anime clichés of stupid bloody amnesiac characters, melodramatic banter, and lots of sentences that just trail off…

Not that it makes any difference, though, as you can just skip all that guff and get straight into the action.

The thing with the Advance Wars series is that they nailed the basic mechanics so well in the first game they’ve only needed to make incremental changes since then, just adding the odd new unit or CO with each incarnation. Strangely enough, this leads someone like me to have this nagging feeling that I’ve just been playing the same game since 2001. Dark Conflict, however, is the first game that feels like a full step forward, or, at least, in a different direction.

Using the Advance Wars name as a brand and setting it in a different universe opens up a world of opportunities for the future; in the same way that the Total war series has remained fresh by jumping to different periods in history, maybe we could even see Advance Wars: Generic Fantasy Land, or Advance Wars: Holy Shit, Space!

So, for first time buyers, it’s one of, if not the, best turn-based strategy game available on the DS and, for long time fans, the mechanical changes and online play make it different enough to warrant a look.