Field Commander Review
If so, you already know how wonderfully addictive Nintendo's military-themed strategy games are.
If not, you've been missing out.
Either way, now is your chance to play Advance Wars on the PlayStation Portable. Sort of.
Although they've named it Field Commander, this new game from Sony Online Entertainment is so much like Advance Wars that the similarities far outweigh the differences. The 3D graphics and "mature" presentation lend SOE's product its own unique personality, for better or worse, but the underlying gameplay shamelessly and gladly copies every nuance of the formula that was once exclusive to Nintendo's platforms.
That's not to say that the folks at SOE didn't implement a few tweaks here and there, because they certainly did. Most notable is the inclusion of online-based multiplayer play, the one feature that Nintendo never bothered to implement in its series (much to the chagrin of fans like myself).
So what's Field Commander like? It's military-themed. It's turn-based. It has an overhead-perspective viewpoint. It's just like Advance Wars!
Two armies are situated at opposite ends of the battlefield (the game board). The battlefield is segmented into squares, similar to a chess board, each square representing a piece of terrain, a road, or a property. During a turn, one side can move its given units, buy new units from factories, and command its active units to attack opposing units or capture properties. After the first side has made its moves and has selected "end turn" from the popup menu, the other side then gets to make its moves. And so it goes, turn by turn, as tanks and infantry trade damage and cities are captured, until one side eliminates all of the other side's units or captures its headquarters.
Unit types come in a wide variety of flavors. There are roughly 35 in all. Foot soldiers include grunts, spec ops, and snipers. Grunts are your basic infantry, armed with an M-16 machine gun. Spec ops can lay mines and launch long-distance artillery attacks. Snipers, meanwhile, can "cloak" themselves and dish out major damage with their armor-piercing bullets. Foot soldiers are the only units capable of capturing properties, such as cities, factories, airports, seaports, and headquarters (typically within 2 turns). Of the many land vehicles available, the most fun to use are tanks, anti-aircraft batteries, and rocket launchers. Certain vehicles, like scout jeeps and supply trucks, can also transport foot soldiers and refuel vehicles. There are air and water-based units as well, a nice assortment of transports, attack choppers, submarines, and battleships that help players make use of every square on the playfield.
All of the precedents set by Advance Wars are at work in Field Commander. Each unit has 10 hit points. When a unit's hit points drop to zero, or the unit runs out of fuel, it explodes and leaves the playfield. Units can be refueld and repaired (2 HP per turn) by situating them atop friendly cities and factories. New units can be produced from factories, airports, and seaports, using the money that occupied cities give you each turn. The majority of units can only attack adjacent units, although rocket launchers and battleships can make indirect attacks against units situated multiple squares away. Attacking units dole out damage first, and then the unit being attacked automatically dishes out a lesser amount in an automatic counter-attack. Terrain, such as forests, cities, and mountains, can provide a defensive boost, or, in the case of swamps and rivers, a defensive shortfall. In "fog of war" situations, where visibility is limited, you can hide units in forests and swamps, such that they can't be attacked unless an enemy unit "uncloaks" them by landing on an adjacent square.
Field Commander also borrows the concept of CO Powers from Advance Wars, although the blokes at SOE were legal-savvy enough to name their feature "division powers." To keep it short and sweet, a division power is a special ability that you can activate once you've built-up your division power meter (by doling out damage). Fill the meter half-way and you can activate a level-1 ability. Fill it completely and you can activate a level-2 ability or use your level-1 ability twice. There are 35 different divisions to pick from, and each army has its own unique battlefield traits and division powers. The Hitmen, for example, have strong stealth units and their long-range units have an expanded firing range, but their foot soldiers capture properties at half the speed other armies do. The level-1 division power for the Hitmen is "Hawkeye," which gives additional firing range to long-range units and doles out a 15% damage boost for one turn. The level-2 power for the Hitmen allows long-range units to move and fire in the same turn, and doles out a 25% damage buff for one turn. As you can see, division powers add an extra dose of strategy to an already intricate game.
What made Advance Wars great, and, in turn, what makes Field Commander great, is the rock-paper-scissors dynamic that exists between the units. Every unit has its own armor rating, with tanks having the most, but each unit also has specific advantages and disadvantages toward other units or in certain situations. Anti-aircraft batteries can totally shred air units and foot soldiers, for example, but they're practically worthless against tanks. The same relationship exists between submarines, battleships, and corvettes. A sub can obliterate a battleship, which can thrash a corvette, which can demolish a submarine with depth charges and undersea mines. And then there are units like the rocket launcher, which can dish out massive damage across long-distances, but has very little armor and no ability to attack directly-adjacent units.
It's the interplay of all of those factors; movement range, terrain, unit strengths, weapon types, etc.; that makes Advance Wars, Field Commander, and others of their ilk so compelling and addictive.
Of course, Field Commander isn't an exact copy of Advance Wars. Anyone that has cut their teeth on Nintendo's franchise will notice a fair number of changes, minor and major, that generally do more to improve the formula than subtract from it. Stealth units, such as cloaked tanks and snipers, add new wrinkles to gameplay with their ability to become invisible, as do spec ops and corvette sea cruisers (with their ability to lay mines). I'm personally very happy that rocket launchers can fire on air units, something they couldn't do in Advance Wars. One of the more significant changes has to do with the ability of tank units to "attack" cities and forests. If you can't capture a dense city, you can fire on it and scare off half the population, turning it into a sparse city and thus halving the tax money your enemy collects from the property. Likewise, if dense trees are blocking your path, you can blast them to clear the way and to eliminate potential hiding spots. Another major tweak that Field Commander implements is the ability to "stack" certain units so that they occupy the same square on the playfield. You can rest an air unit above a ground or sea unit, for example, and situate a sea unit on top of a submerged submarine. Credit is due to the team at SOE for doing their part to evolve the blueprint set forth by Advance Wars, and not just straight copying Nintendo's games for a quick cash-in.
Whether you're new to the turn-based strat genre or are a seasoned veteran, you'll find that Field Commander is easy to learn, easy to control, and has a feature set that'll keep you coming back again and again.
A brief three-mission tutorial will get you up to speed on the basics.
As it is, the controls are fairly easy to get the hang of. The directional pad and X-button are used to select units, direct their movements, and accept menu choices.
Single player options include a lengthy campaign (27 missions) and 27 additional standalone missions that can be played anytime. The CPU plays a relatively smart game and doesn't seem to fall for any of the typical tricks that the CPU in Advance Wars did. Also, the CPU in Field Commander isn't omniscient in fog of war situations. I always hated how enemy units in Advance Wars would just scoot right up to my units that were supposedly hidden in the trees. In Field Commander, it's obvious from the CPU's movements that it can't "see" hidden or cloaked units.
Multiplayer games can be initiated using a single PSP (pass-and-play), two PSP systems (ad hoc), or a single PSP and a WiFi hotspot (infrastructure). A chess-like "play by mail" mode, called Transmission mode, lets you carry out multiplayer games in small chunks of time. One player logs in, makes his or her moves, and then logs out. Later on, the other player logs in, makes his moves, and then logs out. In this way, an entire match can be played over the course of hours or days, even if neither player can devote more than a few minutes at a time to each round. The same 54 maps available for play against the CPU can be tackled against a human opponent.
Ranking leaderboards are tracked online for every game mode: single, ad hoc, infrastructure, transmission. When you log in, your single player stats are automatically updated.
There's also a mission editor that lets you populate any of 206 premade map templates with whatever mixture of units and properties suit your fancy. The editor in Advance Wars was more versatile, since it let you edit the terrain as well, but Field Commander makes up for that lack of flexibility by letting you store an unlimited number of custom missions (as opposed to just 3). If all that weren't plenty enough, you can use your custom missions in multiplayer games, and upload your missions to the server for others to download, thus giving the game virtually unlimited replay.
Overall, the process of initiating and playing games online is quick and painless. Logging in to the server takes a few seconds and requires a few button presses. After that, you simply select a game that someone is hosting or host your own. Bandwidth and lag really aren't factors, since the turn-based nature of the game pretty much forces players to wait until their opponent is done thinking and issuing commands. There aren't any text or voice-chat features, which may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal tastes.
One thing I've noticed while playing the game online is that it already has a good-sized community of players. The online lobbies for many PSP games are usually empty, even those for high-profile titles. Field Commander went on sale in limited release on May 19th, 2006. I first went online with it on May 22nd and there were already 6 people logged in and more than 60 listed on the leaderboard. When I logged in at 2PM on May 24th, the game's first day in wide release, I found 12 people in the lobby and more than 300 listed on the leaderboard. 30 seconds after I had setup a game to host, someone had joined my game.
About the only aspect I can see turning people off, assuming we're talking about strat-lovers here, is the game's presentation. Advance Wars employed Manga style character and unit designs to give the game a colorful look and an absolutely lovable personality. Field Commander, by contrast, takes a serious approach, with realistically styled vehicles and stereotypical "jarhead" characters. There's even some blood shed here and there. When you gun down infantry units, their blood erupts into the air. The story in the single player mode is also very forgettable. It involves the good guys, ATLAS, trying to stop the bad guys, Shadow Nation, from building and using a machine that will unleash disastrous weather phenomena on the world's major population centers. At least the characters play their roles well. SOE hired the folks from Animaze to do the voice-acting, and thank God for that. Some people will like the "mature" attitude that Field Commander tries to convey. Some people won't. Not that it ultimately matters, since gameplay is king when it comes to turn-based strats.
All of the technical stuff is about on par with what the PSP hardware is capable of. The 3D polygon graphics rest somewhere between the PSOne and the PS2 in terms of overall quality. Not many polygons went into terrain and environmental features, so the ground and sky look simplistic and blocky (particularly in close-up views). By contrast, loads of polys went into fabricating units and structures, so they look extremely detailed. Miscellaneous visual effects, such as transparent water and ambient weather, also help elevate the game's eye-candy to some extent. There are cutaway animations for all of the various attacks, which are rather cool to watch, but most players will probably turn these off in order to hasten the pace of games. Meanwhile, the audio consists of a good variety of "yes sir" and bang-bang sound effects, along with some suitably-serious music that's best described as classical meets somber.
As a total package, Field Commander is easily one of the best turn-based strategy games ever produced. That's no surprise, since it's basically a knock-off of Nintendo's Advance Wars. For anyone of a logical bent that hasn't yet played a game like this, the purchase is a no-brainer (do it). Someone that has already played the hell out of Advance Wars, Advance Wars 2, and Advance Wars: Dual Strike may develop a palpable "been there, done that" feeling with Field Commander, especially with regards to solo play against the CPU, but the online modes offer a fresh way to experience the genre that Nintendo's subsequent sequels have failed to provide.
5/24/2006 Frank Provo