Sunday, December 09, 2007

Byte: Give him a squad, see what he can do

I wasn't quite right in my previous post, there was a game out this week that I was interested in, and picked up yesterday.

Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command, for the DS. People only seem to have been reviewing the PSP version so far, with no reviews at all for the DS version having hit Metacritic as yet. Normally, you could take this as being a bad sign for the quality of the game (especially with some of the reviews for the PSP version being hardly stellar), but in this case, I think you can put it down more to the publisher trying to boost sales on the PSP. Whenever you get a game coming out on more than one format, more often than not, the review copies that go out will be on the Sony formats, not the Nintendo ones. I guess this used to be down to Sony historically having the larger market share, but now (with the DS and the Wii absolutely trouncing Sony's current generation of hardware in terms of sales) it kind of makes more sense to put out review copies for the Sony formats, rather than the Nintendo ones, because it's more likely to aid sales. Or maybe in this specific case, they don't expect Squad Command to have much of an impact on the kiddie-friendly DS market, so don't want to justify the cost of sending out the review copies for a small return. They may be right - but it still leaves the people who are interested in the title in the position of needing to take a complete shot in the dark, should they hand over their £30 for the game.

So, in the interests of public service (and because I'm a sucker for turn-based strategy), I bought the game in HMV yesterday and played through the opening few levels last night.

First impressions aren't bad, actually. Obviously, being on the DS means that it's never going to rival the PSP version for looks, but it's graphically quite effective. Units are recognisably scouts or Chaos marines and considering the small resolution of the DS screen, the weapons are modelled quite well.

The interface is pretty good, and the touch screen is used well, allowing you to directly select units, weapons, stance and targetting options without having fiddle about through menus or push loads of buttons. Less impressive, however, is the 3D camera. You can move it around a bit to try and help you look around corners, but the movement range is limited and feels a little like an afterthought. It really falls between two stools: it's neither a fully effective fixed camera (the dithering of objects to make them transparent when one of your units goes behind them isn't great, and also doesn't apply to enemy units, allowing them to hide behind walls, so you can't target them effectively, even if they're within line of sight of the unit) nor is it a fully-functional moveable 3D camera, which would allow you not to have to use the ineffective object dithering at all. It's an annoyance rather than a full-blown impediment to playing the game, because at least with the DS version, you have full-visibility of the tactical map on the second screen at all times, and all enemy units within line of sight are fully marked, but it does make you wish that they'd spent a little bit of extra money sorting out the camera to make it fully rotateable. Or if they couldn't have done that, would adding the ability to do a Sims-style wall drop (where you still see a footprint to show you that an object is there, but you can see behind the object) really have killed them? It seems like they picked the worst of all possible solutions.

A slightly bigger problem is that the game doesn't track units as they move or fire, which can be particularly annoying during the enemy turn, because if you don't happen to be looking at the right part of the map, you have absolutely no clue what's going on. It also is highly annoying when you're doing long distance sniper shots, as you can't track the fire from source to destination, so if it goes awry and hits some scenery (or, Emperor forbid, one of your squad) somewhere, you're left pretty much clueless as to where or why. This is a feature UFO: Enemy Unknown grasped as being absolutely necessary nearly 15 years ago, so for Squad Command not to do it is nigh-on unforgiveable. Really, I mean, that's -2 off the score right there...

There are a lot of things to like, though. Firstly, it's Warhammer 40,000. Secondly, it's turn-based. I know a lot of people would not agree with me on that point, but they're fools, frankly. Thirdly, you're not just restricted to standard aimed, snap or auto shots, with fixed levels of accuracy. The game allows you to take as many of your action points a turn as you dare to make a shot. The more action points you spend, the more accurate the shot is. This is seriously awesome, especially when you start getting sniper rifles. You can just set up end-of-turn overwatch ambushes and snipe cultists from halfway across the map. It's a feature that can make you want to fight battles very defensively, but I suspect that later in the game, when the difficulty starts ramping up, this is something you're going to want to do anyway, as you're restricted to just six units, and you can't reinforce your squad. Which seems pretty mean, when you're typically outnumbered by about three to one. Another feature I liked is that your action points are only consumed by movement or firing. Switching from primary to secondary weapons or turning doesn't eat up any of your action points for the turn, which is a welcome tweak, as there was nothing worse in UFO/X-Com than needing to make a soldier turn to be able to take a shot at an enemy, only to end up being a time unit short of being able to fire.

One thing I've not been able to try yet is the multiplayer, but it sounds promising. You can play head-to-head with a single cart, or go for all-out eight-way multiplayer, on small, medium or large maps. I reckon a single eight-way turn-based multiplayer game on a large map would set you up for the entire evening. I'll have to try and get my DS working with the wireless to try it out (as you can play online).

Overall then, based on the first three levels, Squad Command is a game I could describe as being worthy: not the exceptional piece of gamecraft it could (perhaps should) have been with this license, but it hardly blows chunks, either. I may get around to posting a full review when I finish the single-player campaign, for a more definitive verdict. But yeah... s'okay.
Post a Comment