Console Game Review: E3 2006: Field Commander
Surprise, surprise: a turn-based strategy game on a Playstation Portable? Bill Trotter explains how this modern rendition of Panzer General works as a video game.
“Many a good tune left in an old fiddle…”
When I first looked at a demon of Field Commander for the Playstation Portable, my first reaction was that it was just another handheld game. But then, as the animated units started doing their thing and we saw the demonstrator pull of some nifty tactical combinations with units that did not, at first glance, seem capable of doing those things, I began to perk up. Yeah, okay, that was kind of cool; show us more.
I began leaning closer and taking notes with more diligence. The first thing about the game that signaled originality was the fact that Field Commander was the first turned-based game I’d seen in some time. The second thing I noticed was that the combination of 36 different units with wildly varied maps opened up a mathematically vast number of possible permutations. When I learned that the game also comes with a full mission-customizing kit, I felt the first stirrings of genuine interest.
Yes, the basic combat resolution is still scissors-rock-paper, but some of the units, especially in imaginative combinations, started to resemble a real wargame; the gradations of damage and the balance between unit strengths and vulnerabilities appears well conceived. It looks as though every unit, no matter how weak, can get lucky and do at least some damage to every other unit, even the strongest; not always, but enough times to make the element of chance a hovering presence – which in turn, encourages players who have nothing to lose to try illogical and desperate maneuvers because they just might get lucky.
Each of the thirty-odd maps in the single-player campaign differs, in terrain and distribution of objectives, from the others; moving ahead in the game requires a willingness to take your lumps and really study what the units you have are capable of doing on the landscape you’ve been dealt.
Many of the units have exceptional abilities (and are very cleverly designed), but they also have at least one exceptional weakness. Clear strategic thinking really is required to get the appropriate counter-unit in the right place to make maximum use of it. Sniper units, for example, are costly and vulnerable to over-run attacks, but they’re invisible unless you stumble over them or figure out where the enemy might have placed them; on the other hand, they can bushwhack officers and special-ops infantry and sometimes do significant damage to weapons and vehicles. There are amphibious warships, multiple types of aircraft and missiles, scouts with jet packs on their backs.
Of the games most readers are likely to be familiar with, Field Commander most closely resembles Panzer General (not a bad thing) but, unlike that SSI classic, the designers swear they’ve not included any “impossible” missions, like the later ones in Panzer General which drove many players batty with frustration.
Given my disdain for overly twitchy RTS games, the more leisurely turn-based pace of Field Commander should make it an on-line game for players who don’t usually like on-line games. And if you think the games play-out too slowly, you can seek out opponents who’re playing with high-pressure time limits.
When the demo started, I was prepared to stay as briefly as I could without being rude; I ended up staring, mesmerized, for the better part of an hour. Part of that time was dominated by The Wargamer’s Chris Abele, who had to be severely beaten before he would relinquish the control pad to anyone else.
Pardon the clichés, but they happen to be true: easy to learn, hard to master; dangerously addictive; and suitable for brief on-line sessions if your free time is limited. At least half the scenarios can be played to decision in the span of one lunch hour. And best of all, it’s rousing good fun.
As they finally tore themselves away from the demo, Chris and I allowed as how maybe we would have to get a PSP just so we could play this spiffy and hugely entertaining game. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, it just cunningly cherry-picks some time-testing gaming conventions, dresses them up in colorful graphics, and puts them through their paces with a confident sense of élan.
This title could be the “sleeper” sensation of the year, and all of us urgently want to get our hands on it. Field Commander was definitely one of the more agreeable surprises of the show.
About the Author
William R. Trotter was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a graduate of Davidson College. Since 1980, he has supported himself entirely by his freelance writing. In 1987, he became Senior Writer for Imagine Media. His monthly column on war and strategy gaming, "The Desktop General" ran for 15 years and was ultimately read by approximately 1.2 million people, in 13 languages. Bill's journalistic work has appeared in more than 30 newspapers and magazines -- approximately 1,800 by-lined pieces. His 16 published books run the gamut from true crime, biography, history, to mainstream fiction; his most recent novel is "Warrener's Beastie" (due out in late June), about which Publishers Weekly recently said: "Trotter's sprawling novel successfully straddles the line between fantasy, science fiction, and adventure-thriller; it will find a sizable readership in all three camps." Or, as another reviewer quipped: "An oversimplified description might be 'Ship of Fools Goes to Loch Ness' ..." For more on all his books, visit TrotterBooks.com.
Trotter lives in Greensboro, N.C., with his wife, fantasy writer and editor Elizabeth Lustig, and their three sons. When not busy writing or parenting, he spends lots of time trying to figure out how to organize and store his 7000-piece classical music collection.