The Warhammer franchise has had a pretty good run of luck when it comes to video game adaptations. Beginning in the mid Ď90s, both PCs and consoles were treated to an array of both real-time and turn-based releases, and even a first-person shooter or two, in both the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universes. Recently, Relic nailed the 40,000 feel with its Dawn of War releases. Striking while the iron is hot, THQ has released another title in the same universe, Squad Command, from developer RedLynx. Despite some great ideas and good times, fundamental problems keep it from being on par with Relicís offerings.
There is something I find undeniably charming about the over-the-top bloodlust of the 40,000 releases. Heavily armored space marines hopped up on fanaticism can spruce up damn near any game, regardless of its premise. While the Dawn of War titles also featured the Imperial Guard, Squad Command focuses on ground-level Space Marine combat. Similarly, the enemy is also focused, with there being just single foe: the Chaos Space Marines. This focused approach helps to keep the game limited, to fit portable play, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of not taking advantage of the rich universe that the factions are pulled from.
In fact, Squad Command has no personality at all. The DS version lacks the fantastic cutscenes that the PSP version has, replaced with still shots and limit animation Ė they arenít bad, but they lack what little personality the other cutscenes brought. Beyond being useful in providing some motivation and familiarity, things like unit veterancy are basic concepts that have been in pretty much every strategy game in the last few years. Itís a shame that both the franchise and the genre werenít used to full effect.
In contrast to the recent rash of real-time titles, Squad Command is a turn-based title in the vein of X-Com. As such, itís similar to most turn-based games, with action points being used for movement and combat, except here there is no ground grid and it moves at a much faster pace. A pre-mission unit load is presented with only the ability to change which weapon and how much ammo, the latter at the expense of action points, the unit will carry into battle. Not being able to select which units to take into combat feels overly confining, but it does make some sense in context as you are just a squad commander and unit allocation does seem to be a rank or two above. New weapons and units, including vehicles, are unlocked as each of the 15 missions is completed. That game isnít terribly long, but with its missions maxing out at 30 minutes and the entire game running around 6 hours, itís sufficient for a portable title. There is some slowdown though, with framerates slightly stuttering, causing some minor control problems Ė not the best way to gain longevity.
So, you have a Warhammer game with no personality, no unit selection, and almost none of the genre standards, what could be good about that? The combat, that is what could be good about it. And it is. As previously mentioned, the game is fast. Weapon selection and basic movement (crouching) do not take any action points; those are reserved for running around and shooting (or slicing). The only action point taken for non immediate combat maneuvers is Overwatch, a defensive posture that sets your soldier to autofire whenever an enemy walks into their range of fire during their turn. There is also no forced waiting during troop movement, so that after issuing an order to one unit it is possible to jump to the next and continue on. Enemies are a bit too knowing when it comes to player presence, but there is enough cover and armament to compensate. Since squad members cannot be replaced, each member is crucial for success, whether itís shot close-combat scout with the shotgun or the space marine with heavy cannon. Movement is done with the diagonal pad, which is awkward for the first few missions, as is aiming. Once an enemy is in your line of sight, a line indicating accuracy appears Ė struggling to get that line of sight through a tight spot without the precision of analog can be maddening Ė with the standard green to red color scheme indicating how good or poor of a shot it is. Each weapon takes a certain amount of action points to fire, and anything above that minimum goes towards accuracy, with the red portion of the firing line slowly turning green as more points are allocated. This is a pretty good system as it is intuitive and streamlined, and the ability to kneel afterwards with no action points is exactly how it should be.
The fact that nearly everything is destructible ultimately makes kneeling a mute point anyway. If an enemy, or the player, is hidden too long, a concentration of firepower wonít only destroy the cover but could also kill the unit. There is something extremely satisfying about firing a tank round in a dilapidated guard tower and killing entrenched enemy within. This really is one of the main selling points of the game, because it just amps up the chaos of combat so much more than usual. It also has some serious strategic repercussions as well, making tanks and heavy weaponry a fearful site that must be taken out as soon as possible but without being too brash. The enemy isnít the brightest offensive player, but its defensive capabilities are nothing to scoff at.
The weapons are also very well done. There is a wide variety of arms and each holds a tactical significance beyond being short- and long-range. When a unit is handling a shotgun, the animation, sound, and recipient react properly. Similarly, when a sniper round finds its target, the unit gets knocked off his feet and screams in pain. A shame, then, that the audio isnít a bit better, with some audio responses of noticeably inferior quality than other clips and the soundtrack, because the unit models and animation do the combat justice. Still, a muffled scream from being cut in half with a chainsaw suffices enough.
There are some fundamental problems that do bring the game down, though. A really restrictive camera keeps action right on combat, with the analogue stick moving it only just so. This is a serious problem, because units are often behind multiple transparent objects, with the result being that the layers basically cover them up, making it extremely difficult to get a good lead on an enemy. In many situations, the best way to attack an enemy is to get them off-screen so that their position is indicated by a red square, then move the unit in that general direction and do a strategy game version of the pixel hunt by moving the line of sight over the suspected area until it indicates a target. The game is in 3D, and considering how there is combat everywhere and that the environment itself is dangerous, arbitrarily restricting the view makes no sense.
There is also the problem of being unable to deselect units, which resulted in many of my units wondering into the enemyís line of sight and being killed. Selection must be done from unit to unit, which is very draconian and counter to whatís been the norm for years. Selecting multiple units is also troublesome as they arenít overly disciplined and scatter too easily. There is also camera lock on sighted enemies during their turn, which requires you to jump around the remaining units to see what the enemy is up to. All of the gameís problems just donít make any sense; they involve issues that have been worked out years ago and that have no place in a current game.
After stomping out the Chaos solo, the action isnít over quite yet as Squad Command also supports multiplayer. Infrastructure and ad hoc are both supported. This is a good multiplayer title, but Iím not sure who will be playing after a month or two. Hopefully Warhammer fans keep the community going for a bit.
Yes, Warhammer: Squad Command has a lot Ė a whole lot Ė of problems. Everything from a rigid camera angle to aging game mechanics have somehow found their way into an otherwise excellent title. This version has even more, including slowdown and minor control hang-ups. Fans of the universe also might be turned off by the near total eschewing of all the personality and chutzpah that it has to offer, while strategy fans will be disappointed by the weird design choices and rudimentary problems that they havenít had to live with for years. There will be some, though, some that cannot resist the call to level an entire town or to send scouts scurrying for cover behind a huge tank. To those people, they will find a fast turn-based game that features some fantastic weapons, destructive vehicles, and cities begging to be leveled. Despite being the inferior version, it is still worth trying, but it has a laundry list of caveats that go along with its enjoyment.