To my immense satisfaction, portable gaming systems seem to have always been an absolute hotbed for really great strategy games. Ranging all over the map from titles like Fire Emblem to Final Fantasy Tactics to Super Robot Taisen, our portable gaming systems seem always to be there to provide us with a shot of addictive strategy action. Now we portable gamers get another title to sate our desire for strategy games, and it’s called Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command on the Nintendo DS.
As made indicative by the game’s title, Squad Command is all about taking control of a group of units — you can have no more than six at one time — and fighting through a variety of missions. Like most strategy games, you’re given plenty of opportunities to prepare for the coming fight: you can check out the terrain, survey your foes, and equip necessary weapons and armor on your units.
With that over, the battle actually begins. Again, there’s nothing all that new here; if you have ever played any sort of strategy game, you have a very good idea of exactly how Squad Command is going to play out on the battlefield. It’s presentation is very similar to that of Final Fantasy Tactics games: there’s a 3D isometric view of the battlefield with a cursor that’s present in just about every single strategy title ever created.
Squad Command does implement a pretty cool way of actually getting stuff done on the battlefield, however: you have a certain amount of points for each unit, each turn. Every type of action you perform uses up some set amount of these points. Part of the strategy in this game, therefore, lies not only in figuring out how to win the battle (a macro approach), but also how to best consume each unit’s action points to make the most of each and every turn (a more micro approach).
The positioning of your units also plays an interesting role in Squad Command. In many strategy games I’ve played, attacks can only be pulled off within a few spaces of a unit. Some games, like Final Fantasy Tactics, give you a bonus in accuracy for attacking from behind. Well, in Squad Command, you can gain an accuracy bonus for attacking a unit that’s directly in your line of sight. If you’ve just got to defeat a certain enemy and your accuracy is startlingly low, however, you can use your action points to actually boost your chance of hitting the enemy.
You may have heard about problems with Squad Command that result from the lack of a grid, and I’m sorry to say that they’re actually pretty significant. See, your cursor can go anywhere — there’s no invisible grid that guides it along. It can get pretty awkward just to control your units — always a bad thing in any strategy game. The lack of a grid becomes even more problematic thanks to the gameplay implementation detailed above: it’s hard to base attacks around the “line of sight” idea when it’s sometimes hard to tell if you actually are in a straight line from the enemy.
The squad commands that this game seems to take its title from also seem broken. It’s incredibly awkward and annoying to actually issue orders to your entire squad, so you’re instead forced to direct each member of your squad individually. This isn’t that huge of a problem, seeing as there are a maximum of six members in your squad at once, but still, it definitely would have been a tactical leg-up on other similar games to be able to issue orders to all your units simultaneously.
That’s not to say that the game itself is broken, because there are definitely a number of good aspects to this game. One very interesting, ambitious implementation in Squad Command is the fact that every battlefield is (nearly) fully destructible. When you take into account the idea of attacking in the line of sight, and keeping in mind that the same rule applies to your enemies, finding cover becomes pretty important. The fact that nearly everything on a map can be blown up actually provides for some pretty strategic maneuvering, and it is a lot of fun.
The plot, while objectively underwhelming, will likely appeal to fans of the Warhammer franchise, if it can be called that. There are numerous story sequences scattered throughout the game, which focus the spotlight on the Imperium (soldiers who apparently serve the Emperor) and their struggle against the Chaos. Not much context is given, and the story doesn’t serve as large a purpose as I would have liked to see, but still it gets the job done.
Another problem that most DS gamers will probably be willing to overlook is that of the graphical quality of Squad Command — or rather, lack thereof. Sadly, the visuals are sorely lacking in this game, especially when compared to those of its PSP counterpart, which actually look quite nice. The cutscenes present in the PSP version of the game are nowhere to be found in the DS iteration, and the framerate, environments, and characters all look noticeably worse. Still, DS owners likely aren’t used to getting the graphical crème of the crop, aside from occasional exceptions, so this shouldn’t be that huge of a deal.
Finally, to round out the experience, there’s a surprisingly fun multiplayer offering packaged with Squad Command. There’s both multi-card play and my personal favorite, download play, allowing you to battle it out with up to three of your Warhammer-loving friends. WiFi would definitely have been awesome in a strategy game like this — or any strategy game for that matter — but I’m perfectly happy just to have some multiplayer action available in this title.
All in all, Squad Command is something of a mixed bag. Yes, there are some significant problems. The lack of a grid is probably the biggest pull-down for this game; if it had been a bit more structured, it could have really been great. But that problem doesn’t negate all the good things about this game. It’s still addictive, and it’s still fun. Squad Command may not be the best strategy game out there, but it’s by no means the worst.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.6 Graphics
Ouch…even for the DS, the visuals are disappointing. Framerate also suffers occasionally. 2.5 Control
The lack of a grid, bad camera controls, and useless stylus implementation really hurt this category. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Nothing bad here, but at the same time, nothing particularly memorable. 4.2
Fun, addictive action. What else would you expect from a strategy title?
3.6 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.