Episode XXIV: The Curse of Marketing
LucasArts has had a longstanding strategy of identifying hot-selling genres and then giving them the Star Wars treatment. While this has led to some excellent games such as Dark Forces, Jedi Knight and the X-Wing series, it has also birthed a few horrible license abusers such as Rebellion and Shadows of the Empire. These games failed because they didn't do what must be done to successfully translate Star Wars into silicon.
To make a good Star Wars title, a game has to feel completely Star Wars. It must capture the same aesthetic with the smoothness and energy that powered the original trilogy (ignore Episode 1, I sure do).
So you know that something is very wrong when, upon installing the new real-time strategy game Star Wars: Force Commander, you are treated to a techno-music version of the Imperial March. Many focus groups must have died...to bring us that one.
While techno Star Wars might appeal to a few geeks who enjoy playing bizarre MP3 mixes of their favorite cinematic sound clips, it just doesn't work for a game that ultimately has the task of re-creating the Star Wars universe. Nor does the rest of the game work. Force Commander throws the Star Wars license into a badly designed game and then sabotages any benefit that the license might provide by stripping the game of any solid Star Wars feel. Stormtroopers, ATATs and Snowspeeders aside, this doesn't feel at all like Star Wars. It feels like an accident.
But ranting is vitriol without proof.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term 'Battle of Hoth,' it refers to the ground battle on the snow planet (Hoth) at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. The scene is one of the most dramatic and successful in all of cinema and makes a great inspiration for a game (or at least a better inspiration than a 10-year old competing in a race with a slimy dog-beast thing... err...whatever...). That is exactly what Force Commander tries yet fails to be: The Battle of Hoth.
The game is played on a 3D Landscape in which you control a variety of military forces. These range from your basic Stormtroopers to a variety of Walkers and Air/Spacecraft. The camera interface and layout is similar in design to Myth. You are able to spin, zoom and strafe all around the map - theoretically.
The controls for doing so are unintuitive, clunky, and very difficult to master. Furthermore, the diminutive size of your units is a problem because in order to get a good view of the battlefield you must zoom out to the point where you can barely see them. Considering that there are some unit balancing problems which make Stormtroopers (the smallest units in the game) extremely useful, this is a quandary that Force Commander is not able to rise above.
Speaking of those unit problems, there are plenty. In an effort to make the game as 'Star Wars' as possible, all units are able to do what they did in the movies, such as trip a huge Imperial Walker with a tow-cable (yeah... right). There are several new units, but these are poorly designed and do not gel with Star Wars (there are no tanks in Star Wars!).
Each battle is pitched. You don't build units or mine resources. Instead, Force Commander implements a wargame-like system of 'command points.' As you complete objectives, you gain these points which you can use to requisition troops. This makes for a more tactical experience than deep strategy.
The interface for grouping, ordering, and everything else related to troop deployment is needlessly complicated and obtuse. The mandatory training missions spend at least 20 minutes just describing the variety of ways you can group together and select troops. The same problem of poorly implemented options that plagued Rebellion hits Force Commander full on, and it's not a pretty sight.
Graphically, Force Commander is a disappointment. Despite switching to a new graphics engine in mid-development, this is still an ugly game competing in a crowded field of good lookers. Polygon counts and texturing reminds one of nothing more than Playstation material, if that good. Weapons and explosion effects are boring and animations are hardly impressive. The interface itself is a huge, rough, ungainly third of the screen that wastes space and contributes to the camera problems.
Also an issue, and contributing to that nagging feeling that this isn't really Star Wars, is the way unexplored portions of the map are completely blacked out. Aside from the logical issue that Star Destroyers should be able to scan the surface and give you a complete, revealed map, the midnight feeling given by the fog of war causes an eerie sense of Force Commander being some sort of abstract dream. Maybe this is what the future looked like to Yoda - he sure seemed to meditate deeply.
But it's the sound that really drives the nail into the coffin. While the graphics and gameplay are flawed, the music is downright apocryphal. Instead of using the ever-dependable John Williams score from the movies, Force Commander either employs badly written new music which has no Star Wars feeling whatsoever or techno versions of the movie scores, which are just sad.
This is a game that could have been great if it had been done well. Despite the brilliant idea of making a Star Wars RTS, LucasArts took an immediate left turn into infamy, and the result is the worst thing to come out with the famous moniker emblazoned on the box since Rebellion. Not even the die-hards should bother with Force Commander. It isn't a good game, it isn't good to Star Wars, and it isn't good to anyone who buys it. If you can enjoy this game, check your pulse.