When trying something new, there are three simple steps you can take to ensure a solid first effort:
1) Analyze the work of a professional.
2) Emulate it.
3) Change something.
In Field Commander
, Sony Online’s turn-based strategy debut skips the first step, attacks the second with a rookie’s zeal and changes the third to “Publish.” The result is a game that blatantly mimics Advance Wars
in most areas, comes up short in others, and changes nothing for the better. So it’s a testament to the strength of its source that, in spite of a total lack of originality and bad A.I., Field Commander
is still a decent turn-based strategy game.
It might also be an act of video game plagiarism, but that’s not for us to decide, just to make fun of. The basic plot, at least, is ubiquitous. You play a commander in a secret organization known as A.T.L.A.S., which was set up by a fictional version of the United Nations to fight a terrorist organization known as Shadow Nation. Each side has a colorful collection of Commanders with hip names like “Fragfest” and “Shellcase” who trade verbal jabs before, during and after battles. Just like Advance Wars
Battles take place on gridded maps. Each unit can move once per turn as well as attack if it comes within range of an enemy. Your income depends on the number of cities you control, and those can only be captured by infantry units. Factories make and supply ground units, airports make air units, control rooms can be captured to unleash devastating attacks on the enemy and each side has a HQ that can be captured for the win. Just like Advance Wars.
Field Commander claims to have thirty-six different unit types, but it actually counts every one twice since the two factions share the exact same units. To distinguish one army from another, the game lets you choose divisions. Depending on the division, your army might be really good at fighting on roads but weak in the mountains, or have highly mobile infantry with low defense. Each division also gets strong and weak division powers that grant your forces bonuses for one turn. Just like...Advance Wars.
But wait, Advance Wars
uses a Commanding Officer system, so how can it be the same? Sony Online took the Commanding Officer system from Advance Wars
and separated the COs from their powers with the division system; you pick a CO, then you pick their power, a.k.a. division. This is called covering your ass from a lawsuit. Hey, I think we’ve found something unique!
It also distinguishes itself with what may be the worst A.I. of all time. The CPU has no sense of priority. It never tries to control cities, it’s easily baited into attacking trash units (wasting precious turns) and it never swarms dangerous targets. There’s one level where you’re supposed to last thirty turns against a humongous enemy army. By the time I got to turn number twenty nine, there were only two enemy units (both infantry) left on the map. I’m not that smart; this game is just that dumb.
Field Commander, then, is best played against human opponents, and it has a ton of options in that regard. You can pass and play with a friend as well as play Ad-Hoc, Infrastructure, or the cool Transmission mode. Infrastructure games can be hard to find (not many people seem to play Field Commander online, go figure), but are definitely worth the effort since they fully take advantage of the turn-based strategy scheme Field Commander borrowed from Advance Wars. Transmission mode is an even better feature because it allows two players to battle without necessarily being online at the same time. You just log in, make a move, log out and check back every once in a while to see if your opponent has gone.
There’s also a Mission Editor that lets you set buildings, units and terrain on one of two-hundred and six templates, then define the objectives and settings as you see fit. You can upload your created mission to a server for anybody to download, as well as download missions that other people have created. The same, bad A.I. still governs these games if you choose to play them offline, but they provide a limitless number of maps for play against other people, too.
Unlike Advance Wars
, all the maps and units are rendered in 3D. What Field Commander
gains in dimensions, though, it loses in visual clarity and style. Many of the units appear pixilated and jaggy, and the game’s overall appearance is mediocre in spite of some cool explosions and zoom-in effects.
Audible screaming would have done the game wonders, plus maybe some verbal commands as tank commanders instruct their forces to fire. What I’m getting at is that Field Commander has no personality in any of its effects, so while many are fine from a technical standpoint, none of them, aural or visual, will make you smile or wince.
That’s because Field Commander is a soulless clone of a good game. It puts almost all of the pieces together, but the two that it misses, intelligence and personality, are what make a game likable and engaging. If you can find a friend to provide a surrogate soul, this game is a halfway decent approximation of Advance Wars, but played alone it’s little more than a spent shell casing.