"Plasma cannons were so utterly devastating to an area that I didnít have to bother hitting the target. Walls and barricades became momentary nuisances as my squad razed the battlefield. With the plasma cannonís range I avoided Overwatch and stomped through mission after mission with barely a scuff on my armor. "
There was a time when I devoted days on end to designing my army and building scenery for the tabletop version of Warhammer 40,000. Playing with little plastic men wasnít a hit with the ladies, but the geek in me found plenty of satisfaction through the intricate strategies of miniature warfare. When facing a solid opponent, the slightest miscalculations in equipping my troops, positioning them for cover, or predicting the flow of battle could instantly turn a surefire victory into a futile struggle for survival. This is all I wanted from Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command. I didnít need 3D explosions or cinematics of rampaging charges. I needed strategic intensity.
Warhammer 40K has a rich history of shifting empires, bloody rivalries, and catastrophic events that generate true motivations for battle. If Squad Command is your first step into the world of Warhammer 40K, you will learn none of this. The only semblance of a plot offered are a handful of images between missions that will only be recognizable to the fans. Like a good soldier of the Space Marines, you are only privileged to know that there is a fight and you need to win. Compelling stories are rarely the selling points of turn-based strategy, but Squad Command hardly bothered to try.
My initial squad consisted of six Space Marines armed with bolters Ė the futuristic equivalent of a standard assault rifle. On a three-dimensional battlefield of destructible, urban rubble, my first goal was the annihilation of all Chaos soldiers. It was a tutorial stage that taught me how loose of a term Ďthree-dimensionalí can be. In a game where taking cover is the main defense, it only makes sense that I should be able to rotate the camera for a better vantage point. If not for the conspicuous red dots on the overhead map I might still be sweeping the grounds for every last enemy. It doesnít help that the rigid camera often makes it impossible to see if you are fully in cover, or trying to hide behind a window frame.
The game is called Squad Command, but I was never able to move my squad as one. I selected the entire squad on the touchscreen, clicked a destination, and watched military intelligence at itís finest as one unit left his comrades trapped by any minor obstructions along the way. Thus began the inevitable process of slowly moving each unit individually. Every good commander should have a plan for the road ahead, so I constantly swiped the stylus across the screen to gauge distances and aim my shots. I wholeheartedly recommend using the D-pad, no matter how inconveniently cumbersome it is. Instead of a painstaking explanation, it should suffice to say that the stylus makes it far too easy to accidentally move to a location, and thanks to Overwatch, possibly your death.
Overwatch is not part of the tabletop game, and hopefully never is. Itís a game-breaking feature that tears away the broiling fury of war, and replaces it with tepid hesitancy. Each unit of a squad has a set number of action points (AP) to spend on movements and attacks. If the turn is ended with enough AP left for one shot, Overwatch is activated. When a target steps into range, the Overwatching unit gets to take a shot, out of turn, and before the target. Itís an atrocious mechanic for a strategy game, and the first time you have to assault a tank will teach you why. Overwatch single-handedly turned Squad Command into a game of cat-and-mouse without the cat, but only if youíre foolish enough to play the game it was meant to be played.
Before a mission each unit can select an optional, secondary weapon such as a sniper rifle, lascannon, or brutally pointless chainsword. Secondary weapons reduce your maximum AP, and generally take more AP to use, but that hardly matters. After getting my hands on the plasma cannon in the third mission, my bolters went into permanent retirement. Plasma cannons were so utterly devastating to an area that I didnít have to bother hitting the target. Walls and barricades became momentary nuisances as my squad razed the battlefield. With the plasma cannonís range I avoided Overwatch and stomped through mission after mission with barely a scuff on my armor. Apparently, the A.I. interprets Ďsecondary weaponí in the most literal sense possible.
The point of a strategy game is to creatively use the tools you are given to overcome an obstacle. With Squad Command, THQ mistakenly assumed that I would bother using cover to my advantage, employ slow-and-steady tactics, and treat secondary weapons as just that. If Overwatch had been removed and greater restrictions placed upon the secondary weapons, Squad Command might have been a simple but competent strategy game. As it stands, letís just call it turn-based run-n-gun.
Staff review by Brian Rowe (January 01, 2008)
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