The Warhammer universe is a massive, elaborate entity that spans countless models, tabletop games and videogames, among other things. Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command
is one such title that inhabits the Warhammer space and attempts to deliver a turn-based strategy experience set in the grimy, blood-soaked, quasi-biblical future of Warhammer. Squad Command is a tragic title though, because while it possesses some good elements and occasional bursts of fun, there are a tremendous number of problems with the game's mechanics that mercilessly rough up Squad Command as a whole. What's worse: the DS version is far inferior to the PSP version that was released a few weeks prior.
Squad Command, as you may have gathered from the title, is a strategy game that places you in control of up to six units as you work your way through a handful of missions, generally serving the Imperium (soldiers of the Emperor). Before each mission, you can assign weapons and ammunition to your squad, survey your objectives, and then begin the battle. The first difference you'll notice between the DS version and the PSP version is the absence of the pre-rendered cutscenes. The DS version uses still images to present itself, which is somewhat embarrassing when held next to the high production values of the PSP cinematics. Regardless, your overarching goal in Squad Command is to defeat the legions of Chaos that threaten the cities and people of the Emperor with their destructive and heretical ways.
Story is clearly not the focus of Squad Command, considering the fact that almost no context is given to this strife between the Imperium and the soldiers of Chaos. The plot itself feels pretty thin and we were generally apathetic about what was happening in this game world (you, however, may feel differently if you're a diehard Warhammer fan). The real point of Squad Command is to bring swift and fiery death to your enemies, but as we mentioned a few moments ago, doing so can be a real problem.
The game is, for the most part, presented in an isometric view of a 3D environment and controlled through a cursor interface that most strategy fans will be entirely familiar with. Each unit in your command has a set number of action points that can be used towards either moving or attacking. Once you've used up all the action points, that unit can't do anything else until the next turn. In order to attack, you need a clear line of sight between your unit and your opponent. Once you stretch the line between the two, you can spend additional action points to improve the accuracy of the attack, and then you fire.
With that said, let's get right into the inevitable sadness that comes from these mechanics. First and foremost: there's no grid. Strategy games rarely (if ever) work on consoles and portable systems when there's no grid; that's why most good strategy games can be found on the PC. Controlling Squad Command is incredibly awkward because your cursor can go anywhere and that's not good. We thought that using the stylus in Squad Command would help the experience, because that was an option unavailable to the PSP version. Unfortunately, the stylus really doesn't change any of the game's intrinsic problems -- in fact it's more awkward to use the stylus than the D-pad, and you still won't adjust the camera at all.
Such a statement might sound strange to you. "Why wouldn't you adjust the camera in a fully 3D strategy game, Ryan?" you might ask. That's a very good question, and it can be answered quite easily: it's useless.
When we say "adjust the camera," we mean that you can adjust the angle of the camera slightly, but it's still fixed in the same isometric spot. You can't rotate the camera in any way, and in a game that completely relies on line of sight for attacks, this almost breaks the entire experience. We say "almost" because you can often compensate for this problem and learn ways around it when playing, but the problem's still there. There were countless instances where we wanted to see around a corner to properly locate an enemy unit, but we couldn't. Or perhaps an opposing soldier fired lethal shots out a small window, but we couldn't do the same because we didn't know where the window was. We were stunned that this seemingly obvious feature wasn't included in the game. With a full 3D environment, wouldn't it have been easy to do?
These problems are just the beginning. Another issue we noticed is that you can never completely "deselect" your units. Your cursor is always linked to at least one character, making it impossible to click on empty space or the ground to deselect and give you a little more freedom to move the cursor around. This means that when you want to move a unit, you do so, but if you want to select a different unit afterwards, you have to click on him precisely, or else you may accidentally select a spot on the ground which will order your previous unit to move there instead, completely wasting your action points.
Furthermore, you can rarely (or at least, with any degree of accuracy) move your entire squad at one time. Trying to issue commands to all six only leads to frustration, because the units won't stick together, they'll easily get stuck on random environmental objects (including each other) and they may even stay there. We had much greater success breaking each unit away and controlling the six of them independently. This technique is time consuming but delivered fewer hair-pulling moments.
It just seems odd that in a game called Squad Command, you can't command your squad.
We mentioned, at the beginning of the article, that the DS version is far inferior to its PSP counterpart. Most of the complaints we've discussed thus far have been inherent to the gameplay, and are thus shared across both versions. What we have yet to touch upon are the technical problems with the DS version, which subsequently hurt the gameplay. First: there are noticeable framerate problems on the DS that make it more challenging to move the cursor around the screen smoothly.
And while there are obvious graphical differences between the two versions, the drop in screen sharpness and less model detail make it hard to literally see the units on the battlefield, which makes pinpointing targets more difficult. Finally, although there is some advantage to having your radar constantly displayed on the top screen, the radar is surprisingly inferior, with far less accurate readouts. This includes a failure to display unit orientation and bullet motion, which is very helpful in order to trace the source of incoming fire.
It's a shame that a number of cool things that Squad Command could have highlighted are completely lost in the mechanical problems that overwhelm the gameplay. For example, when you manage to adjust to the restrictive camera and try and control one unit at a time, the game can actually be a lot of fun, assuming your soldiers don't get stuck on anything. Squad Command also features almost completely destructible environments, which makes finding and maintaining cover a very interesting dynamic. Lastly, the game has online, multi-cartridge and game sharing multiplayer, enabling you to duke it out with a bunch of other Warhammer nuts.
Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command has a few strong features and can, occasionally, be fun, but we're extremely hesitant to recommend it because there are so many mechanical issues at hand. These problems are further complicated by the technical flaws of the DS version which interfere with the gameplay. If you own both a PSP and DS, you should definitely snag the PSP version. Although, you may be better off skipping this one entirely.