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Commander the Great War
GD Star RatingCommander: The Great War,
We managed to get our hands on Commander: The Great War, and we’d like to set the theme before heading into the juicy parts of the review. World War I was one of the greatest, most destructive conflicts in human history, which is perhaps what makes it such an attractive period for grognards and casual strategy gamers alike. Of course, this also means that the marketplace is in no way lacking for WWI-themed wargaming, and you can hardly search for a title without being bombarded with claims of deep, engaging strategy and nail-biting decision making. The setting has been bled dry, and in many ways gets shown up by other period games. Lacking the dynamism of WWII’s swinging offensives or the gentlemanly tactics of the ever-popular Napoleonic war games, only the very best in unit repositioning simulators have the ability to rise to the top.
Commander: The Great War doesn’t seem to jump out at you until you take a look at its pedigree. Developed by The Lordz Game Studio, a studio made up of veteran Total War modders, and published by Slitherine, Commander already has a leg up on a huge number of other wargames. the iPad is a great platform for strategy gaming, the question is whether The Lordz were up to the task of seeing it through.
Commander is a decidedly hex-based affair, and almost pure Slithering. If you’ve played some of the other games from The Lordz, you might have an immediate grasp of what’s happening. Units move on a hex-based battlefield representing the WWI front at various points in the war, clashing with the enemy in a simulation of trench warfare. You can choose to start from the very beginning in 1914, jump ahead to Verdun, or maybe see if you can pull out a victory in 1918. Nearly all commanders present in the game are real figures from WWI, there are several scripted events in the game designed to fire under certain conditions that actually happened during the Great War. Many of the same choices that plagued commanders will be presented to you. How will the world respond to the gas attack at Ypres? What about submarine warfare in the North Sea and the Atlantic?
A word of warning, as with most Slitherine games, Commander is not for the faint of heart. Failure is almost a part of the fun of learning how to play, as you develop and understanding of the ins and outs of shuffling men and machines around the frontiers of France and Germany. Units can be toggled between NATO counters and model representations, and each unit possesses multiple stat lines for defense, offense, morale, range, line of sight, and more. Add to that the stats of individual commanders and you have a game that takes a while just to be able to process all the information coming your way. Even if you’re an experienced jogger of no-man’s land, it will take a moment to really get your bearings and understand when to push your units, what you can throw them against, and what you need to do to take a punch.
But, like so many games that take place on the grand stage of Europe, the war also takes place at home. Research and production quotas were a key part of WWI as economies struggled to keep up with the insane pace at which the modern military apparatuses of the Great Powers consumed resources. It’s a great addition, and in line with many of Slitherine’s ambitious iOS titles. If there was ever a publisher proving that mobile doesn’t necessarily mean casual, it would be Slitherine and their stable of developers.
Finally, a word on the AI. It seems that wargame AI as of late has been built from the ground up remains of vengeful chess AIs. Failures to hold your own line or properly reinforce units will be punished severely. While Commander isn’t as brutal as some other hardcore strategy titles, tackling the Great Powers will not be a walk in the park. WWI was as much about matching industrial capacity as it was a struggle between hordes of men and machines, and in many ways the AI will force you to treat this war like the slog it was. Don’t expect a rapid blitz to Berlin or solid march to Brittany without a good deal of resistance and luck.
Luckily, turns pass by pretty quickly. After getting over the initial learning curve, Commander opens up pretty nicely, and you can fall into the rhythm of pulling back your exhausted units, replacing them with fresh ones, and preparing for the time when you feel you’ll have enough strength built up to make good on your planned offensive. There’s also enough space that you can make turns take as long or as little time as you want. If you’re very active in the Mediterranean theatre of the war and want the Dardanelles landing to not be a complete debacle, there might be a way to do that if you push for the right techs and meticulously plan everything. Or you could rush through, letting the stalemate build, playing more reactively in order to simply get through the campaign, or waiting until you can start to build a proper air force and begin to play the game the way you want to. There is some limit in terms of holding off against the powerful AI, but there is plenty of room for experimentation, with powerful commanders waiting to be unlocked after you’ve researched specific techs.
Commander is, as far as hardcore strategy games go, a pretty good baseline for how such games should continue be implemented in the future.
There could stand to be more variety in inter-faction conflict (I feel as though the alliances were more precarious in actual WWI history, ‘Germany fettered to a corpse’ and all that), What-if scenarios, and the general problems that arise from having to use a full touch interface. This isn’t so much a criticism of the game as the medium. When I play games like Hearts of Iron, or something like WH40k Armageddon, the fact that I can use a mouse and keyboard shortcuts is extremely important, both for seeing relevant information and for keeping me from getting bogged down in repetitive actions. For instance, if you’re zooming all over the map, flipping between units to see what their stats and statuses are, you can get fatigued relatively quickly. Add to that the fact that there’s no ‘Undo’ button and you have the chance to make a misplay that could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Graphics and gameplay speed are up to par. Grogs don’t usually care too much about graphics, as long as they’re serviceable and nonintrusive. Everything seems very WWI, you have that old feel to the game typefaces and sound effects. The number of menus can be difficult to get through, but this has more to do with the genre than the actual game, there’s no way to get around it.
The map is clear, you can see your key units at roughly a glance, and there isn’t a huge amount in the way of popups to distract you. The scale of the world is sufficient to be contained, but also expansive. If you start at the beginning, the war begins in the Balkans and expands to the rest of the Continent and beyond, so there’s plenty of land to mull over as you plot the best way to execute your own version of the Schlieffen Plan.
Finally, The Lordz has implemented cross-platform play for multiplayer. This spiffy little feature basically means that you can play not just against other iPad users, but other PC users, dramatically increasing the number of potential opponents to butt heads with.
Overall, Commander: The Great War is a fine game and another good title under Slitherine and The Lordz’ belt. It’s certainly not an easy game, but it flows smoothly and with a little patience it’s not that hard to get drawn into the hex-based world of mass infantry assaults and zeppelin bombardments. With a breathtaking period of history to draw upon, combat that rewards long term planning, and enough depth for the truly dedicated players, Commander: The Great War is an excellent choice for any strategy fan looking for something WWI-themed to sink their teeth into.
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