Consumers sure seem to appreciate the differences between the Sony PSP and the Nintendo DS, so maybe it's about time that developers caught on too. The latest illustration of this lack of understanding is the DS port of Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command, which has been shifted over from the PSP with few changes. Developer RedLynx decided not to take advantage of the Nintendo system's unique amenities or seriously enhance the interface of this turn-based tactical simulation. Instead, it pretty much just slapped the overhead map onto the second screen and decided to live with atrocious visuals. The result is a game that's just about as hard to control as it is to look at, not quite unendurable but certainly not enjoyable.
Most of the basics have been handled reasonably well, however. Squad Command features a very good, albeit very straightforward, tactical engine that should be a snap to learn for anyone who has played a turn-based squad shooter before. All movement and combat is based on a traditional turn-based battle system. Every unit is granted a set number of action points with which to move and shoot during each turn. A further no-nonsense tone is established by the traditional us-against-them storyline of the 15-mission solo campaign. If you're at all familiar with the grim Warhammer 40,000 universe, you'll immediately cozy up to a familiar tale of the Imperium battling the nasty forces of Chaos. Plot isn't developed much here, although you don't have to have any experience with the tabletop miniature game to deal with the simple objectives. Most of the time, you're clearing out Chaos bases, trying to kill every enemy soldier on the map, with the occasional diversion of blowing up laser turrets and tanks.
This sounds like an awfully bland formula. And, well, it is bland. But great level design makes every assignment feel like a fresh challenge. Solid enemy troop placement along with loads of options for cover in buildings, walls, wreckage, and other landscape features make combat interesting all the way through the game. Almost everything in the game can be destroyed too, leaving you an incredible amount of freedom when devising battle strategies. You can hammer at foes head-on and blast through fortifications with the aid of such heavy weapons as laserguns or rocket launchers. You can flank bad guys and clip them from long distance with sniper rifles. Or you can mix up different approaches. For instance, you can attract the attention of adversaries on one front, then sneak space marines behind enemy lines and let them go to town with their chainswords.
Yet no matter how you choose to take on the Chaos legions, you need to be cautious with how you spend action points. Enemy artificial intelligence isn't spectacular at putting together offensive battle plans, but it certainly reacts smartly enough to your moves. Chaos foes duck in and out of cover astutely. They're also quick to carve up any troops that you leave in the open at the end of a turn. Tough decisions need to be made in every mission regarding when to try taking out an enemy versus playing it safe and hunkering down behind cover until the next turn. Of course, sometimes the old duck-and-cover approach isn't the safest move. You've got to watch what you're sheltering behind because an enemy with a rocket launcher or a plasma gun might just be able to blast right through your protection and turn you into a fine red mist. Missions can be incredibly tense because level layout and the destructible terrain make enemy actions anything but predictable.
Well, missions would be tense if you could see everything properly. Visuals in Squad Command appear to have been directly ported over from the PSP with no consideration for how the game would perform or look on the graphically inferior DS. This results in choppy frame rates that make it a challenge just to smoothly scroll the camera across battlefields. Also, much of the fine detail apparent on the PSP has been obscured by big ugly pixels on the DS. This ruins the accurate depiction of Warhammer miniatures that was one of the big strengths of the PSP version.. The fantastic cutscenes in the PSP edition have been removed here as well.. This also wrecks a lot of the great Warhammer vibe present in the PSP game.
More significantly for gameplay, the blocky graphics make it hard to tell where enemy units are amidst the backdrops of most levels. It gets even tougher to spot bad guys once you start blowing things up. With wreckage strewn across the landscape, you have to practically squint to pick out Chaos troopers from the rubble. Even worse, there is no real payoff for enduring these terrible graphics. The second screen is used merely to display your overhead map, which shows too little information to be useful when planning strategy. The map doesn't show the direction that enemies are facing or any sort of enemy viewing cone or weapon range. A lot more could have been done here, so you can chalk this up to yet another waste of the DS's second screen..
Unit controls are at least a little more refined here thanks to the use of the stylus and touch screen. You can now select troopers directly, as well as give orders with taps on the screen. But as with the map, this isn't nearly as useful as you might think. It's too easy to mess up and wind up moving to the wrong position or moving when you want to shoot. So issuing commands with the D pad and regular buttons actually makes more sense since it's more precise, which is awfully important here because you can't undo orders.
Other technical issues are held over from the PSP version of Squad Command. The interface isn't up to snuff even when you ignore the DS-specific flaws. The camera angle is locked in a tight isometric point of view that can only be slightly swiveled along a narrow range that never lets you get a good look at your surroundings. Default camera angles also frequently make it impossible to tell if you've cleared an object and can shoot past it or if you're still behind just enough cover that your shot will be impeded. Many times there is no way to determine how a shot will turn out unless you simply give it a try and squeeze off a round, which of course is a big waste of action points in a game where you need to hoard them like gold. This problem can also result in friendly-fire incidents where you take out a buddy even though it looks like you've got a clear line past him to a Chaos enemy.
The game offers Wi-Fi, single-cart, and multi-cart link options for up to eight players. Ranked Wi-Fi matches are the way to go here if you can get a solid connection (opponents seem to drop out a lot, so the system either isn't stable or people are quitting matches a great deal) because battles get pretty intense and a ranking system lets you line up games against opponents at your level of experience.
While Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command was merely OK on the PSP, it's downright bad on the DS. Adding all of the visual issues to the existing interface and control problems makes the game more annoying than anything else; thus, your overall tolerance will depend on how much you love space marines.