CES 2006: Field Commander Impressions

Sony Online's handheld game of tactical warfare is on display in Las Vegas, and we donned our helmets to check out the latest version.

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LAS VEGAS--Currently scheduled for release early in 2006, Field Commander is a turn-based strategy game from Sony Online Entertainment that could well end up being the PSP's answer to Nintendo's popular Advance Wars series. We got an updated look at a work-in-progress version of Field Commander at the Consumer Electronics Show--including new information on some of the advanced military maneuvers you'll command in the later stages of the game--and we've also been able to spend some time with an early build. So far the game looks like it'll offer a deep but fairly accessible strategy experience for tactics-starved PSP owners.

Field Commander may share its basic gameplay model with Advance Wars, but it isn't particularly cutesy. You'll assume the titular role of a field commander working for an Allied Nations organization known as ATLAS, which is tasked with defending the world against a group of terrorists calling itself the Shadow Nation. The game's story-driven campaign mode will boast no fewer than 30 different missions, and in addition to that you'll be able to test your skills in quick battle scenarios; take on friends in hot swap, ad hoc, infrastructure, or play-by-e-mail versus battles; or even create your own missions and upload them for other players. SOE plans to track online stats, including players' win-loss records and favorite user-created maps.

Although Field Commander's gameplay will instantly feel familiar to those with Advance Wars experience, there are certainly enough differences between the two games to warrant playing through the tutorial missions that precede the campaign proper. The tutorial mission that we checked out, for example, not only did a great job of familiarizing us with the controls and the heads-up display, but also forced us to experiment with the abilities of certain units and to use features of the terrain, such as forests, mountains, and rivers, to our advantage.

Field Commander will feature more than 15 different unit types, including grunts, spec-ops, and sniper infantry, as well as land, sea, and air vehicles aplenty. Many of the units have primary and secondary attacks, some of which can only be performed if they remain stationary. When using a spec-ops soldier, for example, you'll have the option to fire a powerful mortar at enemy vehicles if you remain still, but your only options once you move will be to attack an adjacent unit with your gun or to drop a mine. Options such as these present you with some interesting tactical possibilities, and all of the missions that we played appeared to have multiple routes to victory.

All of the unit types in the game will come equipped with their own unique "division powers" that you can activate at key points in a mission, once your ability meter has filled. The basic infantry unit's "hangmen" division power, for instance, lets any infantry unit drop a mine at will (normally, only spec-ops units can do this). Another key strategy that you'll similarly only be able to employ at certain times is the "offboard fire" technique, which is made available by certain buildings. These basically provide large area-of-effect smart-bomb attacks, though they only become available every few turns and must recharge after use. You'll find such offboard fire attacks as the EMP, which stuns all mechanical enemy units for a few turns; the napalm silo, which launches a fire bomb that expands outward over three turns; and the air strike and satellite laser, which we think are pretty self-explanatory.

Then again, there are some tactics that you'll need to employ in just about every mission--many of which will sound eerily familiar if you're a fan of the Advance Wars series. You can capture income-generating cities using your infantry units, for example, by claiming a portion of the city equal in size to your unit's health bar each time you use the capture command. That income will then be spent on new units that are manufactured at factories, many of which are situated at strategically advantageous locations and will need to be defended once you control them. Other tactics you'll learn to use over time include positioning your injured units in captured cities where they regain health, using forests for cover when attacking enemies so that you get an armor bonus, and using scout units to see through the nice-looking fog of war that shrouds many battlefields. In short, Field Commander isn't nearly as simplistic as it might appear at first blush, and you won't be winning any battles simply by amassing a large force and pointing it in the right direction.

We've only been able to scratch the surface of what Field Commander has to offer on this occasion, but once we get our hands on a more finished version, you can bet that we'll bring you our impressions of the naval and air units that we haven't seen yet, as well as the game's multiplayer offerings.

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