We could do a lot of soul searching about whether strategy games work on a console - a handheld console at that. Ask anyone who's gotten cosy with the Advance Wars series - presentation, style, replayability, charm and deep strategic choices make it a beautiful thing. In horrible contrast, those of us who spent time with Aliens versus Predator: Extinction can only cringe at the pain. It left us feeling violated.
Somewhere in the middle sits Field Commander, a decent stab at turn-based strategy in the palm of your hand. The basics are there, and it works, but it struggles to distinguish itself and is hampered by an identity crisis, annoying technical issues and a general lack of tension. Maybe it is the nature of the genre clashing with the format, or maybe it's just not special enough. But who wants above average games that never reach greatness?
From a distance it looks like there's going to be some realism, or at least a realistic atmosphere to help create tension. But up close - and there's nothing closer than squinting at a screen you're holding inches from your face - the graphical style is too muddled. The perspective of the troops on the battlefield, the icons and the size of the PSP, all render units cute and tubby instead of detailed and deadly. It's not necessarily crippling to gameplay, but by not sticking to a particular style it gives the impression of being muddled. Imagine a tough-talking general barking his orders with a lollipop hanging from the side of his gob rather than a cigar. These soldiers need the hairdryer treatment from a drill sergeant about the state of their appearance.
Framerate issues crop up too often as well. If you're trying to convince a new audience unfamiliar with strategy games that they should take a gamble and opt for a new experience, you won't do it with action that stutters. By their very nature, strategy games call for patience and timing, so extending the waiting process with technical problems isn't something to endear it.
But wait, we're giving you the bad news first. If you haven't been put off yet, Field Commander isn't broken, it isn't a bad game and it is something that you won't find elsewhere in the PSP library.
Problems drop to the back of your mind when you've got the upper hand in combat, and surrounding enemy units to pump little rounds into their tubby frames is always a pleasure. Battles sway and flow like a giddy drinker, with a wide selection of land, sea and air units to deploy and crush the enemy.
Maps aren't massive, but they are varied enough to provide alternative tactical options such as destroying terrain to surprise enemies, concealing submarines until critical moments and making the most of long distance weapons. Cities can be conquered to provide finance, while factories are always a prime target for manufacturing new units. The way you use terrain can be much more important than the deployment of units, with mountains and bridges becoming more valuable than big guns.
For console gamers that aren't that familiar with strategy titles, there's an impressive array of tactics to take advantage of. Destroying neutral cities to stop your enemy from exploiting them, sacrificing your kamikaze pilots by crashing planes directly into the enemy and simply learning the vision and attack capabilities of each unit is enough to make the 30 different missions worth the effort. The more you play, the more the game opens up with little variations on a theme, and although every one of the missions have essentially the same goal (kill and/or capture), there is always an alternative approach with some fun experimentation.
That's if you want to experiment. At times it's possible to crush the opposing forces with sheer weight of numbers. Each unit has a Division Power, a special attack that builds from experience in battle, and once these come into play battles are quickly over. Being able to drop paratroopers onto any free square on the map seems to be too much of an advantage when you can land on enemy HQ and capture it within a couple of rounds.
The fog of war restricts the players' vision and adds tension early on in a battle, but for single players, there's nothing exciting about watching, or rather not watching, your enemy's movements. The screen jerks as units move invisibly, and again it's something that stubs the toe of excitement. Impatient gamers won't be impressed with the pace of the game at the beginning and end of the battles, where in your mind you'll see victory, but it takes time to finish off every unit or pummel a HQ to rubble.
Multiplayer is a strength of Field Commander, starting with a hot swap mode where two players pass the PSP to take turns, which obviously suits the genre perfectly. With realtime versus mode, Transmission Mode and local Wi-Fi two-player head-to-head matches, there's plenty to choose from. There's even an impressive Mission Creator mode, where players can host their own maps online for others to download and upload their ranking data to a leaderboard.
Although Field Commander has plenty of options, it's doubtful hardcore strategy heads will find enough to get lost in. It's a cute enough PSP strategy game, but it's not going to be long lasting for a crowd that has been spoilt with the genre. If you're not that familiar with the genre and you're looking for an alternative to all those PSP racing games, ports and ports of racing games, Field Commander is distracting enough. But with a lack of distinctive character and only functional technology, with all the good will in the world it's never going to become a favourite. And there's no good will on a battlefield. There's only winners and the dead.