One of my pet hates is overly ambitious handheld games. At the moment handheld games simply can't be as advanced as their console counterparts, yet time after time we have to put up with games shoehorned onto inferior hardware. Field Commander ignores that current trend, and focuses on a game built around the PSP's strengths. Turn-based strategy certainly isn't for everyone, but those that like the genre will struggle to find a better example on a handheld.
Turn-based strategies are complex and can often take a lot of time to play. In Field Commander, missions take place on fairly small grids (usually no more than 20x20 blocks in size) and you must move your units around, taking advantage of each unit type and the properties of the grid space each unit currently occupies. The type of terrain and unit type determines how many grid spaces you can move, and what actions you can perform. Swamps, for example, can't be crossed by wheeled vehicles, and to get units across water you'll need to use transport ships.
Dense forest might be blocking the shortest path to the enemy, and although no problem for your aerial units, your tanks can't navigate through. A few moves later, though, and that forest could well be decimated by mortar fire, giving you direct access to the enemy. Certain areas can be reached quicker by helicopters than ground troops, and enemy cities can be attacked to decrease their size - therefore reducing the money it can create. An air unit can also occupy the same grid space as a ground unit, which is something that not all games in the genre allow. There's a lot to take in and think about, but it doesn't take too long to get to grips with everything, and you'll soon be using advanced tactics to outsmart the enemy.
As you progress through the campaign you'll unlock new army divisions, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Because of these differences, missions play out very differently from one another, and you have to make sure you're making the best use of the units and special powers you have at your disposal. A meter is filled up as you take out enemy units and as you lose units of your own, and this allows you to perform moves such as the 'eject' move - which sees an aerial unit crashing into a grid square, causing damage and leaving behind a wounded soldier.
The goal of most missions is to defeat all enemy units or to take control of their headquarters, but the odd alternative mission is thrown into the mix. The campaign will take skilled players over ten hours to complete and much longer if you're a newcomer to the genre or happen to agonise over every single move. The story that runs alongside the campaign isn't terribly exciting, but it works to give a reason for the conflict. You play as a commander in the ATLAS alliance, a group of nations that fight against the evil Shadow Nation. Each mission features a voice over and intro detailing what's going on, and although it's presented nicely enough, it isn't all that involving.
Even for newcomers, Field Commander isn't an overly difficult game. A tutorial mode provides you with all the basics you'll need to know, and the rest is pretty easy to pick up as you play. Enemy AI isn't poor, but it doesn't think in the same way as a skilled human player would. The enemy tends to build plenty of weaker units, but neglects to save money to build the more powerful units that can really turn the tide in battle. You still have to think about what you're doing, but not half as much as when faced with another human player.
Thankfully, the chance of playing against a real life opponent is very good, as Field Commander includes numerous ways to take part in a multiplayer game. The most basic of which lets you pass the PSP to the other player, taking turns as you play. Ad-hoc wireless play eliminates the need for swapping, and online play means you don't even need to know the person you're playing against. Player rankings can be viewed online, and maps created using the creation tool can be shared with friends, making Field Commander one of the most complete multiplayer games available for the PSP.
If you don't have the time to play a game in one sitting, a nifty mode has been included that lets you play at your own pace. Transmission mode, as the game calls it, lets you make a move, and then your opponent can view that move and make his own move whenever is convenient. These games can last days, and you can hop in and out of other games and come back to Field Commander when you feel like it. As long as your opponent knows that the game isn't going to be over in a few hours, Transmission mode is ideal for squeezing a game into an otherwise packed schedule.
For a handheld game the presentation is exceedingly good. The aforementioned voice acting isn't exactly Hollywood quality, but there's a lot of it, and this is backed up by some sleek menus and a very easy to use user interface. The map and units are all modelled in 3D, and while each unit is a little hard to distinguish from another on the overhead view, battles don't look bad at all. Explosion effects are especially nice - just don't expect action every other second.
It's rare that I play a handheld game and don't wish I was playing it on another system; Field Commander is one such game. Controls obviously take some time to learn and the maps are a little small, but the game still works exceedingly well, especially in multiplayer. The single-player campaign is well worth playing through, and you could be playing games against real opponents for months to come. There's certainly room for improvement should a sequel ever arrive, but for now you won't find a better strategy title on the PSP.