Radio Commander: Endure the pain for art

The art game is a rare beast to spot in the wild. Naturally shy and introverted, it dances around subjects. What am I, really? What are any of us? Would you like to pay me money for me to stroke my chin at you for a few hours?

Look at this map, and get used to this map, for it will be the only thing to feast your eyes on.

And a few hours does it last! I had to drop down to easy for this one around the midway point. Between the clunky controls and the art happening, I feared I wasn’t going to see the ending any other way. The premise is more or less this: You are a ridiculous Elvis impersonator. Being the only one with a soothing voice around, you’re swiftly made into a radio commander and thrown into a tent, to subsist on a steady diet of cigarettes. Here you will meet your two platoon leaders: Mimi Kovacs and Marlon Something. The Salt and Pepper of RTSs, and they both sound way too old for their characters’ age. Armed with nothing but a radio and a map you’ll be staring at for the rest of this afternoon, you set off to win the war for your good ol’ country. What’s this war you ask? Vietnam.

Seriously, it’s hilarious to hear Mr Something tease Mimi over his high school sweetheart and fondness for Vietnamese prostitutes when they both sound like hard drinking, chain-smoking Reagan era relics. Later on you learn they’re 20 and fresh off college! Insane stuff. The plot works, but it’s a little on the nose. These are real hooman beans you’re commanding, bucko. Better be concerned with your humanity and all that jazz! Cutscenes in between every mission flesh out the characters a little more. So for an indie, it’s more of a video game than many. It has an air of professionalism about it.

The first time this happened I almost had a stroke. Dynamic lighting! How unexpected!

There’s not a lot to look at. Environments look nice and the soldiers you catch the occasional glimpse off look robotic and distant like a PS2 era background character. Part of that might be the art stuff hammering home that while you are one of them there’s a certain distance between you. You are not on the frontlines, after all. The main area changes a couple times throughout the story, but you’ll be staring at a map 99% of the time. No bombings in close distance either. Come to think of it, I could have ordered a napalm strike on the base to see what happened, but I figure it wouldn’t work. There, you have homework now.

At first, I was playing on Veteran, and I really cared about my soldiers. The Vietnamese troops weren’t too good at killing them, but they’d get a wounded here and there, which made me really think about my strategies dealing with them. Sadly there’s not much depth to this one. Engage with larger numbers if you can, and make one unit retreat as the other engages to flank. Works every damn time. However, it is very time consuming. Also, faster to charbroil everyone in the fire area with napalm, but nicer to burn only the enemy. Advanced strats. Even with the introduction of the NRV, nothing seems to beat careful recon and planning. However, those missions I averaged an hour on each. There’s some dialogue to kill the time when they’re marching here and there, but it mostly is radio silence for the biggest part.

“I can bear with all the death and destruction around me. What I can’t stand is the grievous overuse of fortunate son.”

Here’s the art part. It’s easy enough to be good as a commander, but it’s faster to split your platoons up. Also, try to not charbroil your own troops with napalm. The game really sacrifices a lot to hammer in that war is bad. You won’t get many moments of joy, and the lack of any visual feedback might be a dealbreaker to some. Personally, I like it better to see my psychotic soldiers tearing through the enemy ranks, but I felt like this was some sort of challenge run and cool in it’s own right. The art part was a little heavy when it had me trudge through the jungle for nine in-game hours, surely not helped by my careful proceeding and stacking up my troops. And I don’t know if the game earned that.

That point was fairly early on, too. I was already invested in the characters so I kept going. All in all, it’s nothing mind-shattering or very original. Not a lot of references either, which I appreciate. The story’s well executed and I don’t really wanna talk much about it, since it’s probably gonna get a recommendation. You can probably tell there’s gonna be a point of maximum shit-fandiness and it really wouldn’t be Vietnam without it.

The main menu might be the prettiest thing to look at in the whole game. Seriously.

War being bad is transmitted through many subtle ways. Command generally doesn’t give a shit about anything but the final numbers, and it’s up to you to care about your men or not. The game has a score system which generally grades you based on whether you accomplished the army’s objectives, not so much whether it was a well executed mission or not. Some “tense” moments fail to generate any type of tension and you’ll soon discover that Kovacs is kind of an idiot. The story sticks, and it is interesting enough. It feels good to free prisoners of war, and it’s fun to craft ambushes with limited info, but the hardcore RTS player might prefer something a little more solid like Xcom or Starcraft to play around with. Being a radio guy, the most impact you can achieve is a well aimed airstrike.

The things your soldiers will have to do to survive in war might be questionable, but you never really give the orders. You get to give one morally ambiguous prompt over the course of seven missions. Honestly, I was hoping to set up Mr Something as a General Kurtz type. All in all, you get your Xcom dudes and your Spec Ops: The Line vibe in one package, which is nice enough. Your impact in the story is pretty low all in all. It was nice to have Mr Something give a final declaration that I was alright and always looking out for them, but in the same statement he acknowledged I was pretty much not a part of their Vietnam war.

Don’t expect a choices matter type of deal. It’s not like you can even get one platoon wiped early on and get a substitute one. Which makes it a little worse than the obscure Michigan Report From Hell in that regard. With a solid enough story and a pretty original premise, I can recommend Radio Commander.

Nothing like ending your games on a meta reference.

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