Publisher: Dreamspike Studios
Developer: Dreamspike Studios
Minimum requirements: Windows 95/98/NT/XP/Vista, 85 MB hard-drive space
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Release date: Available now
Review by: Michael Smith
I’m old enough to remember the days when programmers would write their games on their own in their basements, copying them onto cassette tapes and selling them in plastic sandwich bags. Those days are long gone, but every so often the spirit of the independent game designer pops back up into the modern gaming world. Such is the case with Space War Commander, a decidedly low-tech but surprisingly engaging strategy game from Gamespike Studios.
At first glance, SWC looks like a traditional board game. An 11×11 grid of squares contains various game icons representing ships, asteroids, planets and space stations. One of these stations is your home base, where all of your ships originate. Your mission is to create a fleet of ships and use them to destroy the enemy base, but there’s a catch. Some unknown infiltrator has activated your base’s self-destruct mechanism, so you have to devise a strategy that leads to the fastest victory possible.
Gameplay is RTS-lite. There’s no tedious base-building involved, allowing you to concentrate on resource gathering and combat. You start with a set amount of money to spend on your fleet (you have a choice of seven ship types, all of which are available at the beginning of the round). Some ships are fast, cheap and fairly weak, while others are slow but tough and powerful, but all will earn you income if you park them on asteroids or planets. There’s also a traditional harvester ship that can be sent from asteroids and planets to each level’s star base, where its cargo is dropped off for more cash. Once you have the forces you think you need, two clicks are all that is required to send them into battle. Icons in the upper-right corner of the screen show you the condition of ships in combat. Ships only fight when they are both in the same grid square, so if your vessel is about to be defeated, you can pull it back and let it repair itself before rejoining the battle.
The first four campaign levels (there are 30 in all) serve as tutorials, showing you the basics of the game. Starting with level 5, a bare-bones story starts to take shape. Humans have been hunted down and exterminated centuries after conquering the known universe, but before they were defeated they created a race of androids programmed to recover the past glory of humanity. Each of the levels is like a puzzle, becoming increasingly complex as you progress. New races are added, some of whom are enemies who must be defeated, while others leave you alone if you don’t cross their paths. Some levels require a bit of strategic subtlety, while others demand shock-and-awe bull rushes for success to be achieved. Along with the campaign, there is a quasi-skirmish mode called Gauntlet, which is divided into eight sets of five randomized maps. You are given a set amount of money that must be made to last through all five battles in each gauntlet, and you could face as many as four other races on the same map. If you fail in any of the maps, you have to start again at the first one.
On the surface, SWC seems like a simple game, but appearances can be deceiving. Once you complete the tutorial levels, gameplay difficulty ramps up considerably. Despite the manual and walkthrough included with the game, it took me more than 20 tries to finally finish two of the first 10 levels (I know this because designer Alex Kutsenok and his five-person team thoughtfully included a counter on the HUD). The Gauntlet mode is even worse. I wasn’t able to successfully pass even one of the missions. This is partly because of my relative inexperience with strategy games, and partly because enemy races earn resources without having to send a harvester out into the galaxy, giving them a frustratingly unfair advantage. There are, however, other problems. There is no way for you to undo a decision, even before a level begins; an “undo” button would have been a nice feature. Enemy AI is dumb as a doorpost; if you have a ship in the path of an enemy, it will fire a few shots at you and just keep on going toward its destination (except for pirates, who will chase you and fight to the death). The ship types and designs are the same for all races in the game (including your own), which seems unlikely but was no doubt done for simplicity’s sake. The game also defaults to a very retro 640×480 screen resolution, with a maximum of 1280×800, so those of you with huge widescreen monitors will find that most of your visual landscape is going unused.
Kudos to Mr. Kutsenok and his team for creating a simple, yet addictive, space combat sim. It’s inexpensive, it’ll run on anybody’s rig and it’s immersive enough to have you ranting at the monitor when you fail for the 17th time on the same level. The resource-gathering system puts you behind the eight-ball from the start, some of the levels are very difficult (even with the help of the walkthrough), and the game is single-player only (a local multiplayer mode at the very least would have been a great addition), but grognards looking for a break from the modern RTS heavy hitters will find much to enjoy here.