Who'd be a soldier? There aren't any just wars left. Now it's either low-level peacekeeping or high-intensity counter-insurgency work, where the shades of grey between friends and enemies are infinite.
Even in the idealised PSP conflict offered by Field Commander – where you direct the actions of your forces from a god's eye view, and get to play as the other side in multiplayer – you don't really get the impression you're fighting the good fight. The rather bland campaign is couched in pragmatism: the goodies, ATLAS, are fighting the baddies, Shadow Nation, but there isn't much feeling of a gutsy ideological clash. Instead, this is a cerebral battlefield.
But if Field Commander is lacking in terms of visceral grunt, it doesn't stint on eye-candy. One of the most polished PSP games yet, it's also pretty successful in compressing the complexity and fine control required in a turn-based strategy game down to handheld scale.
An inevitable comparison is with Nintendo's Advance Wars series, on which Field Commander is loosely based. Advance Wars is a 2D game though, and visually it's like a kid's toy in comparison; Field Commander's graphics are fantastic, with everything rendered in detailed 3D. The topdown camera angle is fixed, but when units fight each other it swoops down to provide a close-in view, and the explosions and sound effects as units explode are particularly spectacular.
As a turn-based game, Field Commander provides plenty of time to think about tactics. At the start of each level, you're provided with a mixture of troops, tanks and, if you're lucky, something juicy like a gunship. Usually you'll have to defend your HQ and various other bases so you can build more forces as you accumulate cash, which is awarded at the start of every turn depending on the number of cities you've captured.
The terrain itself is tile-based, and is dotted with impassable mountains and rivers; how far your units can move is further restricted by each having a fixed range. There are forests too, which slow down the advance of tracked vehicles. You can fire at the trees to reduce their density; a nice idea, although not tremendously useful in practice.
Firing at the enemy is of course another matter. Most of your units are limited to direct fire, so you have to move them up next to an enemy to attack. Some specialist units, such as the rocket launcher, can fire from range, while special ops troops can use their mortars to attack far off armour or lay mines in an adjacent square. They aren't hugely powerful, but they're enough to halt the progress of advancing units.
It's this interplay between the terrain's restrictions and each level's objective (in some you're limited to capturing the enemy HQ within a fixed number of turns) as well as the position of the enemy formations that creates the tactical dilemmas.
But perhaps that's just too much for the game's artificial intelligence to cope with – Field Commander's major weakness is that the enemy AI seems unable to put up a decent fight.
Instead of putting together combined offensives of tanks and troops, plus maybe a long-range scout vehicle to occupy a strategic location, say, the AI throws forces into action piecemeal. It's also fixated with building expensive stealth units – no match against a solid column of tanks.
War becomes a walkover. When combined with a straightforward story lacking in surprises, Field Commander becomes a bit tedious towards the end.
Thank goodness for the extensive online options. Sony Online Entertainment has particular expertise here (it runs EverQuest), and you can connect to its Field Commander server to play, as well as hooking up to a global leaderboard and other stats. Linked to this is a powerful Mission Creator mode, and the ability to upload your missions to share with the rest of the community.
There's also an adhoc multiplayer mode, where you can go head-to-head against another player in the same location, and a hot-swap mode where two people play using one PSP.
It's still not enough to gain our overwhelming support in the battle for handheld strategy gaming, however. Advance Wars isn't as flashy, but maybe that's one reason it manages to do wargaming better – with only two dimensions to deal with, its AI is more robust, for example.
But for Hollywood blockbuster wargaming on PSP, Field Commander certainly packs a punch.Field Commander is out on July 21 – click here to buy.