Sunday, February 08, 2009

Commander in Chief Review

Commander in Chief, developed by Eversim and published by IGS.
The Good: Very comprehensive simulation with numerous departments and settings, many scenarios and missions, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Overwhelming, pointless meetings with useless advisors, results of your actions are unclear, unfair “random” events, difficult to launch military operations, can’t search for online games, non-interactive tutorials, additional scenarios must be unlocked
What say you? Unexplained complexity interferes with potential fun in this global simulation: 4/8

January 20, 2009, was a historic, landmark, monumental, and historic day (did I mention it was historic?). For the first time in American history, the President of the United States was...named “Barack.” But if you though it's smooth sailing for the next four years, full of “smiles” and “big ears,” you thought wrong: running a country is hard work. Commander in Chief allow you to step into the president's shoes and take the helm of any nation in today's volatile world (it's totally going to vaporize). This is an updated version of the Geo-Political Simulator that released in Europe about six months ago, and it's arrived here in the U.S. just in time for the typical two-week fascination with the new president. There have been a growing number of games granting you total control, from the near-future in Supreme Ruler 2020 to the not-near-past in Europa Universalis III. Commander in Chief certainly has depth (you can set the percentage of your budget dedicated to cryptography), but does it deliver a playable, total package?

The graphics of Commander in Chief are what I would term to be typical for the genre. In fact, Commander in Chief has a lot in common with the aforementioned Supreme Ruler 2020: you'll be staring at a satellite image of the world with 3-D buildings and units superimposed upon it. The map looks decent enough, although it loses a lot of detail when you zoom in, turning forested areas in a giant green mass. The interface of Commander in Chief runs the gamut from “excellent” to “not excellent.” There are a lot of maps to show pertinent information in an easy-to-understand color scheme (green=friendly, red=missile target), from military operations to weather and economy. You are also given the most important values on the main page: popularity, human development index (a real value calculated by the UN), population, and military strength. There are also icons that pop-up for important events, like requests from foreign and domestic dignitaries and natural disasters. With all of the information that Commander in Chief throws at you, the game does a decent enough job organizing it all. There are, of course, a couple of areas that could be improved, such as clicking on a portrait taking you to that person's department instead of a generally useless personal description. Still, I found Commander in Chief to be one of the easier games to navigate through in the genre. As for the sound, Commander in Chief offers up some patriotic music, a handful of notifications, and that's all: none of the information is voiced, making for an extravagant amount of reading. The graphics and sound in Commander in Chief delivers exactly what I expected, so nothing too surprising or disappointing here.

Commander in Chief lets you take control of any nation in 2009 and totally screw it up. The game comes with a number of scenarios and missions; this North American release comes with several missions that center around the United States. You can play the open-ended scenarios that usually let you pick any country, or the missions that focuses on a specific nation (or set of nations) with a particular objective. The objectives are usually some economic, military, or scoring goal that must be met in a given amount of time. While there are a lot of scenarios included with Commander in Chief, you must unfortunately unlock them by completing earlier missions. I paid for the game, I should be able to play it fully right out of the box! This isn’t some silly console game, after all. You are given some rudimentary customization options: your character name and portrait, game speed (from “slow” to “excruciatingly slow”), and whether your advisors’ attributes are randomized. Commander in Chief lets you play with a more tenuous scenario with fifteen other players online, but there is no way of searching for games (you have to know the IP address in advance), so this feature is only useable by the few people with friends (or weird people you met in online forums) who just happen to have this game.

Most of your time with Commander in Chief will be spent adjusting policies, and this is one area that the game excels: there is an exceedingly large number of things to change in the game. This is easily the most comprehensive global simulation I’ve ever seen, and the sheer number of options and settings available to you is staggering. Your country is spread among twenty-four departments, from industry and employment to justice and research. To understand just how comprehensive Commander in Chief is, I will now give some examples of the inane things you can change in the game: an audiovisual tax, salary for researchers, subsidizing grapes production, embargoing foreign fast food, hospital hygiene budget levels, establishing mandatory birth control, informational technology police budgets, regulating tourist visas, technical education training, combating animal dropping, handball support, and government funding of the circus. There are quite literally hundreds of programs in the game and you can tweak funding support to all of them. In addition to making budget changes, you can also enact new laws and start construction on appropriate items. The items are automatically placed in the target regions (a state or province) to reduce some micromanagement. The game does make all of this tweaking very easy, using star ratings for budgetary items and clearly-worded descriptions for potential legislative bills. Sadly, it takes a while to learn your way around the game, as the video, non-interactive tutorials and manual are both very light on the specifics of your departments and the settings available to you.

You will also have to make appointments and schedule meetings with your advisors and foreign leaders. You can do two meetings a day, although some encounters (like the G8 summit) take up an entire day. Your options are surprisingly limited: you can offer them coffee, but you can’t ask them advice on specific issues. The meetings seem to be a veiled attempt at simply improving (or degrading) relations rather than getting useful feedback. Your advisors are completely useless, spouting vague “advice” such as “improve the economy” with no hints on how to do this. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the video tutorials and manual actually explained anything beyond the interface. Commander in Chief just throws you to the dogs and assumes you know how to pull a complex economy out of a recession. Sure, I can trade apples with Mongolia, but what effect this will have is totally unclear. It doesn’t help that things take a realistic amount of time to happen, so there can be a lot of waiting for the theoretical results of your actions. There is no point of speeding up the action, as simulating a week at one time takes just as long as fast-forwarding time. The military aspect of the game is useless as well: you are given land (jeep, tank, missile launcher), air (fighter, helicopter), and navy (carrier, nuke sub, conventional sub, cruiser) units that are located at bases, but you can’t use a selection box to choose things as more than one base, making large military operations impossible. Searching through every single military base in the U.S. and slowly moving units one base at a time? No thanks. This shows that the developers of Commander in Chief have no background in real-time strategy, as Supreme Ruler 2020 handles military operations much more smoothly. The AI doesn’t seem to run into the same problems, as you will be occasionally pestered with some illogical AI attacks by hostile but woefully underpowered nations. I realize that Iran and the United States have poor relations, but should I really expect an attack by Iranian forces on American soil? For a game that supposedly simulates the real world, this seems pretty outlandish.

Commander in Chief gives you a whole lot (that’s a technical term) of options covering every aspect of your nation, but then explains none of it. I had simply no idea where to start, and neither did my advisors! There are too many options with no explanation on what to do and when to do it, and since the results take a realistic amount of time to appear (if at all), you’re never really sure if you are doing a good job, or even if what you are doing is affecting your country at all. I’ve never played a game that allowed me to impose an embargo on compact disc manufacturing, but what’s the point if I’m not sure what altering that setting will do? Commander in Chief should be commended on offering so many options, but bigger is not always better. I don’t have a problem with this level of complexity, but it had better come with quality advice and complete tutorials, and Commander in Chief has neither. Commander in Chief has a lot of scenarios to choose from, but they must be unlocked and online play requires manual matchmaking. The military aspect of the game is very underdeveloped, making combat painful for large nations. Throw in some questionable “random” events that plague your nation with no indicated cause, perpetual social unrest, and natural disasters, and Commander in Chief is too much of a confusing mess to be enjoyable. You have to at least somewhat appreciate a game that lets you adjust government funding for both musical comedies and equestrian, but Commander in Chief is unwieldy and subsequently difficult to play thanks to inadequate documentation.