Review: T.A.C. Heroes: Big Red One (Nintendo DS)

T.A.C. Heroes: Big Red One
Publisher: Storm City Games
Developer: Hoplite Research
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Release Date: 03/31/2010

World War II isn’t exactly new territory for video games. More to the point, almost every genre is represented, and every system as well. That being said, it is incredibly hard for such a game to stand out, even on the DS, which doesn’t have as many shooters or RTS games as other consoles. Still, I liked the last couple of TBS games I’ve played on portable systems, so I figured I’d give this a chance.

Can this small developing and publishing team make a splash in a crowded field, or are they doomed to fade into obscurity?

Modes

There really isn’t any plot to the game. You do get short briefings before each mission, but they mostly just tell you what your goal is, or serve up cliché military sayings. Also, the troops you use appear to be members of the development team in army hats, so there isn’t any dialogue or character involvement.

You have two options for play. First up is Campaign Mode. In this mode, you’ll guide your group of soldiers through a set number of missions. If a character dies, he stays dead, and you won’t be able to resupply after every mission. You will eventually get more troops, but letting a strong one die isn’t acceptable. Also, soldiers that survive missions will often gain increases to their stats, furthering the benefits of keeping them alive. You have two different campaigns to play. One is set in 1942 and the other in 1945. The missions don’t really follow history though. In 1942, the Americans wouldn’t be invading France, let alone fighting Frenchmen. It doesn’t make any sense. You have a couple of difficulty levels, but neither of them is particularly easy unless you bother to study the level layouts.

Your other option is to play through Scenario Mode. This simply allows you to play any of the missions at your leisure. You get some cash to outfit your troops, and you can choose which side you play as. You can also play with two players on one DS in a pass around mode. For those frustrated by the perma-death of the main mode, this mode should satisfy.

That’s pretty much all there is. Without a plot or characters, this game doesn’t meet up to what other games of its type can offer. I do like the options available in Scenario Mode, as they do allow players to customize the experience. Overall, it isn’t a bad setup.

Graphics

Graphically speaking, this game isn’t going to impress anyone. The sprites are extremely tiny on the screen, and they don’t animate well. There are only a handful of effects, such as the explosion of a rocket propelled grenade or standard bullet fire. These too are unimpressive.

The maps are pretty bland. Buildings seem too small compared to troops, and tanks are undersized. Layouts only feature a couple of colors and everything is flat, making it seem like you’re playing a pen and paper grid rather than on a battlefield. Troops can simply walk onto the roof of a building, ignore the presence of trees and most other obstacles, and generally don’t have any interaction with the environment.

It’s pretty bland.

Audio

One thing you’ll notice about the music in the game is that it relies heavily on drum snares. It makes a degree of sense, but they get old after awhile. For the most part, the music fades away from your consciousness after a few levels, apart from the drums. Honestly, I had to pop the game in real quick to remember what the music was like. It isn’t bad or anything, just unmemorable.

There are also several voice clips used throughout the game. When you give a command to a soldier, he’ll say things like “right away sir” or “copy that”. The sound is tinny, but it was still a nice surprise because games like this on the DS don’t tend to feature any voices whatsoever.

Beyond that, you have plenty of explosions, various gunfire, and a few other sounds to compliment the action on screen. Again, it comes out tinny, but very few games on the DS escape that fate, so I can give this game a pass.

So, the music might not be worth much, the rest of the package gets the job done well enough.

Gameplay

TAC Heroes is a turn based strategy game where players move and take actions with their troops in rounds. You start off either guarding an area or stuck in a group with a lot of map to cover. Objectives range from simply killing all of the opposition, guarding supply trucks, or taking over positions on the map. There are a certain number of rounds you have to complete these objectives, but I never ran out.

Controlling your troops is done entirely with the stylus. You can tap them to open up a menu with a plethora of options. You can move along a hexagonal grid, attack, throw grenades, change equipment, or use various “tactics”. The tactics are the where the game’s depth comes in. Switching from a standing stance to a kneeling stance grants you the ability to launch a defensive strike against enemies that come within your range. Prone stances greatly increase your defensive position, but you don’t get the attack. You can spot ahead of your normal range, sneak to avoid defensive fire, and launch cover fire. It all works rather well, except for the cover fire. The manual claims that it is supposed to reveal the enemies’ threatening range, but I never experienced any such thing. All it seemed to do is miss more than regular fire. Performing these actions requires command points. Each soldier has anywhere from two to five command points, usually predetermined by their rank. A corporal with four command points is far more useful than a private with two.

Each soldier has several stats that affect his effectiveness on the field. Having a high shoot ability means you’re more accurate with gunfire, while a good throw score increases damage with a grenade. Other stats, such as melee or strength, only see the light of day during up close situations. Melee can be helpful when dealing with entrenched opponents or if you don’t want to use any ammo. HP is perhaps the most worthless stat. It might seem better to have more HP, but most of the time, a single grenade or a couple of shots from a gun seem to be all it takes to kill even the most hardy soldier.

Managing your equipment just might be the most important aspect of the game. Each soldier can carry two weapons, four accessories, and one special. The weapon types include pistols, rifles, machine guns, and bazookas. There are only a couple of options for each weapon, usually a cheap one and an expensive one. Accessories include extra ammo, grenades, and melee weapons. These aren’t clearly labeled. You can tell what most things are by the way the picture looks, but if you make a mistake, you can leave a soldier with the wrong ammo for his gun. You do have the ability to loot corpses for equipment, but this is only an option during larger missions, because using one of your command points to loot equipment could leave you without enough left to actually fire the weapon you needed ammo for. The special equipment includes a medical kit, radio, and binoculars. Med-kits can heal small amounts of damage, but rarely see use because by the time someone needs healing, he’s probably already dead. Radios are required to call in air strikes and artillery strikes, though these abilities are only available on certain levels and require a round or two before they launch. Binoculars are the most useful item in my opinion. They greatly increase a soldier’s sight range, allowing you to get a great view of the battlefield. On more than one occasion, I found groups of enemies before I would otherwise normally would be able to. One well placed RPG sent them into a tailspin.

There are a couple of big problems with the game that make it a chore to play. The first is that the stylus controls feel imprecise and sloppy at best. You can tap a soldier several times before it actually reads the input. Then, you have to tap one of the menu choices, and you’ll hit the adjacent one almost as much as the one you wanted to hit. It is mainly a product of the objects being so small, and a change in design could have gone a long way into fixing it, but as it is, the controls are just too imprecise.

The biggest problem with the game is a sin it commits against all strategy games. You don’t get to chose the starting locations of your troops. Instead, the game automatically picks the location based on the soldier’s position on your selection list. This wasn’t so bad on missions where all of the troops are clumped together, but when they are spread out in defensive positions, it caused nothing but problems. On nearly every occasion, the guy I wanted as a sniper was on the front lines or my tank buster was the furthest from where the tank would show up. My only option would be to switch up everyone’s equipment and tailor it to the level. However, that would require me to have played the level enough times to memorize the layout, where each selection would end up, and most damningly, be able to switch equipment between every level. In the campaign, that just isn’t feasible/possible.

The control issues and the fact that you have no control over where your troops are placed make this game a chore to play at best and absolutely frustrating the rest of the time. At no point was I having any fun, nor did I feel as if I was being challenged. I just felt annoyed.

Replayability

One good thing the game does is provide enough content so that if you enjoy the game, you will get plenty of bang for your buck.

You can play either campaign on two difficulty levels. The first is challenging enough (though mainly due a lot to the problems listed above) that playing it on a harder difficulty might be just the ticket for a dedicated player. With over thirty missions between the two, it will take some time, especially if you’re trying to save as many troops as possible.

The Scenario Mode is the biggest hit, as it offers multiplayer and the options to play any mission with settings set to your liking. If I ever feel like playing the game again, this will be the mode I end up playing.

Balance

If you, for any reason, are unable to keep your boys alive, the perma-death will prove to be insanely trying. I’ve tried one level close to a dozen times and can’t escape without losing at least four troops. Sure, there are troops to replace them, but they are limited and they are significantly weaker, meaning I’m handicapped at the beginning of the next level. More to the point, there will be a time when you run out of replacements. On my first file, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t always getting reinforcements. This left me stuck with a mere three troops against a level with tanks! I had to start the game from the beginning in order to try and prevent this from happening again.

Speaking of tanks, they are a pain the butt. The can kill anyone in one hit, and can only be hit by grenades and anti-tank missiles. The problem is that you often only have one grenade per soldier because the rest of his gear is reserved for armor. Then, you have to hope the guys with bazookas are near and that they have enough ammo to do the job. Even if you get the tank down, often enough the soldier who managed the deed will end up being wide open to an enemy solider.

The “friendly” AI you get in some missions is another pain the butt. During an escort mission, the supply trucks I was supposed to be guarding took a suicide course. They went right into uncleared territory and did so long before I could get any backup to them. The small number of troops that came with the trucks ran off in the wrong direction, essentially making them useless. I lost the mission while desperately trying to catch up with the trucks.

“Balance” is a term this game has never heard.

Originality

I pretty much covered this in my opening statement.

World War II has been covered by just about every genre for just about every system. It’s no surprise. Never before or since has such a devastating war occurred. Whether it is to pay tribute or simply to make money, companies of all sorts have used the war because it carries instant international recognition.

The game does have a lot of nice ideas, such as looting equipment, the various stances, and a leveling system uncommon in turn based strategy games, but it never truly feels unique.

Addictiveness

I found it nearly impossible to play this game in shifts longer than even fifteen minutes. The controls were the biggest factor, as well as the inability to place troops at the start of battle. Also, the game just never was fun.

If you play the campaign, you’ll need to replay levels several times over so you can finish it without losing too many troops. I’m sure there are a few people who get into that kind of thing, but I found it extremely annoying. Personally, I’m surprised I got as far into the campaign as I did before I just started playing all of the levels in Scenario Mode.

Basically, if I ever pick this game up again, I will be shocked.

Appeal Factor

Who is this game intended to appeal to? The mechanics are a bit too deep for casual players, and hardcore strategy players tend to stick to PC titles or at least the Advance Wars series on the DS. Basically, there is a better option for anyone who might show interest in the game.

One of the most damning things going against this game is that no one has heard of it. Gamespot had this game listed as not having a release date until about two weeks after it came out. I tried to find the game on Gamestop and all I found was old Call of Duty titles.

It isn’t completely hopeless. This game is priced at a mere twenty dollars, so anyone who is looking for it won’t have to spend much to play it, and there are always those people who see a cheap game and grab it simply for the price.

Miscellaneous

I’m not sure what else I can say about the game at this point. There’s no extras to worry about and no online features to like or dislike. You have the gameplay and that’s it.

I would like to say that the game could have been a lot better. For starters, a little more testing with the stylus controls would have gone a long way. Even simply being able to place your troops would make the gameplay much better and far more balanced. It’s usually hard to pinpoint a single thing in a game that could have made the whole thing better if it had been done differently, but this is one of those cases.

The Scores
Modes: Decent
Graphics: Poor
Audio: Mediocre
Gameplay: Very Poor
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Very Bad
Originality: Very Poor
Addictiveness: Very Bad
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Poor
Final Score: Poor Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

After my first hour spent with this game, I was sure it was going to be tied with the lowest score I’ve ever given a game. Though my opinion didn’t change drastically enough to call this game good, I can say that there were some solid ideas here that were hampered by bad decisions and poor implementation. I certainly won’t be clamoring for a sequel any time soon, but I’d be willing to give the developers another chance.

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