There have been firefighting games for as long as there have been video games, but for whatever reason—and I’ll speculate on this in a second—there has never been a great one. Fire Commander is the latest game to try and break this duck, and while it doesn’t make it, I at least admire the way it tries.
Fire Commander was developed by Pixel Crow—remember Beat Cop?—and Atomic Wolf, and was released last week on PC, Xbox and PlayStation. It works like a real-time tactics game, only instead of shooting Nazis you’re putting out fires, and between missions there’s a whole strategic side of the game that can be best summed up as “XCOM, but with gyms for firefighters”.
I think the main reason there’s never been a great firefighting game is because, as exciting as the subject can look on the news or in movies, in reality most fires are fought in an incredibly routine way. And fire itself, while definitely a hazard, just doesn’t lend itself to being a great adversary in a game the way an actual enemy does. Sure it’s dangerous, but it’s usually also slow, and in most cases you defeat it by...pointing a hose at it.
Fire Commander tries to get around this by abandoning any and all attempts at simulation. If you wanted to get an insight into how fires are actually fought and what a day in the life of a firefighter is actually like, this is not the game for you. At nearly every point in this game, Fire Commander is ditching reality in the name of making concessions towards fun and strategic gameplay, and while this is in some ways disappointing—I used to work for NSW Fire & Rescue, and would love to see someone actually get a decent simulation made—in most ways it’s understandable, and the game is all the better for it.
As I’ve said, Fire Commander is split into two sections. The first, played out between missions, has you overseeing your firehouse and roster of firefighters, and if you’ve played XCOM you already know what’s going down here. You can rest and train your existing firefighters, recruit new ones and expand or upgrade your base. It’s fine, and it all works, but I never found it the challenge the way I think it was supposed to be, since my firefighters would gain XP so quickly that resting and replacing them never felt as urgent as it was clearly supposed to be.
Most of your time in Fire Commander is spent out on a mission, though, and it’s here that things got a lot more enjoyable. Having abandoned any attempt at realism, the developers have instead built a real-time tactics game that is based around you picking the right person for the right job at the right time.
Every job you attend will have some kind of time limit on it, like a fire spreading to something explosive, or a number of civilians who are in danger and need to be rescued before it’s too late. Standing in your way is the fire itself, which needs to be put out, but also a number of environmental challenges like locked doors (which need to be chopped open with axes) and obstacles that can only be overcome by a certain class of firefighter.
This class division is frustrating in many ways—why can’t every firefighter use a circular saw or a computer!?!—but like I’ve said, it’s one of the design concessions that was made to create a game out of this, and once the initial gripe wore off and I started thinking of everyone as “techs” or “rogues”, it was fine.
The key to completing every single mission, then, is working out the quickest way to achieve each objective, because the longer you leave a fire to spread, or an office worker in a room filling with smoke, the harder your job is going to get. I rarely got through a job on the first attempt; instead it would take a few tries, as I had to optimise which firefighters I sent to each corner of the map, and make sure they were doing the right jobs when they got there.
Once again this was initially frustrating, as constantly having to restart missions in a game that superficially had so much in common with a real-time tactics game felt like bullshit. Surely a game that had so much in common with, say, Steel Division should be testing me throughout the mission, not just presenting me with a single puzzle at the start and leaving the rest up to my execution?
Start thinking of each mission as a run, though, and it starts to make more sense. Less Steel Division, more Neon White. Each mission will unfold the same from the start, so a successful job in Fire Commander is more about perfecting your plan—multiple actions can be queued up at any time, even before the mission starts—then executing that plan to perfection.
When you’ve mastered what Fire Commander is trying to do here—using firefighters as window dressing for a unique real-time tactics experience, rather than simulating the job of a firefighter—it can be a really fun. Moving around a map shooting bad guys has been done 1000 times before, but coordinating a team to contain a spreading fire, cleaning up chemical spills and dragging unconscious civilians out of a burning restaurant (sometimes all at once) was a fresh challenge.
It’s far from perfect, of course, and I don’t want to make it sound like this is a contender for strategy game of the year. Even taking its lack of realism into consideration, there are still some bizarre decisions here, like not letting firefighters break huge windows next to locked doors, or giving everyone a portable water tank instead of using hoses, which again is something clearly designed to provide a challenge (forcing you to juggle firefighters who have to race back to a truck to refuel), but which in implementation is a huge pain in the ass.
Most jarringly, and despite my overall love for this “genre” of European Disaster And Transportation Management (if you can even call it that), it’s full of annoying little quirks like simple tasks having to be clicked on multiple times, and pathfinding sending firefighters on bizarre journeys around the map, and sometimes...directly into fires. It’s a janky field, one more concerned (or prioritising) its nuts and bolts over its polish, and I knew this coming into it, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
BUT. I am a forgiving man when it comes to these kind of games, because as busted as they can be, and as unforgivable as that can be in so many other circumstances, when it comes to Euro management games I’m willing to overlook a lot, because these games are so earnest. This wide-ranging genre has limited budgets and is playing to a limited audience, so it’s unfair to expect the world of its games. They’re trying their best, damn it, and in this case Fire Commander does enough that’s new and interesting that I could work past its rougher edges.