Radio Commander, A Strategy Game Where You Just Talk On A Radio And Get Very Upset

Illustration for article titled iRadio Commander/i, A Strategy Game Where You Just Talk On A Radio And Get Very Upset

The entire point of strategy games, and a lot of the appeal, is that you’re given direct control over entire units or even armies, even if historically you’d have only a fraction of that influence. Radio Commander realises that, and it’s a fascinating game because of it.

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It puts you in the position of an officer who is back in relative safety in a US firebase, but who is also at the same time in command of platoons who are out there in the field getting shot at.

You have missions to complete, and a map, and a radio. And that’s it. You do everything with that incredibly limited toolbox, and the majority of your time spent with Radio Commander is either issuing radio commands or listening to the replies and updates coming in from your troops.

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While this initially sounds fine, calling to mind our experience with more contemporary wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, with their drone footage and helmet cameras, the fact this game is set in the 1960s throws that out the window.

In Radio Commander you see nothing, and are never in direct control of your men. All you can do is issue general commands, like move to a certain point of the map and engage, and then sit back tensely, praying that everything turns out OK.

The map you’re given doesn’t even update. You need to do that manually, radioing in for location updates then moving unit markers onto that grid position accordingly.

While this would make for a pretty drab experience in a more open-ended strategy game, Radio Commander is a scripted, narrative campaign that in addition to giving you tactical decisions to make also has you confronting the moral quagmire of the Vietnam war, from civilian abuse to CIA operations.

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As you get wrapped up in the story, the outcome of missions becomes incredibly tense. I can’t remember a simple “move” order in a strategy game ever being so heart-wrenching, as you sit idly by for minutes at a time (you can speed things up with a timelapse clock, though), waiting to hear back from units, or order a platoon into combat only to be met with silence.

Sometimes these limitations go from being “interesting” to “frustrating”, especially when things are going terribly and you have no idea just how terribly they’re going to get, or the tedium of constantly radioing in for a unit’s position gets tiring, but it’s hard to argue for greater direct control of units when that frustration is half the point of putting the player in this position in the first place.

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This won’t be for everyone, but if like me you’re interested in strategy games that are trying to explore genuinely new avenues of command and control, it’s definitely worth looking into.

Luke Plunkett is a Senior Editor based in Canberra, Australia. He has written a book on cosplay, designed a game about airplanes, and also runs cosplay.kotaku.com.

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DISCUSSION

ro37
Yotsuba&Tochan

Reminds me of bit of the design philosophy behind Scourge of War (PC/Steam), a Napoleonic era tactical war game. Although you can play it as a standard top-down real time tactical war game, it carries with it the option of turning on both messenger-based orders AND “in the saddle” mode.

Messenger based orders makes it so when you order a unit to do something, it doesn’t do it automatically. A “messenger” spawns where you’re standing who rides out to where-ever the unit is to deliver your order. So the further the unit is from you, the longer it will take for your order to arrive.
Furthermore, the messenger is not invincible and can be intercepted—so if there are enemy units between you and the unit, your message might never arrive.

If you turn on “in the saddle mode” you’re tied down to your saddle—your avatar (on horseback) is at “human on a horse” height, so your line of sight determines what you can see. Otherwise, you’re reliant on receiving dispatches from your units to tell you where they are, whether they are fighting someone, etc. Of course, like your own messengers, units that are cut off from you won’t be sending any dispatches.

I found it to be extremely overwhelming in large battles, and even in small battles, it can be very hard to get an overall picture of how you’re even doing (you can go back post-battle and watch a replay to find out what was actually going on thankfully), and it can make for a fun and confusing multiplayer experience.

Definitely not for everyone, but for a more realistic sense of what it was like to be Napoleon or Wellington, and how astonishing those people really were in executing those plans (also, I understood very quickly why Napoleon set himself up in a church steeple or the tallest hill in the area)