Review: Sentinel Command13 Aug 2015 0
In last year's under-exposed gem Heroes of the Revolution, creator John Ellenberger cast you as the leader of a band of Cuban rebels, out-manned and out-gunned by the government's forces. You were a scrappy featherweight dropped into the ring with a 250-pound monster, staying mobile and sticking in jabs where you could. It was exhilarating.
Sentinel Command looks very different (in fact, Ellenberger's GamerNationX has never put out a more attractive game) but the central idea is still a war between asymmetrical sides. This time, however, you're the establishment fighting off the guerrillas, never certain of which dark shadow the bad guys are lurking in. Like its predecessor, this is a complex game with a lot of interesting ideas -- but possibly a few ideas too many.
The setting for this cat-and-mouse game is a wholly original one. Ellenberger takes us to a Dune-inflected feudal sci-fi space empire torn apart by aristocratic in-fighting. The game's art direction sells this as a Flash Gordon-style film serial: the starships look to have been designed by Harley Earl and the lead instrument on the soundtrack is a theremin. You will not confuse Sentinel Command with any other game -- it's an eye-catching look and it succeeds in giving the game an atmosphere all its own.
Your noble house of Sedaris is under attack from its neighbors the Daraay, and your father the Duke has charged you (the Earl of Sedaris) with the defense of the economically critical Kernwall province. Kernwall is dotted with mines and refineries that provide you with neo-platinum, the game's currency. Daraay's brigands will launch raids to disrupt your facilities which you intercept from your centrally-located base, the titular Sentinel Command.
Sentinel Command houses hangars for six ships. When Daraay raiders appear in Kernwall (they're sneaky bastards that you'll never see coming -- they only show up on the map once a raid begins), you select a response force of ships and scramble them. As your ships arrive, the game switches from real-time map mode to turn-based tactical combat.
This turn-based combat is the real meat of the game. Each of one your ships has a number of equipment slots for upgradeable equipment, plus six individual bridge officers with up to six special abilities each: science officers can make enemy subsystems more vulnerable or boost an allied ships' shields, security officers can attempt to capture an enemy vessel with marines or repel boarding parties on their own ship. In a big twelve-ship fight, staying on top of the situation is rather demanding, and Sentinel's art actually gets in the way a bit here. I love the combat dioramas that look like a 1950s TV special effects shot of models on strings, but they're visually busy and are difficult to scan for information.
The combat is often interesting and tense, but it's over-populated with meaningless options. Of all of the dozens of special abilities in the game, I found myself leaning on five or six. There's plenty of tools that I never used a single time in my two victorious campaigns. The rationale behind many of the crew abilities seems to have been symmetry: ensuring that everyone has exactly six to choose from. None of this is to say that the combat isn't capable of generating drama--especially on hard difficulty--but it's a bit slow and inelegant.
If you succeed in combat you're presented with a post-battle decision: do you attempt to pick up survivors in the enemy's escape pods, or do you trawl the debris for neo-platinum? Ellenberger does a great job of characterizing the faceless Daraay enemy through their actions -- not only do they engage in cowardly sneak attacks, but the honorless worms even booby-trap escape pods. Intelligence from escape pods is your only means of locating the secret Daraay bases hidden in Kernwall, so you have to roll the dice sometimes, risking time-consuming repairs if a booby trap damages a ship or worse -- kills a crewman.
Successfully defending your provinces' mines and refineries nets you neo-platinum that you can spend on upgrading your ships, but remember that Kernwall is but one territory in Sedaris' vast holdings. Periodically a war council will be held where the leaders of other Sedaris provinces will come with their hands out asking for neo-platinum. If you fund their war efforts you'll be granted access to ship upgrades and even new classes of ships -- if you don't cut the check then Daraay will grow more powerful. It's a clever mechanic that encourages you to make daring, ill-advised raids on Daraay bases in search of more neoplatinum just before the war council convenes.
It's also your only opportunity to have an effect on the wider war. Ellenberger presents you with sector maps that are constantly updated with the latest civil war happenings -- not just between Sedaris and Daraay but all of the noble houses in the imperium. This is as much a negative point as a positive one: you really do feel like you're fighting at the margins of a huge galactic conflict, but you are always going to be a second-tier character, doing your bit for the war effort from the backwater of Kernwall.
In my first campaign, I kept waiting to go on the offensive, to take the fight to the enemy. After a campaign of six or seven hours, I put the sword to the last Daraay base in Kernwall... and was immediately presented with a letter from my father the Duke congratulating me on my accomplishment. Game over. After spending so much time on the defensive and reacting to enemy sorties, Sentinel Command feels like it's missing its third act. If nothing else, I expected the game's finale to mix up the gameplay some -- the tactical battles vary as you fight different numbers and classes of enemy ships, but most encounters are fundamentally similar. Whichever enemy base you happen to knock off last turns out to be The Boss. There's no crescendo.
Sentinel Command is interesting and fresh in a lot of the same ways that its predecessor Heroes of the Revolution was. John Ellenberger is an original thinker who doesn't feel tied down by strategy game genre conventions and expectations, and it shows. Just about every game makes you the striker, the hero that everyone is watching. Sentinel Command makes you the goalie, the sucker who only gets noticed if he messes up. It's brave choice on Ellenberger's part, and I don't regret a moment of the time I've spent with the game.
Sid Meier is said to approach a new game idea by asking "who's the person having all the fun in this scenario?" Ellenberger has made a very interesting scenario, but you're the guy guarding the rear far from the front lines. That turns out to be pretty fun, but I can't help but feel there's a Flash Gordon swashing buckles in the heart of the action who's having a better time than we are.