Review: Tactical Space Command

By Kelsey Rinella 02 Jan 2014 0
The order is: engage the silent drive. TSC Celebes is named for the source of its famously delicious coffee.

Tactical Space Command is all about substance. You are the commander of a sci-fi space flotilla, sitting in the war room and directing the efforts of your ships from afar. Like all military hardware your console has built by the lowest bidder (it might have been ripped out of for months, and only now has it become clear why the review has taken so long, with play proceeding in fits and starts, and it can be summed up in a single word: affordances.

…[H]e wept! for there were no more worlds to conquer. "[H]e wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer." -Hans Gruber, Die Hard[/caption]To digress, the idea behind affordances is that objects (and interfaces) communicate possible actions, and people pick up on those possibilities without putting conscious thought into inferring them. In TSC, the problem is that the affordances are occasionally unhelpful, which means one's strategy for learning the game tends to lurch between trusting the excellent interface by doing what comes naturally, and memorizing the almost arbitrary way to pull off other moves within the game.

The interface isn't complex for its own sake, however -- it's complex because it must be. Tactical Space Command offers many smaller scenarios where you tussle with a small detachment of ships over the fate of an asteroid, but there's also engagements of Lucasian scale where you must build, organize and manage armadas to beat back the enemy from their strongholds. In terms of scale, TSC might be the most audacious iPad game ever made.

The circle will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what the squares and triangles did here. In the grim darkness of the far future…

Maps generally have a handful or two of planets, which are defensible and produce resources and ships. The ship types are few enough to make even large fleets easily comprehensible, but diverse enough to support various strategies and roles, especially considering the specialization which the basic research options provide. Your spacedocks won't have enough resources to work consistently unless you control asteroids and shipping lanes to them. Sensor-weakening nebulas and asteroid fields which slow movement can create choke points or opportunities which allow implicit objectives to emerge beyond the explicitly-controlled celestial bodies. It's a little odd that everything is perfectly circular and that the planets don't move in their orbits, but abstracting away from astronomical accuracy makes TCS feel like a game about war and supply, rather than exploring the particulars of nebula formation.

This model is presented in a fundamentally turn-based fashion, but one which attempts to account for the truism that most of the time, war is boring. Rather than spicing up the model NFL Blitz-style (so boring periods never happen) the game encourages you to see it as a real-time game and allows you to automatically advance the turn at varying rates. Even major battles between the largest fleets take mere moments on the fastest setting. It's almost a brilliant solution.

The trouble, of course, is that it's always possible to bring it back to a turn-based game in which you micromanage every action of each of your many ships for maximum effectiveness. It's not uncommon to have several task forces of tens of ships each on even medium-sized maps, with numerous utility ships spread out defending your freighters, raiding your opponents', or reconnoitering. Each of these has a commander with numerous aptitudes and experience. Lensflare are clearly aware that carefully attending to each of these would be horribly tedious for many players, and they have options to offload much of that to the computer. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to do that while maintaining both a consistent interface and one which presents the options you actually have, taking those AI settings into account.

Lo! I have discovered software which would benefit from greater Bing integration, as was prophesied. Lo! I have discovered software which would benefit from greater Bing integration, as was prophesied.

While that's my only real complaint about TSC, it's a serious one, and I've no idea how it could be fixed. There's clearly been an attempt to make the interface offer you only the available options, so when you order a ship to an empty location, you can go there to raid, patrol, and so forth, but not attempt a ground assault or intercept a specific enemy ship. This works (though docking is less intuitive than it ought to be, and I'm still not sure why I sometimes can't suggest to my task force that it abandon formation and just get to the rally point A.S.A.P.), in the sense that there's generally a sequence of taps available which will bring about what you want.

The problem is that which sequence that is depends on various settings, and even though the interface presents you with the information you would need to infer what to do, it requires inference, rather than feeling natural. The actions available can't be instantly picked up, because there's no easy metaphor to something physical presented. Worse, the inference is seriously effortful, in part because the help, though well-written, lacks an index or search function, which makes plugging any lacunae in your memory difficult.

TSC is a uniquely complex game on iPad, one that is very rewarding. But it demands your time and concentration like few other games do. Perhaps a virtuoso interface designer could build a way for players of TSC to intuitively grasp their options, even when they change based on a variety of settings. Lensflare haven't done so, nor have they found a way to design around this problem to make a game which feels like it wants to be played. Instead, TSC is most enjoyable after a relatively lengthy process of slowly memorizing the settings you like in various circumstances and how you can best manage your fleets and planets under them.

Long before that, it's possible to have a good time just tooling around on a low difficulty setting, letting the computer do most of the micromanagement and letting time fly by while you explore different tactics, varying ship types, upgrading beam weapons vs. missiles, and such. The battles remain starkly bloodless triangle-on-square violence, but it's space--you shouldn't expect to hear screams.

* I'm the only staff member with a copied signed by the author. It does still puzzle me from time to time that he chose purple crayon.

Review: Tactical Space Command

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