As far as home and portable consoles are concerned, turn-based strategy games are usually the realm of medieval fantasy. It was certainly the case up until the 32-bit generation, when very few games such as Military Madness on the TurboGrafx-16 existed. Once the genre started to gain popularity, the setting started to branch out more as the generations progressed. Yes, you still have heavy hitters like Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle 64 and Vandal Hearts dealing in the medieval fantasy realm, but games like Advance Wars, Commanders: Attack of the Genos and Valkyria Chronicle are starting to cover other types of combat not necessarily involving swords and magic. On the portable front, World War II hasn't been covered much in the turn-based strategy genre. With the help of Hoplite Research, known for their various handheld conversions of Myst, Storm City Games is looking to fill in that void with T.A.C. Heroes: Big Red One. It would have been a decent budget title if it weren't for the technical shortcomings that mar the title from beginning to end.
There is no one unifying narrative to T.A.C. Heroes, so if you're looking to see these battles through the eyes of one particular soldier, you'll have to look somewhere else. What you'll get here instead is the more of a general account of the combat scenarios that America's Big Red One squad participated in during World War II. The game is split up into two separate campaign years you choose to tackle in any order: the 1942 campaign, consisting of 16 battles starting in North Africa and ending in Europe, and the 1944 campaign, consisting of 21 battles starting from D-day and ending with the end of the war.
The game plays out using the most basic mechanics found in almost all turn-based strategy games. The playing field is made up of a set number of hexagons with players already on the field. Each soldier has a set number of action points, with the higher-ranked soldiers having more points than others. At the start of each turn, the player selects a soldier and takes one of several commands. Choosing to move will present an area to which they can move, with obstacles such as rocks and barriers limiting inhabitable space.
Attacking will show the spaces from which the enemy can be attacked. If the soldier is close to the enemy, it will be a melee attack instead of gunfire. Choosing to throw will initiate a grenade throw, which can only be done once per turn but allows for a wider area of damage outside of the initial target spot. Tactics allow for more aggressive or defensive movement and give respective bonuses in exchange for movement space. Finally, the soldier can select equipment to call in, such as aircraft strikes, healing wounded soldiers, or looting dead bodies for more equipment. At the end of each match, any soldiers who are still alive can either move up in rank or earn more bonuses for attributes, such as attack range or throwing range.
Those who are used to seeing the more modern turn-based strategy games would be surprised at how much T.A.C. Heroes borrows from old-school turn-based strategy titles. For example, the soldiers in the field are always set up in the same places in each scenario. As the battle begins, the player has no say about who will be starting or where they'll be, though one can dictate exactly who is fighting.
There also doesn't seem to be much change in attack as far as terrain is concerned. Instead of increasing or diminishing the amount of damage an attack can do, it is an all-or-nothing affair. Finally, the game utilizes a "fog of war" commonly seen in real-time strategy games, making some battles more difficult than they already are. Are these necessarily bad choices to have in the game? Not necessarily, but with the exception of the "fog of war," they do keep things simple for those who haven't been trained to think further ahead with their tactics.
Even though there is no indication in instruction manuals or the packaging, the game supports multiplayer. Every scenario from both campaigns can be played with two players. There are a few caveats to this, though. First, the positions of the soldiers on both sides as well as the win requirements are exactly the same as in the Campaign mode. For players who have already gone through those battles, this will all seem repetitive. This also hurts the other point, which is that this is a multiplayer game requiring only one DS system to play. You'll be passing the system back and forth between players, so if the first player is very experienced with each battle, the match will certainly be over before it formally begins. As a result, the feature may be nice, but after one playthrough, it will be easily overlooked by gamers who wish to continue with this title.
The controls support two different schemes simultaneously, though one can't help but use both in order to make the experience less cumbersome. The player can choose to use the touch-screen, which acts just like a mouse in a PC game. Tapping on the soldiers brings up their menu, and tapping on the hexagons will either make them move to that desired spot or attack that spot. Dragging the stylus on the screen pans the camera. If you decide the traditional controller inputs are more for you, the d-pad will control camera pan while the L and R buttons toggle between your soldiers. The A button brings up the menus and executes actions, the B button cancels actions and goes backward in menus, and the Y button ends turns.
You can operate the game rather well with the traditional controls alone, but trying to do so with the touch-screen alone is an entirely different matter. Try to pan to the opponent after selecting an attack command, and you'll fire at the spot you touched the second the stylus hits the screen. For a game that is on a system known for touch, this type of mistake is unacceptable since it can cost matches. Lost matches beget frustration, and that's the last thing people want when playing this game.
The graphics in T.A.C. Heroes are quite basic. The levels have some basic color, and it is easy to tell objects apart, but the whole thing feels lifeless. The soldiers move with stiffness in their steps and fire their weapons or throw their ordnance without extra fluidity. The gunfire and explosions look fine and match up with the rest of the game's presentation nicely enough. One humorous item to be noted would have to be the soldier portraits on the menus, which look like the development staff simply dressed up. It's a nice little touch that can be overlooked, but it is good to see them doing what they can to complete the project.
The sound in the game just isn't up to the quality one would expect from budget games, let alone big-name ones. The music isn't half bad and sounds just like bombastic tunes from an old WWII movie but more compressed, as the speakers scratch and muddle up the tunes. The effects suffer the same fate as well. Explosions and gunfire sound constrained by the speakers and end up being white noise instead. This wouldn't all be bad if it weren't for the voices. The voices of the enemies, whether they're Italian or German, all sound the same but don't have any power behind them. Instead of coming off like disciplined soldiers, they sound like bored soldiers who are just going through the motions.
For a budget title, T.A.C. Heroes: Big Red One could have been fine. The strategy element was simplistic, but it could have helped players transition into more sophisticated turn-based strategy games. Unfortunately, the less-than-stellar graphics, somewhat bothersome controls, and poor sound don't exactly help matters for a casual gamer. For those who are looking to get into turn-based strategy games, there are other games on the Nintendo DS that have better production values and more depth. Unless you can find this title for very cheap, it would be tough to recommend T.A.C. Heroes.
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