Bargain Bin: Strategy Edition

Bargain Bin

Are you armchair general? Do you watch the History Channel hoping to glean some insight from Patton or Napoleon? Do you sit on the beach imagining the way your virtual forces would invade it, looking for tactical weakness while the children play happily amidst the sand and waves? If so, let me know so I sit away from you on the bus. I’m just kidding, a little bit at least. For those of us with a mind to command, video games offer a wide variety of titles and styles to sample and dominate. Whether you’d prefer to storm the beaches of Normandy, turn outer space into a battle ground, or simply rule the world, you’re going to find something here to satisfy you. Better yet, with so many great games out there, finding affordable ones generally isn’t a problem. This week’s Bargain Bin takes some time to highlight a few of the best ones.

Panzer Tactics DS (DS)

Panzer Tactics DS

The DS has been a great system for turn-based strategy games, and while I could easily — and have before — recommend the DS versions of the Age of Empires games, I’m going to take some time to discuss Panzer Tactics DS. Panzer Tactics is a bit pricier than my usual fair, especially for a DS game. I usually try to keep my selections around the twenty dollar range, and this one is almost pushing thirty. That said, I’m not at all exaggerating that if you are a fan of this style of gaming and are looking for a truly challenging experience, Panzer Tactics is absolutely, completely worth the extra few dollars.

Panzer Tactics is easily one of the most complex games on the DS, giving you control of a massive amount of unique and authentic WWII units. You have infantry, planes, tanks, and everything in between to play with here, and moreover, so does your enemy, which is easily the most intelligent and unforgiving I’ve ever come up against in a turn-based strategy game. It pulls absolutely no punches, and will fight you like a cornered dog for every inch of ground. You can never just charge in, guns blazing. There are always outside elements to pay attention to. How strong is my tank compared to his? How many core units have I already lost (replacements are hard to come by and losing too many will cost you the mission)? Do I have enough supplies to stage an assault? The game is absolutely addictive and enthralling.

It isn’t without flaws though. Replay value is sadly limited. You can redo any campaign mission you want, but the game unfortunately lacks any option to play out randomized or player made levels. Furthermore, the wireless multiplayer is rather weak. Essentially once you’ve beaten this game, that’s it. That said, while it lasts it is a brilliant ride and it will last you awhile. I literally spent an entire week at one point just trying to complete one of the mid-level difficulty missions. If only through sheer challenge, it will last you.

Amazon (Note: Used Amazon.com prices are subject to change)

New – $26.79

Used – $26.78

Starcraft (PC)

Starcraft

With Starcraft II on the horizon, some might ask, why? Why invest money in a game that is well past its prime with a high-profile sequel coming out? Well the very simple answer to this is that Starcraft, despite its age, is still one of the best RTS titles ever made. I doubt I have to say all too much about the story, but for those few, strange newcomers in the audience, Starcraft follows a three-way conflict between the Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg. There’s lots of political backstabbing, cross-species alliances, and just overall coolness. I don’t mean at all to understate the story — it is one of the best an RTS game has ever attempted and Blizzard still deserves full props for what they accomplished with Starcraft — but let’s be honest, the gameplay has always been the center of this game, and it is fantastic.

Each of the three races is playable, and each has their own strengths and weakness for the player to master. The Protoss are devastating on the field, but their units are costly. The Zerg units are often easier to kill, but are cheaper, making it easy to build an army of overwhelming size. The Terrans inhabit the middle ground. It’s a bit more complex than these generalities of course, but that is the beauty of this game. There are so many ways to play each race that just the process of learning each of them is enough to occupy the player for hours, an experience that is vastly lengthened by purchasing the insanely affordable Battle Chest edition, which includes the excellent Brood War expansion pack. Starcraft is simply an incredible game that I can see remaining popular even after its sequel arrives on the scene. I can’t recommend it enough.

Amazon (Note: Used Amazon.com prices are subject to change)

New – $19.99

Used – $14.99

Gamestop

New – $19.99

Field Commander (PSP)

Field Commander

Largely considered not just the best turn-based strategy game on the handheld, but one of the best PSP games as a whole, Field Commander is a thorough and well designed experience that smartly works with the restrictions and requisites of a good portable experience in mind.

Field Commander follows a conflict between an alliance of nations known ATLAS and an organization of super terrorists that have started a full-scale war. The story is fine, and the game surprises with full voice-overs to accompany its okay, but could-have-been-better graphics.

The real treat here is the gameplay, which by all accounts is stellar. The game plays much like Advance Wars, giving you a wide variety of units to play with during your turns against an equally diverse foe. All of the basic stuff factors in here, with one of the most surprising qualities being the game’s dynamic environments. Whereas many such games have physical obstacles and the like, the player generally has little influence over them. Field Commander allows you to reshape the terrain during battle. If there is a forest too thick for your tanks to travel through, thin it out with a nice artillery bombardment. If you’re having trouble capturing an enemy city, but want to cripple their income, shell it. The resulting damage will put a damper on things for them. Overall, Field Commander is just a solidly built game. The levels are generally short, making for the sort of fights you can tackle on a bus ride, and you can save your progress at any time during single-player and multiplayer games.

One of the most interesting parts of the game is the play-by-email feature, in which you and another connected player can play a prolonged game one turn at a time over the course of a few hours, days, or potentially even weeks. You and your opponent create a game together and then play it like a long distance game of chess, taking turns at your own pace. The game saves after each turn, making it possible to start a game, take a few turns, and then leave for hours or even days before coming back to it. It’s a rather brilliant design choice that makes the multiplayer massively accessible when compared even to turn based strategy games on consoles.

The game isn’t entirely without faults, though. The graphics lack polish, though they still outshine many DS titles. They are fine, but they could have easily been much better. More troubling is that the enemy AI tends to be on the skittish rather then aggressive side, making the single-player campaign a bit too easy. That said, Field Commander is still a well constructed and addictive game that any fan of the genre would probably enjoy.

Amazon (Note: Used Amazon.com prices are subject to change)

New – $32.99

Used – $12.49

Gamestop

Used – $12.99

Space Empires V (PC)

Space Empire V

Civilization is generally seen as the pinnacle of the whole 4x empire building sub-genre. I’m of the humble opinion that Space Empire V blows Civilization out of the water in most every aspect. The game is vast. Depending on how you play and how you want to play, you can tackle games that last seemingly forever against diverse foes. You can play the imperious conqueror, the diplomatic peacemaker, or, as I like to do, focus on playing the middle ground.

The sheer customization available in the game is very notable. When making a treaty with another species, it’s possible to include dozens of micro-complexities. You want to establish a trade treaty? Go right ahead and throw in a side note requiring the other race to stop research on planet destruction. If war is more your style, you can completely customize the loadout on the different classes of ships you maintain. It would have been nice to be able to design their appearance as well, but the system still works nicely.

If I have any complaints about the game, it’s that the visuals are noticeably primitive. They’re an improvement from those in Space Empires IV — which is included with V — but they’re still nothing to write home about. They do the job, though. It’s no less satisfying to conquer an enemy planet or defeat their fleet because the graphics are less pretty than the competition.

A word of warning to prospective buyers: the game is initially incredibly buggy. That said, if you’re willing to take the few minutes you need to download the free patch, it resolves all the problems. A small annoyance, but easily rectified.

Amazon (Note: Used Amazon.com prices are subject to drink)

New – $11.99

Used – $9.47

Games to Avoid

I love the Fire Emblem series. The Game Boy Advance releases are two of my favorite localized RPGs, and the Gamecube and Wii games are equally strong. As such, the savage inferiority of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is a massive disappointment to me. Where the other games provide you with a good thirty to forty hours of deep, addictive gameplay, Shadow Dragon is far less involving. Rather than updating the original Fire Emblem with the modern features that would make it just as wonderful as the other games we’ve played, the designers opt to put out a lazy port that upscales the graphics, adds a few pointless features, and leaves out everything else that has made the series great. I could go on for awhile and in fact I have; for a full list of my complaints go read my review.

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