Commando Jack? What is that? Did I buy that? These thoughts bounced around in my head last week when the unfamiliar name popped up as my next game. I remembered getting it in some bundle recently and that it promised tower defense with a dash of action.
I started the puppy up and two things immediately jumped out at me. First, I was right! This was a tower defense game. Second, this was clearly a mobile game ported to PC. The overly large UI, the multitude of fat-finger buttons that were excessively large, and – oh, hm – what’s this, it looks like it was maybe free-to-play in a past life. I tepidly clicked Continue. Could Commando Jack rise above the rapidly falling expectations I had for it? Let’s find out. (Spoiler: no, it can’t.)
At its core, Commando Jack has a fun heart and it really does try to be nice. It starts off with that clever little tutorial on how to place turrets to make a maze. It shows off what makes it different – after placing turrets and while aliens are moving through them, you get to jump into your base, which is a big gun manned by Commando Jack himself and blast away at those darned extraterrestrials! Nothing flashy, nothing too new, but a solid foundation. But then, just as its about to find some footing, it shoves this in my face.
Free coins? So I can get the in-game currency that helps me get better turrets and a more powerful base gun and board-clearing superpowers without having to earn them? I mean, I suppose that could unbalance the economy of the game, but the More button does look pretty tempting. Let’s see what’s in there.
Oh, no. Daily check-ins with more money for each check-in? Why would this exist in my nice indie PC game? Why can’t you just leave your free-to-play roots and customs back in mobile land? Don’t you understand, Commando Jack? You’re in a better place now! You don’t need that baggage. You don’t need to flash FREE COINS on the top of the main menu for all eternity like a street walker looking for someone, anyone. You don’t need to coerce me to like or share your game on Facebook or Twitter for a few thousand coins. I’m here. I’ll play with you. Please, put your pants back on.
The sad thing is that Commando Jack ends up being torn between its free-to-play upbringing and its new paid-for indie game life. Coins are so easily acquired through normal play that I was able to buy every type of turret after only the first few levels. Coins can then be spent on a completely opaque sinkhole called “damage upgrades” for each turret, with no indication how much each level is actually getting me in damage, or on more cheat-y superpowers like placing a group of 4 upgraded turrets instantly or a board-clearing nuke. Clearly, these were meant to be actual money sinks, but the over-correction has led to an income in this game that completely overpowers any kind of difficulty or pressure to spend.
There are so many little things about this game that bother me that I don’t know where to begin. The UI is all circles and is never properly explained. Through trail-and-error, I’m able to figure out what most of them do. I’m pretty sure the d-pad looking button actually brings up on-screen controls to scroll the screen, in case I don’t have a keyboard or am missing my WASD keys. The coloring of the tiles on the map is never explained and it literally took me over an hour to understand what yellow meant – those are squares that the aliens will be forced to walk over with the current turret placement. Still, though, I’m not sure it’s consistent – why isn’t that large green path upwards yellow? Is there another path the aliens can take that I’m not aware of?
I never found out, because of a design decision that infuriated me so much that I eventually gave me up on Commando Jack and played Goat Simulator. I never have any time! This is one of the first tower defense games where I’m expected to build a maze of turrets where I’m given 10-15 seconds between waves to do all my planning with no indication before putting down a turret what the path of the enemies will be. I suppose it didn’t really matter in the end because there were few enough waves that simply building a small section of a maze at the entrance is as far as I got before every alien was dead.
There are some ramps and large decorative things that get in the way and naturally make mazes. What else do they do? Why, they get in the way. Remember that you can man the large gun at the base during waves; well, more often than not, over half the level is obscured by a large pagoda or kiosk or tree in the middle of the level, making the action part of this action tower defense game utterly meaningless.
Uggggghhhhh. This game made me sad. I did not enjoy it. I will never play it again. I hate that it brings unnecessary free-to-play baggage with it, and I dislike the smaller mechanical way that the tower defense plays out. I hope that my game library is not filled with such faff.