Action/strategy titles are not as commonplace as you might imagine. When Elite Forces: Unit 77 first appeared on my desk it had all the qualities of shovelware. Cheesy title, budget-priced boxart, and a bullet-list of features on the back that sounded forced. Thankfully you cannot always judge a book by its cover, as my opinion changed instantly once I sat down and played through the first few levels. While it does certainly have some drawbacks, fans of titles like Commandos will find an entertaining experience in Gammick Entertainment’s latest DS title.
As you can probably imagine the story isn’t where this game will shine. The premise is about the same as any other game of its type. The world is under attack from a group of terrorists, and it is up to your elite unit of highly-trained soldiers to take them down. Each member of your squad has a specialty, and it will come into play throughout the game. Kendra Chase is the quintessential sniper, demolitions expert T.K. Richter, Bill Matic is the IT guru, and what team would be complete without the prototypical weapons expert, whose name just happens to be Dag Hammer. The overall narrative involves your team taking down various targets, and of course saving the world. On a whole the plot is entirely forgettable and you will find yourself skipping the introductions sequences before the beginning of the third level.
If you can get past the terrible character names and the paint-by-numbers storyline, you are halfway to the point of finally enjoying the game. As I mentioned earlier, the gameplay in Elite Forces reminds me of an older PC title called Commandos. The action takes place from a top-down perspective, and you can control your troops by tapping on the screen, or the menu bar on the right hand side. I never used any buttons of the DS itself, which makes switching between characters and actions feel intuitive at first. You can simply point your stylus anywhere on the screen and your squad will move there. Attacking targets is as easy as tapping them with the stylus. You use the right hand menu to select individual characters, or to enable their special skills and of course heal. All of this sounds great in theory, and works surprisingly well through the first few levels, but once things become more complicated, it can become a real pain.
As you can imagine tapping enemies to shoot at them and moving around would be simple enough, but what happens when you toss in tougher enemies that require you to use your special skills. There are times in the game when you need to use Kendra to snipe out some enemies while the rest of your team covers your back, the problem lies in the fact that unless you tell them to fire, your squad AI mostly stands there while you take on a barrage of bullets. This quickly leads to a lot of scenarios becoming a trial and error affair, which works for games with generous checkpoints, something Elite Forces certainly does not have. In fact there is only one checkpoint per mission, and if you fail to make it there before dying you have to start the entire mission over again. This quickly became a deterrent, especially for a handheld game that is designed to offer gameplay in bite-sized portions.
Combine that with the idea of having to control everything in the game by tapping it, and you will become frustrated early on. Bumbling over the controls is the culprit of most of the game’s problems, and really drags down the experience early on. Surprisingly I still found myself tapping away at the game, simply because there just isn’t much else like it on the system. It also helps that there is quite a bit of content here for the price of admission. There are twelve nice-sized missions and the ability to quick-play any of them once they have been completed in single-player. Sadly the biggest omission though is the ability to play co-op with friends wirelessly. The idea of having four squad members and only opting to include single-player support is beyond my comprehension, especially with as complicated as the game becomes later on.
From a purely visual aspect this is one fine looking DS game, even if it does have some of the traditional graphical hitches. Character animations are decent enough, and enemies even have various ways to attack and perish. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell your three male characters apart in the heat of battle, but the menu system helps with that. Level designs do feel a bit repeated as we see the same jungle background for several stages before it changes, but they are nice and large, giving the scale of the game enough to make up for it. Sounds on the other hand are about as generic as you can imagine. Repeated effects and music tracks really stand out when you are playing with headphones on. Everything else simply feels commonplace, it won’t blow you away, but it isn’t bad when you consider all of the other factors.
Elite Forces: Unit 77 is the type of game that you want to like despite its flaws. It brings a genre that is sorely overlooked in the handheld market, and executes it surprisingly well. If the small nuances could be ironed out, this title could really shine among other action/strategy titles. Unfortunately as it stands there is a lot of frustration buried in the cartridge, making it hard to recommend outside of hardcore fans of the genre. If you have patience, and enough dedication to perform trial and error missions this game has a lot to offer. However, the lack of co-op and cumbersome touchscreen controls make it feel more like a chore the further you get into the game.