I don't mean to brag, but as a lifelong console gamer there aren't many genres in which you could say I'm a novice. However, there are a few. I'm not much of a sports fan so I'm helpless with football and basketball games, and I've never really been big on horse racing simulators. Outside of those areas, I think I'm pretty well-rounded. It's a different story when it comes to the PC, though. I've never been keen to sit in front of a monitor when there's a comfy couch and controllers nearby, so I've ended up avoiding most of the first-person shooters (FPS) and real-time strategy (RTS) games that are more at home on something by Gateway or Dell than Sony or Nintendo. In fact, besides a brief love affair with Blizzard's StarCraft, I don't think I've ever really spent time with a full-fledged RTS.
Along comes Goblin Commander: Unleash the Horde. A real-time strategy game that's been scaled back and specially designed for consoles by former Blizzard-ers, I was quite eager to explore this style of game a little further.
Much of the talk surrounding the game centered around the developer's stated intent to eliminate the clunkiness that has traditionally been associated with other RTSs on consoles due to the fact that that this generally PC-only genre thrives with full use of keyboards and mice. While limited to the reduced number of inputs available on a controller, the brains behind the game have done an excellent job of keeping everything nice and tidy.
Looking down on the playing field from an overhead "god" perspective, players use the left stick to move a "spirit" that functions as a cursor. Camera controls are mapped to the right stick, menus and help functions are on the D-pad, and three of the Dual Shock's face buttons are assigned one race of goblin (called clans) each. It may sound a bit confusing but everything feels quite simple, and directing your goblins is virtually effortless. For those who want a more hands-on approach, you can lead your forces personally by letting your "spirit" possess any of the goblins you command, at which point the camera moves in for an extreme behind-the-back view akin to what you might expect of a third-person action game.
There are ultimately five "clans" to choose from, unlocked as you progress in story mode. (Multiplayer has everything unlocked from the start.) Each clan has their own specialty and strength. For example, the gray Stonekrushers are good at melee combat and healing, while the red Hellfire goblins offer ranged attacks and a greater sight area through use of scouts. All units can be upgraded to deal more damage or to withstand more punishment, although all the upgrades you purchase will be lost at the beginning of each new level. Besides these standard units, there are defense emplacements used to guard your bases and large "titan" units that can only be directly controlled by the player. Taking the shape of large monsters (a hulking ogre, a giant spiked ball, etc) they're ideally used to lead the charge against enemies or to deal some damage to specific locations in a hurry. They look pretty nifty, too.
All of the goblins, titans, and defense units are created by collecting two resources: gold and souls. Gold, used for upgrades and emplacements, is found by smashing items in the environment (rocks, huts, logs, etc.) Souls, for making goblins, are earned by capturing soul fountains spread throughout each map.
With these elements in place, the game seemed to possess the potential for good strategizing. However, when you get right down to it there's not a lot of actual gameplay here. Why? Because the Goblin Commander's simplicity ensures that the basic formula never changes.
In the span of just a few short levels, you'll soon learn that to conquer each area, you simply follow an identical pattern of scrounging for gold, creating squads of goblins (a maximum of ten goblins per clan, three clans at a time), and swarming your way across each level. Wash, rinse, repeat.
After catching on to how the game worked, I was hoping that the five clans would add some flavor to the mix, but regardless of the upgrades I can't say that I really noticed any significant difference between them. One mob of goblins is pretty much like another despite their specialties, making the game feel humdrum far too soon. Different tactics in using each clan would have been much appreciated. As it is, you can take any three types and use them without special effort, getting the same results. (Perhaps some flying, bomb-dropping goblins next time to change things up?)
I was particularly interested in the titans, but they're in need of spice, too. Controlling a giant green slime or an electricity elemental is a great idea, but these brutes are far more fragile than you'd expect for the amount of resources needed to field them. You'll blow a hefty pile of gold and souls summoning one of these warriors, only to watch it go down in its first big battle. In essence, they're inefficient and wasteful to use, and in a game where you have to "attack" rocks and logs for resources, you don't want to spend a lot on something that doesn't give much bang for your buck.
RTS games are pretty rare on home consoles, and its smooth and graceful handling should be praised. But in all honesty, my interest faded when variety in the gameplay failed to materialize. After you've mastered the basics of giving orders to your minions and you've lost a few titans on the battlefield, there really isn't anything else to see. Toss in some average-to-bland graphics and a story that fails to catch fire, and you've got a great idea that lost something along the way. The multiplayer is no great shakes either, since it's just as dull to herd goblins around with two people as it is alone.
I'd very much like to see an improved sequel that expands on the concept, but as it is, there isn't much here to hold anyone's attention for long. I may be a novice when it comes to playing this type of game, but even I know there's more to a good RTS than this.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.