The 1997 film adaptation of Starship Troopers featured a lot of space soldiers dying terribly to show how having an entire society based on enlisting in the military to go fight aliens is… pretty bad, really. So it’s odd that for at least half of the 19-mission campaign of Starship Troopers: Terran Command, I rarely lost a soldier. That’s not a brag. These bugs are just that forgiving early on. When this simple but competent RTS does eventually turn up the heat and provide a pretty exciting single-player experience in the back half, though, it’s a lot of fun to watch the carnage.
I promise I’m not going to spend this entire review making jokes about how “buggy” it is. Because in the technical sense, it’s actually not bad. The one exception is the unit pathfinding, where posting squads too close to obstacles or too close together causes this intense jittering, like they got way too hopped up on stim packs. Move orders can be unreliable, especially if a squad has to go around an obstacle and make a U-turn. Sometimes if you give a unit a direct attack order and they can’t get a line of sight to the target, they’ll just go to sleep and let the swarm tear them apart. I mostly avoided even using the big, stompy Marauder mechs because it takes so much micro to maneuver them effectively that they’re more of a liability than an asset sometimes.
Once I got the hang of working around these quirks though, I found there’s some surprisingly satisfying tactical action to dig into. Terran Command is all about maximizing lines of fire to the enemy, since the Mobile Infantry generally outrange and outgun the bugs – but the chittering hordes, in turn, have a major advantage in mobility, numbers, and melee combat. Most squads can’t fire through friendlies and can either have a clear shot, dealing full damage, a partial line of fire, which reduces damage, or be completely blocked. It takes a lot of clicks to optimize your field of fire, but I enjoyed setting up perfect kill zones using terrain and elevation to watch the bugs melt before my onslaught. It’s a fairly clever way to keep things interesting even when you’ve just got basic riflemen against basic drones.
The problem is, at least the entire first half of the campaign is so easy that I didn’t feel like I needed to pay much attention to my positioning at all. It’s just Attack-Move Simulator 2022 for mission after mission, where charging ahead in reasonably good order was often enough to get through with few or even no casualties. You can adjust the difficulty, but not in a way that’s actually nuanced or interesting like adding new enemies or reducing your resources. It simply applies a percentage-based damage reduction to all your weapons. That’s it. And most missions don’t even really have a penalty for losing your entire army, anyway – the two resources, supplies and war support, are both simple population caps, so you can never really run out of soldiers. This fits the Starship Troopers universe, where the Federation is more than happy to keep feeding warm bodies into the meat grinder. But it also takes the bite out of a lot of scenarios.
And before we go any further, I should mention that the 20-ish hour campaign is really all there is here. My complaints about the first half being a cakewalk wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t also basically half of Terran Command overall. There’s no multiplayer, which feels like a big missed opportunity. I would have loved to try to defend a base against a friend trying to overrun it, or join forces in some co-op operations. There’s no bug campaign, even though they have a huge roster of units and a totally different playstyle that could have been really interesting to mess around with. There isn’t even a scenario editor. When you finish the campaign, you are really done with all Terran Command has to offer outside of a couple of one-off challenge scenarios.
It’s fortunate then – for me, not for my troopers – that the second half of the campaign really does turn up the heat and present some interesting challenges. Having to balance my resources between defending a refugee camp and clearing hives with my offensive force in the war-torn urban hellscape of the planetary capital city was a true test of skill, since throwing more bodies at the problem simply wouldn’t do the trick. An overrun underground facility with no way to get reinforcements was tense and full of deadly surprises, which had me thinking carefully about how to approach each new chamber and corridor. The difficulty curve really hit me in the face at a couple points, but by then I was asking for it.
The story is nothing especially groundbreaking. Your job is to take on a bug infestation on the desolate mining planet Kwalasha, dealing with various elements of the Federation military along the way. The dialogue, both for units and named characters, is very hammed up, but that’s perfect for Starship Troopers. The scenario writers seem to get that the film was satire, with plenty of, “Are we the baddies?” moments like trying to defend a broadcast station while a union organizer is executed on live TV. There are people trying to do good within the Mobile Infantry, but it’s definitely portrayed as the horrifying parody of jackbooted military fetishism Paul Verhoeven envisioned. Unfortunately, there is no Niel Patrick Harris.
Fans of the Robert Heinlein novel and the expanded Starship Troopers universe have plenty to look forward to as well, though, as Terran Command also weaves in elements from those sources. They come along pretty late in the story, but the Federation’s Marauder mechs and elite powered armor infantry were awesome to see rendered in modern graphics for the first time. It’s a pretty good looking game, too! Battles can get quite chaotic, so I was impressed with the use of color, lighting, and UI to keep everything readable and easy to follow.
The bugs get to bring their share of surprises as well, and learning which tools to use for which enemies became a huge part of keeping the war interesting later on. Scorpions and Royal Guards can melt even the most expertly-organized firing line of regulars, so bringing missile launchers and being really precise with focus fire becomes essential. I also really enjoyed using combat engineers to see if I could build a network of overlapping static defenses that would sustain itself on auto-pilot and basically let me leave my base completely unmanned, freeing up more troops for offensive operations.