Commander ‘85 is a game with some ambition. It throws old school hacking into a very ‘80s storyline of government control and conspiracy theories, but unfortunately disappoints far too often for a good experience. It has some good ideas and some creepy moments but they are, ultimately, let down by its poor audio, buggy gameplay and a general lack of polish.
Commander ‘85 opens up with its ‘80s nostalgia at the forefront, contrasting a suspicious murder against the happy carefree cycling of a small child. There are two things you will likely notice immediately upon seeing this: the soundtrack is surprisingly nice with a Stranger Things-style pounding synth, but the character models and animation are both pretty awful. It feels in line with a Unity project that would be found near the bottom of Steam; the animations simply slide rather than deliver a floaty, real feeling of movement. The surprisingly nice soundtrack is pretty much the only sound design Commander ’85 does well.
After the opening portion, you are placed in the shoes of a teenage boy. You are sat in front of a computer where your mum storms in and shouts at you for missing days of school. The audio on this dialogue is downright pain-inducing. The voice has had no post EQ, making the sound far too dynamic. Parts of the conversation come across as a whisper, whilst other bits are so loud the mic constantly pops. When she leaves, you are treated to a brief respite before the computer behind you starts talking. The voice they use is the same copyright free VO that you’ll find in many YouTube videos. It comes off as extremely lazy and breaks immersion quite quickly. This is a shame as the reason the computer has a voice is that it talks to you, convincing you to commit a school hack straight out of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. You are given a list of prompts (or not, if you pick the advanced mode) that allow you to action a multitude of things from your computer.
The gameplay loop revolves around you hacking into increasingly powerful systems and just sort of waiting for the hack to finish, whilst listening to your mum and chatting to your friends. This sounds quite pleasant but it’s not. After finishing your first hack, your computer is infected with a virus that uses the power of your machine to hack into the US and USSR. You must handle that by eliminating the right processes whilst advancing your own personal life. The general hacking system works fine, but it’s generally quite menial and doesn’t have much fun to it. It might have been better suited to a minigame system, perhaps loaded with the references Commander ’85 already makes to ’80s pop culture.
In the time you aren’t hacking into practically unprotected systems, you spend most of your time looking around your room, checking on the virus, and watching the clock count down. Fundamentally, Commander ‘85 just doesn’t offer enough to keep you busy. After hacking the school to change your grade, then going to sleep, you talk to your friend early in the day about playing games. After he goes off, you have to wait around till 8pm, which takes 5 to 10 real minutes. After looking at your computer and testing things around your room, you resort to checking your phone until the right time. When you “brute force” hack somewhere, you are forced to just wait until it’s done. This is even more time spent just waiting for things to happen.
Commander ‘85 is a game that could do with a lot of polish. The music and ideas are good, yet the sound and game design are not. It’s quite easy to see some potential in Commander but there just isn’t enough to stop it from being a poor experience overall. The story has some quite tense moments but the graphics and animations consistently feel off, belittling the tension it could have built.
Looking back on times of old can be an addicting habit; pondering the fate of the fax machine, wondering why jazzercise existed and playing the Oregon Trail. All of these are interesting things to think about but, ultimately, getting too caught up can be limiting for progress. It is easy to look back on your youth with rose-tinted glasses, but what makes it so fascinating is the fact we can’t relive the past. Commander ‘85 on Xbox One is so caught up on this that it fails to see the flaws in front of it. Whilst the idea is certainly worth exploring, Commander ‘85 itself is probably not.