Imagine your favorite real-time strategy game, probably one native to the PC. Now imagine it on a mobile device. What would it look like? Like someone sneezed virtual buttons all over your screen, I bet. The trick to building any RTS is playing to the strengths of its platform. In Tiny Troopers (Free), developer Kukouri and publisher Chillingo created a deep and arresting tactical RTS that keeps the interface simple and interaction even simpler, leaving players free to concentrate on the fun stuff: coming up with strategies and executing them with unwavering precision.
Stripping away concerns like base building, Tiny Troopers keeps the focus on combat. The campaign sprawls 30 missions set over three chapters. At the beginning of each mission, players assume control of a small squad of troopers charged with completing the usual sets of objectives–destroy enemy structures, wipe out all the bad guys, rescue hostages and escort them to safety. Controlling your troopers is a breeze. Tap on a patch of land to go there, tap on an enemy to attack.
The game’s instinctive interaction controls leave you free to master the intricacies of slinking through terrain and popping off shots with deadly efficiency. Just a few missions in, I encountered a pack of soldiers surrounded by stone walls on three sides. To get at them, I had to creep through the trees around their makeshift fort and storm in the open side. My raid left me vulnerable on the way in, but unlike most RTSes, moving and shooting aren’t mutually exclusive in Tiny Troopers. Tapping an enemy once orders your troopers to shoot to kill; from there, you can tap the ground to strafe and dodge while your squad continues to dish out lead poisoning.
Other tactical considerations revealed themselves over every new mission. Your bullets only fly so far, so you have to get relatively close to deal damage. Understanding that opened my eyes to the option of sneaking up on soldiers and unloading bursts of bullets into their backs. I could also position my squad behind walls and trees, forcing enemies to come to them. Most importantly: tapping an enemy once doesn’t translate to “shoot until dead." After firing a few shots, your soldier lowers his weapon and waits for his next order. Kind of a silly thing to do given the do-or-die circumstances, but another subtle element of strategy designed to keep you focused on tense encounters.
Your arsenal of destruction grows steadily as you progress. You lob grenades and fire rockets by tapping the appropriate icon and dragging it to the target of your choice, and completing objectives such as disabling weapons and picking up dog tags earns you Command Points you can use to summon first aid, weapons, and reinforcements via airdrop. You can also cash in CPs to hire specialists like grenadiers and upgrade your squad’s armor, damage, and range of fire before each level, but with one caveat. Live or die, upgrades only last as long as the next mission.
Tiny Troopers‘ careful balance falters just a bit on later stages. As you would guess, CPs are a valuable commodity, doubly so since you can choose to purchase them in bulk through in-app purchases. I tend to avoid such real-money transactions for a purer gameplay experience, but the difficulty of later missions tested my resiliency (though I didn’t cave). For as quickly as you earn CPs by completing secondary objectives, the near necessity of outfitting your guys with better armor and weaponry drains your funds quickly, especially since Tiny Troopers doesn’t use checkpoints and deducts CPs should your squad die. On the plus side, you can replay finished missions on higher difficulties to earn more points, but there again, you run the risk of spending more than you earn to stay alive.
What few technical missteps occur happen only infrequently, but can lay waste to carefully laid plans. You can’t control squad members individually, but there were times when one trooper would break away from the pack and take another route to his destination. That wouldn’t be so bad except the camera remains firmly fixed on the majority, so kiss stragglers goodbye if they bumble into hostile territory. Usually a quick tap is all it takes to round up your boys and get them back on track.
Beyond accessible controls that facilitate rich gameplay, Tiny Troopers features one other noteworthy point that sets it apart from most other RTSes. Characters look and sound like they stepped right out of a kid’s show. Because of the game’s Saturday morning cartoon paint job, the harsh realities of war break through with a poignancy that gave me pause. Not all soldiers die when you finish off their life bars. They chirp an Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks death cry and sprawl in a bloody heap, pleading for you to finish them off. Civilians flood out of buildings when the fighting picks up. Kill them, and you watch your CP counter tick down while they bleed out on the ground. When a trooper dies, their portrait fades away and a “K.I.A." stamp appears next to their stats, which you can browse in one of the game’s menus.
I won’t go so far as to say I grew attached to any of my squad members, but scrolling through the roster of deceased and noting deeds of valor reminded me that they were not cannon fodder as most units in RTS games are, but personalities painted with expressions of grim determination and, in many instances, fear and uncertainty.
Don’t worry: Tiny Troopers never grows too preachy, certainly not enough to distract you from its finely crafted experience. The layers of depth and your ease of access to them will have you playing your phone or iPad like a piano, fingers dancing across the screen to engage enemies and sidle around their attacks, flip grenades and streaking rockets at barracks that pump out endless waves of enemies, calling down air strikes on enemy bases as you race across the jungle to your extraction point with a line of terrified journalists in tow–all thanks to a clutter-free interface.
It’s deeply absorbing, and a strategy treat that fans of the genre should not miss.