One could be forgiven for passing up War Commander: Rogue Assault on their mobile storefront of choice. Its generic title and blasé thumbnail make it look like another Mobile Strike, Clash of Clans, or any of the umpteen dozen pieces of freemium shovelware out there. But Kixeye, headed up by Command and Conquer luminary Louis Castle, has its sights set on something higher than just setting up another pay-to-win scam. Because, at its heart, War Commander makes an earnest attempt at reviving the stagnating RTS genre for a modern audience.

As a StarCraft vet and Company of Heroes dabbler, I find that an enticing prospect. It helps that the world Kixeye has built feels ripe for conquering… and, erm, commanding. It’s the near future – oil’s run out, governments have split into factions, and warlords have taken over certain pockets of the world. I’m a sucker for these sorts of narratives, so the story hooked me almost immediately. There’s a certain tangibility to the world, something that makes your scrounging for resources feel significant, and the shortage of supplies understandable. While a lack of interesting characters (outside of a wisecracking AI) and some pretty unfortunate racial stereotypes hold the narrative back, the world itself is undoubtedly a compelling one.

War Commander: Rogue Assult Review - Free to Play Done Right

For the most part, though, players will be more focused on the actual gameplay than the narrative. That gameplay is, for all intents and purposes, a stripped-down RTS crashed into a modern “sit around and mine resources” sort of deal. Players spend time levelling up so they can beef up their base, pump out resources from said base, then funnel those resources into building better units. Higher levels equals more stuff to build, which leads to better equipment, so on, so forth.

Let’s be blunt – we’ve all played a game like this one time or another. Stuff like this makes up 99 per cent of the mobile gaming market at this point. But War Commander has an edge on the competition in that it isn’t obsessed with shilling for microtransactions or forcing players to sit through a cooldown for things to happen. Base-building is painless thanks to every structure being built instantaneously. The game is actually pretty fair with how many in-game resources you can pool, and it doesn’t shove in-game purchases down your gullet. That isn’t to say it can’t get grindy, because it can – especially as far as levelling up goes, as story missions are capped at certain player levels, which can only be raised at that point by playing the multiplayer.

Yet there’s something about the base-building component of War Commander that feels sincere. It feels like a game, not a cynical excuse to waste time and spend money. If one were to play this over the course of several months, I’d be liable to say they wouldn’t ever feel like they need to spend a cent on it.

The brunt of the gameplay is contained in missions. These take two forms – story missions and the multiplayer. Story missions are pretty cut and dry affairs, but fun nonetheless. Building up a squad and blowing up bases is satisfying, especially considering players are given direct control over their squad. Using my Pixel C’s touch screen to commend my squad, then watch them lay waste to a whole base gave me a sort of tactile satisfaction I’ve rarely experienced from a mobile title. It helps that the game looks crisp and clean, with every art asset clearly defined and easy to tap on at a moment’s notice.

War Commander: Rogue Assult Review - Free to Play Done Right 1

The multiplayer, where players will be spending most of their time, is more of a mixed bag. The core gameplay is still there, yes, and the idea of taking down another player’s hard work is a winning one. Yet, in my experience, War Commander’s netcode isn’t solid enough to support this ongoing metagame. I’ve found myself queueing for an attack for several minutes before the game outright stops working. This has happened on numerous occasions, on top of a few login issues. Beyond that, there’s a certain degree of tedium that sets in with attacking bases, as players often have pretty uniform layouts. The gameplay may still be great, but what it’s being used for in this instance is dull, and nowhere nearly as inspired and entertaining as the story missions. Considering that the multiplayer seems to be the showcase of the game, and that you have to play a bunch of it to unlock more of the story content, that’s kind of a shame.

But despite their lackluster usage, the mechanics, concepts and design choices of War Commander: Rogue Assault are all commendable. In the field of freemium mobile games, it’s a cut above the rest, because it feels like actual planning went into making a game and not a cash delivery service. I firmly believe some more care could’ve gone into the ongoing meta-game, and an overall lack of polish in everything that isn’t the gameplay holds the whole experience back. However, there’s something to be said for a free game that doesn’t require selling your spleen to make either make noticeable progress or have fun.

If you’re going to pick up a mobile base-building game, then make it this one. Because, at the very least, it feels like an actual video game.