Imagine playing an RTS game like Total War (in fact, just like Total War) with three of your friends, on a big screen and a couple of military history advisors. That’s what BBC2’s new show Time Commanders is, essentially.
There are a few twists, of course. None of the four players actually got to touch a computer during the show; instead they relayed all their instructions through trained ‘technicians’ (it’s a good job if you can get it, I suppose). Also, they had an interesting but ultimately useless situation map on which they moved plastic blocks that were supposed to represent troops. The blocks were moved a total of three times and ignored for the remainder of the time.
I couldn’t help wonder why they didn’t have a ceiling projector to show a top-down view of the battle map constantly instead; it wouldn’t have been difficult to do, and considering that I had no idea where all the troops were for most of the show, it would’ve helped the viewers as well.
(In fact, the best thing to do would have been to hook the game up to an AudioPad-like tactile control system, but I realise that that’s pushing it a bit. Then again, MIT would probably set it up for them for free).
I thought the contestants were a little dull, for all of their vaunted amateur dramaticness (I can see the producer thinking, ‘Why, they’ll surely be a wacky bunch, these amateur actors!’). The military history experts did a good job of injecting some historical facts into the proceedings though. I was also somewhat impressed with the graphics; granted, there was room for a lot of improvement but then it was definitely possible to suspend disbelief for most of the show. I imagine that people who don’t play computer games will have been even more impressed.
One of the failings of the show, I felt, was that the opposition in the battle (players were Hannibal, opponents were Romans) were pretty ineffective. I don’t know whether they just used in the in-game AI or they set up a network game with a human opponent, but there were some glaring errors, like huge chunks of the Roman infantry just sitting around doing nothing while the battle raged on a mere twenty metres away. Something has to be done about that – I can see a lot of viewers finding it hard to believe.
The show missed an opportunity in not using interactive TV technology; the show was crying out for it! Imagine having several different feeds showing different views of the battle and maybe constantly updated stats; surely not too difficult to do, and a lot of fun for viewers to play about with.
Despite all of this, it was an entertaining and even mildly educational hour of TV that I’ll tune into again next week. Time Commanders has a lot of problems, but most are easily fixed and I think the concept has real promise.