The Real Time Strategy is a strange beast of a genre, I suspect it always will be. There’s something about it which can really work for some, not for others. They on a whole, challenge people to think in a very different way. The very best of the genre plays with this wonderfully, the lesser titles dance with them, to a different beat. Though I might have started after titles like Dune 2000 and Command and Conquer were released, this is a field I have enjoyed for a long time. I suspect I will enjoy it for many years to come.
Often the core of these games is in the resources and economy. Some of the time you only have one resource only such as cash. Different versions of that material bring in more money. Tiberian Sun and Firestorm gave us Green and Blue tiberium, the blue the more valuable. Dune, be it any of the series, has the spice Melange, your one and only material, money. Red Alert has different grades of ore, shinier the more valuable. MechCommander has the credits, earned through completing missions and controlling your drop weight. Homeworld in the gas clouds and asteroids, later titles the salvage. Other space base games limit this to asteroids, requiring specific ships or facilities to be built. Battlezone gave us bio-metal, a strange metal with no obvious source but none the less, alive, somehow.
Others have gone away from this entirely. General scores representing logistics, as seen in Ground Control 2: Operation Exodus. Yet in the first, it was by drop weight alone. Other games have you limited by the forces you have available. This has been achieved through reducing the resources you have available through to simply setting hard limits on the number of units can support. Ground Control and its expansion did this by slot available on your dropships. Even then this somehow never quite impinged on the freedom to build your force.
Some games have even had the units you can support as a resource itself. Often this has been paired with multiple other resources. Crystal, Vespene, Supply, being one prime example of this. Others have had you collect things like Aluminium, Oil, Rare Earth elements, as the up and coming Act of Aggression does. Often the names matter little, but the role does. There’s a general resource, what you use to make the basic units of your force. The next resource is a fuel substitute on some level, used for armoured or mechanised units. They might be on two legs, four legs or tracks or wheels. The final resource is what you need for the superweapon, the ultimate, top tier units.
Another part of this genre has long been the base you construct, create in the mission. Some of them are permanent and last between missions, like that in Earth 2150. Others have been limited to your current mission and that mission alone. Many of Westwood’s release fit in this category. Same applies for Blizzard and more than a few other studios. Few have gone without the base, entirely, rather than single structures, you must build networks of structures and have them connected through wormholes, across space or the map. None the less, you are still building and advancing your force. Some of the time these upgrades pass between missions, others not so. Homeworld 2 is a prime example of this, your Mothership is your base, which can change. The second added a ship yard for your use as well.
Yet again, with the RTS being such a strange creature, you must include things like the Total War and Xcom series. They have the base, the monthly income, depending on the time, denarii, koku, gold or credits. They also have the tactical game play. On some level this is perhaps the closest the genre comes to actual strategy, the execution of a long term plan and managing the steps, logistics to take you there. Yet, somehow, they are also part of a 4X, explore, expand, exploit and exterminate, genre at its core. If not for this plan, objective you have, you would just have a line of missions that link together, with minimal narrative.
Perhaps that has been the great weakness of the RTS genre, as a whole. If you look down the long line of titles, few have had the story that really grabs you from the get go. Often little more than a new skin on the same formula. Those that do stand out in my mind are Homeworld, Kharak burning with your small force in orbit. Not even enough to warrant calling it a fleet. The introduction and the Cold War in space that was Battlezone, the discovery that where it is perhaps the coldest, the war was the hottest. MechCommander also stands out, the clear objectives and the Smoke Jaguars, getting exactly what they deserved. Nexus: The Jupiter Incident is strong, but it’s hidden in a clunky game. Act of War and its expansion are solid techno thrillers, in the style of Tom Clancy. StarCraft and Warcraft are high fantasy, with very different skins. Full of the same tropes and conventions as each other.
Chaos Gate and Dawn of War, MechCommander as well, brought a very successful tabletop universe into wider world of electronic gaming. They’ve notably broken away from the tabletop game, none the less produced some very good titles from their choices. Warhammer Mark of Chaos much closer to the spirit of the game and perhaps, the least successful of the lot. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a curse on bringing the tabletop to the computer. While I would love to see games like Firestorm Armada or Planetfall, Dropzone Commander or Dropfleet Commander, I suspect I will only in mods or the like. Yet, somehow, Halo Wars is now getting a sequel and it has given those who prefer the tabletop, Halo Fleet Battles, a very well made and written game system.
Even the units themselves changed over the years. From the simple point and click, move and attack of the earliest titles, they have developed abilities, secondary modes and incremental upgrades. Better calibre guns and longer ranges, self-healing or repairing. Deployed modes, with special weapons, StarCraft’s Siege Tank being a prime example of this. The Brotherhood of NOD’s Artillery unit in Tiberian Sun a bane on any GDI commander, until you had the Juggernaut or a squadron of Orca attack craft. These upgrades can be small, minor changes. Others can completely change the nature of a unit. To list every example would take hours and ten thousand words.
The genre has brought us the past, Age of Empires, Total War: Rome and Shogun: Total War or its sequel. It brings up the modern, Company of Heroes and JTF, Joint Task Force. It gives us the bleak and miserable dystopia in Tiberian Sun and Firestorm the expansion, the wondrous in Tiberium Wars, the follow up title. It gives us the future in different flavours, corporate in Ground Control 1, touching even on the biblical in Homeworld 1. It tells us story of daring too much in a maligned stand-alone expansion, fairly or not, Homeworld Cataclysm. Of a world so ruined we must reach to Mars and further in the Earth series. We have the fantasy of Warcraft and Mark of Chaos, elves, orcs, humans and magic. We have the far future, planets beyond our own colonised and inhabited, from the metropolises so like our own in MechCommander to the far frontier and even American frontier, which StarCraft has. Perhaps that is the single greatest strength of the genre.
It’s not just one thing, it has been all things, with the right clothing, skin, it can be just what it needs to be. Each time it gets an outing it’s a different creature entirely. Conquest Frontier Wars and the like lead to Homeworld 1. Homeworld 1 somehow lead to titles in the Dawn of War series. Westwood gave us long running series, Tiberium, Red Alert and Dune as well. They’ve been wonderfully for the computer, Supreme Commander, even the console in Halo Wars. They’ve gone from flat planes to full 3D environments. Dense swamps and inhospitable jungles in Dark Reign or its sequel to wide, emptiness, the deep vacuum of space in other titles like Nexus: The Jupiter Incident or ORB: Off world Resource Base.
It’s now time to see what Act of Aggression, due out next month, brings to the genre. I hope to see you on the battlefield.