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ISSUE 230 SEP 2009
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ISSUE 230 IT CAN’T RAIN ALL THE TIME
IT CAN’T RAIN ALL THE TIME
AMD: still best for budget gaming?
“A BRUTAL CROSS BETWEEN DIABLO AND ROGER RABBIT”
Dave loots and shoots in Borderlands
Pixel-perfect shooters 12 gaming mice in the labs
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ommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your blog every day! There’s nothing more satisfying than sitting back and watching an impressive army of tanks, rocket troopers, orcs, or whatever else happens to be in your unstoppable electronic army march roughshod across anything that gets in your way. Whether it’s part of some great
scripted campaign, or simply a skirmish against a friend, it’s the only chance most of us are going to get to feel like the great general, unleashing hell on all who dare oppose us. Real-time strategy games haven’t changed a vast amount over the years. The technology has improved, the experience sharpened up, and there have been a number of games that have put a unique spin on the action, but for the most part, the basics remain unchanged. A good RTS will usually be a mix of rock-paper-
scissors, economics, multitasking and micromanagement. You will need to not only know that, for instance, pikemen defeat cavalry while cavalry beat archers, but have the cash and foresight to have built them up in advance. You’ll also need to defend a base on one side of the map while simultaneously leading an assault elsewhere. And you need to do all this at speeds that make the average deathmatch seem quite a slow-paced affair by comparison. And that’s just to play at a competent level. September 2009
Illustration: Gary Lucken
Richard Cobbett takes a look back at the epic battles and eternal skirmishes of the RTS world
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Back in time
The first accepted RTS on PC was 1993’s Dune II, the sequel to a largely unrelated and mostly forgotten adventure/strategy hybrid. It wasn’t the first RTS ever made, a credit that usually goes to Herzog Zwei (1989) among console fans, or Stonkers (1984) if the audience remembers the ZX Spectrum, but Dune II set the general rules that are still followed today. Mouse control, resource management, technology trees, a choice of factions with their own specialities and playing styles (three of them in Dune’s case, although two tends to be more common, purely for balance purposes), mobile construction yards, superweapons, base building; all the core elements. Compare Command and Conquer (1995) to Command and Conquer 3 (2007) and it’s still recognisably the same game – certainly more so than comparing Doom (1993) with its own long-awaited third game, or Super
a forward base but a whole city, complete with everything from training camps to cathedrals. The idea of simply sending an actual army into battle, as opposed to showing up outside the enemy base with two generic grunts, a couple of peasants, and easy access to stone and timber… well, it’s just ridiculous! More futuristic games have the equally ridiculous ability to not only capture individual buildings by sending one guy in, but sell them for cash at a moments notice. Imagine the adverts for that! “GDI Barracks for sale in middle of fully operational GDI Base. $5,000. Buyer collects…” Nobody pretends this is realistic, but rather part of the game structure. Most RTS games are more about economics than actual tactics. It doesn’t matter how good you are as a general, if you can’t match your opponent’s spending power, you’re screwed. The cash system, and with it, the need to keep investing in the good
Above The original Dune 2. Clunky, ugly, very simple, but it set the pattern, and few games have deviated much from its template.
“The ﬁrst accepted RTS on PC was 1993’s Dune II … it set the general rules that are still followed today” Mario Bros with Super Mario Galaxy. One of the main reasons for this is that while the technology has evolved, many of the standards became established as how the genre had to work. One of the strangest is that RTS games – particularly fantasy themed ones – love to have us build not simply 109
weapons rather than just unloading them from the docks, helps provide the game’s power curve, taking you from effectively unarmed scouting through to nukes and time machines. The result is that the army you fight with is the army you’ve built up, making it much more satisfying, even if the learning
curve for each game can take some serious climbing.
The conquering heroes
During the 1990s, three companies came to own the RTS genre: Blizzard, Westwood, and Microsoft. Westwood set the pace with Command and Conquer (1995), bringing us the first battle between the United Nations (GDI) and the less than scary sounding Brotherhood of Nod. Blizzard was actually in the game earlier, releasing Warcraft: Orcs and Humans in 1994, but it wasn’t until the sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, that the series really took off. Its successor, Starcraft (1998), remains arguably the best RTS of the era, with three completely different races to play as, almost complete asymmetry in terms of their abilities, and a terrific storyline that fans still want to see finished. Microsoft’s contribution was slightly more subtle. Age of Empires (1997) combined the RTS action of the Warcraft games with something closer
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The art of war
to Civilisation. Instead of simply building more stuff, your army levelled up through multiple technological ages. Its pattern was quickly borrowed/ blatantly ripped off by many other developers, most notably Settlers V (a series that had previously focused much more on village economics and the prettiness of building a working settlement), before being honed to perfection in Rise of Nations by Civilization 2/Alpha Centauri creator, Brian Reynolds. Other key games of this era included Total Annihilation (1997), which wasn’t as tactically fun as the other games, but offered more units than a dozen other games, the Bitmap Brothers’ Z (1997) which put the focus on controlling territories and giving units a sense of personality – albeit mostly telling you how much you sucked, given the nightmarish difficulty level – and the disappointing Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun (1999), which marked the beginning of Westwood’s decline. Blizzard on the other hand rocked the world with Warcraft III (2002), paving the way for some online RPG or other that a few people still play. It’s fairly obscure. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it.
Let there be war
The lack of multiplayer was one of the biggest problems with these early games. Even if one supported it, such as the original Command and Conquer in 1995, relatively few of us had the equipment required to get it running: a null modem cable, a network, or a reliable enough modem to handle
real-time action. This put most of the focus onto the single-player campaigns, which were typically heavily story based, but rarely offered anything close to satisfying AI. Even absolute top-tier games like Starcraft hit the shelves with incredibly weak computer opponents, utterly reliant on cheating (for instance, unlimited money, instant unit building, performing multiple actions simultaneously) and scripted events to have a chance against a competent human player. Even now, with multiplayer almost ubiquitous, most RTS games are forced to provide both. There are exceptions, such as Gas Powered Games’ recent Demigod, which is effectively a commercial version of an amateur Warcraft III modification called Defence of the Ancients, and only offers a skirmish mode, but they’re rare. Generally speaking, the singleplayer games are treated as a warm-up for the online mode, helping to show what all the units do and how to play, before knuckling down to real tactics against other humans. Starcraft 2, hopefully due out this year (with Blizzard, you never quite know…) takes this to a whole new level. Instead of getting one game, we’re going to get three single-player episodes on a yearly cycle – one Terran, one Protoss and one Zerg, each with a different spin on its campaign. Don’t worry though, each will offer all the races in multiplayer mode. Speaking of Starcraft, it’s worth pointing out just how big it is – especially in Souh Korea. Over here, it’s
Above As pretty as zoomed in 3D is, we still spend most of our time looking down on RTS action for a reason
merely an excellent game, a perfect example of Blizzard’s already borderline-perfect perfectionism, and a title that lives on in the memory of every discerning RTS player. In Korea, it’s more like a religion, with its own pro-gaming scene, tournaments, and several places in Guiness World Records, including Largest Audience For A Game Competition (120,000). Watching an even moderate player’s hands fly across the controls is like trying to catch a top-tier magician out at sleight of hand. If you’re disappointed that Starcraft 2 looks to be very similar in style… this is why.
Copy and paste
As with most genres, successful elements of new games have always been shamelessly pinched by other developers. Hero units are one of the most prevalent: specific named characters in your army, rather than simply another pikeman or grenadier. Command and Conquer had the nameless Commando, used for a
Tactics vs Strategy The two terms are often used interchangeably, but refer to very different types of game. Strategy with a capital ‘S’ is all about the big picture. It’s handling your economy, it’s building your army, it’s planning for the battle, and seeing individual skirmishes as part of the whole. Tactics is smallerscale. It’s making use of your units in a speciﬁc clash: not getting your rocket troops rolled over by tanks, protecting your ranged units from threat, knowing when to deploy a formation or try out a pincer movement. Tactics tends to be primarily saved for turn-based strategy games, which use the fact that they’re not real-time to give you far more control over your units. As an example, in an RTS, your units will typically just shoot one or two kinds of attack. In turn-based games, such as
X-Com or Hired Guns, stance, type of shot, distance from the target and cover usually becomes much more important. The average RTS is primarily a strategy game, with tactics really coming into play when you have hero units and specialist troops. An example of this might be burrowing underground, ready to leap out at the right time. However, due to the hard mathematics at the core of the RTS simulation, certain things are ﬁxed. You’ll never beat an army of tanks with regular grunts, simply because they’re going to lose. To have the chance of pulling off some great victory, you need extra elements, such as a height beneﬁt, or the ability to ambush, or something else that most RTS games don’t offer. Tactics become much more important when you can’t replenish troops. It’s rare
however for this to be a fair ﬁght. More usually, it’s your team versus a whole army, which makes exact navigation and often no-little amount of luck the key to victory. Not for nothing are these missions typically seen as puzzle maps, and usually as welcome as an escort mission in an FPS.
This level of control requires a serious commitment to your army. But it makes the victory endlessly more satisfying.
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The art of war
couple of puzzle-missions, with Starcraft arguably the first to spin the story around their actions – the Zerg queen Kerrigan, the unstoppable Zeratul and so on. Warcraft III brought us Thrall, Arthas (better known as the Lich King) and friends, and even a campaign where the hero characters got to cut loose in levels more reminiscent of a simple RPG than an RTS title. Arguably the most famous hero remains Tanya, the commando from Red Alert II, not least for the constant FMVs of her talking to the player while leaning over tables in a loose T-Shirt. Her special attacks included pistols that made short work of any infantry unit, and bombs capable of destroying buildings in a single click. As of Red Alert 3, she also sports a portable time machine on her belt and – we quote – a ‘bulletproof sports bra’. Bit pointless under a cloth crop-top, but whatever… Hero units are typically an order of magnitude more powerful than their peers, or have special abilities such as inventories and persistent levelling, but are far from indestructible. In single-player campaigns, losing one usually means losing the mission. In multiplayer action, they can usually be bought like any other unit, but only at the top of the tech tree, and only one at a time.
The living battlefield
Oddly, despite the widespread idea-nicking, the genre has remained relatively conservative in the face of radically new ideas. 1998’s Battlezone for instance was still primarily an RTS, but one viewed from inside a powerful
tank rather than an overhead perspective. You could drive around and take part in the battle, as well as order your units to assist, and it was fantastic. Yet aside from its sequel, nobody seemed to care. Homeworld (1999) offered a similarly impressive new take on things, with its persistent carrier, and use of proper 3D space for the battles, which again went almost unused outside its own sequel and expansion pack. Only Sins of a Solar Empire (2008) really stands out as an attempt to mine the same territory, although there have been a couple of forgotten others. One of the main reasons for this is that RTS games are such hard work to play, and simplicity tends to work best. There have been games that try to do clever things like have an overworld and an underworld where battles can take place simultaneously (notably 2005’s Dragonshard), it tends to be too much to handle. Much as FPS games now expect us to be able to mouselook without a second thought, so are RTS games built on the assumption that we know at least roughly what we’re doing. Anything that deviates from the standard pattern is a gamble at best, and an uphill struggle at worst. Which isn’t to say that it can’t ever work. Early 3D games were generally shunned due to just being confusing – camera angles, far too many controls and so on – to the point that while like every other genre, RTS games are almost all now in 3D, the 3D has little to do with the action except making it look prettier. We still rarely see elements like a height advantage having an impact on the battle, or aerial combat
Above Starcraft 2 will probably be okay. Blizzard makes sorta decent games
being anything other than another flat layer overlaid on the ground action. To all intents and purposes, most of these games still follow 2D rules. One of the few real splits in recent years has been the removal of key elements to put more focus on tactical play. This can be switching resources for simple time, as with the infamous Z (the more factories you own, the faster you produce stuff), or the introduction of resources, as in World in Conflict (2007). The ultimate version of this is games where you’re not allowed to build at all, and are entirely reliant on either your starting units, or scripted reinforcements. These tend to be less than popular for a number of reasons. While theoretically making more sense than being able to magic up a hundred grenadiers for the cost of some gold, they suffer from the fact that early mistakes can completely screw you for the rest of the map, and it’s often impossible to know what’s coming up. The result is that these missions often feel more like puzzles, even when done
How to play RTS Regardless of which game you’re playing and the abilities of its units, there’s a pattern to mastering most RTS relatively quickly. The key is being able to play on two levels at once – monitoring individual ﬁghts, and keeping your economy ticking along. Leave anything unattended and it will fail. Your base defences won’t be rebuilt. Your units won’t get to their destination, or if they do, you’ll usually ﬁnd your weaker units taking point while the tanks sit back and scratch themselves. First of all, learn the rock-paperscissors order of units for your game. This is increasingly spelled out directly in the help, but you’ll learn it in the course of the single-player campaign. Always have scouts around the map so you can see what your opponent is 111
building, and know how to counter. Next, master the hotkeys. Using the mouse, there’s no way you can compete with a player who can access everything they need at the touch of a button. Build up a routine, such as always putting your scouts on hotkey 1, so that you always know what you’re controlling. Next, make sure you have a steady rate of resources coming in. If you get the chance to sabotage the enemy production line, do so, but usually you’ll both have everything you need to start with close nearby. As the game progresses, resources become more restrictive. Spend them wisely, and know the game’s tech tree. There’s no point going for the superweapons if your enemy is coming at you with tanks you don’t have a counter for. Also, don’t
forget the advantage of picking away at your enemy’s outposts instead of launching one massive charge at their front door. You’ll lose. And if all else fails, build a million tanks and rush him. It may or may not work, but it’s worth a shot. Red Alert 3 has an interesting twist – a CPU commander to help out. They won’t win the game for you though
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The art of war
Must play RTS
Of the old school games, Starcraft is your best bet. Starcraft II looks to be very similar, so it’s a great way to practice. The single-player story is excellent, even if you’re likely to get massacred if you go online. Warcraft III is also excellent. Both are available to buy online at the Blizzard store (www. blizzard.com/store). More recently, Red Alert 3 isn’t particularly great, but it has the advantage of being one of the wackier games in the genre, with time travel, arguing units, and some awesomely silly cut-scenes starring the likes of Tim Curry and George Takei. Tiberium Wars was an okay game, but no amount of well. Base building at least gives you a chance to hold out or turn the tide in your favour.
Ruling the world
One series of games that definitely doesn’t worry about complexity is Total War, from the original Rome through to the recent Empire. These games are so good, they were even turned into a TV show – Time Commanders – where contestants refought great historical battles in the engine. They’re easily the most impressive RTS games around, covering both general empire building from a turn-based world map, and up-close fighting in gloriously brutal RTS sequences. This split has been done before, although rarely as impressively. Rise of Nations for instance used a Risk style world map as opposed to Total War’s diplomacy and empire building, with magic cards offering boosts in each new area. Syndicate, while more of an action game than RTS, offered something similar, with research and purchasing new equipment essential if your cyborg agents were ever going to keep up with the enemies’ tech level. Total War’s complexity is largely why we haven’t seen any real competitors yet – both in terms of building the game in the first place, and actually playing it. A game like C&C may not have the depth, but it has the explosions, the fast pace, and the fact that even with over a decade of complexity and bolted on gameplay elements, it’s still relatively easy to understand. At the very least, it offers
battle tanks and orbital ion cannons can ever be better than killer dolphins and giant robots. For a real challenge, you’re looking at Empire: Total War. Not for the fainthearted, it’s as close to actually being a general as you’re likely to get without getting a time machine and becoming the head of your own medieval army. Supreme Commander also makes heavy use of scale, with some of the biggest maps you’re ever likely to encounter. It’s a great RTS if you want your battles to go on for hours and hours, rather than just skirmishing a bit with a friend. Alternatively, if those are too hardcore, Company of Heroes and World
the advantage that you can’t screw yourself over, and the missions you’re playing can, at least in theory, be defeated with skill – even if you really have to understand how you’re expected to play. As for the future, the obvious gap in the market is for the MMORTS – massive battles persisting even when off-line. It’s a challenge, especially given the fast pace of the average conflict, and we’ve never seen a particularly impressive example. Command and Conquer: Firestorm (the Tiberian Sun expansion pack) offered World Domination mode, with the two in-game factions taking territories based on the number of victories each side’s players had had in specific areas. Mankind (2008) would text you if your empire came under attack, but it took a long time before bases were actually able to defend themselves without their human overlord online. Much of
in Conﬂict are two fantastic, more accessible ways to wage war, and still easily tracked down. More recently, Demigod is a great way of dipping your toes into the water, although it’s a game that can wear out its welcome. Warcraft III. Still a great game
the playerbase later emigrated to Eve Online, which while nominally an MMO, in practice shifted almost entirely to huge player-run corporations locked in RTS battles for cash and territory. So complicated is Eve Online’s game world, its developer, CCP has even hired an economist dedicated to the in-game universe. As for us, our lingering hope is that all these victories will one day pay-off as we take our rightful place in charge of real armies, fighting for the future of the world. Less dangerous than the frontline, and you don’t have to be as physically (or mentally) fit. Until then, we can but dream. And hope against hope that whoever the government picks a fight with, they don’t hire South Korean generals… ¤
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