Rush, Boom, Turtle: Naval Gazing
"No water maps!"
That's not an uncommon refrain when you're setting up a multiplayer game of Age of Empires III, Rise of Nations, or Supreme Commander. If you end up with a naval map, particularly one that puts you and your opponents on different land masses, the dynamics change. Sea change scares people.
But in an RTS with a good naval subgame, water is nothing to be scared of. Most contemporary RTSes with navies are designed specifically to include water. Dehydrating the map partially gimps the design. Insisting on no water maps is like saying you can't play a certain faction, you can't build cavalry, or you can't attack on the left flank.
Supreme Commander is an excellent example of an RTS built around water. Along with air and land, the sea is a third of Supreme Commander's world. The developers have modeled sonar, underwater units, torpedo weaponry, walking destroyers and awesome experimental ships, all carefully built for how they interact with air and land units.
Of course, it wasn't always this way in RTSes, so you can hardly blame people for being afraid of the water. Before water was done right, it was just a sideline. Building a navy was often a waste of resources, and it pulled your attention in a whole other direction with minimal payoff. There wasn't really any reason to be out there, splashing around to no effect. Water was just something you crossed. Your navy was a way to get units from one island to another, laboriously loading them onto transports and then unpacking them again on the other side. RTS stood for "real-time stevedore," and navies weren't navies so much as elaborately micromanaged ferry systems.
Many developers simply don't bother with the wet work required to do a naval subgame. Navies require their own terrain, and therefore their own units, and therefore their own rules. In the scheme of RTSes, it's harder to float than to fly -- and even then, the "no water maps!" crowd will never see the results of all that work.
Earlier games like Red Alert 2 and Age of Mythology invested some real creativity at sea. The balance among subs, destroyers and battleships is nearly as clich?d (i.e. intuitive) as the archer/infantry/cavalry triangle. Red Alert 2 folded into the equation mind-controlled giant squids that crushed ships and specially trained dolphins that drove away the squids. As you aged up in Age of Mythology, among your choice of minor gods was almost always one with cool naval powers. There's nothing quite like a monster turtle or a kraken to complement your triremes. Age of Mythology was based on the juxtaposition of the historical and the fantastical, at sea and on land.
Everything changed with Big Huge Games' Rise of Nations, which began an era of naval reform in RTSes. Big Huge redesigned the naval subgame from the seafloor up. The first thing to go was the pain in the butt of ferrying. Instead of building transports and cramming in your little dudes one at a time, you simply gave your units a destination. If it involved crossing water, they automatically loaded themselves into boats, represented by the unit converting itself into a transport. Of course, if you wanted to actually defend the transports, you had to build a conventional navy.
Rise of Nations was also the first game to really give players a resource-based incentive for naval supremacy. Other RTSes had fishing as a way of getting more food, but Rise of Nations pushed the resource model out to sea even more. As soon as you reached the Industrial Age, you revealed oil on the map, which was needed to build modern units like tanks, destroyers, aircraft and missiles. Oil was rare enough and important enough that you'd want as many oil wells as you could get. Since many oil sites were offshore, here was a strong incentive to build a navy. One of my favorite map scripts in Rise of Nations put all the oil wells out to sea -- all of them! -- effectively jiggering the lategame balance so that you would lose if you didn't have a navy. The map script was called, fittingly, British Isles. Rum, sodomy, the lash and sweet, sweet crude.
It's no surprise that Big Huge Games were the guys to add naval treasure to Age of Empires III with their Asian Dynasties expansion. The original Age III featured explorers who walked around picking up little treats scattered around the map. In Asian Dynasties, Big Huge put even bigger treats out to sea, guarded by pirate ships, bandits on catamarans, great white sharks and killer whales. Name another RTS where you fight great white sharks. Go ahead. You can't do it!
Even before Big Huge Games got their hands on it, Age of Empires III was the game that best integrated its navy into the rest of its gameplay. For starters, they added ships that functioned as barracks, letting you sail up to a foreign shore and train units right out of the boat. You no longer had to bring over villagers to build a base. The simplified beachhead logistics made a huge difference on naval maps.
Then there was Age III's closest claim to a superweapon, tucked at the endgame and prowling the seas. Artillery is indeed the god of war in Age III, but it's easily countered by cavalry charges and anti-artillery artillery -- that is, until the monitor, a mighty Industrial Age ship with a massive cannon on its prow that can reach almost anywhere on the map, inflicting 2,000 points of damage with a single rechargeable shot. No line of sight? No problem. It can even fire blind, and unless your opponent has a navy that can come out and kill it, there's not a damn thing he can do about your monitor, the Big Bertha of the 18th century.
This was Age III's stalemate breaker, and it was at the far end of a shifting balance from land-based defenses to naval supremacy. Early in an Age III game, a simple outpost would drive away most ships. Naval supremacy was mainly a way to protect fishing. As the Fortress and then Industrial Ages rolled around, the balance of power reversed. No coast was safe from the player who controlled the seas with his frigates and monitors (this dynamic was also present in Rise of Nations, but its bomb ketches, the counterpart to monitors, were but a passing fancy on the way to nukes).
As Age of Empires III evolved with more and fancier endgame dynamics like European revolutions and trade monopolies, monitors lost their place in the spotlight, but they're still a significant part of the game balance that's lost when someone insists, "No water maps!".
There's still the difficult question of how to build into an RTS a real naval game rather than an RTS abstraction of it. Naval combat involves a certain degree of high-tech cat-and-mouse, or the stately brutal spectacle of massive ships trading broadsides. The High Treason expansion for the underappreciated Act of War presented a thoroughly modern naval subgame, complete with maps that featured large swathes of empty sea (much to the detriment of the framerate). But for a real taste of realistic naval combat, look to the stars; the sci-fi RTS Sins of a Solar Empire takes a lot of its cues from modern naval combat.
Upcoming naval stuff in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 looks intriguing. Based on the first round of press coverage, it seems that many units in Red Alert 3 will be amphibious, built to fight on land and water. Furthermore, bases can be built on water. There will be resources at sea to give players a reason to hit the waves, however, it's worth noting that EALA's last sea-faring RTS was Battle for Middle Earth II. That game's highly touted naval subgame turned out to be little more than a way for the developer to showcase fancy water effects. Middle Earth as imagined by EALA tried to borrow the dynamic of Age of Empires III, but it wasn't seaworthy. Let's hope they've got their sea legs under them for Red Alert 3.
UNIT OF THE WEEK
Naturally, you'd think the Unit of the Week would be a boat of some sort. A-ha, wrong! Well, at least, you would have been wrong if I'd gone with my initial idea. I had chosen the Giant Squid from Red Alert 2, but then I loaded up the game to grab a screenshot. Ugh. Older RTSes don't hold up very well, almost solely for interface reasons. This is especially true of older Westwood RTSes, which already had an aggressive disregard for good interfaces.
So while struggling to get out a few Giant Squids-- great idea, guys, but flavor can only get you so far -- I decided the Unit of the Week was going to be the ship that has most revolutionized the naval subgame: the transport in Rise of Nations, which starts as a Transport Barge, upgrades to a Transport Galleon, and finally becomes a Transport Freighter. You never have to build them. You never have to load them or unload them. They simply call themselves into existence as needed. Beautiful! Admire this half-dozen of the little fellows.
So congratulations, Transport Freighter. You may not be as sexy as the other Units of the Week. In fact, taken out of context, you're dull and frail, arguably the least exciting unit in the entire game. But in the annals of RTS history, you're the ship that really made waves.