Rush, Boom, Turtle: Everybody Look What's Goin' Down
You may not realize it, but this has been one of the best months for real-time strategy games in a long time. Since September, there have been some brilliant and innovative RTSes released, even for those of us who don't care for Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. In fact, I'd say especially for those of us who didn't care for Red Alert 3. I consider these something of a quiet revolution against traditional RTSes like Red Alert 3.
(First, a disclaimer: The following comments aren't intended to be critical. They're simply observations. If you want critical comments about Red Alert 3, this review should oblige you.)
Bottom up or top down
Red Alert 3 has armies composed of a hundred fiddly bits. The gameplay comes from the interaction of these bits. There's very little by way of macro-level design. The basic design has almost no regard for the larger strategic level, which simply embraces the usual conventions: ore, barracks, navies, air units, spell powers, formations. All of this stuff has been established in other games, so most of the design work in Red Alert 3 is at the smaller tactical level. The variety comes up from the bottom. What does a Naginata Cruiser do? Who wins in a fight between a King Oni and an Apocalypse Tank? How much more damage than an Orbital Drop does an Orbital Dump deliver? How far can Wave-Force Artillery shoot?
But the really notable RTSes I've played lately have taken the opposite approach. The design has started at the macro level, questioning all the usual RTS assumptions, eschewing tactical fiddly bits, and working its way down. The variety comes from the nuances layered on top of the game rather than the detail bubbling up from the bottom. These three games are simple but not simplistic, elegant but no less exciting for it, and all liable to be overlooked by business-as-usual RTS fans.
The Herzog Zwei of pirate games
Consider Age of Booty.
You move a ship around with the goal of capturing a certain number of towns to win the game. You don't tell a ship to shoot, you don't set its stance, and you don't mess with its facing. Wherever it parks, it will fire at any adjacent hostiles. Park two ships next to a town, and they'll conquer it twice as fast. Park one ship between two enemies, and it will attack each of them at half-strength. Your role is to simply place your ship. Oh, and you only ever get one ship to play with.
And that's pretty much it.
There's a great board game elegance to the resource model, which uses gold for town upgrades, rum for ship upgrades, and wood for both. Do you go after the gold to build up your towns? Do you save your wood for your ship? What will you steal from an enemy player when you kill one of his ships? Do you sail back to your pirate base to repair, or do you let yourself get killed and teleport back instantly, giving up a random resource?
The ships upgrade in attack, defense or speed. Do you level evenly, or do you focus on one trait? What's more, there are neutral merchant ships on the maps that drop one-shot power-ups, so you can never be sure exactly how a battle will progress.
If you have any doubt that this constitutes an RTS because you only control a single unit, I invite you to look up Herzog Zwei, the great-great-granddaddy of all RTSes, and a console game, to boot. The lesson relearned in Age of Booty is that an RTS doesn?t have to be busy. It's a simple game with a great deal of flexibility, especially with a group of human players (four-player split-screen!).
And although it's easy to write this off as a multiplayer-only game, that's not quite accurate. You can stock it with any combination of bots you like. The game even has a rudimentary campaign mode that arranges scenarios by difficultly and ticks them off the list as you complete them.
Will there be other games like Age of Booty? You bet. A platform like Xbox Live Arcade is ideal for this sort of thing. In fact, I can imagine this sort of design spilling over into casual games. Will they appeal to traditional RTS players? Probably not. The average RTS player will likely turn his nose up at such a simple but compelling design.
Gamebreakers fall like mana from the sky.
Consider Multiwinia: Survival of the Flattest.
There is only one type of unit: the Multiwinian. Your task as a player is to direct the Multiwinians to wherever they need to go. The location varies by game type. Some games have multiple victory locations, some are capture-the-flag, and some have tricky requirements about fueling rockets. But the basic tactics are a matter of where you send your Multiwinians. There's also a rather basic secondary consideration in terms of leaders, who you can use as waypoints or formations. Waypoints automatically direct your stream of Multiwinians, not unlike a plumbing system. Formations move more slowly, but they pack a harder punch because the Multiwinians are more densely packed (and incidentally more vulnerable to explosions).
And that's it.
Well, okay, almost. Multiwinia is broken wide open by crates that drift down from the sky, each containing some potentially game-breaking power-up if you divert Multiwinians to unpack them. This is where the real gameplay is, because otherwise, directing streams of competing Multiwinians at each other is like two people fighting each other with a garden hose to see who can get the other guy wettest. Fun, sure, but kind of brainless.
So a typical game relies on the random element of which power-ups appear and how they're used. It's equal parts luck, reflexes and tactics. And if you've ever played a game by Introversion, the creators of the lovely and haunting Defcon, you know you're in for some of the most muscular and economic graphics you've ever seen. For a 50 MB hard drive footprint (yep, you read that right), Multiwinia has no business looking and sounding this good.
The lesson here is that an RTS doesn't need a lot of unit types. Variety and flexibility can come from someplace other than a bunch of different moving parts. This is one of the purest action RTSes you will ever play with its single unit and lack of tactical fiddling (this is partly a lie, since power-users will learn things like flanking and tank assaults). For such a simple and relatively hands-off game, Multiwinia is tense and frenetic. I suspect it'll be a good fit for Xbox Live next month.
Will there be other games like Multiwinia? Probably not. For starters, this is the sort of game that needs a big art budget for animated units and fancy explosions. But Multiwinia gets a lot of slack because it takes place in the eerie digital cyberscape introduced in its predecessor, Darwinia. Will Multiwinia appeal to traditional RTS players? More so than Age of Booty. In fact, the basic gameplay speed feels a lot like Red Alert 3. But there's probably too much emphasis on luck-of-the-crate. And although you can set the crates to only the basic types, that kills a lot of what makes Multiwinia work: the dramatic reversals falling from the sky like snow. Like God, the average RTS player doesn't play dice.
The End of our elaborate plans
Consider Tom Clancy's EndWar, which is as brave, insightful and dramatically different as Kohan. And it's just as liable to be misunderstood and overlooked.
There's a certain board gaming simplicity to EndWar. Every map has uplink locations. Your objective is to capture more than half of them, and then hold them for four minutes. You do this with six types of units, in a simple rock/paper/scissors arrangement: two types of vehicles, two types of infantry, helicopters and artillery.
Every unit costs four command points, which are the only economy in EndWar. Both players gradually earn command points over time, at the same rate. But every time you capture an uplink, you earn four points, which lets you select the unit of your choice.
And that's pretty much it.
There are certainly nuances. For instance, uplinks can only be captured by infantry. Infantry can also upgrade an uplink to unlock global "spell powers," such as free units, air strikes and EMP attacks. Some infantry can plant minefields. A command unit lets you look at the map from an overhead view. Then there's veterancy for each unit, and you can spend cash to upgrade unit types and purchase new abilities for promoted units.
But for all its elegance and exceptions, the lesson here is that the traditional snowball model of RTSes doesn't have to be blindly accepted. You know the snowball model, because it's how nearly every RTS winds down. The winner builds up more and more economic or tactical momentum until he simply rolls over the loser. But one of the most dramatic changes in EndWar is the way it handles the EndGame.
The title is no coincidence, by the way. At a press event, lead designer Michael de Plater told me the name refers partly to how they wanted to avoid that traditional snowballing model. De Plater actually mentioned Mario Kart as an inspiration. In Mario Kart, whoever's farthest behind gets the best power-ups, often letting him sabotage the leader and shoot to the head of the pack. It's a sort of rubber-banding effect that intends to level the playing field between leader and loser.
No safety or surprise
But that's not quite how EndWar works. Instead, it gives the least aggressive player the most powerful toys. As soon as one player takes the last uplink that will set the victory timer, the other player gets a computer hacking attack called a "crash." This lets him remove from play one uplink at any time, which changes the shape of the map and restores the balance. When will he do it? Where will he do it? It's up to him.
Furthermore, the player who had the crash also holds the decision as to whether or not to use a WMD. These powerful attacks will destroy an uplink and any nearby units. In the right conditions, they can instantly wipe out a player's entire army. But as soon as a player uses a WMD, the other player can use his. Therefore, the "losing" player doesn't necessarily get an advantage so much as he gets to make a couple of very important decisions.
This isn't a matter of handicapping, or of giving the loser a power-up that will instantly shoot him to the head of the pack. It's a matter of letting the less aggressive player sit in the catbird seat. And in a Zen way, perhaps the more aggressive player should let the other player be more aggressive? Perhaps you have to lose a little if you really want to win? Perhaps seizing the map first requires a little letting go? If that doesn't make sense now, it will once you've played a few games of EndWar.
Will there be other games like EndWar? I kind of doubt it. Just as Kohan solved a lot of RTS problems but never took off, I suspect the same might happen with EndWar. Which is too bad, since its voice command tricks also solve the problem of how to bring RTSes to console systems. But more importantly, I think EndWar will be regarded as a colder and clunkier version of World in Conflict, the sexy, fiddly RTS with a similar look and feel, but an entirely separate kind of gameplay. Will EndWar appeal to traditional RTS players? Again, I kind of doubt it. A lot of RTS players love the snowballing model. They don't necessarily want their matches to be close. They don't want to have to puzzle out the Zen art of letting the other guy grab the extra uplink or holding a WMD as a deterrent rather than a weapon. For many players, the appeal of an RTS is overwhelming the other guy with a massive army, which tends to look awesome. EndWar doesn't provide that sort of gratification.
So that's the quiet revolution, upstaged by all the noise and color in Red Alert 3. These other three games are all excellent and as an RTS junkie, I can't recommend them enough. They range from simple diversions (Age of Booty is perfect for goofing around with non-RTS fans) to long-term investments (I still can't reliably win EndWar against the default artificial intelligence). It's up to you to keep them from being sleepers instead of models for how RTSes are made from here on out.
Unit of the Week
The Unit of the Week isn't just the cute little pirate ship from Age of Booty. It's the cute little pirate ship with its speed fully upgraded so it can run around a map and pick up crates! As long as the map isn't too closed-in, a fast ship can determine when and whether it will fight battles. It can pick up stray crates and raid native settlements for resources. It's like a peon gathering resources that will upgrade your team's defense (towns) and offense (other pirate ships). And it's an invaluable asset to its team that will eventually swing the balance in their favor.
Congratulations, fast pirate ship! Now scoot along and get me some more rum!