Rush, Boom, Turtle: Waiting for StarCraft II
Believe me, I know it's tough. It's been a great spring and summer for every genre but ours. We aren't even getting expansion packs, unless you count those chintzy overpriced maps for Halo Wars. In fact, here's a sobering thought: The last real real-time strategy game was Stormrise. Can you believe it? Can you believe Stormrise came out a mere few months ago? That game tanked so hard it feels like it came out last year.
But don't despair. I bring good news. You may not know this, but there are some new games that will satisfy your RTS jones. All of them are currently available. Some of them -- actually, all but one of them -- aren't even technically RTSes. But they'll do until one comes along. Think of these as the seven games that will tide you over for the time being. Think of them as stealth RTSes.
Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do to Deserve This?
You might have written off this game as some weird inscrutable dungeon-building sim that you can only play on the PSP and that doesn't have very fancy graphics. If that. It's more likely you wrote off this game as something with the sort of weird title that indicates it's strange and Japanese. All of which is true.
But what you may not know is that this is a game all about unit management. You don't build units, and you don't control them directly. You don't even really position them. They do their own thing, and a lot of the time, it isn't the thing you wish they were doing. But you're nevertheless in charge of managing them.
Your job is to create conditions in which certain creatures thrive. This is a delicate ecological balance where creatures need to eat each other, and you manage the elements. Carve out the area through which hungry, dying, egg-laying, decomposing beasts move. Hope for the best when heroes come calling to plunder your dungeon. There's even a fantasy version of composting in this strange little game.
As far as relating it to real-time strategy games, here's what I've got: It most reminds me of Majesty, the classic hands-off RTS from 2000. I still haven't quite wrapped my head around Holy Invasion, but I know that it feels like playing some funky RTS on my PSP.
Among the many ways to play this grand, messy shooter simulation is a real-time strategy mode. It plays out across multiple towns stocked with neutral defenders. As you capture towns by killing the defenders, trucks drive back and forth between the town and your base. Each time a truck arrives, your team earns a little money. The leader on your team -- appointed by vote -- spends the money on base defenses and factories. This determines what each individual can buy with his money, which includes teammates, better weapons, vehicles and even helicopters. Eventually, you're going to start fighting the other team for control of towns. The ultimate objective is to wipe out the other team's base.
You can play this mode single-player with a bunch of retarded bots on either side. If you vote yourself leader -- the bots will always acquiesce to your political ambitions -- you can order them around from the map screen, which feels like playing an RTS without graphics. This mode is clearly intended to be played multiplayer, although it's going to be a long haul and I seriously doubt it works very well. In other words, it's perfectly representative of the ArmA II experience!
I talked about this PlayStation 3 downloadable title in my column on tower defense games. As a single-player game, it's pretty conventional. But I bring it up here specifically for the multiplayer, which is unique among tower defense games. Multiplayer matches can only be played locally, with up to four players on the same screen (you do have four PlayStation 3 controllers, right?). Each player gets a flying ship that doubles as his cursor. The ship is used to drop defensive towers and unit factories, and to upgrade them to their more powerful forms. It's also used to collect resources from the rocks that drift in from off-screen.
As a match progresses, each player divides his resources between defensive buildings and factories that slowly accumulate armies. At any point, a player can let loose with a stream of attackers from his factories. If the attackers make it all the way to the other player's base, they enter it and do a certain amount of damage. The trick is to watch what the other guy is building and to amass your forces accordingly. There's no fog of war, and units will move along the shortest path to the enemy base (a path that is largely determined by how the other player has built his defenses). But it's very much like playing a short, streamlined RTS.
This is mostly an action game, but it's got some RTS in it. Think of it as the overhead cartoon version of Savage, Command & Conquer: Renegade or the Battlezone remakes, all action games played within the context of an unfolding RTS match.
In Fat Princess, you play your choice of warrior, archer, priest or mage. It feels mostly like Team Fortress, except even more cute. But there's a prominent economic component. You'll need wood and rock to upgrade your team's classes and castle. And that wood and rock isn't going to harvest itself. So there's also a peon class for gathering and building. Peons go out to break up rocks and iron deposits. They chop down trees. They build defenses and special devices. They also gather magical cake to feed their team's captured Fat Princess. She needs this cake to get fat, which makes it more difficult for the enemy team to carry her away.
Fortunately, Fat Princess makes it easy to switch hats. Literally. Once you get sick of being a peon -- it's not very glamorous -- you just go to the castle and get a new hat. Voil?, now you're a much more interesting unit in the overall RTS balance!
If this game didn't have such a god-awful interface at the strategic level, it would be a cool World War II RTS set in the Pacific Theatre. You would be fighting over naval bases that give your units special powers, and air fields that allow you to manage squadrons of bombers and fighters. You would be training ships and giving them waypoints. You would be scouting with PT boats and intercepting troop transports with submarines. Your battleship would try to fend off dive bombers and your paratroopers would hope to catch an enemy base unawares. You can jump into any plane or ship if you want, but this skirmish mode is mostly about the map view.
Unfortunately, it's all a big mess built to appease action gamers. The RTS aspects are an underdeveloped bone thrown to guys like me who hoped Battlestations: Pacific might be an improved version of Battlestations: Midway. Which it is, but in all the wrong places.
The Sims 3
You can argue that The Sims 3 is sort of an RTS. It's the weakest excuse for an RTS in this batch of games, but I'd be remiss not to bring it up. Especially since I held a contest in which I challenged folks to play The Sims 3 as an RTS. So I can't very well leave it off this list. But if you haven't heard the spiel, here's the basic pitch: Although The Sims 3 is presumably about the day-to-day lives of little computer people, it's ultimately a resource-management game. Your resources include things like time, money, friends, furniture, space and lifetime happiness points. You use these to advance your sim as much as you can.
Swords and Soldiers
This game has about as generic a name as I've ever heard. I accidentally stumbled across it while I was fetching Bit.Trip Core from the WiiWare Channel. "Swords and Soldiers?" I wondered when I saw it on the list of new releases. "Good lord, that sounds awful. What kind of poor game got stuck with the name 'Swords and Soldiers'?"
It turned out to be an RTS. Or so the blurb on the WiiWare Channel said. "Sure it's an RTS," I thought. But then I read the manual, which you can do before you buy a game on the WiiWare Channel. It was definitely the manual for an RTS, albeit a simplified cutesy one. But an RTS nonetheless. I immediately downloaded it instead of that Bit.Trip Core thing, which isn't an RTS as far as I know.
And sure enough, Swords and Soldiers is a bona-fide, card-carrying, rush/boom/turtling RTS. Don't be fooled by the deceptively cute graphics or the streamlined side-scrolling gameplay. It has all the features of an RTS: fog of war, three unique factions, defense emplacements, a tech tree, spells, a mini-map, ranged and melee combat, resource management, different maps and even awesome split-screen multiplayer. I wasn't pulling your leg about rushing, booming and turtling. They're all in there. This is as serious an RTS as has been released all year.