The Year in Real-Time Strategy
To many of the real-time strategy faithful, 2009 might have seemed like a bleak year. The big news was the death of Ensemble. And it wasn't just the studio that shut down. It seems like the kinds of games it made had shut down as well. 2009 didn't have a single RTS in the grand tradition of Age of Empires. Instead, Ensemble's swan song was Halo Wars, an Xbox 360 game that highlighted many of the problems with porting a traditional RTS to console systems. Is it time for real-time strategy to grab a rocking chair next to fight sims at the Retirement Home for Old Genres?
Hardly. For folks willing to accept that the genre is changing instead of merely dying, 2009 was pretty exciting. It's worth noting that even though Halo Wars had its share of interface problems, it was a smart design that found a faithful audience. Unless you count The Sims 3 as an RTS (I won't try to take you there now), Halo Wars was the genre's biggest success of 2009.
AI War: Fleet Command
For an example of the kinds of changes the genre is seeing, take Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II. It's not going to appeal to players who want to manage a meticulous economy. Instead, this sign of things to come cuts straight to the chase. The economy is the same as controlling the map. All the fiddly base-building decisions are dropped directly into the units while they're in battle. Dawn of War II is all about the fighting. The long tail trailing behind an army has been tucked away. Quartermasters and peons are so 2008.
In fact, I can only think of two RTSes this year that used the traditional model of peon management, and both of them were as far from traditional as you can get. AI War: Fleet Command was the most revolutionary RTS of the year, creating a whole new type of gameplay that mixed tower defense games, 4X strategy, gradually escalating artificial-intelligence opponents, and cooperative multiplayer. About the only traditional part of it was the way you gathered resources. The other conventional resource-gathering RTS was a WiiWare game called Swords & Soldiers. You hired peons to gather resources from gold mines and carry them back to the keep. Although it played by many of the tenets of real-time strategy games, Swords & Soldiers was shrewdly created to work on the Nintendo Wii, with side-scrolling gameplay, split-screen multiplayer, and player interaction based on spell powers. You didn't control your army so much as help it along a predetermined path. It was brilliant.
Swords & Soldiers
Reduced or eliminated control of armies was a major part of how RTSes changed this year. It's worth noting that Majesty 2 was an almost direct remake of Majesty, one of the most subversive RTSes ever made for how hands-off it was. Similarly, Gratuitous Space Battles proved that the setup before the actual fight could be the basis for an entire game. Getting to watch a gratuitous space battle was just the icing on the cake. But the more popular model for army non-management was Defense of the Ancients, a popular and venerable Warcraft III mod that inspired three RTSes in 2009. Demigod, Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends are all based on controlling and upgrading a single hero to turn the tide of an automated battle.
Another gameplay model that came into its own this year was tower defense, which is like real-time strategy for people who just want to turtle. There were a bunch of these across varying platforms, and a few of them were exclusives and standouts. For instance, Defender Chronicles on the iPhone and Comet Crash on the PlayStation 3 were both unique additions to the genre. You could even argue that tower defense was an inspiration for the new skirmishes introduced in The Lord of the Rings Online's Siege of Mirkwood expansion.
Other new RTS twists include the strangely relaxing Eufloria, which plays like a combination of hardcore naval combat, quirky battles between space birds and space trees, and something inspired by hallucinogens. Battleforge crossbred a collectible-card game and an online RTS, but I wouldn't personally consider it a success so much as a weird offspring making noises in the basement. Speaking of which, Creative Assembly managed to tarnish its reputation doubly with the shameful state of Stormrise and Empire: Total War, both chapters of 2009 better left forgotten.
For me, the best RTS of the year was also the most surreptitious. Brütal Legend was mostly an open-world game, but the core gameplay was an RTS based on genre forefather Herzog Zwei and cult classic Sacrifice. Brütal Legend is a perfect example of not just where the genre has been, but where it's going: someplace that appeals to a wider audience accustomed to action games, tricking them into being cerebral instead of relying on reflexes. And I don't want to hear any guff from you guys who want to win or lose based on how meticulously you controlled your peons. You had your RTSes. Now it's everyone else's turn.