A Completely Chauvinistic Take On The Modern Day RTS
The real-time strategy (RTS) genre is a robust and well-celebrated brand, that has kept legions of PC gamers fascinated for millennia. And for good reason. It takes immense amounts of skill to perfectly control your vast armies in the midst of combat while simultaneously building up your economy, all without even batting an eye. To the wayward onlooker, these are madmen staring at a blinky screen with fingers moving in a celestial dance. However, all RTS games aren’t played this way, and whilst many may think Blizzard’s StarCraft and Warcraft series dominate the market (and they wouldn’t be wrong), there are already games out there that play better.
Let’s get this straight; there has never been a good console RTS that could even come close to rivalling its PC counterpart. Even if there’s an exclusive RTS console-side, like Halo Wars, it’s child’s play to the likes of PC gaming. RTS games work best on the PC, and that’s a fact.
As I said, many associate the genre with StarCraft, and you definitely can’t blame them. StarCraft pioneered the conceptualisation of a truly balanced, almost-perfect strategy game with a well written narrative and exuberant community behind it. The friggin’ game is played as a sport in some countries. To put it simply, Blizzard’s game was the role model for the genre, and in a lot of ways, it still is today. StarCraft II sold 1.5 million units in its first 48 hours. If that doesn’t depict how popular the StarCraft name is, nothing else will.
In StarCraft, build order is the way of life. Supply: depot, barracks, SCV, vommunications array, etc. It needs to be done in a certain amount of time. If you go off course, or are too slow in your decision making, your enemy could already be in your base, and you’ll have next to zero defenses to protect you. This is the kind of gameplay I’ve been leading up to that I’ve grown tired of. StarCraft isn’t the only offender here; Command and Conquer is famous for the same problem as well and, if you go way back, Age of Empires too.
Micromanagement also plays a pivotal role in every encounter in the game. That’s having the mastery over individual units of a squad or of a small group at all times. If you don’t have control, you’ll constantly be harassed by dudes who move just a tiny bit faster than you, or have just a hair longer range than your troops. This is stupid. It’s one thing if some units are fast-moving, like the Zerg Mutalisk or Terran Banshee, but when a horde of Protoss Stalkers are moving toward you, then away, shoot you once, move away, shoot you once, and you can’t even hit them a single damn time, it’s beyond frustrating. Units don’t move like that. I’m more of a ‘position-and-dig-in-and-flank-your-foe’ type of fighter, not an ‘MMO-kite-because-I-can’ guy.
Kiting is stupid.
I know what you’re thinking. “All you need to do is scout their base, see where they’re going and then counter”. That is very true to StarCraft nature, but it isn’t exactly enjoyable, and nor is it easy. In the beginning, you might throw a builder unit into your enemy’s base to see what they’re doing early on, but there are marked issues with that. Unless you have a vast knowledge of what that specific race’s base should look like at that specific time slot, you have no idea what they’re going to build. Moreover, you need to constantly send over stuff to observe what they have in order to be able to counter during the course of the game. This is also whilst you’re building units, expanding, making defenses, and scouting around the map. To me, this translates as ‘make some units, hope that whatever you’re doing they don’t have the counter to, make sure it shoots ground and air, they have the counter, you now can’t fight back, game lost’.
Everything I’ve described are, and always will be, the staples of the old-school RTS. However, when games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II come along, it majorly opened our eyes to how much better something can be.
In Dawn of War II there are no Barracks or Supply Depots; you have nothing to continuously build to produce units, StarCraft style. As a matter of fact, resource gathering is a thing of the past. It might seem like resource-mongering is a requisite component of the genre, but its lack of presence in these games bestow the incredible gift of focus. Without having to worry about how many SCVs or Drones you have, you can focus all your attention on where your handful of troops are, along with their environmental advantages. This unparalleled attention grants the gift of imagination to the player; instead of mindless wandering, your squad can set up for some brilliant ambushes and other tactical manoeuvres.
Like its predecessor, Company of Heroes, both games give you control of a select group of soldiers that work in a team. While you can divide and conquer if the situation permits it, travelling in a group is always the better option because of each squad’s tactical use and strengths. Want to blow up a bridge your enemy is using to transport troops? Do it, and reap the benefit of taking them by surprise. There isn’t any bridge-exploding antics in StarCraft, no tactical ambushes, and certainly no sideways hits on bases. You know what there is? Flying right over an enemy base with Medivacs, and dropping all your troops right into the thick of it, while the anti-air guns fire at you.
Because that totally makes sense.
Dawn of War II and Company of Heroes also both utilise the cover mechanic. By positioning yourself in front of sandbags, broken pillars, or perhaps a mega-behemoth corpse, your troops are more protected from enemy fire. Also, won’t see standard infantry firing bullets at tanks and hurting them. The only way to take those puppies down are with some well placed heavy weapon blasts, such as missiles or something akin. This type of play adds more to the already-considerable stratagem, and certainly makes for some interesting encounters.
I think the reason why I enjoy these type of RTS games more than their old-school compatriots is the greater sense of team work, strategy, and combat. Everything lasts longer and takes more thought than what StarCraft brings to the table. Rather than always building something the same, Dawn of War II allows me to control a set number of troops that I can alter, position, and set up. I can’t expect to send in a total mêlée squad and win the day in a tornado of blood. The key is being able to always have a fighting chance, no matter what appears on the battlefield.
Once again, I’ll say it: StarCraft, Command and Conquer, Age of Empires – they’re all a lot of fun. However, when it comes down to competitive play and even casual style, I’d prefer the setup to occur with more accessible gameplay. Using common sense, movement, positioning, and setting up battle scenarios are much more enticing in Dawn of War and Company of Heroes than it ever could be in StarCraft. I think Relic’s game design should be borrowed and tweaked more, so that the contemporary RTS can benefit in a whole new way.
What do you think? Prefer the old-school approach or Relic-style? Sound off in the comments section.