Real time strategy games (RTS’) have come a long way. There was something inherently addictive about old school RTS titles like Age of Empires and the ridiculously popular Starcraft. The mecahnics were simple enough. Build a base, collect resources, build an army, go forth and pwn. This is obviously a gross over-simplification but it serves to prove the point that all RTS’ share certain core mechanics.
There is always a base.
There are always resources to manage.
There will always be different unit types that need to be employed to make an effective army. (Tank rushes do not count.)
There is always some sort of “tech tree” used to unlock better weapons and such.
Somewhere down the line, however, things began to change. Gamers began to see that once you removed the shiny new skin, every RTS was essentially EXACTLY the same. It did not matter if you were fighting cyborgs or elves. You were still going through the exact same motions. In short, it began to feel just a tad bit boring, and very, very dated. Some developers tried to shake things up now and then but the core experience did not deviate. Throughout most of the late 90’s all changes were essentially cosmetic. There were exceptions of course; Empire Earth and Warcraft 3 did bring some fresh ideas that were implemented well. But it was Relic Entertainment’s Warhammer 40,000 : Dawn of war (2004) that marked an important turning point in the evolution of the genre. Here was a game that put the emphasis on constant aggression. The player absolutely had to keep moving forward, constantly claiming “strategic points” to gain more “requisition” (one of only two resources to manage) and though there was a base of operations and the usual “gather-research-mobilize-rush” element to things, the focus was always on the action.
In my opinion, this was the first game in which the player’s attention was forced towards the next attack as opposed to building the base (turtling). Not that one couldn’t do it, but rather, it always felt like it was the wrong thing to do. The game didn’t revolutionize the genre per se, but, it did sow some very important seeds. The lessons learned from Dawn of War (DOW) came through in Relic’s own Company of Heroes (COH). A game that has pretty much raised the bar for RTS’. In many ways it was refinement of the DOW formula. If anything there was a marked shift towards focusing even more on tactics as opposed to strategy. The strict unit cap in COH meant that the player had to really think about keeping a good mix of units within his army. Tank rushes failed to work (that alone was a worthy enough achievement in itself). I was expecting pretty much the same thing from DOW2.
Before I continue, let me make it clear that I love the game. This post is far from criticism. In fact, I believe Relic deserves to be given credit for trying something very different from what the industry has seen so far. However, let’s look at how the game actually plays out:
There is no base whatsoever.
There are a handful of squads (anything between 1 to 5 guys per squad). No armies. At no point does the player control more than 4 squads total.
There are no resources to collect. Only strategic points that replenish fallen squad members.
There is a levelling system with generous amounts of loot drops. Wait…what?!
Yep, that’s right, sounds more like an RPG. Because that’s what it is in my opinion. Not a Real Time Strategy title but a Tactical Role Playing Game. The only “strategy” is deciding where and how to attack. Oh, and how to equip and outfit your motley crew of hard asses. The “Risk” type world map used in the DOW Dark crusade expansion makes a triumphant return but the strategic value of that in DOW2 is damn near zero. Throughout the entire game, I kept getting reminded of Fallout Tactics (FT). A brilliant little gem from the good old days. Like FT, the positioning of your troops and how they were levelled made all the difference in battle. Hell, the combat aspect is closer to Dragon Age more than the original DOW!
All this begs the question: is this a sign of things to come? Are all RTS’ from now on going to have a more “tactical” approach to game play? There haven’t been many RTS titles out to give a clear picture. The CnC universe is still sticking to its old school formula and it looks like Starcraft 2 will do the same. Regardless, I personally think that the present day gamer’s appetite has been whetted enough by Relic’s work to demand more action oriented RTS’. I only hope that it does not water down the genre permanently to the point where the mere idea of an old school RTS becomes economically unviable.