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Video Games Need a Divorce From Hollywood

It seems like it’s time for the video game industry to grow up and realize that it needs to start producing games with the idea that the experience they provide to gamers is one wholly unique to the industry. I finally saw There Will Be Blood earlier this week and, after witnesses the absolutely mind-numbingly fantastic performance of Daniel Day-Lewis I came to a fairly obvious realization: games will never provide an experience as fulfilling, captivating, and, most importantly, truly captivating viewing experience as a movie like this.

I don’t mean that a game will never have the ability to provide a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and memorable experience. The primary distinction that needs to be conveyed is that, in their current form, video games seem to be handling their narratives in a wholly unoriginal form. So many video games released for both PC and consoles over the last year try to present what is, quite honestly, a mundane story with adequate voice acting in the same form as a movie may try to present a story: through non-interactive cutscenes. It seems absolutely insane to me that, as advanced as games have become, the industry still has yet to get past the idea that the only way to present stories is through heavily scripted scenes. I understand why the desire to force players to sit through a noninteractive or unskippable cinematics; developers put an absolutely ridiculous amount of time into developing their games and planning out their storylines and so on. So much work that it seems crazy to make the storyline in a game subtle or completely optional. But, by that same token, I know a great number of gamers who simply skip past any and all cutscenes that show themselves in any game.

There are, basically, two categories of games when narrative is the topic of discussion as far as I’m concerned: abstract storylines and concrete narratives. I consider games which place the game front and center as a game with an abstract narrative. These are games where, for the most part, there is no requisite story or the gameplay defines the player’s interpretation of a story. A game like Geometry Wars, for example, has no real story whatsoever. In my experience, and I’m not making this up, I tend to make-up completely irrelevant storylines to complement the gameplay; I’m destroying the crap out of these geometry blights upon my galaxy. For what, you may ask. To this I respond with whatever mood I’m in for that day: for destroying my similarly geometric self’s rights, for destroying my convex homeworld, for taking my harshly-edged fiancé captive. I do this completely subconsciously and it’s something that I never would have realized if a friend of mine hadn’t mentioned this game during my midday rant about the same topic as this column. A more concrete example of an abstract narrative, in my eyes, is a turn-based strategy game like Galactic Civilizations, The Sims, or Civilization. There is, in fact, an entire set of storylines which surround any given game in these titles but, for the most part, the meat of the narrative occurs as I dictate it. I have a home world and I expand but, yet, there are the teal race of wobbly-armed balls of goo who are attempting to prevent me from helping my race to survive the depths of space by positioning two giant space ships around the planet I had my eye on. A planet with fertile soil and a friendly atmosphere. I need that planet and these teal bastards are trying to stop me. Why? Who knows. They probably do, but I can make my reasons up as I play. These events occur in-game without any necessary exposition whatsoever and no particularly keen observations on my part, but the narrative is there, whether I care to excavate its meaning or not.

The other type of game is one with a definite narrative. A game with a very well-defined and fleshed-out game world set within a unique or special universe all of its own. This could be a game like Bioshock, Half-Life, Starcraft, Diablo, or Lego Star Wars. These are all titles which present a particular storyline set amidst interactive gameplay. These types of games definitely have a place in the industry as experiences wholly unique to the medium but, in my mind, I would love to see some more chances taken with the narrative expositions. Bioshock, Half-Life, and Crysis are the closest and best examples I can think of that help to bring the industry closer to the kind of definitively interactive types of gameplay/narrative that video games should be representative of. The most important story in Bioshock is not that of the player’s dealings with Atlas and Andrew Ryan; no, the most important story is the one presented by the scenery of Rapture (Ken Levine understood this as he indicated in his GDC presentation). In Half-Life 2 the most memorable experiences for me are not being given objectives by the NPCs, it’s seeing Alyx’s face as she is impaled by a Hunter in the beginning of episode 2 and attempting to take down a Strider for the first time in vanilla Half-Life 2. I don’t give a crap about whatever dull story Crysis wanted to present; I was more interested in trekking around the landscape exploring the crevices of the island.

Why should players ever have to completely pause and be stripped of their controls so that a writer can impart his words as voiced by generally poorly acted lines? Video games are the only medium which can present stories in such a dynamic and interactive manner and, yet, we seem to be bound by the conventions of Hollywood.

The New PC Gaming

There have been a startling number of PC-Games-Are-Dying sort of statements coming out lately, the latest of which coming from Cliff Bleszinski of Unreal Tournament fame. This statement no doubt related to the poor sales numbers of Epic’s own Unreal Tournament 3 and Gears of War PC. I suppose it’s worth noting that Gears of War PC was released almost a year after its 360 version and its relatively high system requirements may or may not be a contributing factor in its sales numbers.

Of course, there is certainly a point to be made here regarding the kinds of sales numbers that PC versions of games see in relation to their console counterparts. A Gears of War PC to Gears of War 360 comparison is fairly meaningless, but a Bioshock 360 to Bioshock PC (800,000 in its first month to the PC version’s 80,000) or the order of magnitude difference between the 360 and PC versions of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (383,000 for PC and 3.04 million for Xbox 360). The low PC sales numbers were attributed to rampant piracy by Rob Bowling, the Community Relations Manager for developer Infinity Ward. Although the percentage of users playing pirated copies of the game was never given, it’s safe to assume that Bowling’s claims were well-founded. A number of companies have attributed poor PC sales to piracy in recent years but, unless there’s a vast, overpopulated colony of pirates somewhere that I’m unaware of, if every PC gaming pirate had a change of heart and bought a copy of the game they were previously pirating, I would wager that the total PC sales for a game still would never touch the enormous console sale number.

This, in my mind, is due primarily to a changing PC gaming climate. Video games are becoming increasingly mainstream as is evidenced by a single game like Call of Duty 4 selling over seven million copies across all of the platforms it was released for. The PC is, however, becoming the dark horse platform when multiplatform game releases are the topic. When you switch the topic to something like Massively-Multiplayer Online games there is a different case to be made, what with World of Warcraft’s ten million subscribers and the continually high sales of The Sims month after NPD-counted month. Does this trend mean that all PC games should become MMOs and life strategy games? Well, as the sea of dead MMOs would all scream up in one blood-curdling yelp: no.

PC-exclusive games still have a very well-defined place in the world of video games. As a platform, the PC has a lot going for it that consoles can’t compete with. For one, it’s an open platform that doesn’t have to have patches and content packs monetized as a necessity (though it can be if the publisher or developer wishes). As another, it has the benefit of an incredibly wide and varied user base. While I don’t have numbers to back the forthcoming claim up, I would say that more people have computers of some form than they have current-gen video game consoles. These computers probably don’t all have DirectX 10- or even DirectX 9-capable video cards, but they’re all capable of playing games. When I was growing up, my mother was an absolute solitaire fiend. She played the game so often and so much that even my best score (and, as gamers go, I’m no slouch) would have been scoffed at by even this most nurturing of figures. Standard Windows games like Minesweeper, snake, and so on and so forth are basic computer terminology for people. Even if the mention of World of Warcraft falls upon deaf ears, the mention of computer solitaire or minesweeper should get an ear perk.

Yes, I’m advocating the idea of the Casual Game as being a genuinely good sign for PC gaming. Despite what some people might say about the single-person development teams or the garage developers being dead and such nonsense, there is still a very strong place for small development teams within the scope of casual games. A good game mechanic is a good game mechanic; people of all ages and gaming proficiency recognize this as a truth, whether they can put it into words or not. Bejeweled, for instance, is loved by anyone with a pulse. There’s something inherently addicting about it. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before in some form whether it was a tabletop game like Connect 4 or a Genesis game like Columns. It didn’t even have to be the first to think of the game mechanic, it just had to be the first to do it well and make it as easily-accessible as possible. And who’s say that a legitimately fun game can’t be made out of this simplest of mechanics? If you say something in the negative to that claim, then Puzzle Quest would love to meet you out back for some words. The ease of accessibility is something that Garage Games is taking to heart with Instant Action as well; they already have a combination of games available along with a forthcoming Tribes-like title that by no means should qualify as a “casual game” so much as it should a “fun game” with a unique distribution method.

And none of this is to say that big, complicated PC-exclusive games should be abandoned, because they shouldn’t be. The point that is consistently echoed by gamers in response to “PC Gaming is Dead” variety news is concise and simple: if a PC game is good, people will buy it. This is not a cardinal truth, of course, because there are always truly excellent games that fall completely under the radar of all but the most well-informed gamers. A few recent examples of this are Ironclad’s Sins of a Solar Empire, Crytek’s Crysis, and CD Projekt’s The Witcher. All three of these games are fairly niche titles, with Sins being a mixture of 4X and Real-Time strategy gameplay and The Witcher being a herald back to Baldur’s Gate 2 with a very mature, morally ambiguous, fairly chauvinistic RPG. Crysis is less niche in its genre so much as it is its appeal in the current gaming atmosphere; it’s an adrenaline-fueled first-person shooter with a very high system requirement entry fee. These three games have all received critical praise while also proving to be surprisingly strong sellers — though, it’s a bit early to give a definite commercial judgment to Sins since it was just released a couple weeks prior to the time of writing.

In the end, the “PC Games Are Dead!” type of articles seem more and more like the reactionary and ill-founded claims that they are. The concept of PC gaming ever dying is just a vacuous concept; so long as PCs remain a common fixture in the lives of so many types of people, PC gaming will live. It may evolve and shift forms as time goes on, but a good game will remain a good game.

Games as Art

I watched Saving Private Ryan over this past weekend, since I hadn’t seen it in a few years (and had only previously seen it on VHS), and I had forgotten just how great the movie really is. I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy it after watching Band of Brothers so many times due to the fact that Band of Brothers devoted so much more time to character development, as it had the luxury of a lengthy running-time as opposed to the time constraints placed on Ryan as a theatrical feature movie. The worrying, though, was for nothing, as the movie has held up after a mere eight years and is still one of my favorite movies of all-time. Even though I knew and remembered all of the major plot points of the movie, every scene was still intense, every bit of dialogue still poignant, and every major character death still as difficult to watch as it was the first time I saw the movie back when it was released on video. I’m not much in the way of a legitimate film critic, but I feel fairly confident in my assertion that a movie like Saving Private Ryan can be considered an “artistic work” on the whole.

For whatever reason, though, halfway through the movie I drew a mental comparison between Saving Private Ryan and a number of the World War II first-person shooters that I’ve played over the years, from the various Medal of Honor iterations to the Call of Duty series and Company of Heroes. I’ve played every World War II shooter I can get my hands on over the years and, to this point, have greatly enjoyed every one that I’ve played — so I’m not one of those gamers who laments the fact that there are so many WWII shooters populating the FPS genre.


Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2.

I would go so far as to say that the World War II shooter is, far and away, the most cinematic a game experience is at this point in time (I’d more consider Metal Gear Solid a viewingCall of Duty, I think it actually works very well. When I played through the original Call of Duty, I was absolutely floored with just how well developer Infinity Ward simulated the emotional impact, battle intensity, and overall chaos of World War II. The game, to this day, is still one of those games I look back upon as being one of the most enjoyable games I have ever played, and is a title that I continually use as a benchmark by which I gauge player immersion and atmospheric intensity by for any first-person shooter I play since Call of Duty‘s original release.

This all said, as I sat through Saving Private Ryan, I realized that as fantastic a game (and an experience) as it was, I couldn’t call the game art. Throughout Call of Duty I probably killed over a thousand Nazi soldiers, but not once did I cringe at the sight of their death or the death of a fellow Allied soldier throughout the entirety of the game. Yet, Ryan, I actually had to look away from the screen for a moment several times throughout the movie, a reaction which is very unlike me, as I’m very rarely squeamish when it comes to blood of any sort. And, although it tried at times, Call of Duty cannot even begin to approach the level of complexity and emotional depth that the more low-key, personal scenes throughout Ryan contained. One scene, in particular, near the end of the movie — where the entirety of the squad that the movie followed were on the edge of their wits after losing one of their own in what most of the characters considered a useless, though dangerous, operation given by Tom Hanks’ character — was handled in a way that there was an immense amount of intensity immediately after the sadness experienced by a character’s very visceral death scene, and then there is a complete turnaround where the scene becomes a very thoughtful exposition of a character back story.

Why, at this point in time in the life of the video game industry, can games set in a realistic environment not achieve the necessary level of complexity to evoke the any sort of real emotional response from players? The common response seems to be that the graphical representation of human actors is not to the point yet where games can accurately simulate the necessary human functions to really make players feel some sort of attachment to the in-game models… But I’m not sure that’s really the case at this point. While games are still a far cry away from accurately simulating reality, I don’t think the lack of a highly realistic rendering is what’s holding modern titles away from being considered a legitimate art form. It seems far more likely that the limiting factor of artistic complexity for realistic titles like the war games is the industry’s immaturity as a medium — this isn’t even to mention the immaturity of a large percentage of the target demographic (though this is on the decline as those people who grew up with video games are now entering their middle-ages). Games are still being released which feel the need to add unnecessary “hooks” or add unnecessary or out-of-place mature content for the sake of being edgy.

Although I have difficulty calling a game like Call of Duty an artistic work, I think there are a few classification rules that could be established for games. Firstly, there are the cinematic games, which are the titles designed to feel like movies — which can be accomplished through lengthy cutscenes, very tightly scripted or well-designed missions, or some mixture of the two. Call of Duty is clearly a very cinematic game, but it achieves its movie-like qualities through very well-designed missions and gameplay features rather than lengthy cutscenes. Game like Metal Gear Solid or Indigo Prophecy, on the other hand, are very blatantly modeled on a traditional movie experience. The characters and plot are fleshed-out through a number of very well-done, choreographed cinematics that the player has little-to-no control over.

The second classification of games is the video game industry’s equivalent to Hollywood’s action, horror, or drama franchise films. These are the kinds of games that gamers are used to seeing yearly or biyearly iterations of without fail that provide a very well-defined experience that players are familiar with and typically have no expectations for major change so much as yearly enhancements and additional features added to the franchise mold. I consider series like Tomb Raider, Madden, Tony Hawk, Rainbow Six, and other long-running franchise titles. There is a definite overlap possibility between this category of games and the “cinematic games” classification, but I consider the gameplay franchise titles to be primarily delivering a very specific type of gameplay with little regard to maintaining any level of artistic prowess — not to mention that sequels come at a very fast rate for these kinds of games. A new iteration in a franchise like Madden doesn’t compare, for instance, to a new iteration in the Metal Gear Solid series (which only come once three to five years). This isn’t to say that these types of games are bad in any way, shape, or form; some of my favorite titles are certain iterations within these series… But there’s hardly much in the way of real innovation present in the subsequent titles in these types of franchises (though there are exceptions, such as Resident Evil 4).


Resident Evil 4 and Rainbow Six: Vegas.

The final type of artistic classification for video games is the unclassifiable. These are where the kinds of games which, in my mind, do their part to elevate the idea of video games as an art form. They are typically games that end up being critical darlings but rarely see any sort of commercial success (though there are exceptions to this pattern, they aren’t numerous). The most recent, and surprisingly popular, example of a game in this category is Bioshock. The game is spectacular in terms of its story, graphics, gameplay, and general production values, and is one of the best examples of a game being a work of art as I can think of. It also had a fairly large commercial appeal, selling upwards of 500,000 units in its first month of release between its PC and more popular 360 releases. Another recent game that comes to mind is Psychonauts, which delivered excellent gameplay combined with some of the most intelligently and humorously-written dialogue that I have ever seen in a game, and all of these features were complemented with a fantastic art direction which made every level in the game feel refreshing and unique to the point where no part of the game, except for maybe the asininely difficult final level of the game, feel like recycled content to extend the life of the title.

One of my favorite titles of all-time along with being a game which was very much ahead of its time in terms of atmosphere and maturity was Max Payne. This game, developed by Remedy Entertainment, is a noir crime game which puts the player in control of a New York detective by the name of Max Payne who, as it tends to happen for New York cops in the noir style, lost his family due to a seemingly mindless crime. The game’s story unfolds through a mix of in-mission bits of dialogue with characters but, far more awesomely, through a between-mission comic book style narrative with a very distinct art style (the game’s art style is a photorealistic one) and writing that was handled in a faithfully-noir, over-the-top style. It was the first game, to my memory, which I played that successfully managed a very serious, adult tone without seeming immature or gratuitous.

And then there is, of course, a title like Half-Life 2, which does more to elevate gaming to an art form as any other game I can think of. I was, for the most part, very staunchly against the continual awards that Half-Life2 garnered after its release; I didn’t feel the game was worthy of such a massive amount of acclaim. I thought that the game’s art was phenomenal, the characters deep and interesting, and the story was presented in a very subtle and thoughtful fashion as to never trouble the action-junkie with its details too much, but allowing the “more intelligent” gamer to take his time and explore the relatively deep mythos of the Half-Life universe… But the gameplay simply did not impress me. Yet, the more I think about the sequences in the game, and when I went back to play certain sections of the game for a second time, I realized that while a lot of the gameplay mechanics were gimmicky, Valve did a lot of very interesting things that proved to be the foundation for a lot of to-be-expected gameplay features for titles to be released in the future.


Half-Life 2.

I held off on putting this question in the early portions of this article for a reason, but now that there are several types of games that have been talked about, it seems that this is the time to pose the question: are video games an art form? Every game certainly contains a great deal of items which, on their own, could be considered art (concept art, CG cinematics, musical scores, dialogue scripts, and so on), but are games, taken on their whole, allowed to be considered art like Blue Velvet or Taxi Driver can be considered art?

The answer to the question is invariably based on what a collective people would agree “art” actually is. The problem with considering a video game as art, in my mind, is the pure variance of the experience. The best game imaginable can be designed for the most artistic, thought-provoking, and visually beautiful experience in the history of human existence, but since it is, in fact, a video game where the player is allowed control over the events, what’s to stop the player from just looking at a trash can throughout the duration of his play time?

I wouldn’t have answered this way two years ago, but now I am of the mind that video games can be considered art in the same way that movies can be considered art. Not every title is designed for an artistic experience in the same way that not all films are made for a mentally-enriching or thought-provoking reaction. And, so long as video games are thought of as they were designed to be thought of, not necessarily as what a player would like to make of them, then the experience can be just as intellectual as the most well-done movie — granted, the industry as a whole has a long way to go before its products are as mature a medium as film, but I think that we, as gamers, are privy to a point in time where the transition of a video game as an art form will be an increasingly more popular and mainstream idea.

The Nintendo DS

Jump to: Introduction :: Upon Release :: DS 2005 :: DS 2006 :: DS 2007+

A Dual-Screened Motivation
Earlier this week I had a discussion with my mother about the Nintendo DS when I noticed, in an ad paper, that the DS Lite was being sold for $150 (a price which I recently realized is nothing special). I made the mistake of mentioning that there was a Super Mario Bros. remake and Tetris DS released for the system. It took only a few nanoseconds to get the conversation to a point where my mother was trying to use her years of parenthood tactics in manipulation to try and get her maternal claws on the beautiful piece of two-screened hardware that I caresspet… often. Needless to say, some bargaining was in order. Since I was her first born, I wasn’t exactly willing to allow that normal allow that component to be entered in our verbal debate. Eventually, we decided that going halfsies seemed like an appropriate arrangement for the excessively poor college student to make with the Motherperson. Words of agreement were exchanged, unwritten contracts were signed, and an exchange of cashiemoneys occurred. The deal, for all intents and purposes, was finalized in nothing less than metaphorical blood.

I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of buying those kinds of items over the massive zeroes and ones that compose up our world-wide webernet. I’m a traditionalist like that. I like to go into the store filled with people who, on occasion, must have gotten lost and confused on their way to the Abercrombie and Fitch stores and ended up in a store with pretty colors and letters that eventually spelled out Gamestop. This is by no means a rant against the intelligence of game store employees so much as it is a complaint against their general demeanor — because they are, you know (mean). Anyway, I like to go into said store, wade through the customers, buy the game system and a game or two, and then work my home to open up the box in a cardboard opening frenzy. It’s a good feeling. Like the gamer equivalent of the New Car Smell.

So you can imagine my dismay upon the realization that the Nintendo DS (Lite) was apparently this season’s most sought-after electronic system. I’m not even kidding here. In my excursion through the mall and potential DS-selling stores in the outlying area, I saw systems of all shapes and sizes. I saw PSPs, I found Xbox 360s, and — hell — I even came upon a cache or two of Wiis and Playstation 3s. The only consistently sold-out system at every single one of the eight-nine stores that I wandered into was the DS Lite.

What the taff? When did Nintendo’s little system-that-could gain such a surge of popularity that it even outsells the brand spankin’ new fancy systems that only a month ago were selling for four-figures on the Internet Garage Sale? Two years ago, I was one of those very people who considered the DS to be a system whose only purpose in life was to be the brunt of incredibly lame jokes like “Hey, you see that DS? Wondered if it has two sets of batteries.” Yes, those jokes. Granted, I changed my opinion when I received, as a gift, the red DS bundled with Mario Kart; a game which, along with Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, nabbed two of the entries in my Top Games of 2005 list.

Huh.

In the Days of Yore (The DS Release Era)
The Nintendo DS was born at 9.7oz on November 21, 2004 in North America to the potential three-million plus expecting parents across NA and Japan who were eager to accept this very bizarre little handheld into their homes. Nintendo, apparently, did not expect such a high number and in response brought one of their DS-churning into operation just to produce more of the dual-screened little system. The purported wariness of gamers and industry analysts did not seem to have much of an impact when it came to launch day and the subsequent month leading into Christmas… But, still, the question is exactly how the system managed to be such a hit for Nintendo. There was, in my mind, only one strong launch title (Super Mario 64) and even that was little more than a remake of one of the Nintendo 64’s greatest titles. And, with few exceptions, there really weren’t a whole lot of games in the upcoming release list that warranted much attention.


The Nintendo DS.

For those not exactly in the know, the Nintendo DS is a dual-screened hand-held with the bottom of the two screens being touch-sensitive via included stylus, thumb strap, or finger — the latter not really being applicable to my gigantic flesh hammers, but supposedly people not burdened by size of hand can operate it in such a fashion (I, myself, rely on the stylus). Like the Gameboy SP, the DS has a rechargeable battery pack which provides a very reasonable amount of battery life in the range of six to ten hours. The DS two screens are powered by two CPU units within the system, one of which is the ARM7TDMI process that the Game Boy Advance used. The other, more powerful main processor, is the ARM946E-S. What this means, in simple speak, is that the DS has far more powerful hardware backbone than the Advance and, theoretically, can render a more impressive graphical display on one of the two screens (the choice of screen depends on whether the developer wishes for touch-screen interaction, really) while still maintaining a Gameboy Advance level of graphics on the other screen — though a balance has to be struck between them which seems to be the reason that most games keep one of the screens at a very minimal level of graphical complexity. One of the problems that I envisioned when I first saw the layout of the DS was the separation between the two screens (both of which have a resolution of 256×192 pixels) and that separation occurring across different planes of the system due to its folding design. For the most part, this is something which has yet to affect me even in the slightest, but this may be a result of my avoiding of a majority of the early games released for the platform.

One of the biggest selling points of Nintendo’s new system is that, for games which choose to support it, the system supports playing games via a wireless connection. Nintendo established an online service dubbed the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to facilitate this very purpose. Despite being a very highly-touted feature of the DS, the online system was not launched until November of 2005 with Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land and Mario Kart DS. I personally only played a handful of matches of Mario Kart via the system’s matchmaking functionality, but from what I saw it was a very well-designed and very functional way to handle wireless gaming on a platform. I, however, am not normally a fan of playing games online, much less games like Mario Kart DS where the online competition is… Tough. I’m a wimp like that.

2005: The Year the DS Found Its Legs
By the time 2005 rolled around, I felt fairly comfortable in maintaining my dismal prediction for the DS and its future as a liable gaming platform. The launch games seemed to be, for the most part, an average bunch of titles — and that’s never something to help sell a new system… But, then again, the DS didn’t need a whole lot of help selling units. It was the game library that needed the resuscitation.

And that’s exactly what it received.

Spread out over the course of the entire year, the DS had games released which, for the most part, could be considered “excellent” by just about any gamer with a pulse who would be willing to set aside their preconceptions of the platform and play some of the year’s titles. I could go through each game in mind-numbing detail, but that would turn this article into a four-part series the likes of which this site has seen enough of over recent months. So here are some of the truly amazing games that were released for the DS (With their average rankings according to Game Rankings:

Out of that list, I’ve personally played Mario Kart, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Trauma Center, and Nintendogs pretty extensively and I can say that these games have brought me some of the most supremely enjoyable moments I’ve ever had with a console, much less a portable one. As I said at one point or another, the DS version of Mario Kart is, as far as I’m concerned, the definitive version of the franchise — it even manages to surpass Super Mario Kart released for the Super Nintendo way back in 1992 — you know, before electricity. Castlevania was also the first entry in a franchise (which started way, way, way back in the gaming timeline) that I’ve enjoyed since my time-revered Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Nintendogs, also, proved to be a surprisingly title to me in the fact that I actually enjoyed it. Here’s a game that is, essentially, a glorified Tamogotchi which demanded more effort and public humiliation as a user/player/owner than its many-times-removed predecessor. You can only imagine the surprised look that was present on my face when I discovered that was required to talk into my DS in order to advance my dog past the training stage. Eventually I got tired of shouting into my DS (something about why the stupid dog couldn’t understand “sit” and the resulting crude mutterings which followed in a purely rhythmic sense), but I still enjoyed the components of the game which didn’t require me to talk into the system’s microphone to play. It took at least a week and a half or so, but when I got first-place at the final stage of the Frisbee-throwing championships with my black lab (Named “Black Jack” after Jack Black — my sister, present at the dog’s naming, is clever like that). It was a special moment. I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of tears at the award ceremony.

2006: A Portrait of the Handheld as a Young Console
With a brand new red-colored DS within my possession and my old, outdated ideas of what the system was like and what kind of early fate it would suffer so that it could join the before-their-time heaven with its great grandfather proven completely erroneous I began to take a far more active interest in the Nintendo DS and the kind of games it would be receiving throughout 2006. I’m not going to do the whole list thing this time around because, while it seemed like a good idea for the last section, I’d much prefer to elaborate on the select few games which I was lucky enough to play throughout 2006 in a kind of detail not entirely unlike a tepidly expanded summary.

One of the biggest pieces of news for the Nintendo DS in 2006 was the announcement and eventual release of a redesigned DS: the DS Lite. The shinier and fancier upgrade seems to address a lot of the most prominent issues that the public had with the original DS: it’s lighter, sleeker, has a screen with four brightness levels (all of which are brighter than the original DS), a redesigned stylus, redesigned D-pad, a more durable touch-screen, and so on. Overall, the goal of the redesign wasn’t to revolutionize the handheld (at least, not in the same way as the Gameboy SP did for the Gameboy Advance), but to make it a far more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing piece of hardware. One of the biggest drawbacks in regards to the redesign is that, since the unit is smaller on the whole, the Gameboy Advance cartridges now extend a centimeter outside the border of the system itself — Nintendo shipped a port cover to match the DS Lite hardware to maintain a smooth surface, but if a GBA game is plugged in, it’ll definitely… you know, protrude.


The Nintendo DS Lite.

I was finally able to acquire my very own DS Lite recently and, thus far, it has proven to be a very well-done upgrade to the original DS. In my opinion it is far more compact, more stylishly designed, and the screens seem to be of a slightly nicer make than the original’s had — the four brightness levels (of which I use the third) is a bit bizarre at first, but I’m quickly becoming a fan of it. My only real complaints about the DS2.0 is that the Game Boy Advance cartridges protrude to the point where it’s not advantageous to always have a GBA cart inserted into the slot like I did with the original model. The stylishness also comes at a price in that the unit’s coating (with the Onyx style, at least) shows finger prints and, presumably, scratches with greater clarity.

I’m a very bizarre sort of gamer in the sense that the games I rejoice in playing on a platform system are, typically, very unlike the kinds of games I play on every other console — this is especially true of PC games. The first of my post-Christmas DS acquisitions was Age of Empires: The Age of Kings — a turn-based strategy game unlike the real-time nature of the PC franchise from which it is spawned. I had heard surprisingly good reviews of this game from the Intarwebian plane and, given my interest in more relaxing, thoughtful, and tactical/RPG-ish sorts of games for handheld consoles, I figured this would be a good lead to follow up on. As is so often the case, my gaming instinct proved keen and on-target as per the usual. Age of Kings DS ended up landing somewhere in the top five games in its unique, and fairly specific, genre (Shining Force and, more recently, Final Fantasy Tactics being top-notch examples).


Age of Empires: Age of Kings.

It is a peculiar game, though. Most of the titles within the Shining Force vein of gameplay force the user into battle with a very fixed supply of units to fight with and some games, like the Fire Emblem franchise (a predominately Japanese series up until recently), are more fond of keeping units killed in any certain battle dead for realsies — once dead, always dead. Age of Kings, though, mixes some aspects of its PC counterpart and allows the player to not only train units in the midst of battle, but also to build structures which can act with a defensive purpose, train more soldiers, or harvest more resources. The inclusion of base-building in a genre title which I have been taught to rely on a fixed-army was surprising (at first), but something I grew quickly to love. And although this love turned quickly to annoyance upon learning that this method of calling in reinforcements tends to make individual battles go on (and on, and on), Age of Kings DS is still an enjoyable title.

A copy of Brain Age was given to me by a friend one day with his words being something akin to “Play this. You’ll enjoy it” and then he vanished before I had a chance to look a gift horse straight in the mouth. It took me a few days to work up the courage necessary to plug a game into my DS that had the intention of making me smart(er). When I did, though, I found a very well-rounded cartridge (erm, card?) that had a lot of little exercises along the lines of basic addiction/subtraction and multiplication/division, voice and color activities, memory, and so and so forth. I started getting bored with the daily activities after a month or two, but even then the game had more than enough built-in Sudoku puzzles (yes, I learned Sudoku through a DS game) to last me for the remaining months until I found the cash to upgrade my game library.


Brain Age.

The game that took the coveted first-place on my “Must Buy” list throughout 2006 until its release was the completely redone Final Fantasy III — which is, from what I understand, the only game in the Final Fantasy franchise to never have a legitimate release in the United States. I still have yet to make it all that far into the game, but from the few hours that I’ve played it the game appears to be a very enjoyable Final Fantasy game. It relies on a Job system much like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and the recently released Final Fantasy V Advance — a feature that I’ve always enjoyed in the games which possessed it. The title seems to be getting panned by some reviewers for the gameplay in terms of it preserving too much of its nostalgic roots (ie, too hard, too many random battles, etc.); this is, I suppose, a legitimate complaint for a lot of modern gamers… But, for a person who grew up playing the Final Fantasy games, it’s very enjoyable. One of the complaints that I do share with reviews is that FF3 makes such minimal use of the secondary DS screen that it’s almost a crime. This wouldn’t be such an annoying aspect of the game if the secondary had something — battle stats, random images, battle progression, or something — but for a lengthy amount of time throughout the game that second screen displays absolutely nothing. And that just seems like a glaring error on Square-Enix‘s part. FF3’s job system, while in place, also pales in comparison to the implementation in comparison to Final Fantasy V Advance, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance — it’s very limited in the options it presents for character building, and also fairly linear in its overall progression from job tier to job tier. Still, a completely redone version of an old-school Final Fantasy game is still a gift, no matter how it’s wrapped.


Final Fantasy III.

Had Square-Enix spoken with Nintendo I have absolute confidence that they could have pulled of a reinvention of an old classic just as superbly as Nintendo did with The New Super Mario Bros.. When I plugged this game into my DS for the first time, I was expecting a very meager port that would not do a whole lot for me; I was able to purchase the game new at a relatively low price and would have been happy with anything that wasn’t simply a straight port of the classic Mario that we all know and love. So, yeah, that expectation got… surpassed. This is the first Mario platform title that I’ve played since Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64 and, wow, what a game to jump back into the franchise with. The traditional 2D sprite-based graphics are done and gone, replaced with very colorful 3D polygonal models which run, jump, and bash through the old-school 2D gameplay. I don’t really need to go into the details about why this game is now a must-have for the Nintendo DS but, rest assured, the New Super Mario Bros. is now one of the must-have titles for Nintendo’s little handheld that could. It has got a whole lot of platforming goodness, minigames, and other extra content that more than warrants the price necessary to play.


The New Super Mario Bros..

And then there’s Metroid Prime: Hunters which is, for the most part, a sort of handheld miracle. From my limited playtime with this title I’ve seen a portable version of the Gamecube MP (and its sequel) which manages to keep the entirety of the Metroid Prime spirit alive in terms of its gameplay and its technical achievements. This is a very well-done adventure/FPS which I’m sure required numerous sacrifices by its developers to create such an accurate version of the franchise’s impressive 3D engine on a portable system which doesn’t even begin to approach the strength of the Gamecube. More so, the first-person controls were able to best my very pessimistic viewpoints as to their handlings. Once I lowered the input sensitivity I was able to run, jump, and shoot my way through the first area with a feeling of control over my actions that is only surpassed by a mouse/keyboard PC combination. Utilizing the stylus to aim the targeting reticule is an incredibly user-friendly and natural-feeling form of input that is complemented by an excellent use of the dual-screens in the game to compensate for what I at first would consider a heavy lack of controls (since one hand is occupied with handling the stylus) . As I said, I haven’t played enough of the game to really rant and rave about it to any true extreme, but my hour or two of playtime was enough to fill me with pleasant feelings and a happy disposition that the Gamecube Prime games failed to do — partially due to the fact that I always felt vaguely nauseous (motion sickness is a guess, but something that almost every other game I’ve played never inflicted) while trying to navigate through the title’s non-linear areas.


Metroid Prime: Hunters.

These are a group of games that I felt, especially, warranted extended coverage — Age of Kings DS may not be in the same league as the New Super Mario Bros. in terms of overall awesomeness, but it’s a commonly overlooked game that I feel, you know, shouldn’t be. These, of course, are not the only noteworthy titles to be released in 2006. Here are a list of some of the others that helped to make 2006 the year for the little handheld that could, as it were:

2007 (And Beyond!)
Using an entirely made-up stat: one of the games that is topping the DS wish-list for 2007 is The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Gamers were hoping that the DS Zelda game that they were craving since the system’s inception would be released during the 2006 Holiday season, but alas, no such luck. Phantom Hourglass looks to be a Zelda title in the fashion of A Link to the Past done with Wind Waker style cel-shaded graphics. Nintendo has yet to provide a release date on the title, but I think banking on a release sometime by the 2007 Holiday season is a safe bet. I hope. I really hope.

One of the biggest surprises for the Nintendo DS and its fan base, though, is Square-Enix’s revealing that the next title in the Dragon Quest franchise is going to be a DS game. Now, to really understand the impact of such a thing, it’s important to note that in Japan, the Dragon Quest series is an even more popular and well thought-of franchise than even Final Fantasy. The last game released in the series was Dragon Quest VIII — one of the best RPG games that the Playstation 2 has ever seen. So, the fact that Dragon Quest IX (Defenders of the Sky) will be released on a handheld system like the DS as opposed to a next-gen powerhouse like the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 is huge. A follow-up title to Final Fantasy XII will also be released for the DS; presumably, this title will be similar to the relationship between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 which were both released for the Playstation 2. And, last of the announced titles from Square-Enix, is the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles spinoff slated for the DS titled Fantasy Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates. I actually quite enjoyed the Crystal Chronicles for the Gamecube, but the addition of multiplayer to the DS version would probably shoot the game’s entertainment up by a long shot.

And, with that, I’m going to bring a closing to this article. As usual, when I began work on this whole thing I had meager intentions of writing a couple pages worth of my thoughts about the Nintendo DS, but it then grew self-aware, sprung from my hands, and spun out of control into the massive beast you see before you currently. Nintendo has, essentially, created a minor miracle with the DS — this is a system that didn’t exactly capture the masses with its slightly more bizarre concept (“Who would need two screens on a portable console?”) but was able to power through the naysayers like myself to produce an already impressive library of games which reach an average level of quality I can’t say many other systems have.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got me some Metroid Prime: Hunters to play.

A Glimpse into Modern Real-Time Strategy (Part 4)

Jump to: The Introduction :: Company of Heroes :: Supreme Commander :: The Conclusion

The Introduction (Or “Why Delays Are the New Thing“)
Let’s pretend that this article is getting published in a special part of a unique dimension somewhere in the vast reaches of time, space, and the Intarweb that wouldn’t place it nearly two months after the last installment of this — my four-part series dedicated solely to the fruitful kind of happyhappyjoyjoy feelings that the Real-Time Strategy genre can impart upon its gamers (and the other two parts: part one and part two). So, yeah, here’s the much-delayed fourth part of my babyseries. It’s not going to be as structurally deft and detailed as the last few parts, due to the simple fact that not a lot of new material can fit into the admittedly limited scope of a supposedly “conclusive” article… But the general gist of this bad boy is that I’m going to cover a couple of upcoming hot and sexy super-games and then, after these pair of titles, I’m just going to launch into a long personal tirade that will most likely just be scattered thoughts about what’s cool and hip and what’s uncool and… Unhip. That tirade is a kind of hybrid brainchild of rant and conclusion, so… Yeah. That’ll do it for the series.

Company of Heroes
When Relic released its first media and information about Company of Heroes I, like so many other gamers, sighed. It wasn’t just a sigh either. It was a sigh. A lengthy, exaggerated-for-effect, loud, and blatant sigh that shook the Earth by the power of some imaginary Braingod of mine. Yet another World War II title to add to the stack of games that all draw from the same eight-word pool of words that function as titles — “Company of Heroes,” “Medal of Honor,” “Brothers in Arms,” “Battlefield 1942,” “Soldiers: Heroes of World War II,” “Call of Duty,” etc.. Whoop-dee-fricking-doo. I’ve personally never had a problem with so many games drawing from the same era, but the fact is that most of these games all draw from the same perspective of the war: the Airborne infantry (as chronicled in Band of Brothers, D-Day, and other such famous battles. These are all truly aspects of the war well worth learning about and trivializing in modern games, but at some point there needs to be a line drawn in the sand that dictates when enough really is enough.

And upon the release of the game’s single-player demo (I wasn’t too enthralled with the multiplayer beta) I had every single preconceived idea about the game turned upside-down. I’m sure there have been moments in my gaming career where I’ve been so surprised by a game that it’d be absolutely impossible for another game to be more surprising, but off hand I’d say that Company of Heroes surprised me (a lot of build-up for such a mild ending statement, I know; “that’s what she sa–“nevermind). The second I started the tutorial missions and saw the gameplay in action first-hand (and not in a multiplayer match) I instantly knew that Relic had something special on their hands with the game. I couldn’t really place that feeling that was rising in my tummy while I made short work of the tutorial missions, but something about the game just felt good. I also played and loved the incredibly well-presented first mission (Operation Overlord!) in both its introductory cinematic and the very cool way in which the cinematic morphs into real-time graphics. I stopped playing the single-player demo after this, since I heard that the next mission in the demo was actually the fourth or fifth in the final game, and I like to preserve as much of the game as possible for the retail release.

Unfortunately, my drive to hold off on the game until the day of its release was absolutely crushed when Relic released a demo that had a skirmish mode coded into it. I jumped on that demo like a rabbit on to a carrot from Mr. McGregor’s garden. And it was good. Oh, was it good. As a rough estimate, I believe I played that single, two-versus-two skirmish demo map approximately… Thirty times. Give or take [Give] ten. The way that the game was able to harness the kind of fast-paced, chaotic atmosphere I’ve only seen equaled in the best-of-the-best World War II shooters on the PC (Call of Duty if you were wondering). I had matches against the computer that placed me within a mere fifty or so points, out of an original three-hundred, from being eliminated and mocked by the “Easy” difficulty (what a misnomer that is) but, after more than an hour of struggling from point-to-point, securing choke points throughout the confines of the small map, I was able to pull out in the end due entirely to smart, strategic allocation of units and defenses.


Company of Heroes.

At least one of the rounds, maybe two, of the game I played against the AI in the demo map lasted more than an hour and a half. That may not seem like much but it’s worth re-noting that this particular map isn’t really all that big. It’s, actually, just big enough for a two-versus-two game and not a whole lot more. The reason that these games tend to go on for so long is that Relic has these maps designed for combat along very specific locations on each map — usually directly corresponding to “Critical Locations” or, in the case of the demo map, one of three control points which help to reduce/stabilize point loss for the player and his opponent (first to zero loses). The most fiercely contested spots on any given game map tend to occur around these locations (resource points too, but these aren’t usually quite as intense), and Relic has done a masterful job in designing each map to support this sort of “bottleneck combat” that never allows any map to really be an easy victory for either the Axis or Allied team.

Company of Heroes’ map design would be all for nothing if it didn’t have the most frantic, visceral combat that I’ve ever played in a real-time strategy game before — a praise which I’ve given, and hereby retract, to Relic’s own Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Instead of relying on a large variety of units alongside a high population cap, the game allows every single unit on the battlefield to play a very important part while still putting an emphasis on a more “big picture” gameplay scheme. Similar to Dawn of War, Company of Heroes utilizes a squad-based infantry system that makes the player treat a squad as a single unit, while larger or more significant units such as tanks or snipers are treated on their own accord. I wasn’t a really big fan of this system when it was present in Dawn of War, despite slowing growing accustomed to it over time, but in Company of Heroes it works like I believe Relic always intended it to function — a byproduct of the game being far more militaristic in feeling than Dawn of War. And this organizational control scheme made me, as a player, made me take a step back after getting continually annihilated by opponents and take a second look at how I played the game. After a few trials, I learned how to adjust my control strategy: instead of grouping a logically-assigned mass of my units into a single hotkey and always moving and attacking the, say, three squads of infantry as “one,” I gave each of my units a kind of mental hotkey. I split my five or six infantry squads into two separate hotkeys — purely for reasons of their eventual distant location on the map, and that’s it. For actual orders, I tabbed through the squad control (as you can control them individually within the hotkey group) and manipulated each and every squad separately. I never gave my tanks or vehicles hotkeys, as I always had them around my infantry to provide moving support as the click of my cursor demanded it. The only additional units I ended up choosing to have hotkeyed were the distant support and artillery squads. As I near the end of the single-player campaign, I find myself playing Company of Heroes unlike I have any other RTS game before it. I spend more than two hours on each of the later missions, I carefully plot out which units I choose to fit in the limited population cap, and I generally carry on two or three separate methods for achieving the same objective in a mission. I order all my units around the map individually, and I ensure that all of my infantry have heavy cover that they can seek before ever assaulting an enemy position as I have a backup rifle squad providing suppressing fire as they advance group scurries to their position. Excessive? Surprisingly, no. Effective? Definitely.

Any game that can force me into writing a single paragraph detailing even the most minute aspects of my militaristic tactics in a heavily combat-oriented real-time strategy game in this day and age is, without question, a game doing something to some degree of perfection. And that’s exactly the case with Company of Heroes; the way the game handles combat is done so superbly that it, as I illustrated (or attempted to), manages to completely change the way that players approach and interact with a game that doesn’t really deviate all that much from the basic RTS formula — there’s still the traditional base-building, need for resources, unit purchasing, and some form of tech tree advancement… But the way that the units themselves interact with the environment and their enemies puts the game over-the-top of what would, otherwise, be considered a very well-polished, by-the-books strategy game.


Company of Heroes.

All of the previously listed aspects of Company of Heroes are, certainly, the most obvious and crucial changes that the game implements to shake the standard conventions of the genre… But the way it handles some of the more common features that have crept into RTSs over the last few years are also a key to the game’s success. And, by this, I’m referring primarily to the portions of Company of Heroes’ incredibly sexy aesthetics. Let’s face facts, people, the game has it going on in the conventional sense; it looks good, moves good, and has the kind of special effects that would even make Jerry Bruckheimer jot down a thing or two on his pyrotechnic notepad. The graphics are so good that the game is able to utilize the in-game engine to render cutscenes which are more detailed and life-like than most modern First-Person Shooters. And then there are them ‘thar fancy-pants fisiks which have the two-fold purpose of throwing debris here, there (and everywhere!) and, also, the completely destructive landscape has huge gameplay ramifications. I mean, I suppose the pretty flying chunks of metal and cement impact the gameplay too but… Yeah, they really don’t.

Anyway, the game’s pretty bells, whistles, and abundant explosions end up having quite a drastic effect on the gameplay, which to me was a surprise. Sure, the graphics, animations, and physics help to make the entire game far more believable and intensely visceral than it may have been if the units were all stick figures and the tanks were all My Little Ponies… But specific aspects of the game’s engine have a huge effect on how a heated battle can turn out; for instance, the game’s combat is based heavily around the idea of “cover.” An infantry unit is, essentially, screwed beyond words if he’s caught in the open field with a tank gunning him down — the unit is in, essentially, “negative cover” which ends up meaning that it is so exposed that it suffers a sort of sitting duck penalty in combat that usually ends in the unit getting absolutely annihilated by even the weakest of combatants. There are, of course, objects, tank traps, and sandbag mounds (the latter two can be built by the player) that can be used for varying degrees of cover to make early-match moments more even between the aggressors and defenders… But what’s interesting is that any large chunks blown into the landscape, blown-out buildings and tank shells, along with chunks of rock blown from some of the larger buildings and objects can be used as cover as they fall to the ground (and persist if large enough). So, for example, let’s say that you’re in the middle of a heated tank battle and one of the enemy Panzers is annihilated by an M4 Sherman. That was a nice little morale boost, but the rest of your armor is only moments away from annihilate from a big ‘ol Tiger tank. As soon as the enemy Panzer is destroyed, you can rush up some infantry troops, have them take cover around the hollowed-out tank shell, and then whip a sticky grenade or two onto the Tiger tank, have the infantry run for cover, and severely cripple (or completely destroy) the tank for your Sherman to finish off seconds later.

This dynamic battlefield restructuring works both ways, though; not only are chunks of objects or tanks usable for cover, but it should only follow that buildings (which can be dynamically inhabited by soldiers which will search for the best windows to attack from) can also be used for cover. And they can. The only problem with the whole idea is that Company of Heroes is a big proponent of its dynamic battlefield feature. At point in a game, I had an M4 Sherman equipped with something called a Calliope Rocket Launcher; I had it in my base in front of a building filled with two machine gun units inside of it to watch over the seemingly endless supply of charging Nazi infantry squads. I had never used this M4 Calliope, so I figured that, like the Howitzer emplacement, that the rockets would just be launched straight up into the air (ie, show the animation of them flying into the air, then wait a few seconds, and have the animation of them landing at the destination). Well, I was wrong. The game actually performs the legitimate rocket trajectory and I fired those Calliope rockets straight into the building housing my machine gun emplacements — at least one of which was annihilated by the third or fourth (of about ten-twelve) rockets. The interesting thing about this, though, is that one of the rockets eventually broke through the building on both sides and the subsequent four or so rockets flew through the brand new holes in the building and managed to fly unobstructed right to the target that I specified. If that’s not awesome, then I… Well, I don’t care. It’s awesome.


Company of Heroes.

All things considered, Company of Heroes is easily the greatest RTS to be released in the last three-four years. For the most part, players are able to approach the game much like any other genre title without too much confusion about a majority of the game mechanics. That said, the game’s ability to completely redefine common expectations of “cinematic combat” in a strategy game without sacrificing the playability of the experience whatsoever is… Impressive (to say the least). Add an amazing campaign to that package and you have yourself a definite winner for RTS of the Year — and, at least, a contender for overall game of the year. I haven’t really been able to get into an RTS’ multiplayer component outside of Warcraft III‘s, but from the limited amount of time I devoted to trying out some co-op against the Company of Heroes AI with some friends, it doesn’t seem like too bad a system (but, it’s hard to beat Blizzard’s RTS multiplayer).

But, yeah, great game.

Supreme Commander
Supreme Commander is, without question, the most eagerly anticipated real-time strategy title to hit the genre in recent history. I realize that is a pretty big blanket statement to make, but having played the game after months upon months of hype, I can safely say that it’s one I feel confident in making. The game bears a striking resemblance to Chris Taylor’s last RTS, Total Annihilation, to the point where it’s clear that, title aside, this is the sequel that the game never had. There are a lot of blatant similarities between the games that lead me to this ever-so-ingenious conclusion, but these are the kinds that can be found in any preview of the game. One of the things I’m really anxious to discuss about Supreme Commander is the game’s sense of scale, which is a two-fold discussion: first is the scale as it affects gameplay, and then there’s the scale of user interaction.

The sense of the scale of battle in Supreme Commander is something that I picked up on within of just configuring my first match in the game — a multiplayer match where I was lucky enough to get an opponent who recognized me from Shacknews that was able to guide me through the early parts of a game which is, at first glance, incredibly daunting. When I was selecting a map for this first match, I was looking through options that had map size listed in terms of kilometers. At first, I thought this was some sort of cheap game design doublespeak to merely trick me into thinking that the game was huge. Yeah. I was wrong. Loading up the first match to reveal just how ridiculously tiny my own Supreme Commander (a behemoth, powerhouse of a unit until you hit the third technology tier) was in terms of the entire map was sobering, to say the very least. A few minutes later into the match after I had managed to finally get some unit production centers up, I realized the next important difference from every other RTS on the market right now: you aren’t going to be establishing a few hotkeys for all the units under your control. You’re going to construct squads of air patrols, land patrols, artillery squads, air bombers, land combatants, hit-and-run squads, infantry to fill up air transports to enact precision damage in the depths of an enemy base, a Supreme Commander unit to walk into an enemy base to self-destruct in a “last resort” game-ending act of nuclear detonation… Well, I could keep going, but I’ll hold back just to say that there are a whole lot of possible combinations for military and tactical action that can be taken by a player at any given point in a match.


Supreme Commander.

Remember that time way back in the day when I gave a bit of a tirade about the differences between what makes an RTS game tactical versus what makes it strategic? Well, to the best of my very limited ability to comprehend human thought and interpret the results, it seems that Supreme Commander handles these two gameplay variations incredibly well for a game that doesn’t divide up the gameplay (a la the Total War franchise). There is still the necessity of building and assembling a base of operations, along with the resource management, that is becoming more and more typical of the genre with every game — which isn’t a shot at the convention, as I enjoy the practice, but it’s always worth noting — but it’s how the game handles the differences between base-management, economy, and military that strikes me as fascinating. Once the very basic resource harvesting is established, the game becomes about trying to gather the two sources (mass and power) faster while continually increasing your max storage capacity for the resources. The problem, then, is maintaining these resource rates while you build more defenses, more factories, and attempt to reach that next tier of technological advancement. This all occurs, of course, while your unit factories should be pumping out unit after unit through a queue entirely of your own choosing at all times.

It’s in the way that the game handles the military aspect (well, you know, the aspect) that it becomes a title worth taking more than a few moments of consideration. Supreme Commander isn’t a Real-Time Strategy game in the conventional sense. It’s a Real-Time War game. As I said in a comment under one of the previous articles, Chris Taylor is quoted as saying that “Strategy is what you do before a battle, and tactics is what you do during it.” This seems to be the best way to describe the kind of gameplay found in Taylor’s game. All of the player-controlled activities are certainly handled within the scope of a skirmish — which is to say that there’s no pre-battle prep work to be done — but the game is so large in scope and, hell, general size that a match inherently discourages traditional RTS tactics of striking at an enemy’s resources and workers as quick and fast as humanly possible. The presence of a hulking Supreme Commander unit to annihilate the small units also helps to deter from this practice (one which I’ve always held a certain level of contempt for). So, instead of fearing for your metaphysical life in the early moments of a match, your focus is switched to getting out some squads of various types of military units to begin precision assaults on enemy structures as soon as you can move the however-many-kilometers it takes to get to their position.

Supreme Commander isn’t a game about numbers and massive assaults on enemy positions. The reason you’ll want to be continually producing units is due to the fact that, for me, my best-played games were ones where I continually produced and refilled squads of units that I, just as often, sent on specific self-defined “missions” to slowly whittle down my opponent over time. I had a couple groups of bombers whose sole goal in their measly, mechanical lives was to fly through anti-air shell-riddled skies in an constant effort to disrupt the enemy’s mass harvesting. I had a few groups of fighters who did nothing but patrol the borders of my brilliantly-designed base of operations. I had about four or five pieces of artillery that I guarded with a series of tanks and infantry units at all times in case they were spotted by the enemy. And over the course of this battle, which lasted almost three hours, I continually annihilated my opponents’ attempts (most of the people I played, anyway) to rush at me with vastly superior numbers of a seemingly randomly-assorted ragtag force due solely to building smart lines of defense from the obvious land-based entry points. As a point of interest, I lost one of my most well-played games purely due to the fact that I accidentally bombed my Supreme Commander unit in battle and it just so happened that this has the ever-so-dire effect of creating a massive nuclear explosion which, if it occurs in a certain spot, pretty much ends any chance of winning the game (especially if you’re playing the game mode that requires the unit to, you know, be alive). This is the kind of massive scale of war we’re talking with in regards to Supreme Commander; games are almost certain to be long, potentially arduous endeavors of sortie after sortie, aggressive push after push, nuclear armament after nuclear armament, and so on (if certain settings are in place)… But that’s the kind of game I think this genre is in such dire need of at this particular junction in time — a topic I’ll rant about, in length, in the next section of this article.


Supreme Commander.

Another huge feature that the title is bringing to the genre is the manner in which it displays the game information to the gamer. Some people may refer to this as the game’s “user interface” and the metric by which a game’s user interface is measured is its “user-friendliness.” I’ve played games that have had absolutely funtastic interfaces, yet were incredibly unfriendly for the user (Star Wars Galaxies comes to mind), and vice versa (the Total War games get a nomination from me in this category; I think they function very well overall, but they look so incredibly poorly done). At first glance — see some of the non-PR screenshots scattered throughout if need be (like this one) — the game’s user-interface, on a purely visual level, is pretty standard fare for a modern genre entry. There are pop-up statistic/option buttons, building and upgrade options, and unit command features lining the bottom bar of the screen. Construction units line the right sidebar for easy-access, and resource generation rate and capacity (along with various other buttons) line the slim top bar. None of these, at first glance, seem too spectacular; they look great, and they function exactly as they should. Oh, and there’s a minimap in the lower-left corner of the screen…

And it’s that minimap where the first example of the pure and utter genius of Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games comes into play: that map is completely customizable in its viewpoint. If you want to check out a quick location on the map while you’re in the middle of a heated battle, but don’t want to switch your attention, you just take the pointer, hover over where you want to zoom in to, and run the middle-mouse button up until you get to an acceptable level. I was floored when I realized I could do this. I didn’t see much of a practical use for it, but the option was nice. The time that this feature for abnormally detailed zoom really begins to come in handy is in the main screen. Whenever I start up my first match of a game (any RTS game, anyway), I always like to test out the zoom levels by first starting out with the closest and then heading in reverse to test the camera ceiling. I didn’t go into Supreme Commander blind, so I had an idea of what kind of game I was expecting, but seeing the game zoom incredibly smoothly out to… Well, this. There aren’t just four or five pre-defined “zoom steps” that the camera takes (Rise of Nations being an example of very blatant camera zoom steps), it just smoothly transitions from the closest view to a very large, iconic view of the entire map and its contents. You can order units around this way, coordinate patrols, check on the discoveries of radars, and so on and so forth — a process made incredibly simple due to the game’s genius queuing (and management of said queues) system.


Supreme Commander.

I could continue about how the interface is completely customizable through scripting, or the dual-monitor support the game offers, or even the multiple-viewpoint option for a single monitor, or how the game in its beta stage offers some of the greatest RTS gameplay that I’ve seen in the genre for some time. The way the game handles all of the traditional strategy game components is done in such a new, fresh way — even from the viewpoint of a Total Annihilation fan — definitely seems like it’s going to do a whole lot for the genre as a whole. If nothing else, though, the massive scale of the game’s militaristic aspects is enough to make any PC strategy gamer happy for a long while whenever the game hits retail. I, personally, enjoyed the game’s multiplayer beta to such an extent that, after playing a lot for about four to five days, I uninstalled it from my computer so that, come its final release, I could enjoy the game in its purest, most fully-featured form.

Though I realize abstaining from playing the game when I could be doesn’t seem like as much of a praise as I’d like it to.

The Conclusion. For Real.
When I started this series out, it was intended to be nothing more than a two-part series inspired by an RTS article done by PC Gamer in August or September; I was going to cover very specific features that have crept into RTS titles over the last five-six years, and then take a look at specific games which had a big impact on the genre. This was, at most, intended to be a week-long project. I quickly got absorbed in a world of my research of the history of the genre (which was intended to be nothing more than a page or two of text) and, a day of work later, I wound up with an eight-page article that did nothing other than analyze games released from 1983 to 1995 and a brief expositional segment about my motivations for writing the series. At that point, the series was just going to be three articles long… And then I played Company of Heroes. As soon as I played the demo for the game, I knew that I was going to have to devote an article solely to upcoming hits that I was sure would do nothing less than revolutionize the genre in its current state — this is a dream that was severely downgraded when I realized that, of the games I’m currently aware of, only two upcoming titles (as Company of Heroes wasn’t released at that time) really had that ginormous potential. There are, of course, other games coming out in 2007 that have the potential to be big such as Command and Conquer 3 and War Front: Turning Point… But, while I’m looking forward to both of these titles as a gamer, as a supremely talented industry analyst (insert chortle here) I’m of the mindset that they’re going to do little else than be fun preservations of genre norms.

The fact that Real-Time Strategy games haven’t really changed a whole hell of a lot is a tough point to really contest. Developers have done a lot with the genre (I mean, try playing Dune II right after a years upon years of games like Dawn of War, Warcraft III, and Company of Heroes), but the most successful features that make it into the games are usually the least revolutionary ones. Warcraft III’s use of heroes has been adopted by so many other games in the time since its release that gamers rarely need to adapt a whole lot to the concept — they’re larger-than-life units that, if utilized correctly, can hold an entire game on their shoulders. And, yet, in the grand scheme of the RTS this feature is really not a major change; the fundamental mechanics of the games are still relatively the same as they’ve always been. A player starts out with a main base, meager resources, and builder units. Resources are then gathered in the doldrums of the match as players build their first units, make necessary changes based on their strategy of choice for that particular match, then the game escalates into the “meat” of the match, and it continues back-and-forth within that meat until someone wins. It’s all a very tried-and-true formula that, while antiquated in some gamer’s minds, is essentially what an RTS is. I, personally, never really grew all that attached to fixed-unit strategy games, nor the Total War franchise due to the fact that I’ve always enjoyed the more action-oriented nature of games like Warcraft, Command and Conquer, and Age of Empires. When a new strategy title is released that tries to break completely free of the generic constraints (I think Perimeter is a great, recent example) it’s a fun little diversion from the standard for a week or two, but for real RTS entertainment I always end up resorting to the more conventional genre entries. To me (and I’d like to emphasize the personal aspect of the following statement), “Real-Time Strategy” doesn’t just mean that I’m playing a game centered around strategy in a real-time environment, but rather that I’m playing a game that sticks to a formulaic style of gameplay. What a game does within these conventions is a huge, huge part of the whole deal, but on a basic level, it’s about conforming to the expectations I hold for an RTS game.

The idea of fragmentation within a kind of genre namespace is by no means relegated solely to Real-Time Strategy. The First-Person Shooter genre is filled with so many sub-genres that it’s almost mind-boggling; there are action-oriented FPSs (F.E.A.R., Quake, Unreal), multiplayer FPSs (Battlefield, Counter-Strike), tactical FPSs (Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon), simulation FPSs (Operation Flashpoint, Armed Assault), RPG/FPSs (Dark Messiah, Deus Ex), and so on into eternity. The longer a genre is around, the more the experience of each individual game is going to be confined to a specific “play style.” I’m sure there’s always the possibility that any one of these days we’re going to see a turn-based, 4X First-Person Shooter where you play as a marine stranded in space who is also inflicted with Midgetry (it’s a space disease) that can only be cured by using a stylus on a touchpad in the upper-right corner of your computer LCD while moving your feet on a dance pad to control your ship’s lasers as you fight off the Flood in a battle for the safety of a dainty princess.

I’m not entirely sure where I was going with this, but I know where I meant to go. Every now and again I hear people talking about how PC games (well, games in general) really will never have the same innovative qualities as they did back in the garage-development days. More to the point, I hear people say how every RTS is really just Command and Conquer or Starcraft with different graphics and, on the most basic level, this is probably true. That said, I spent at least nine pages in this article alone extensively detailing just how ridiculously fresh and cool two new RTSs (Supreme Commander only being out in a very rough beta form, of course) are even amidst the sea of absolutely amazing strategy games released every year. Sure, there are a lot of titles that will scream “Carbon Copy!” in the sense that, while playing it, you’re overcome with some bizarre feeling of déjà vu that you’ve played this game before when “it was called .” That’s going to happen; the biggest the game industry gets, the more developers and publishers (especially publishers) will tend to keep their cards close to their chest without sticking their neck too far out over the table. Rest assured, though, that there are always going to be developers like Gas Powered Games, Relic, Blizzard, Big Huge Games, and Westwood Studios that will be around to slap the publishers in the face with a game that goes that extra mile in terms of renovation of the genre and ends up with a massively money-making RTS (see what I did there?) that will inspire years of change for games to follow. The RTS genre isn’t the quickest to evolve, but the innovations do eventually come, and when they come they’re a joy to behold and play.

… Yup. I think that was the kind of grand, overarching, optimistic concluding paragraph that this series should end with.

Update: One of the reasons this part was so far delayed from the other three is that I wanted to get some developer feedback. Eventually, though, I just got impatient and went to press with the article without the extra material. Well, post-publishing, Chris Taylor answered some of my questions about Supreme Commander, and although I’m entirely too lazy to go through the segment and re-write everything with the intent of smoothly integrating his answers into the text (which was the original goal) I’m not going to let these answers go to waste! The small interview can be found in the comments section of this article.