Posts Tagged "real-time strategy"

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2

Over the last few years, Relic has been crafting and evolving their very unique take on the real-time strategy genre with every new title they have released. Their shift in focus from a game like Homeworld to their, now, action/RTS genre blend was most apparent in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (2004). Dawn of War introduced the concept of cover as an actual game mechanic that players had to think about and plan a strategy around. The game also provided players with a lower unit count than most other strategy games released at the time while also treating infantry units as somewhat customizable squads rather than individual units. Dawn of War also was the first of Relic’s games that really attempted to differentiate itself from the conventions of the real-time strategy genre at the time by reducing the gameplay emphasis on resource management.

Unlike games like Warcraft, Starcraft, and Age of Empires, Dawn of War treated one of its two resources as a capturable commodity. The map designers placed several important requisition points at key locations around a game map and these capturable points were the only means of harvesting requisition. Once a resource point is captured the flow of a given resource was dependent on nothing else but time (and maybe an upgraded listening post on the capture point). There were no workers to manage and not supply flow to contend with, simply a group of “hot points” that littered a game map. There were, however, constructable power nodes that players had to build in order to acquire power — a design mechanic that felt out of place in the scheme of the game. Relic’s next game, Company of Heroes, took this design methodology one step further and made the source of all resources a capturable point on the game map that had to be claimed and then, in some cases, enhanced through the construction of a building atop the point.

Dawn of War 2 makes resource “gathering” such an integral portion of the game that, moreso than Company of Heroes, multiplayer matches are a constant struggle for each team to keep both its resources points and the capture points which govern the fate of each teams’ “ticket” — whoever has the least number of these capture points will see a slow reduction in their team’s ticket count and the first team to reach zero loses. It’s a geographical tug-of-war where players shift from one thoughtfully-placed point of interest to another. This is, no doubt, a game mode that any player of multiplayer first-person shooter games over recent years is familiar with; in particular, the primary game mode of the entire Battlefield series. What Relic has essentially done for the multiplayer portions of Dawn of War 2 — even more so than they did with Company of Heroes — is to bring the intensity of a good match of Battlefield to the real-time strategy genre; a game I experienced last night actually had my two allies and I come back to win a match after being beaten from 400-some points down to four points.

Resource management aside, Company of Heroes’ general gameplay progression still owed a lot to the typical real-time strategy formula. The base-building was minimal, but the construction of defense structures and some key base structures was still a strong aspect of the game. The multiplayer gameplay in Dawn of War 2 (the multiplayer is completely different from the single-player) gives the player a starting base which consists of a headquarters and a single defense turret. Throughout the a match a player can take his headquarters from level one to level two, then level two to level three. That’s the extent of the base-building.

I was skeptical about the radical shift in game design from Dawn of War to Dawn of War 2 but, after a handful of games, it was absolutely the right choice for the franchise.

Everything about Dawn of War 2 revolves around a player’s ability to choose a handful (or so) of unit types/squads and closely manage them to fit a player’s specific strategy and the best strategy given the layout of the map terrain at any given time. In the beginning of a match, properly-chosen infantry will dominate all battles. The map’s structures and defenses will be in-place for various squads to find cover behind, there are points all over the map which are unoccupied and begging to be captured, and there are no enormous vehicles or mega-units that infantry will eventually cower in fear at the sight of. The beginning of a game of Dawn of War 2 is a very unique, short-lived section of the game where infantry rule the terrain. Which players can properly set-up their emplaced units (heavy bolters, plasma squads, etc.) to watch over the light ranged units (scouts, light infantry) as both ranged squads work to suppress enemies so melee units can move in for the kill will find great success here.

Once each player’s hero unit starts gaining some levels and purchasing upgrades and the vehicles and mega-units start popping up as a part of each player’s employed units the composition of a Dawn of War 2 match changes. The vehicles and mega-units can topple over even the best of the cover that infantry were previously using to great effect. Now the game becomes a war of attrition as each team works to build the perfect combination of infantry, vehicles, and mega-units as each side works to either defend their currently-held resources and capture points or go on the offensive to take new points from their enemies.

It’s the effectiveness of the back-and-forth of point capturing and defending that works so well in Dawn of War 2. In Company of Heroes this gameplay was great for its time but the maps required players to treat the map geography territorially; this design focus forces players into a “hunker down and defend” playing ideology which didn’t seem terribly convenient for the kind of gameplay the point-based Company of Heroes modes encouraged. Dawn of War 2 gives players maps which place important the primary three capture points in very difficult-to-defend areas. This simple change in design of multiplayer maps ends up creating an entirely new game flow. Players simply cannot go entirely on the defensive in Dawn of War 2, the maps either don’t allow it or the structures which segregate various components of the map can end up being broken by a number of mid-to-late game units.

One of my favorite features of Dawn of War 2 crops up often during the mid-game portions of a multiplayer match: the ability for players to take certain infantry squads and set them up to be makeshift defensive emplacements. In a recent game I expended a great deal of time and resoruces to take back a crucial capture point that my team needed to recapture in order to come back from almost certain defeat. Once I managed to get this point back I built a squad of heavy infantry who wielded a gigantic plasma weapon that, essentially, ruined squads of infantry and did significant damage to vehicles and hero units. I sent this unit to guard the capture point I just took back from the opposing team while the majority of my army went off to help my teammates; I set the plasma squad up behind the only remaining segment of full cover in the area and for the next five minutes of the match this squad annihilated any unit that approached the area. Once the opposing team was wise to my plasma gunner they sent in a large army to take back the area, at which point my army returned and side-swiped them.

The dichotomy that exists between melee and ranged combat in Dawn of War 2 feels like the most problematic area of the game. At times it feels like the effectiveness of melee units is “random” — it’s almost assuredly governed by a very complex set of armor/weapon mechanics but these don’t seem to be made obvious or easy-to-understand for players. Sometimes a melee unit or commander can walk right up to a ranged enemies and thrash them in less than a second. Sometimes a melee unit will get suppresses by melee fire and end up being slaughtered by enemies as the melee unit attempts to make its way to its ranged assailants or retreat from battle entirely. I imagine that these mechanics will make themselves more known to me as I play through more and more multiplayer matches but, as of now, it seems poorly explained.

The interactions between some of the vehicles and mega-units seems to be even more perplexing. Some infantry units fare very well against the enormous walker units and some squads of infantry get ripped up by the same walker units in quickly and violently. I had similar problems with the original Dawn of War, though, so these should be things that players can just pick up through time and experimentation with the different races.

Dawn of War 2 isn’t a typical real-time strategy game; in fact, I am even hesitant to call it a real-time strategy game in the classical sense. There’s no base-building and no resource gathering in the way that Warcraft and Age of Empires have conditioned RTS gamers to expect. Dawn of War 2 is, by far, the best incarnation of the Action/RTS hybrid genre that I’ve played to-date and all I have been playing are three maps from the freely-available beta. My cautious anticipation for the full game has become a pervasive level of excitement.

Mechanics 1: Randomness in Strategy

A real-time strategy game is, by definition, a game where players are forced to make strategic and tactical decisions in real time. As the game industry grows, the real-time strategy genre has narrowed its focus to a very specific type of game that does little to force players to consider an over-arching strategy as comprised by numerous tactics. Instead of allowing a player’s large- and small-scale decisions to adapt and change as events in a given skirmish unfold, RTSs just make players think of resource usage (I have X, I need Y, and I get Z/minute) and basic army composition. Everything else in the span of a game flows from these two mechanics into what is, typically, one large battle near the end of a game. Relic’s Company of Heroes changes this design and, as a result, makes its real-time strategy gameplay into a more dynamic and far less predictable experience that forces a player to make harder decisions more frequently.

It’s a commonly-held tenet in real-time strategy games that when an enemy unit is right-clicked upon that death befalls it after it takes a certain amount of damage from units that deal a specific amount of damage every few seconds. Blizzard’s Starcraft is practically built around a very definitive combat model that follows a rock-paper-scissors methodology with very consistent unit performance results. The micromanagement that occurs within battles in Starcraft has nothing to do with centering an army around a well-covered/fortified position or ensuring that when your Dragoon attacks that his bullets will hit the right part of the enemy siege tank; instead, cover is just determining if a Protoss melee unit is in range of a bunker filled Space Marines and any hit a Dragoon lands on a Space Tank will do the same amount of damage whether it hits the armor-heavy front or the weakly-covered rear.

The design team at Relic took a far different approach to the combat in Company of Heroes than any of Blizzard’s efforts. Every part of the game map has a cover value attached to it that, when right-clicked upon, will serve as a hint to a squad of units as to how they should interact with their environment (ie, crouching behind a wall of sandbags or ducking under the lip of a crater). Under this design, two squads of riflemen with the exact same stats can face off and reach a dramatically different outcome depending on their cover situation. As an example, Squad A may be crouching behind two layers of sandbags (heavy cover) while Squad B attempts to take their position from an unfortified open road (no cover or, worse, negative cover). Since the only difference in this sort of encounter is each squad’s probability of landing a successful shot (modified by their cover) on an enemy it is, theoretically, possible for each squad to kill each other at the same time. In practice, it may take Squad B three-to-four times as long to eliminate Squad A was it would for Squad A to wipe out Squad B.

The design becomes more complicated when tanks and troops wielding bazookas, panzerfausts, and panzerschrecks join the fray inhabited by the rifle squads above. Unlike rifle bullets, large projectiles in Company of Heroes are a very prescient danger that visibly travel across the screen and violently collide with in-game entities and structures. If a rocket launcher is fired and hits tangentially to a tank’s front or side armor it will take minimal damage (or, in some cases, deflect off and hit a nearby structure). If that same rocket hits the lightly-armored rear, though, the take can sustain heavy damage along with a busted engine or armaments. And if that same rocket, or tank shell, hits the layer of sandbags that Squad A was hiding behind in the above example then a player can say goodbye to half of the squad along with the sandbags that were covering them.

While designing the game, Relic must have known the endless amount of abuse that these rockets could wreck upon map structure and players alike because they added a very heavy degree of variation in how a rocket could be launched or tank could fire. The developers of Company of Heroes completely violated the unspoken tenet of real-time strategy and, as such, when a player chooses to attack a target using his Tiger tank there is a chance that a rocket may completely miss a target and hit another enemy, fly harmlessly into the distance, or deflect off of a stray tank trap into a player-controlled building. A player can position his Tiger in such a way as to make a direct attack far more likely but there is, in essence, never a guaranteed strike from a rocket or tank.

The change from a fairly predictable combat design to a very visceral, dynamic battle engine is one that Relic handled to great effect but does such a degree of randomness in combat scenarios do anything to cheapen the “strategy” involved in the game? A fervent Starcraft or Command & Conquer player would be quick to point out that the lack of consistency from game to game would prevent a game like Company of Heroes from ever being considered for competitive play at a pro gamer level. That is a definite possibility, of course, but more realistically what Company of Heroes does is to provide a far more strategic gameplay experience as a result of the surprises that occur in the middle of the game. The game design provides the mechanisms by which a player with a less grandiose army can, by utilizing both cover and more intelligent rocket infantry positions, overcome a larger set of forces. And when such an upset can occur in the middle of a game that encourages tactics across numerous encounters it offers the chance for another reversal of fortunes later on. And that is the kind of strategy that can adapt and change over the course of a game which allows randomness in its design.

Mechanics 0: Thinking About Games

There are, as of my last counting, approximately a gazillion journalistic locales which offer game reviews on the internet or in print. There are not, to my knowledge, any columns which analyze a game mechanic within the context in which it appears along with detailing what is actually fun about the mechanic, and how it could be improved or exploited in the future. This particular edition of Mechanics will do none of that.

Majoring in English in college meant two things: I read a lot and I talked about what I read a lot. There is nothing more self-indulgent and pompous than a bunch of people sitting around a classroom talking about books in the setting of higher education. College students and, more to the point, English majors come up with some of the most absurd talking points based on their interpretations of a given text that it all becomes laughable at some points. I’m talking discussion matter along the lines of absurdity if I was to say that Clifford the Big Red Dog‘s existence merely served as a metaphor for the presence of communist Russia in the global sociopolitical scene and all of the people he comes in contact with in Norman Bridwell’s line of children books are all analogous to various world political figures throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Of course such a theory is absolutely ridiculous, but when intellectuals are asked to find a deeper meaning in a classical text there are instances of such crackpot theories.

There are, however, very legitimate techniques from literary criticism (and new criticism, more specifically) that can be brought over to the gaming industry in a very loose sense. Something like intentional fallacy can be interpreted as the experience a player of a video game takes from his time with a given title that is competely separated from any intended experience on the behalf of the game developer. The concept of a close reading is a far more applicable one as far as this column is concerned: the analysis of a very specific aspect of a game that can be used as a means to enhance a gamer’s or game designer’s understanding of a game as a whole.

This all sounds pompous on paper and may actually be more pompous in practice but the next edition of this column will be a test in analyzing a game mechanic from a game that is popular now, popular eight years ago, or never popular. I won’t be going heavy-handed down the aisle with any more literary criticism stuff in the future (unless, strangely, that kind of thing is desired) so much as I’ll be talking about how a game like Braid uses time manipulation to make gamers alter their perception of what initially appeared like a very simplistic, beautiful 2D world. Or, maybe, how the cover mechanics that first-person shooter gamers have been subconsciously applying for decades works in Company of Heroes and how that will alter the future of the real-time strategy genre. More importantly, though, why are these two example designs fun? Is it because Braid makes the people who play it feel smarter? Is it because the cover mechanic offers more for an already-overwhelmed RTS player to manage?

The real goal of this column, though, is to make game developers and gamers try to think more critically about the games they play beyond the “Well, it’s a seven-point-five out of ten” or “Damn, did you see that guy’s leg fly past me?” reactions. Also, I’ll be holding myself to a word count (!). Pinky swear.

Spore Impressions

After ending my very first Spore gaming session a few hours after I startedmany hours after I started I sat back and thought about what I just played. Spore isn’t an easy game to classify so much as it is five different games to classify all wrapped in an incredibly polished, coherent content creation sandbox. At numerous moments in my session that took me from the very beginning of a new species up through the beginning of the fifth and final Space Stage I sat back and realized that I’m the only gamer in the world who will have taken a blue race that resembles land-sharks called the Asplodians through each stage of the game but, when I was done, I won’t be the only gamer who has had the divine pleasure of seeing my little blue carnivores in a game world due to Maxis’ endlessly intelligent and well-assembled online distribution of player-created content. If anyone wants to play with my beautiful little blue babies, add “mittense” to your Spore buddy list.

First, to anyone who has yet to play, I’d recommend doing what I did and getting as many friends’ spore buddy names as possible before starting and then, optionally, disabling content from anyone outside your list. It’s far more enjoyable for me to see a creature in the wild, click it, and see the name of a friend or coworker and silently judge that person based on their creation than it is for me to see a giant walking pair of tits from El337nubPWN3r. And there were a great many times where I was faced with skyscaper-tall “epic” instances of my friends’ creations that picked up my baby blue dinosaur-shark hybrid, gnawed on him a bit, and then threw him into the ground and killed him — such an instance has probably tainted my friendship with that person irrevocably.

The first stage, where you’re a tiny little wormthing with chompers swimming about in a primordial ooze, is a surprisingly enjoyable fifteen-to-twenty minute game of lion-and-cat-and-mouse where the lions and mice get bigger with your player-controlled origin of an eventual species. It is during this period that a player can get accustomed to a simplified version of the Creature Creator that will power the stage following this introduction to the game. Going into Spore I assumed this stage would be the game’s weak point but that’s not even close to true. The cell phase is a rightfully short-lived blast and I’m looking forward to doing it again when I create my next species.

The creature-driven phase that follows this is best described as a mix of the Spore Creature Creator (can I use this retail subset of the game to describe this?) and World of Warcraft. The player takes his newly land-bound creature from its non-aquatic immaturity to its near-civilized phase throughout this hour-long battle for supremacy as the player bands with the rest of his species to eliminate the other new nests that populate the world. This stage is, hypothetically, about making new friends and enemies in a world and defining a species’ eating habits in a learn-by-eating method of sustenance through plants (herbivore), other species (carnivore), or a mix of both (omnivore). Killing or befriending other species will increase your DNA bar (experience bar) and each major experience block gives your creature a larger brain with the final block setting off the light bulb in a creature’s head that he can use sticks to roast marshmallows.

The third stage is a tribal stage which tasks, emphasis on the word task, the player with guiding anywhere from six to a dozen of his units towards tribal victory in a real-time strategy-lite game. The idea behind this phase is alright, what with all of the inter-tribal negotiations and/or warfare that yield an increased familiarity with tools as a means to slice people, gather food, and impress other species with but, much like the forthcoming fourth stage of the game, too little of tasks that the player has to deal with in this phase can be completed with very little thought or effort from the player. The only meaningful choice in this segment to be made is whether a player wants his species to progress to the next stage by killing all of the fellow tribes, impressing them with their culture and music, or, uh, a third option? The customization options given to the player in this phase are as hollow as the gameplay mechanics as the only things a player can do are to equip nine variations of “clothing” per each of the five clothing types (helmet/chest piece/shoulders/accessories/one other) to increase the tribe’s proficiency in combat, gathering, and culture.

The fourth stage is the civilization phase that gives players access to city customization (city hall, factory, entertainment, houses) and various vehicles (land, air, and sea) to wage the same sorts of war as in the third stage on a bigger scale. This civilization stage is made far less tedious in that it not only makes players balance numerous cities, compared to the third stage’s one-tribe-only management, but it also provides a wealth of, admittedly shallow, content creation segments for each of the vehicles and buildings. There are also super-abilities of types that depend on the species a player has created over the preceding stages (warfare, culture, and that pesky third thing I can’t remember since I killed everything I came in contact with). I used a nuke at the end of the stage and won which, really, is the best way to win. The biggest disappointment in this section is the really shoddy implementation of the vehicle creation compared to every other aspect of the game; a player can deck out a vehicle with weapons and thrusters and feet and all that jazz but, when it comes to actually utilizing it, the unit just moves and attacks with a generic animation. I can’t even express my disappointment that my Asplodius Puppius walker land vehicle didn’t use his head-mounted missiles to blow things up. I almost cried. Then I realized I had a landshark in the cockpit (or so I imagined) and that made it better.

I was told by all of my non-US friends, since we were one of the last countries to get access to the game, that the Space Stage is where a majority of the game time will be spent and now that I’ve reached it I can see why. The player gets access to an interstellar spaceship and is given a variety of missions, quests, and a very, very large map to explore in what has been described to me as a sort of 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) game. I’ve only gotten about an hour in to this stage but, thus far, I’ve gotten missions to meet new alien life form, establish trade routes, and terraform planets. What I didn’t realize was, when terraforming, I can’t just throw the species in my cargo hold to the ground of the planet or they die. So, uh, yeah. Now I’m going back to my home planet and “borrowing” some species to populate this alien world.

At this point, I can safely say that my expectations for the game were met and exceeded on almost every level. For every fault the game has, like the stupid vehicle creation limitations and the yawn-casuing tribal stage, there are a dozen other game mechanics that aren’t only fun but contain their own metagames for a player to discover. And every aspect of the game is archived and categorized in one of the most important game mechanics I’ve ever seen: The Sporepedia (below). Now, back to my interstellar landsharks.

The Appeal of Real-Time Strategy Games

Video games are such a fantastic medium. I just finished playing through Gears of War cooperatively with a friend over Xbox Live and it was absolutely enjoyable, hilarious, and challenging as hell. As a child of the, uh, Manboy Generation? YouTube Generation? Whatever kind of generation I’m a part of, growing up with video games has obviously had a large influence on my life being that I am what some may consider a “hardcore gamer” along with being a game developer, designer, and so on. So, basically, my abnormal interest in games is a well-founded and, I believe, a very beneficial one. And as I was sitting here a second ago working on some optimizations for my near-finished old-school shooter in the vein of classic games like Asteroids and Robotron I realized that, above all else, Real-Time Strategy games remain the genre I most enjoy and love to think about. So many of my favorite games are RTSs that, occasionally, I am prone to ponder what makes them so awesome. This shortly-conceived and hastily-transcribed article is a sort of general, informal monologue about the genre.

One of the reasons that the genre is so immensely popular is that the games that exist within its boundaries lend themselves to an extreme amount of consideration and study amongst the hardcore audience of players. Much like certain first-person shooters like Quake, Quake 3, and Counter-Strike attract a very dedicated group of hardcore players who memorize the layouts of every map and can absolutely thrash even “very good” opponents in tournaments with ease, certain real-time strategy gamers gravitate to specific titles that are particularly conducive to gameplay which rewards a deep, occasionally disturbing, level of understanding of the game mechanics. The game that immediately comes to mind when thinking about the genre like this is no other than Starcraft, which, particularly in Korea, has an overwhelming number of gamers which treat the game like a religion. I’ve heard rumor of Starcraft tournament stars being likened to the traditional rock stars of American culture. Whether this claim has any legitimacy is unknown to me, as I haven’t really traveled to Korea lately, much less a Korean Starcraft tournament.

For me, the appeal of the genre doesn’t quite stretch to the hardcore understanding that would lead me into victory in any tournament. My favorite RTS is, without a doubt, Rise of Nations. I feel that this game is the perfect blend of typical RTS research-and-attack conventions while also having a very unique and interesting economy. I was never a much of a heretical fan of the Age of Empires series (though I have enjoyed them greatly) and, for me, Rise of Nations a fantastic middle-ground between Civilization and more action-oriented RTSs like Command & Conquer and Warcraft that Age of Empires slightly missed. In the early parts of the game it was necessary to build up the area your central settlement and explore the continent you were spawned on while also researching your way into the next epoch. At some point, you’d expand your settlement (and this was a necessary step unlike a game of Warcraft 2/3 where an expansion base may not be the best idea) and then start establishing trade routes, building up your borders to ensure a strong defense when a foolhardy opposing tribe thought they could break down your walls and lay waste to your settlement early on in the game. Each game had a truly epic sense of scale as it took you from spears to fully-automatic guns, bazookas, and a staple of any good game: nuclear weapons. The game also had alternate victory conditions that didn’t necessarily rely on violence (thought you would, almost definitely, engage in a handful of skirmish). Most importantly, though, this game did not require intense micromanagement for the most part — though, in the late game, effectively managing all of one’s settlements was an absolute pain — and managed to contain all of its gameplay in a timespan under two hours which, for me, is probably when my attention for any one gameplay session begins to wane.

As I think about it now, the reason that Rise of Nations captivated me the way it did was due to its superb ability to pack all of my favorite things about turn-based strategy games into a real-time strategy game progression. Some games I loved playing an aggressive military game while others I enjoyed playing defensively and researching my way to victory while other times I enjoyed doing nothing but researching my way to nuclear weapons and blowing the rest of the map to radioactive wasteland. What it all boils down to is that real-time strategy games work because they promote a certain level of decisiveness in the gamer that can be reflected in-game surprisingly quickly whether it be related to a research choice and the immediate and long-term consequences, a choice to position a tank in combat somewhere specific or to put extra money into artillery instead of a tech which would boost your economy, and so on.

RTS games are, fundamentally, a microcosm of real-life topics and gameplay mechanics. They contain real-time combat that is dependent on tactics both big picture and instantaneous decision, balancing an economy that must fund both research and military, defense of your home base(s), exploration, and expansion. Sins of a Solar Empire, for instance, is a relatively slow-paced game that has its foundation in a lot of 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate — why it’s not a 4E game has always boggled my mind; I guess X is just in a more extreme segment of the alphabet) turn-based gameplay that puts as much emphasis on economy and diplomacy as it does combat. In the end, Sins is primarily won through combat but the intelligent player is able to leverage a particularly strong economy to form alliances with other players in a multiplayer game who can function as the sword to his savings. Company of Heroes, on the other hand, is a game which is firmly rooted in combat. It still gives players a variety of possible play styles (I like to play infantry- and artillery-heavy) but the reason the game is a success is because it places such a fine point on its combat that, instead of focusing on large-scale economy decisions, the choices the player has to make are now large-scale combat choices — how to capture territories and key points in a way that, if attacked in the process, will result in the most damage to the opponents forces and the least to the player’s. So a player could rush into a point with a single piece of armor and a pair of infantry forces to capture the point while being supported by heavy machine gun fire, mortar shell launching, and the ability to call in a precision artillery strike if a hasty escape needs to be made.

The possibility for a large-scale RTS which manages to seamlessly mix the large-scale issues of research, diplomacy, and economy of a player-driven empire along with the less time-intensive and more short-term rewarding nature of visceral RTS combat is an idea which I absolutely adore. The day a game like this comes about is the day that RTS gamers can have their life-ending World of Warcraft.

Supreme Commander Review

Jump to: Introduction :: The Big Picture :: Nuclear Hugs :: Tech of the Infinite War :: Conclusion

War is Fought with ACUs
To say that I have been looking forward to the retail release of Supreme Commander is an understatement of epic proportions. With this game, we have a Real-Time Strategy title centered around large-scale warfare — such a concept may sound unspectacular on paper until you realize that, while some RTSs certainly have an epic scope in terms of storyline and setting, they very rarely actually live up to such a thing with the actual gameplay. The most recent example of this difference between large environmental scope and gameplay lies within Relic‘s absolutely spectacular Company of Heroes; settings do not really get much more epic or large-scale than World War II. That said, Company of Heroes does not focus on aerial or naval battles, there is a heavily limited area allowed for building a base, and the unit limit maxes out as seventy-five.

Supreme Commander, however, remains truly epic in the scope of its gameplay and storyline. There is no single definitive battle that will define the turnout of any given match — there are constant barrages of artillery, tactical missiles, and the occasional nuke that players will have to contend with while they mount (and defend against) assaults across land, sea, and air while still maintaining a stable economy for building new units and upgrading certain facilities as players work their way to the top of the “tech tree” (a traditional RTS term which doesn’t apply to Supreme Commander very nicely) to build very expensive, very powerful tech three units and, eventually, constructing “experimental” units like a giant spider capable of wielding a sweeping laser that decimates any units in its path.

Now, before I jump right into the heart of this strategic beast of a game, I think it’s worth noting that this is not the first time that I will have discussed Supreme Commander in any great detail on this site. I devoted a fairly hefty chunk of text to both Company of Heroes and Supreme Commander in the fourth part of my near-monolithic series devoted to the Real-Time Strategy genre; I also posted a very teeny-tiny interview with Chris Taylor (Lead Designer/Creative Director of Supreme Commander) within the comments of said article, which can be found here.

The Big Picture
Supreme Commander, in the most filtered and strip-down description I can manage, is a real-time war game. It’s not a game about a few choice battles between a dozen or so units from each player meeting and fighting it out immediately outside another player’s base. It’s not a game where the winner of said skirmish could easily (and quickly) take advantage of the losing player’s weakness post-battle to bring about the end of the game in a matter of minutes. Supreme Commander is a game where those kinds of battles will be numerous and, commonly, occurring simultaneously across varying areas of the map — this is especially true if you’re just a single player in a four-to-eight player game in one of the many large maps that ship with the game. Right now, as I’m writing this, I was curious to see just how large these maps got (since I have yet to play one of the more enormous matches), and the range of sizes is… Daunting. There are eight 5x5kilometer maps designed for two to three players, and then there are even more maps of the 10×10 and 20×20 kilometer sizes. And, if you keep looking around the map selection screen, you’ll eventually stumble into four 40×40 kilometer maps. And, if you look even further, you’ll be able to count two maps which are 81×81 kilometers in size. The two that ship with the game are “Betrayal Ocean,” which has two players on each of the four larger islands (along with a bunch of smaller ones scattered throughout) and then you have “Frostmill Ruins” which supports eight players each on their own peninsula of a continent which connects all eight players by a large circular mass of land in the middle of the map.

On a map that large, Supreme Commander truly fulfills its goal: to be one of the largest real-time strategy games to ever exist. Players have access to three races, each with units ranging from low-tech (tech/tier 1), midrange (tech/tier 2), high-tech (tech/tier 3), and experimental levels of complexity and power. The differences between the three races are largely cosmetic compared to a game like Starcraft or Warcraft 3 — but the United Earth Federation, Cybran, and Aeon races of Supreme Commander are not entirely carbon copies of one another. I absolutely love the “feel” of all three of the factions, but the Cybran, in particular, are appealing to my particular style of play; they have slightly less-powerful units than the UEF or Aeon, but they are slightly faster and have the widest variety of incredibly powerful experimental units. The Cybran also put more of an emphasis on their ability to use stealth generators to hide groups of units (all races have access to immobile stealth field generators for bases and the like) from radar detection which allows for some very ninjaish assaults on enemy fortifications. The Cybran also have a giant mechanical spider with a microwave laser beam attached to its back. If that’s not the coolest thing ever, then I don’t know what is. I really don’t.

I can’t begin to describe the core gameplay of Supreme Commander. This is going to be my paragraph-limited attempt. At its core, the game is a fairly traditional RTS: base-building is critical, the management of the two resources (mass and energy), the necessity of a good balance of units, the importance that scouting the enemy location and periodic activity, and the absolute significance of nuclear arms to every diplomatic endeavor. And while the basic components of the game seem fairly standard-fare, the implementation only bears resemblance to Chris Taylor’s own Total Annihilation (what is, essentially, the spiritual predecessor of Supreme Commander). The economy is not a rigidly-handled resource-massing game of whether or not you have the correct amount of mass or energy to build something — it’s whether or not you have the necessary stream of resources to build something, as they are continually tapped from the surplus of produced energy/mass or the required components that you have stored. It’s not uncommon to have battles waging across land, sea, or air at any point on the map, so there’s generally a constant need to be pumping out units — which you can assign an infinite queue of actions at any point in the game (you can even have units directly out of a factory enter a patrol route). Base-building also differs in Supreme Commander than it does in other games, with the importance of a well-organized and well-defended base playing a far greater role than in more traditional RTSs like Starcraft — an enemy attack from other units, artillery, or tactile (or nuclear) missile assault could happen at any time, but so long as you’re well-defended for a majority of assault possibilities, your ability to maintain a stable economy and continually pump out units should go largely unhindered. And that’s important. Because if the enemy breaks through your defenses and tracks down your Supreme Commander — your primary unit of importance who can be upgraded with whatever options would match your playing style — within your base and manages to kill him then it’s game over. And if you’re playing a mode of play that doesn’t make the death of the commander a game-ender, then you’re just stuck with a giant frickin’ explosion (only a notch below a nuclear detonation in terms of the havoc and fireworks it causes) in the middle of your base.

Now, toss in units that couldn’t find their way around a brick wall, much less in a given formation, and that’s and that’s it for Supreme Commander 101– if you want a better explanation of the core gameplay, then you could check out the last article I wrote about it, the Wikipedia entry, or the Gamespot review. All that really needs to be said about the core gameplay present in the game is that, while it may overwhelm a whole lot of gamers who are used to your more conventional strategy games, it is really about as well-executed and polished as any game of this kind of scope could be. The matches within SupCom are intense, the three factions are incredibly well balanced, and the variety of styles which a player can choose to employ are about as limitless as any RTS I can think of.

Hugging with Nuclear Arms
There are, really, two primary components to Supreme Commander. There is the single-player campaign set and then there is the multiplayer portion. I played a decent amount of multiplayer games in the beta and then a bit more in the retail version and, let me tell you, the game’s online component is absolutely brilliant. SupCom ships with a client separate from the main executable called GPGNet — this is the primary “gateway” into the online Supreme Commander arena. Through this fairly minimalistic utility you can chat with other players, get involved in custom or ranked games, view stats, and so on and so forth. GPGNet is essentially an out-of-game version of Blizzard‘s And while I’m sure that some people may have qualms about this functionality being located outside of the main SupCom executable I think it’s actually a great choice. It’s nice to be able to sit in a channel and just hang around with people before jumping into a game. Basically, if you’re interested in Supreme Commander solely for the multiplayer component, and the idea of large-scale warfare seems even remotely interesting to you, then this game is probably one of the safest purchases I can recommend.

It’s when discussing the single-player portion of SupCom that the game drops down a notch or two in its overall “awesomeness.” There are three campaigns available for a player to begin from the moment the game is started-up for the first time: the UEF campaign, the Cybran campaign, and the Aeon campaign. I like to handle things in order, so I went with the UEF campaign for my first choice as it’s the first of the three shown — and, when starting the game for the first, I assumed it was necessary to beat this campaign before I could progress to the others (this assumption is wrong). So, I played through the six missions in the UEF campaign and was pleasantly surprised with how well the campaign was put together. The number of missions seem like a relatively low amount until you realize that each mission can take anywhere from one to three hours to complete. Each mission starts out with your Armored Command Unit (ACU) being “gated” into your starting area. You’ll be given a simple objective or two and then, upon finishing said objective(s), you won’t find out that the mission was completed successfully, but rather you’ll see a couple more objectives added, hear “Operation Area Expanded,” and then you can zoom out to see that the mission area has been doubled, tripled, or quadrupled. This tends to happen about three or four times per every mission. So, yeah, they tend to take up a nice chunk of time.

The problem with the single-player portion of Supreme Commander is not that any of the three campaigns has anything “wrong” with it. The problem with the single-player portion is that these three campaigns all have almost the exact same flow and story content. You will always start out a campaign in “tutorial mode” where your commanding officer will give you tips about how to get started building a base and will have access to only a handful of units/structures, and then as the missions go you will (slowly) advance up the tech tree until, during the last two missions, you will have most of the possible units available to you. This kind of flow works well for any particular campaign taken on its own merits, but there’s no real reason to play the other two campaigns once you’ve beaten one of them. The storylines do not build off one another, either, so whatever you accomplish in one campaign is basically just one possible route that the plot could go (if you were the commander for that race). This problem does not really apply to the people who are interested in Supreme Commander solely for its multiplayer, but for people like me who, for the most part, get the most enjoyment in an RTS from its single-player options (Warcraft 3 being the primary exception to this), this detail is troubling. I had no problem treading very similar ground within the campaigns for the UEF and Cybran campaigns, but by the time I hit the Aeon campaign, trying to work my way through the early missions was very difficult. Thankfully, the skirmishes against the AI and the occasional multiplayer game remedy this problem with ease.

As strongly as I feel about the poor execution of the single-player campaign, the core gameplay of Supreme Commander is so gracefully developed and well-polished that I know I’m going to get a whole lot of playtime with it between skirmishes against the AI along with the excellent multiplayer. That all said the game does have a few other problems which bear mentioning. Firstly is how misleading the 500 unit limit can be; each unit does only count for one mark in the limit tally, but each structure also counts one point towards the limit (with the exception of walls). This isn’t a fact that was immediately apparent to me until I started having a rough time in one of the campaign missions and decided that the best way to build an army was to fortify my base well enough so I didn’t need extra units defending it all the time. Imagine my surprise when I heard the neutral announcer tell me “Unit limit reached” when I was only constructing towers. This is not only a fairly annoying thing to have to contend with, but it seems to go against one of my more well-liked RTS conventions: base structures shouldn’t consume part of the limited population cap. I think it’s an understandable aspect of the game for more offensive-based structures like turrets, artillery, or missile silos, but I can see absolutely no reason to include basic production facilities, power generators, shields, or mass extractors/fabricators to be considered part of the population-using mix.

I also found that the air combat portion of the game is far less fun to utilize compared to the land and naval components of the game. Tech one bombers can absolutely annihilate a base early on in the game if used properly, but the tech three bombers and fighters are essentially useless towards the end of the game — the defensive tech three turrets simply rip them out of the sky like nobody’s business. The only air units that are consistently worth the time and resources to build are the game’s gunships — and the UEF is the only race to possess both tier two and tier three gunships… Which, if used with a dozen or so gunship buddies, can take down a huge tech three destroyer or cruiser (which can take upwards of ten minutes to build) in a matter of seconds, and the gunships can take quite a beating, especially when compared to their other sky-bred relatives. The only reason this aspect of the game stands out to me so much is that both the naval and land combat are so well-balanced and fun to use that the imbalance of the air portion seems to stick out a bit.

Both of these problems can be easily remedied by a patch if Gas Powered Games chooses to do so, but as it stands now they are both a fairly annoying part of an otherwise brilliant game.

The Technology of the Infinite War
Supreme Commander is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most technologically impressive games that I’ve ever had the joy to play. The graphics may seem fairly mundane and simplistic at first glance, but this is part of its genius. Since this game revolves around managing the complexity of a real-time strategy game on a scope that is unmatched by virtually any other RTS ever released (though I’d allow partial exception to Rise of Nations, though it’s not in the same league as SupCom), it has the be able to display a massive amount of units and special effects for an amount of units within the potential range of its default 500 unit cap per each individual player. And on top of that, players must be able to zoom the map all the way out while still maintaining every piece of information that a player could possibly need for the coordination of his base and whatever assaults he may have occurring at any time. To handle this, Gas Powered Games has created a very customizable and user-friendly interface and engine so that a player can use the main screen for whatever purpose he may desire and use the minimap (if the player considers it necessary — I actually keep it off) for its basic purpose, or the minimap can be zoomed in to whatever area and level of zoom the player deems fit for a picture-in-picture effect. If this amount of visual information isn’t sufficient, the primary viewing screen can be split to allow for two simultaneous views of whatever the player sees fit. And, on top of all of this, Supreme Commander actively supports the use of a dual-monitor display to set up a secondary viewing area on a secondary monitor. This option does, of course, take up more graphics processing power than some computers are capable of, but the fact that the game actively supports such a feature shows you just how impressive the scope of Supreme Commander really is.

When I said that the graphics appearing basic were part of the game’s “genius,” I meant it too. It’s not just the flexibility of the interface and the amount of viewing displays that can be set up that make Supreme Commander so impressive, but the fact that the graphics can still be cranked up to a level that can compete with a very large majority of the other RTS titles on the market right now (Company of Heroes being the primary exception). On my new system (details below) I run the game with all details cranked to the max, with the exception of shadows, and I think the game looks absolutely gorgeous when I take the time to zoom in and pay close attention to each unit’s interaction with the environment, or the way that certain units react in battle. I also discovered shortly after starting the Cybran campaign that I could turn on antialiasing with little-to-no decrease in performance; for whatever reason, this fairly simple change to the graphics of the game (all it does it smooth out the edges of the polygons) makes the game far more visually pleasing than it did before. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me why such a mundane operation would have such a profound effect on the game’s overall visual quality, but antialiasing really does make a difference with SupCom. The only other game I can think of off the top of my head where antialiasing makes this large of an impact on the visual quality is Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 2142.

Anyway, when you actually take the time to pay attention to the subtleties of the game’s graphics, the amount of detail that is given to even the most simple tech one units in the game is stunning. They are modeled well, almost all of them have very realistic animations, and the special effects for their attacks all look incredible. The amount of variation that is present in both design and special effects from unit-to-unit and even more so from race-to-race helps to provide Supreme Commander with a very pleasing aesthetic look. And none of this is even to mention the spectacular texturing work on the units and terrain, the look of the water and the way the surface of the water refracts whatever is below it, the brilliantly-done explosions, and, my favorite part, the simply awe-inspiring nuclear explosions.

All of this graphical quality and, more importantly, the amount of information that must be computed does take a very large toll on the system, though. For what may be one of the first times ever (and for a long time to come), I can actually make a performance comparison of Supreme Commander as it ran on two different PCs. When I first played the beta and the eventual demo of the game, I was running on an AMD64 3500+, 2gb DDR400 RAM, and a 256mb Geforce 6800GT. When I was playing the game on that box, I was able to play a one-on-one skirmish on a small map fairly successfully without difficulty… Though the game did start to chug as the match neared its conclusion. But playing one of the demo’s campaign missions showed just how problematic it was going to be to play the game on my system. By the end of the very first Cybran mission (which was one of the two campaign missions included with the demo) I was averaging less than five to six frames per second, and the game became virtually unplayable.

I had been, however, saving up money for a new system for a while, and it was Supreme Commander that was the final straw in my decision to purchase a new computer. So now, on my shiny new Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 (two 2.5ghz processor CPU core), 2gb DDR2-800 RAM, and a 640mb Geforce 8800GTS, I can play Supreme Commander with almost all graphical settings maxed out without any problem whatsoever. Granted, the game still dips into the 20-25 frames per second area (but never below it) on a very large map towards the end of a match when the units for a player begin to max out and there are artillery shells and experimental units flying all about the place — but it never reaches a point where it dips below twenty frames per second. I’d say that the most critical aspect of hardware to take into account is the processor of your system; Supreme Commander was designed around the ability to use multi-threading, so if you’ve got a dual-core processor in your computer then there’s not a whole lot to worry about.

Chris Taylor and the rest of the folks at Gas Powered Games have released what I would already be prepared to call the Real-Time Strategy Game of 2007 if Command and Conquer 3 wasn’t due out within the next month. SupCom has some of the most innovative and ambitious features that I’ve seen in a strategy game in years, and the amount of thinking that it demands of its players is one of its most commendable features. It has three very well-balanced races with a whole bunch of units that can wage war across land, sea, and air (and nuclear missiles!) across maps as large as 81×81 kilometers. The lack of a truly great single-player campaign in what is, on the whole, an absolutely amazing combination of core gameplay, technology, and multiplayer components is what’s really holding the game back from perfection, in my mind. I would list the very hefty system requirements as one of the downsides of the game, but for what the game is demanding of the hardware it’s being played on coupled with the fact that Gas Powered Games seems to have designed SupCom to be a game as much for the future as it is for the present seems to be enough of a reason to cut it some slack for the hardware it requires.

All things considered, Supreme Commander is one of the greatest Real-Time Strategy games I’ve ever played and is virtually unequaled in the massive scope of its gameplay. This is the game for anyone who’s ever wanted to wage war, as opposed to a handful of decisive skirmishes, in his Real-Time Strategy games. And, for me, one of the greatest metrics of the extent to which I enjoy this game is that I’ve been working on this review for about four days and the reason it wasn’t done after the second day is that whenever I start to write the thing, I can’t avoid the urge to play Supreme Commander rather than write about how truly amazing it actually is.

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.