Saturday, October 15, 2011

Criticism of Other RTS Games

Contrary to what South Korea would have people think, there are other strategy games besides Starcraft.  Many of them manage to address the problems of a basic RTS gameplay model quite well.  

Take for instance Age of Empires II, which does several things quite well:

Does this look manageable?
  • Age of Empires II has one of the most well-developed economic systems of any RTS game I've ever played.  The variety of resources is greater than in *craft, which incites players to weigh the value of creating outposts to collect resources against the value of specializing in specific units.    
  • The age system allows for tech-related advantages to be (mostly) transient.  In other words, there is a small window of opportunity for attack when you have just moved to a new age and your opponent has not.

  • Another interesting feature is the concept of the trade cart, which can be used to build an economy based largely on trading.  Of course, trade carts can be attacked, which offers another venue for economic strangulation.
Flank formation
  • Players can build wonders, which, if left standing for a certain time, lead to a victory.  The construction of a wonder almost always upsets an opponent's plan and serves to force contact between otherwise defensive players.
Where Age of Empires II fails is in its highly limited micromanagement.  It is so cheap to produce units that a player is inevitably left with an unmanageable army.  The only way to approach combat is to send a hoard towards a specific target or general area.

Formations, although interesting in principle, do relatively little to alter the course of a battle.  This is (again) because of static unit properties.  Interaction between units on a team is essentially limmited to covering weaknesses, i.e.:  cavalry needs protection from pikemen.

Supreme Commander (and the Forged Alliance expansion) was a particularly clever approach to RTS gaming that ultimately fell short.  Supreme Commander did two things particularly well:

Large-scale view of the battlefield
  • The huge scale along with zooming capabilities allowed the player to get a comprehensive view of the battlefield. Zooming out gives a good impression of where the battle lines are, where defenses are strong, and where defenses are failing. It allows for a continuous transition between micro and macromanagement.
  • The large maps meant that intelligence had to be actively gathered, either by building radar stations at key points or by deploying spy planes.  In both cases, this implies that battlefield intel is a resource which must be protected.  Also, radar can only provide specific information about a contact at a fairly close range, making accurate intel a commodity to be pursued.
  • A hierarchy of ballistic missle systems, artillery platforms, and various countermeasures meant that directly attacking a base could be difficult.  It also meant that outposts could be used offensively.
  • An intuitive system for setting up waypoints and patrols made the management of enormous armies easy and effective.
  • SupCom's waypoint/queueing interface
  • Real-time calculation of projectile physics (read:  bombs, artillery shells, bullets, etc...) means that terrain and unit velocity truly matters.

On the flip-side, the devs over at Gas Powered Games missed a huge opportunity to capitalize on their real-time projectile physics by neglecting to implement group formations.  When units are being bombarded from afar, it is advantageous to spread out.  When trying to sneak through gaps in radar coverage, it's essential to tighten up formation, and when engaging enemies, it may be interesting to flank around static defenses while stronger units draw fire.  In short, micromanagement is clumsy in SupCom games.

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