Here's a post I wrote for a now defunct gaming web site (R.I.P. The Game Chair). I still think about it, as I still don't like Real Time Strategy games. So for posterity sake, I thought I would post it here, before it slides off the Internet Wayback Machine:
I usually don’t dive into a computer game and play it through to the bitter end. In order for that to happen, a game must be a chameleon, constantly changing and offering me new and challenging game play. And Dune II had that in spades. I still recall with great fondness the time I first started playing it. This wonderful game mechanic called “real-time strategy” was a fascinating new genre for computer games, and it kept my officemate and I engrossed way beyond our normal lunch hour. What a grand feeling of accomplishment we had when we finally finished the last storyline of the third house (Dune II let you play three of the factions found in the book - Houses Atreides, Harkonnen and Ordos)!
Dune II was probably the only game to both create a genre and exhaust its possibilities. It had every archetype for your prototypical RTS game:
- Resource gathering (harvest that spice, boys!)
- Base and unit construction
- Special mouse UI for selecting and grouping units
It also laid the groundwork for your basic RTS strategy:
- Gather as many resources as you can
- Build up some defense to fend off the opponent’s early excursions into your territory
- Research as fast as you can, to…
- Build units as fast as you can, to…
- Amass a grand army to send a tidal wave of force against your hopelessly outgunned opponent
And we played it through, puzzling out each unit, trying to find the optimal spot for defensive emplacements, and how to concentrate our forces. It was a breath of fresh air in computer gaming.
And there it should have stopped, as Dune II, in 1992, created, defined, and exhausted an entire computer gaming niche. Instead, the real-time “strategy” genre exploded into the behemoth it still is today. Four of the top 15 games on Gamespot’s PC Top Rated Games from the last six months are real-time “strategy” games - Star Wars: Empire at War, Rome: Total War Alexander, Take Command: 2nd Manssas, and The Lord Of The Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II. And I simply do not understand it.
I just spent the past couple of days trying out some of the more highly rated RTS games from the past few years, just to see if things really have changed. I played some Age of Empires, Rise of Nations, Act Of War, and even Warzone 2100, only to find the game play as stale as it ever was in other classics of the genre I’ve tried like Warcraft, Starcraft, and Command and Conquer. You still have pretty much the same game structure, followed by pretty much the same strategy as you had in the first RTS. They look a lot prettier, and have some advanced UI components (like grouping, waypoints and the like), but still in the end, it all boils down to building up a huge army to crush your hapless computer (or human) opponent. Been there, done that, have already thrown away the t-shirt.
There’s only been a few interesting twists on the formula that I have run across in the fifteen years since I first played Dune II, but even those haven’t been strong enough to overcome the feeling of déjà vu all over again.
* Battlezone put you in the thick of the action, and really made it feel more like you were an involved commander rather than some god-like figure telling your loyal subjects where to go and what to do. It was fun driving the various vehicles and the UI was easy and yes, even realistic. And so I made it about halfway through the game before the RTS ennui set in and I gave up.
* Dungeon Keeper did for RTS games what Wizardy 4: Return of Werdna
did for that seminal RPG series - put you in the shoes of the evil side. It also added cool traps to put down and the ability to play as one of your loyal subjects. This was fun for about 1/3 of the game and then the “Oh yeah, this is an RTS after all” feeling set in and I moved on.
I’ll give Act of War some points for feeling different, but maybe that is only because I haven’t really played any other of the realistic ones set in the current time. It seemed to tell a pretty interesting story, but by the time I got to the fifth or sixth mission, any new joy I got from it was washed away in the tidal wave of stale gameplay.
I love how reviewers of these games stretch to find new stuff to applaud, yet in the end even the most rapturous of reviews admits the main strategy is to amass a honkin’ big army and squash the opponent, clicking as fast as you can to build up resources and troops. How many different ways can you do that?
My advice is to pick one of the RTS games, play it for awhile and then just move on from the genre. The whole set of RTS games reeks of the worst kind of “me-too”ism, copy cats of a game written before many of these designers stopped playing Candyland. I guess I can understand the jaded music reviewer, who hears the same rhythms a million times and writes a lone cry in the wilderness against it, realizing that new ears think it is the greatest thing since ABBA As for me, it will take a few years before I can get over the icky feeling of playing the same game for fifteen years and try out the latest RTS star, only to run away in horror yet again.