The Evolution of Battle

Dawn of RTS

It’s fair to say that I’m a long time fan of the Real Time Strategy (RTS) genre, I’ve been toying with these games since the early days of PC gaming via Dune II which for many set the standards for RTS. For me I find the games to be like chess, ultimately re-playable as you attempt differing strategies to overcome the same initial setup, particularly when skirmish modes came into play in later years. In particular I find the Dawn of War (DoW) games to be the pinnacle of this game play for me, and I have spent many hours playing the same levels over, even if I win I like to see if I can do it again with differing tactics or faction. It no doubt helps that I used to play the table top Warhammer games with my brother when I was younger, however I also think DoW came along at the time when the RTS was firmly into it’s stride and  brought together all of the features one needed for a game which satisfied the mindset of your average RTS player as completely as possible.

A mouse, a mouse, my kingdom for a mouse!

Now you will have noticed that all these games have been PC based for me. The RTS was born on the PC and for very good reason; You need a mouse to be able to play these games well. They are as much about micromanagement as they are understanding which strategies to employ for any given situation, in fact the major game play requires a simple notion, and that is your units are stupid. By this I mean the units under your control will often just stand there taking fire until they are all dead, our they rout (run away scared in none military speak!), there’s very little idea of running into cover or trying to flank an enemy, after all that is your job, to direct the combat. Add to this the huge number of keys available on a PC keyboard which can be used to group and organise your attack force and you have a quite complex but easy to use system of command.

Controller Woes

Now this is all very well on a PC, where moving a unit out of harm or positioning several teams to out manoeuvre your enemy just requires a few hot key presses and mouse clicks. Bring this to the console world however and what you have is a very clumsy interface no mater how you try to implement it. The fine control and unit groupings that are so easy on the PC become near impossible to make use of, and being the dumb units that they are they’ll just throw themselves onto their swords for little gain. To use a joke levelled at even the best console based RTS, you basically choose between selecting a single unit and ‘Select All Units!’ This somewhat robs the game of any nuances it once had, and returns us to the bad old days when the way you won any map was with a ‘Tank Rush’. This is where you build up as many units as you can and rush them all at the enemy, a tactic which used to work well on earlier titles, but which has become less of a factor in more recent generations.

From the drawing board

What I feel is required is a rethink of how this sort of game should play out on console, that fine control is never going to be available on a standard controller, and any game specific peripheral will just marginalise the genre even more than it already is on the platforms. So what we need is a new way to play, a way where you have less of the micromanagement, and more direct command of the military force entrusted to you.

What I am envisioning here is a game where your units are far more autonomous than in any present RTS, in fact to the point where you have no direct control over their actions what so ever.

Actually lets back up a little.

How does your average RTS start each mission? Well normally by presenting you with your Primary and Secondary objectives, and some bonus ones on occasion. Here is where things need to change. Don’t present me with short sighted single battle objectives, tell me the overall goal of the campaign, then present me with an overview of the entire battle field and allow me to select targets. Effectively you create the missions yourself, deciding whether you want to take out the air defences first, or cut off the supply routes or whatever. Then having laid out your master plan you launch into each mission with the objectives you’ve defined yourself. It’s then up to your troops to just get on with the job. After all these are supposed to be highly trained fighting machines, not just a bunch of guys given guns and then left waiting for command to tell them what to do in every possible situation.

So am I expecting you to sit back and just watch the battle unfold? Not at all. During battle your ground forces are going to need support, from artillery strikes to bombing runs, they can call these in and then it is down to you to authorise the use of additional forces and deep strikes all of which will come out of your campaign ‘budget’. So do you bend to their every whim and then find yourself halfway through the campaign with scant funds to push forward, or hold back in the hope your troops can win out, knowing full well you could be dooming the current mission to failure.

Less strategy more command

Now it could be argued, and I’d probably agree, that this would no longer be an RTS, perhaps a Real Time Command? But it’s still satisfying the needs this genre aims to. You are still commanding a military force, the battlefields will still look and play out the same as if you are directly controlling the guys on the ground. It’s just you’ve been elevated to a higher level of command, overseeing the entire campaign and attempting to outsmart the enemy over the long term. The idea of sacrifice plays a much bigger part here, and a fool-hardy mission in one part of the map might merely be to draw enemy units away from your actual targets. You get away from the idea of success or failure on an individual mission which can become very frustrating and halt your progress in a traditional title.

You actually end up with a much more hands on game tactically, where your decisions carry far more weight than the would in a traditional RTS where normally no matter how you win, the outcome of each mission is always the same.

Collateral Damage

It’s not all positive of course, this more hands off battle play may not be quite what you are after, and it’s much harder to respond to changes in each actual battlefield mission having already committed your forces to the campaign. This also removes one of the corner stones of many RTS titles by not requiring any resource harvesting or indeed base building, however that said that is often one of the particular features singled out for reasons not to play RTS titles, so maybe that works either way.

Future War

All things considered I think I would have a great deal of fun playing a title setup in this manner. You could become a true armchair commander, laying out your plans and then watching on as your trained units take care of the missions you’ve laid out for them. Given some good camera modes there could be some spectacular fire fights, which you could take the time to enjoy, something which most RTS titles don’t give you the chance to due to the continual nagging micromanagement required. It also requires you to be constantly thinking about the bigger picture, thinking one step ahead rather than just worrying about getting through the current mission at any cost. If anything it’s returning the genre more towards the chess game, that opens up the re-playability of a title allowing for as many campaign strategies as you can imagine.

A final note just to thank QuizzicalDemon for talking through some of the points outlined above with me and helping to formulate my plan for Console RTS domination! ;)

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