Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Retrospective on RTS Games

500x_rtsguildeepi_01Kotaku’s Visual Guide to RTS games makes me feel like a wise video game sage, since I played so many of the formative RTS games.  (Click here for a Seadragon version of the image to the right).

Let me first talk about Herzog Zwei, considered by some to be the first RTS game. It’s the first one I played, at least.

My friend Scott was given it as a gift.  We were expecting to to be a shooter like Thunderforce II (from the same company, Technosoft).  It clearly was a completely different type of game, leaving us confused.  We initially concluded that it was a terrible game and would joke about its funny name (seriously, did they clear that with the marketing department?  Did they have a marketing department?  Command & Conquer – now there’s a good name for an RTS game).

But we eventually revisited the game and discovered what a unique, deep game it was.  Another friend of ours, Jeremy -- who was not a video gamer, but liked strategy-based board games like Axis and Allies -- really took to it, and became better at it than either me or Scott.

I had one strategy in the game -- build a tank and drop it off right behind the enemy base.  The character you controlled could not attack the enemy base directly, but could attack enemy units.  So I would let my tank attack the base, and I would defend the tank from enemy units.  That always worked against the computer.  Human opponents, of course, would figure that strategy out and defend against it.

Thz1he main defense against was to build anti-aircraft turrets, which would only attack the enemy commander using guided missiles.  We would build so many of these units around our bases that the screen would immediately fill up with missiles as soon as either command flew anywhere near the enemy base.  The game did not limit the number of units you created, so the only limit was the Sega Genesis’ hardware, which would struggle to keep up after a certain point.

As Kotaku’s guide points out, the real prototype RTS game was the PC game Dune II.  Like with Herzog, I did not know what to expect out of it.  My first thought was, “Ah, this is kind of like Sim City.”  But when I started creating soldiers and tanks and attacking and getting attacked by the enemy, I realized it was something special.  I’ve since enjoyed many RTS games over the years, particularly Warcraft II, Starcraft, Red Alert 1 and 2, Command & Conquer III, and The Lord of the Rings:The Battle for Middle Earth I and II.  The conventions invented for Dune II were used in all of them, and are still being used in the RTS games coming out today.

Unfortunately, the RTS experience on home consoles isn’t that great due to the lack of a keyboard and mouse, and the fact that PC monitors have a higher resolution than HD TVs, which makes them better for displaying large numbers of relatively small units.  I know that they’ve made improvements for playing those games with a controller, but that’s going to be a hard sell for me.  I’ve played so many of these games with a keyboard and mouse over the years, playing them with a controller feels very limiting.

On a side note, my copy of Herzog Zwei is for sale on Amazon.

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