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Warning: This post is a little long.  If you either love or hate RTS (real time strategy) games, you’ll probably want to read it all.  If not, I won’t be offended if you doze off half way through.  Be sure to skip to the bottom to help answer my questions though!

I watch G4 from time to time and record X-Play on my DVR.  Normally I just skip through most the of the episode and only watch the segments on games that interest me, but occasionally I’ll find a new title by listening to their reviews and suggestions.

One such title was Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance.  SCFA is a stand alone expansion to Supreme Commander from early 2007, but evidently I was meant to play the other game first so this one could 1) make sense, 2) be playable and, 3) end my will to live.  At least, that’s what I think playing through two of these games would do to me.

 

RAWR!  I'm a big robot!

RAWR! I'm a big robot!

 

 

I should get something out of the way before I go any further; I am not a huge RTS fan.  I don’t do well in any sort of strategy game that requires maps, resources, or anything like that.  Settlers of Cattan? I suck. Risk? I really suck.  I can play chess, but just barely.  I will rock your world at checkers though.

Back to the game . . . well where do I start?  How about the interface!  The game allows you to zoom in and out very rapidly with your mouse wheel, but handles it in the same manner as Google Maps (that is, you zoom into the area your mouse cursor is over and not the center of the screen).  Not having to drag the map around to zoom into a specific bit of action is actually very nice, and allows you to move from battle to battle very quickly.

If you knew that battles were happening.  See, where they gained points with the zooming, they lost them again by not providing a mini-map.  All other reviews I read about this game go on and on about how detailed each unit is, and how you can zoom right up on them to see how they move and get ready for battle.  That’s great, but if you’re zoomed in all the way on a unit, then you have NO IDEA your line of anti-air towers have just been wiped out just off screen.  There’s no “We’re under attaaack!” to let you know that . . . well, you’re under attack.  You’re best bet is to zoom all the way out, so everything just looks like dots on the landscape, thereby rendering the nice graphics pointless.

Construction is another gripe with the game.  You have three levels of tech (okay, sounds good) and engineers for each level.  A level 1 engineer cannot build anything but level 1 structures (make sense) while level 3 engineers can build anything in all three levels (still with me?).  However, your Command Mech, which is supposed to be your primary hero and initial builder all in one, is also only a level 1 piece of equipment.  This means that in any engagement you’re beamed into, you must ALWAYS start at the tech 1 level, no matter what the enemy has started off with.  First off, you must gather resources (which aren’t so much gathered as they are a commentary device on US oil dependencies, more on that later).  Then you build a factory.  Then upgrade the factory . . . twice.  Then you can build level 3 engineers.  

This leads nicely into the my third gripe . . . TIME.  That little strategy I just listed for you takes 40 minutes.  Why so long?  Well, resources actually.  In any other game you send out minions to gather gold and wood (or whatever and whatever).  In SCFA, you set up power plants and mass extractors (oil wells).  Instead of stockpiling these resources, you are using them at a constant rate, and replenishing them at a constant rate.  Think of it as a pitcher of water: You are filling it at a constant rate, but once it hits the top of the pitcher, that’s it.  You’re still pouring water, but it’s not doing anything for you.  Whenever you do or build anything, it adds to your “upkeep” of resources.  If you’re using more than you’re getting, your construction slows to a crawl.  Which it does repeatedly.  

I read in a strategy guide that you can speed up construction by telling multiple engineers to help out, and while this would make sense, it actually doesn’t work in this game; if each engineer takes 100 energy/second to help out (making these figures up as I go) and you assign 7 of your engineers to help build a factory, you’ve just increased your power usage to 700 energy/second.  If your power grid can’t handle that sort of draw, then you’ve just shut down your entire base for the duration of that build.  In theory, your “power outage” should only last a few moments cause you’ve increased the number of workers.  In practice, however, the workers are also effected by the “power outage” and slow to a crawl, thereby ensuring the construction never completes.  This is really a drag when it’s a new power plant you’re trying to build!

While this would be considered somewhere in the area of level design, I’m going to group this next annoyance in with the “Time” complaint.  I am dropped into a war-zone with a set of objectives.  I build up some forces, and after an hour of play, I achieve my objectives.  Those objectives give way to a whole new set of objectives and the map expands to show a whole new area of enemies who, until now, have been happily just sitting around doing nothing.  Now, however, they just want to wipe me out.  My previous set of objectives are completely at odds with my new set, so I haven’t built anything yet to protect me against the new horde of baddies that are throwing themselves at my base.  Another hour and a half later, my second set of objectives are met . . . and a whole new set of objectives are dropped in my lap.

About this time, my HQ tells me they’ve authorized my use of a new type of unit.  A unit that does absolutely NOTHING to help my new missions, but would have been really nice back in my first one!!!  I now have to take out a monstrous enemy base across a recently revealed sea (read: water-based units) who also have air superiority over said sea.  My previous missions of “infiltrate enemy shield generator” and “defend your base against overwhelming odds” have set me up in no way to suddenly build ships and aircraft at the drop of a hat.  I’m nearly three hours into A SINGLE MISSION and am starting over with tech 1 facilities against an entrenched enemy with air and sea superiority.

That UFO takes an hour to build and can be killed with as little as 6 turrets.

That UFO takes an hour to build and can be killed with as little as 6 turrets.

As I stated before, I’m not a big fan of RTS games in general.  However, there are some that I still enjoy playing simply for the storyline and how immersing the game world is.  This would not apply to SCFA.  I realize that this game is a stand alone expansion to Supreme Commander and so references it heavily, but this thing plays like it is the last level of that game!  Absolutely no back story is provided, I have no idea who characters are, the training is boiled down to “click here, right click this, alright you’re done”, and your allies come across as downright inept.  Adding to this bucket of failure is the horrible voice acting and CONSTANT “reminders” from allies to get your objectives done; “Commander, those power generators are still up.  TAKE THEM DOWN!” . . . with what, an engineer and nothing else?

It’s at this point in a game that I go to the internet and get some cheat codes.  If a game just isn’t any fun, I can usually at least get some enjoyment by playing in god-mode and wiping out all enemies with one click.  Unfortunately, the available cheats for this game are invulnerability (sounds nice, but it makes EVERYONE invulnerable), extra resources (but since you can’t stockpile them, that does you no good), and teleport.  Also, the enemy has access to the same cheats you do . . . so, sort of defeats the whole point right there.

At one point, I had enough.  “Commander, you must destroy the enemy base NOW!!”  No, no I don’t.  I don’t have to do anything to the enemy base because I’m not playing any more.  It’s not even that I’m losing at this game, its just that it takes too long to win to ever be considered enjoyable.  Probably the best thing about the whole thing is that it takes only seconds (yes, seconds) to uninstall from my machine forever.

 

This leads me to my actual question: What makes a good RTS?  Or is Supreme Commander a good one and I’m just missing the point?  I read reviews online everywhere, and this game is applauded at every turn (except the story, which everyone seems to agree blows chunks).  Either they are playing a different game than the one I got, or they actually enjoy this sort of drawn out torture.  

Then it dawned on me . . . I think they actually do.  They were probably the ones who spent weeks setting up a map and units across the ping-pong table in their parent’s basement for an exciting battle (which I totally ruined by bringing in my binary of modified assault omnimechs and star of aerospace fighters, reducing the enemy forces to nothing in only two turns . . . sorry Joey).

Not Joey, but you get the idea.

Not Joey, but you get the idea.

So maybe I’m missing the point of a game like this . . . but I don’t think I am (at least, not totally).  There has to be a better way to build an RTS.  If so, what would it be?

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About The Author

Co-founder of Stolendroids.com and Executive Producer for Stolendroids Podcast. Also resident ‘tech-head’ and de-facto leader of the group.

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  • Schmidty

    Well, that’s the issue with “Real Time” strategy is that to get the best out of the “Real Time” part, it would, in reality, take you days and weeks to upgrade or build something.  They don’t bother calling them “Sped-up Time Strategy”, or “False Sense of Real Time Strategy”, or “So-Sped-Up-That-The-Peon-Chopping-Wood-Next-To-You-Was-Born-Three-Seconds-Ago Time Strategy”.  So I guess the RTS games that take a few days to play, make the players think that they are actually simulating real time warfare.  Then they actually enlist, get to the battlefield in Iraq (or wherever), and wonder why it takes 5 days to raise a Barracks.

  • I can understand that part, and it wouldn’t be so insufferable if it weren’t for the fact that this just makes the combat seem even worse.
    Let’s say that the game is out to mimic real life warfare.  Yes, battles to reclaim or claim areas could take more than an hour (and should), however your commander wouldn’t drop you and three engineers into enemy occupied territory and expect you to take it all over.  They’d send in forces with you.  And they certainly wouldn’t act all surprised that the enemy has a HUGE FREAKING BASE just over the ridge from you.

  • zohner

    I used to be a big fan of RTS games.  Then I started to realize that they were all the same game; the only differences were the time period, the characters, etc.  Everything was built on the Age of Empires engine which was good but the genre got old for me.  

    There have been a few RTS games that have piqued my interest lately though.  Company of Heroes was a great WWII game and I can’t seem to get enough of Civilization IV

  • I think we need a reworked RTS out there.  One where it’s just “here is your enemy.  here are your forces as they are now.  here are his forces (to the best of our knowledge).”

    The game wouldn’t tell you, pre se, which targets to hit, it’d let you do that instead.  You could center on supply lines, or training areas or the capital.  You’d have to manage your own supply lines, and your home economy for the war machine, and recruitment.
  • Schmidty

    Now that sounds more like a “Strategy” game.  This makes all the others seem less like a Strategy, and more like a “Do what I tell you to and you’ll win” game.  What’s the strategy in doing things the way the computer wants you to?  What if I just want to set up a big circus tent instead of a barracks, and train some entertainers.  Then when it sells out and the seats are full of the enemies’ arses, I blow it to smithereens!  Now there’s a strategy for ya!

  • It’s amazing that W. hasn’t announced you as our Secretary of Defense!

  • Alexander

    I’m a big strategy fan, though I only play any given strategy game if I think it has something good to offer. I tried to steer clear of all the crappy imitation WarCraft/Age of Empires/Command & Conquer clones out there, and limit myself to franchises that I can trust.

    In my opinion, the pinnacle of RTS gameplay is still StarCraft, even after a decade, and I don’t imagine it will be unseated until StarCraft II next year. There haven’t been many good RTS titles in recent years. I heard Age of Empires III sucked, so I didn’t bother with it. C&C: Red Alert III is coming out soon too, but I doubt I’ll get it.

    However, the TBS (Turn-Based Strategy) genre is thriving. What’s a TBS? Well, the Civilization series is a good example. Risk would also qualify. TBS games are the opposite number of the RTS, but are often intended for strategy nerds and history buffs like myself. Some simpler ones can be good for casual gamers.

    Where an RTS is all about how fast you can click your mouse, TBS gameplay is much more cerebral: outlining your battle plan, organizing your forces and resources to the minutest detail, setting up a great trap for your enemy.

    And then, there are the super-nerd games, generally made by Paradox Interactive: the Europa Universalis series, Hearts of Iron, Crusader Kings. These are sort of a synthesis between the two genres — cerebral planning and strategy combined with real-time gameplay (sort of).

    Example: Europa Universalis games generally start around the Fall of Constantinople and the beginning of the Renaissance (about AD 1450) and last until the end of the Napoleonic Era (about AD 1820). The gameplay is similar to Civilization, in that you improve your technology and gradually get better armies and government forms, but it’s also similar to Age of Empires, in that you build fortresses and train units in real time. The thing is, that’s an awful lot of time. You sit there staring at that world map for hundreds of years; you can adjust how fast time goes by, but it’s still a really long time to play.

    The strategy genre is diverse: some solid, fun games, a lot of worthless crap, and some ridiculously complicated impossible games. Anyway, I’m just going to keep playing the titles I have for now, and hope that StarCraft II is as good as it’s cracked up to be.

  • Starcraft was amazing!  I will fully agree with that right there!

  • zohner

    AoE III was ok.  If you can get it for cheap, i.e. free, then it’s worth a play.  I wouldn’t spend money on it though considering AoE II was so much better.

  • Schmidty

    Somebody call for an exterminator?”

  • Alexander

    @ Zohner: That’s what I’ve heard. I enjoyed AoEII, but AoEIII just looked disappointing.

    @ Schmidty: “I long for combat!”