After hours upon hours of unloading lead into the brains of bad guys with only an itchy trigger finger as a companion, the gamer brain begins to feel a bit neglected. The true gaming connoisseur knows that part of being pretentious and cultured in gaming is the ability to utilize all key functions of one’s mind in the exploration of this entertainment medium. Fortunately, for those suffering from low-IQ gaming, the real time strategy genre is around to push your brain’s capacity for decision making, resource management and leadership to its limits, effectively complimenting the machismo fueled action titles that monopolize most gaming libraries.
Many players have yet to experience the wonders of the RTS world and many more gave up after their first try. Being that the genre is rather large and encompassing many types of games, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best places to start when first exploring or taking another shot at the epic world of RTS games. This list works as both a guide in picking games as well as a timeline of different mechanics as the idea of real time strategy matured over the years.
Note: Because some of these gamers are older, I can not guarantee that online play is still very active. Still, this is Gaming Connoisseur, not multiplayer masters, so just shut up.
Warcraft II and Command and Conquer fit into the same category because both are similar enough in mechanics, but different enough in setting, that certain gamers will be attracted to one over the other. These are also the games that you better know about should you be welcomed into the inner circle of intense RTS players (ignorance could spell disaster in future encounters).
While not the first RTS (I believe Dune 2 holds those honors) Command and Conquer is definitely the RTS that most gamers started out with. It features a pretty simple good (GDI) vs. evil (NOD) conflict with a frosting of narrative over a pretty simple interface. This is a great game to start out with since resource management is confined to one single resource (Tiberium) and units are produced in a single menu as opposed to having to click through specific buildings to create them. Graphics were decent for their time, but it has not aged well, so be prepared to struggle to distinguish between a machine gun soldier and one that shoots a bazooka.
Warcraft II is set in a recognizable fantasy universe (some of you younglings may be surprised to find out that your favorite MMORPG started off in the realm of RTS) and has a very simple interface with the beginnings of micromanaging unit powers on top of the units themselves. Certain characters like mages and death knights can cast spells or buff units, a solid grasp on these abilities spelling the difference between a good player and a dominant one (as well as being important for transitioning to competitive play in other titles). Warcraft II edges Command and Conquer out slightly as its structure resembles most other modern RTS (features the need for harvesting multiple resources (wood, gold, oil) and unit production being accessed through individual buildings as opposed to menus) games and its overall package is much more imaginative than that of C and C.
Command and Conquer: Generals departed from the semi-futuristic (and sometimes goofy, see Red Alert) stories of previous C and C games, and offered up a modern day setting with somewhat realistic premise as the United States, China and the Global Liberation Army (a terrorist faction) fought it out for world supremacy. Each of the three factions played differently, but not so much that switching between them required a lengthy tutorial session or numerous practice rounds (unless, of course, you wanted to become über awesome, which took time). The game also counteracted the use of overwhelming numbers as the number 1 strategy by implementing a rock, scissors, paper approach to unit attributes, meaning that massing tanks could prove dangerous should rocket troops happen to be your opponent’s bread and butter for that round. The different abilities gained through enemy kills also kept players motivated to constantly test the waters of the battlefield as opposed to turtling up with defenses, which often caused stalemates in other titles. You might struggle to find a game online nowadays, but it’s a cheap acquisition and worth checking out if as nothing more than a history lesson (check out its expansion, Zero Hour, which offered different takes on the three factions, resulting in 9 different types of armies to play with).
The RPG Fan:
Warcraft III was a huge leap in terms of graphics and game play mechanics from Warcraft II and other RTS games as it was one of the first to utilize RPG like features within the game. Units would level up as they killed enemies and each faction was able to produce hero units that were powerful troops with a multitude of different abilities. On top of this, maps featured unallied monsters and hirable mercenaries as well as shops to purchase items, which gives each battleground a lived-in feel that other games simply didn’t have. Each of the four factions (Orc, Human, Night Elves and Undead) were beautifully designed with different attributes, hero units and styles, so every player could find his or her preferred army. Warcraft II also featured an engrossing single player campaign, setting the stage for future RTS titles to follow suit and offer something besides a multiplayer outlet. I truly think the game still stands up today and, if my back log wasn’t already 100 titles long, would boot it back up for a marathon or two.
The Elite Strategist
Company of Heroes was the game that challenged my perception of the RTS genre and made me rethink the strategies that got me through many a battle with Orcs or Brotherhood elites. Unit management was no longer as simple as clicking a unit and choosing a target as CoH featured the ability to take cover, retreat, lay down suppressing fire and target different areas on vehicles, making unit placement just as important as unit power. Filling a building with troops made for a great defense against invaders, but a tank or rocket armed soldier could spell disaster if I sat on my hands and the always-powerful super tank could be reduced to scrap metal if flanked by soldiers armed with sticky bombs. Understanding the different capabilities of your units was key as every one had their specialty and weakness (jeeps could shred rifleman but exploded quite regularly when faced with a tank). Managing territory was also crucial as resources could only be procured from areas you controlled, which meant that offense and defense had to be handled cooperatively or else troop production could cease. Those that love history (like, real history, not necessarily gaming history) will surely appreciate the authenticity found in the WW2 setting and might like the different Nazi-killing perspective should your taste for FPS titles dwindle.
The Gamer that Likes Options
Fans of the Warhammer universe understand what I mean when I say diversity, as the epic, never-ending cosmic battle found within the converted table top game is populated by many unique races, all with the kind of blood lust that makes the zombies from 28 Days Later uncomfortable. To get the full scope of the game, it’s best to pick up the Platinum Edition for $29.99 on Steam, that way you have a choice between 7 different armies (the Soulstorm expansion adds 2 more, but I found them to be a bit redundant in the end). This is the type of game where, while knowing your troops’ strengths and weaknesses is important, numbers count and massing units tends to spell victory for the player that controls most the map. Dawn of War also features a pretty even blend of ranged and melee combat, which is quite different from other RTS titles. Because of this and the number of dudes going at it onscreen (minds out of the gutter, folks) things can get very hectic, so prepare for your eyes to bleed at certain points throughout, especially when attempting to select an individual troop.
This is a great game if you liked Company of Heroes but wanted something a bit more over the top, as a lot of the mechanics from that game bled into this one (suppression, cover, etc). The exclusion of the Tyranid race (for the record, the Zerg are based off of these guys, not vice versa) does put a couple marks against the game, as most the armies play relatively similarly in terms of functionality but complaining about having access to only 9 different armies makes me sound like the kid who thinks his life is over because his iPod pooped out. For people that don’t venture online quite so much, the single player campaign in Dark Crusade (the third expansion, included in the platinum edition) is pretty cool as it gives the player a choice in what territories to attack and defend as well as offering progression throughout (as opposed to just stringing bland scenarios with loose narrative together like most RTS do).
The Big Picture Gamer
Dawn of War has some huge battles in terms of population, but Supreme Commander 2 had hugeness on a scale that makes all other RTS games look tiny by comparison. Giant maps, giant units and giant numbers make for a game that has to literally be scaled back to a satellite view to get a grasp on what’s happening across the whole battlefield. Even when getting beaten to a pulp by the computer, it was engaging just to watch what robotic monstrosity was making its way towards my base to put the last nail in my coffin. It is a game that can get very confusing, but aesthetically it’s nice to look at even when there are hundreds (literally) of land, air and sea vehicles duking it out. The three factions (UEF, Illuminate, and Cybran) are each relatively unique, but the player is also able to distribute attribute points to different technologies, thus giving them further customization options. The command units are also a cool addition, as they can be leveled up to become one-unit armies, though their destruction does spell defeat should one become overzealous in the heat of war.
The Micro Manager:
WarHammer 40,000 finds itself on this list twice, but don’t think I am showing any bias (though I am a fan of the concept of endless wars between monsters, aliens and genetically enhanced men, not necessarily the table top component). Dawn of War 2 is vastly different from Dawn of War as the focus on large armies is scaled back and the importance of micro management is absolutely enormous. Another big change in the series is the exclusion of buildings (besides an initial command post and things like turrets and control points), so the focus is entirely on producing units, though don’t think that simplifies anything. Each faction (6 total, including the Tyranid this time) comes equipped with one of 3 different commanders whose specialty affects the kind of army you have access to (so in total, there are about 18 possibilities). These commanders have many different types of powers positioned along the spectrums of offense, defense, stealth and support, so being comfortable with hot keys is the first step in approaching online play. The RPG vibe comes off relatively strong, as units and commanders both level up as they amass kills, meaning that troops aren’t just cannon fodder and losing them due to a boneheaded move can hurt your chances for victory drastically.
This is not the game for RTS newbies, but I can’t say that RTS veterans will necessarily jump in and be successful right off the bat, either. If anything, having experience with both RTS games and party based RPGs is probably the best combo, but in the end being a pro (which I am certainly not) just takes time. Not that it’s that important, but I should mention the game is stunning should your computer have the guts to run it at full graphic capacity and stands out as the best looking game on this list. While not as in-depth as those of it’s previous incarnations (Dawn of War 2 and Dawn of War 2: Chaos Rising), Retribution does offer 6 different single player scenarios with plenty of progression and replayability should the multiplayer prove difficult as well as a cooperative multiplayer mode called Last Stand which is a cool distraction from the RTS side of things.
StarCraft 2 is the RTS that’s simple to learn but insanely difficult to master. Arguably the number one competitive video game in the world, getting into this game means you have to learn to get your butt kicked if online play is to be in your future. The three factions you can choose from (Terrans, Protoss, Zerg) are some of the most balanced and internally unique armies in any RTS game you‘ll play and all function vastly differently in terms of unit management and infrastructure. Individual unit powers are also important should you decide to seek high ranked matches but aren’t anywhere as intense as those found in Dawn of War 2. A general idea of how to utilize units and control a map will see you through most low tier battles, though low tier in StarCraft 2 means you only play the game ten hours a week as opposed to ten hours a day. SC2 is worth the price as its single player campaign is as robust as its multiplayer offering, something that doesn’t hold true for many games on this list. A great example of the idea that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, as fans of the original enjoyed a very familiar package, despite the direction that RTS games have gone in recent years.
You can talk a stroll through the history of RTS games or pick and choose, but before one can truly call himself a connoisseur, he must acquire a taste for the genre that begs the brain to relinquish its reliance on autopilot. No one said you have to like the games, or even be good at them, but like with fine wine or expensive cheese, no one said you couldn’t pretend either.
Game Connoisseur – Gaming is already a very stimulating and often times personal experience, but every gamer thirsts for a way to take that experience to the next level. This series will deal with ways that video game enthusiasts can enhance or even alter the way they play in order to prolong the longevity of a beloved title or discover something new.
Giant Bomb (images)