Tag Archives: RTS

Opinion – World building is tough

A little bit of sugar helps the ridiculously complex narrative go down.

World building is tough.  Adding something on to the tasks video games must complete (controls, gameplay, graphics, sound, art design, etc) seems cruel when many games can’t even get the basics right.  Even so, if a game wants to draw the player into the world of the game, that world needs support.  The player must appreciate its intricacies and be intrigued by its mysteries which requires considerable support throughout the entire game.  The variety of gameplay types compounds the difficulty of world building.  One size does not fit all.  Depending on the type of game, the developer must approach world building in a different way.

RPGs and open world games

In many ways, RPGs and open world games have it easiest.  These styles of game, regardless of genre, tend to have a slower pace, more time to explore locations, and a greater emphasis on story telling.  This allows developers to give the player time to actually walk around the world and interact with its inhabitants.  Through conversations, exploration, ambient noise, and questing, developers can overtly and subtly interweave information about their world into every facet of the game.  Even with all of the available opportunities, some prefer to shove exposition dumps down the player’s throats.  This should be resisted.  With the many ways to draw the player into the world, developers should limit lectures on history, culture, or any other aspect of the game world to sideshows for interested players or only when the situation absolutely necessitates it.  Exposition dumps only appeal to the devoted while even casually interested players tire of reading when they should be playing.  Where possible, the developer should work world building in a way that works with gameplay rather than conflicts with it.

FPS

The pace of a first person shooter often dictates the way it builds its world.  For the fast paced shooters, the developer can’t let the player stop and investigate their surroundings.  The narrative of the environment must be told primarily through the visual elements because the player won’t have the time to stop and absorb text or conversation.  Even the visual cues lose subtlety for every second of gameplay devoted to speed.  FPS players may only appreciate the world in the corners of their vision or through stand out moments that temporarily pause the action.  Players can’t appreciate small details if the game moves too quickly for them to absorb putting a premium on blunt delivery mechanisms such as cutscenes or large visual elements.  Alternatively, some FPS’ take a slower pace allowing for more nuanced world building.  Audio logs detailing story can provide rich context for visual and aural cues, provided the player has time to listen to them.  Even a slow FPS tends to focus on visual cues due to the first person view, but it can augment those cues with the RPGs rich armory of tools.

RTS

The real time strategy game suffers from a decidedly different problem than the FPS.  Yes, RTS games are fast paced making nuanced approaches to world building difficult, but their real problem is that they, by necessity, must take place on a battlefield.  Whereas other games have gameplay justified reasons to explore peaceful areas, RTS games are defined by their combat.  If a player isn’t directing armies, then they aren’t playing the game.  World building in an RTS must rely on the same visual cues of the FPS, but also with a heavy dose of cutscenes.  Since the peacetime version of the game world is always off screen, the RTS must use the story breaks to fill in the non-fighting bits that it can’t communicate otherwise.

Action platformer

Action platformers are also severely limited by their style of gameplay.  In games about movement and action, there really isn’t much time to focus on the areas where those things are not.  Unlike RTS’, an action platformer developer can turn more peaceful aspects of the game into a world for the player to explore.  Hub worlds allow the player to absorb lore and engage with characters taking the load off of the environment.  A player can explore a ruined castle and then hear about the terrible battles that occurred there from a small town where they restock on items.  Developers never get the same level of depth that an RPG or open world game might, but they still have time to add in elements that engage the player with the world.

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Opinion – Organization in RTS Strategy

Sun Tzu’s Art of Zergling

Real Time Strategy games will oftentimes explain their strategy in terms of mechanics.  Their tutorials lay out how one unit counters another or how a researched technology grants benefits against unupgraded foes.  Explaining the mechanics gets to the unique part of a game and teaches experienced players about the new concepts they will need to succeed.  Unfortunately, it leaves out a very key aspect of RTS strategy: organization.

Organization is how players position their units and buildings to achieve victory. It covers everything from unit formations to building strategy and plays a key role in increasing the value of a player’s units while putting his opponent’s units in sub optimal roles.  Despite what your average tutorial says, organization is often more important than straight technology and unit counters.  Though developers often intend for units to fulfill certain roles, they program units to achieve those goals within certain confines.  Units attack range, rate of fire, hit points, area of effect, etc all impact their ability to perform their function.  Organization can enhance those strengths or, alternatively, diminish the strengths and enhance the weaknesses.   Consider the following example.

In one of the most memorable games of Starcraft 2 I’ve ever seen, the Zerg player attacked his Terran opponent with zerglings.  His opponent, knowing of the coming attack, rushed out to meet him with the Terran counter unit, the hellion.  According to Blizzard, the hellions should have destroyed the zerglings without much trouble.  According to the Zerg player, zerglings do just fine against hellions, thank you very much.  Not only did the Zerg player defeat the hellion counter, but he went on to crush his opponent with that same attack.  All thanks to organization.

Zerglings are tiny units that do little damage and so succeed by overwhelming their opponents with numbers and chipping away at them from all sides.  Hellions are fast attack units that send out a stream of fire that washes over a collection of units roasting them all.  In theory, the Terran player should fend off zerglings by constantly pulling his hellions back only to stop briefly to fire.  After a few volleys, the zergling mass dies leaving the hellions relatively unscathed.  Aware of this, the Zerg player decided to minimize the hellion’s strengths while enhancing the zerlings’ own positive attributes.  The Zerg player kept his zerglings hidden, waiting to catch the hellions unaware.  He pounced and quickly surrounded the hellions thereby achieving two important things: immobility and diffusion.

Firstly, the zerglings pinned the hellions down so that they couldn’t retreat and fire.  This allowed the Zerg units to constantly damage the hellions without having to catch up every time they drove away.  Immobility maximized the zergling damage while minimizing the hellion speed.  Secondly, the diffusion of the zerglings provided both additional damage output and greater defense while undermining the hellions attack.  By surrounding the enemy, the zerglings could attack from all angles allowing them to do damage collectively rather than individually.  10 zerglings doing 2 damage a hit is much stronger than 10 zerglings with only 2 attacking at a time.  As it turns out, diffusion bolstered the zergling’s defense by minimizing the effect of the hellion’s weapons.  The hellions fire in a straight line doing serious damage to units caught in the blast.  If the zerglings chase after the hellions as intended, then they’re damaged at the same time.  If they surround the hellions, then the attack hits them one at a time thereby weakening the effect.

This is just one of many examples of how organization impacts gameplay.  Many of these lessons carry over to other games and are used in a similar fashion.  While the average RTS game teaches players about the game mechanics, it behooves those players to look beyond the basic lessons and learn how organization, and other strategic aspects, can improve their play.

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Review – Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty – PC

A totally original tale of space marines fighting aliens.

The thing about calling a game a “classic” is that you have to measure it against the established standard of the day. Classic games aren’t a reflection of the time they’re created, but rather of how they compare to current games. With that in mind, the reason Starcraft and Starcraft: Brood War aren’t undisputed classics is because developer Blizzard reentered the RTS genre again and gave us Starcraft 2. Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is one of those rare games that evolves the formula so much that it’s practically a revolution.

The game picks up after the events of Brood War. Jim Raynor leads a revolutionary group against Emperor Megnsk while the Zerg and Protoss remain quiet in their respective territories. The calm is shattered when Kerrigan launches another invasion of the Terran Dominion. The player takes control of Raynor as he tries to protect humanity against the Zerg while still prosecuting his war against Megnsk. There’s a lot of back story here, but Blizzard chose a solid starting point so that newcomers won’t feel too lost. The introduction of a few new characters (I’m a big fan of Tychus) keeps the story from being a retread and provides much needed outside perspective to characters who are absorbed by their own drama. The focus is squarely on the Terrans (they’re they only ones with a solid campaign), though Protoss and Kerrigan play roles as well. Overall, the story is a solid space opera that sacrifices a bit to the needs of the campaign, but remains compelling in its own right.

While still recognizable, nearly every aspect of the campaign has evolved. This is most apparent in the missions where Blizzard figured out how to move beyond the glorified skirmishes of the original Starcraft. Missions now focus on taking advantage of the traits of individual units and they encourage the player to experiment with all the unique abilities. Blizzard has crafted clever set ups (such as a moving wall of fire forcing the player to lift their base) and cleverly includes units too unbalanced for multiplayer. The unit based focus forces some unnecessary plot diversions in the story, but is a solid edition to the gameplay. Outside the missions, the player has access to a ship based hub where they can purchase upgrades, talk to team members, and replay old missions for achievements. The whole package, plus the ridiculous polish, makes for a compelling experience that is worth returning to.

Like the campaign, the multiplayer received a major overhaul. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t touch the basic gameplay. Starcraft’s tight balance between the three races carries over to the sequel with a few new units and stat changes to vary the experience. Instead, the biggest shifts come from match matching.   Blizzard established a tiered ranking system based on player success. The player plays five evaluation matches which then places them into the appropriate rank. This system does a couple of neat things. It ensures players are matched against opponents of a similar skill and provides clear feedback on player success. It’s easy to tell how good of a Starcraft 2 player you are based on your ranking. Playing matches also provides experience which goes towards acquiring minor rewards like portraits and unit animations. The only flaw in the multiplayer is that Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is out. Many of the best players have migrated over to the next iteration of the game.

Rounding out the Starcraft 2 experience is a clean, compelling presentation that shows off Blizzard’s technical capacity and movie making. Units are distinctive, colorful, and animate smoothly. The environments move beyond the original Starcraft’s bland grays and browns to more vibrant jungles and ruins. The cutscenes make impressive use of detail and scale to create the feel of a living world. It’s telling that one of the opening cutscenes was the first time I really felt the size and majesty of the battlecruiser. Still, the movies growing grandeur feel discordant with the scale of the gameplay. While cutscenes include massive battles between huge armies, the missions and skirmishes have no more than 400 units on screen with space ships the size of 10 marines. It’s a necessary conceit to the genre, but it’s jolting to switch between the two.

There are a few flaws in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, but they are small. The incredible amount of polish and creativity in the game makes it compelling and one of the true greats of the genre and gaming in general. For players with even a passing interest in RTS games, this is a must buy.

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Review – Starcraft: Brood War – PC

It was a very moody conflict.

The original Starcraft may have started it all, but it was the expansion, Brood War, that cemented the series as one of the finest RTS games of its time. The question is now, does Brood War still hold up or has the intervening two decades dimmed its luster? The short version is that Brood War refines the gameplay of the original Starcraft while making a few mistakes of its own. It remains a worthy game, though not the revolution it was when it started.

The campaign picks up after the events of the original Starcraft with the Protoss shattered, Emperor Mengsk controlling the Terran Dominion, and Kerrigan trying to unite the disparate Zerg broods. Once again, the player takes control of three nameless generals, in the service of each race, who participates in some of the key battles of the conflict. The story isn’t as compelling as the original, but includes a few neat twists and does a better job of involving the player in the highlights of the narrative. Kerrigan serves as the focal point of all three plot lines and while she is established as clever and ruthless, Brood War does little to flesh her out beyond that. She deftly manipulates all of her opponents, but the player never gets an end goal beyond world domination. Fortunately, her supporting cast has more depth to round out what Kerrigan is missing. Overall, the plot is compelling enough to keep the player invested and holds its own against modern RTS games.

One of the noticeable improvements is the level design. Blizzard tried to include both more variety and depth in the campaign missions which it only partially pulled off. Most of the best ideas are in the early Protoss missions including a standout level to disarm missile turrets using a handful of units and tactics. After that, the game reverts to the classic template of building an army and assaulting the opponent. In terms of depth, Blizzard had better luck. Maps are better at facilitating conflict and even the more standard levels include wrinkles such as assaulting multiple bases. It’s clear Blizzard had trouble calibrating the tension between giving the computer enough troops to annihilate the player outright and restraining their aggression in using them. The AI aggression is tuned to the starting unit amount making most stages difficult early on with the last half of the fight becoming a prolonged clean up mission. The one time Blizzard put in too much aggression, the mission was so hard I had to cheat to get through it. Blizzard’s inability to resolve this tension detracts, but does not seriously harm, the overall fun of the campaign.

Brood War introduces many of the series’ iconic units including the lurker and medic. The new units add a great deal of variety to the basic gameplay by shoring up each races weak points. For example, the Zerg get the Devourer and lurker which support air and ground superiority respectively. Sadly, the greatest arena for the new units, online, is barren. As one might expect from a 20 year old game, few are playing Brood War anymore making online matches all but impossible to find. Without friends drawn in from elsewhere, Brood War and Starcraft are best treated as single player experiences.

Combined, Starcraft and Brood War still represent a potent gaming experience. Brood War’s additions remain fun and interesting while the new campaign further develops one of the genre’s best stories. This remains a great game and is a worthy buy for any genre enthusiast.

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Review – Starcraft – PC

You can never go home again…oh wait!  You can!

Starcraft is a game that needs no introduction, but it is a game that might need revaluation.  Given its regular inclusion on many “best games of all time” lists and the upcoming release of the final expansion to Starcraft 2, it’s important to revisit the genre titan to see if it still holds up.  The short version is, yeah, it kinda does.  While not the juggernaut it once was, the original Starcraft remains a fun, challenging game that remains fun, even when compared to its modern descendants.

The gameplay is the heart of the whole enterprise.  The basics are familiar to any player of the RTS genre.  The player starts off with a small base and a few workers and must build an economy and an army to defeat his foes.  The tension in the game comes in balancing the development of an economy, maintaining an army for defense, and punishing the opponent for their mistakes.  Players must adapt their styles and strategies to three different races (Terran, Protoss, or Zerg), each with unique units and buildings.  The three race balance still stands out as one of the finest executions of the concept.  Each race feels radically different, yet balances well with its counterparts.  Much of the praise for the original game remains true, but the gameplay does suffer a bit from age.  The player can only select 12 units at a time, skirmishes start with too few harvester units, and the unit pathfinding is atrocious.  Fortunately, the player can adapt to most of these allowing for the strong mechanics to shine through.

For the campaign, the player takes control of a nameless commander for each race following a continuing plot from each perspective.  The story has some interesting twists which the game oddly does not incorporate into the mission structure.  For example, rather than play out a mission where one of the lead Protoss characters defies his superiors and defends humanity, the game only tells the player about it.  This is even odder given that some of the campaign missions feel like filler and could easily be replaced.  Still, the overall story is solid with strong characters, pivotal moments, and a few intriguing plot twists.  Given that most RTS games push the story to the side, it’s nice to see a tale with a bit more meat.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the campaign mission design.  Almost every mission feels like a basic skirmish with only a few variations tossed in the mix.  Neither the mission parameters nor the level design change up the feel and the strategy of a basic skirmish.  What worked on mission 3 carries over to mission 10 with little variation.

Though the gameplay and story have held up well over time, the graphics do not.  Starcraft is filled with chunky pixels on top of bland backgrounds that measures up poorly against its modern competitors.  Starcraft feels ugly in a way that speaks both to its age and questionable art design.  Even if gaming hadn’t gone through an extended “brown plus gray equals awesome!” phase, it’s hard to imagine Starcraft’s bland aesthetic holding up.  Surprisingly, the cut scenes do.  While they are indisputably ugly compared to the current crop of games, the screen direction and stories depicted remain compelling to watch.  I looked forward to each new video and was happy with most.

Starcraft definitely has its flaws.  Considering it a classic really depends on how much the player appreciates the still compelling tight gameplay.  Still, that debate misses the more important argument that Starcraft remains fun to play and costs very little ($15 gets you Starcraft and the Brood War Expansion).  Whether you’re looking to relive the series before Legacy of the Void drops or just want a fun game to play, Starcraft is a fine purchase.

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Opinion – RTS Past Blast

Did you know the world keeps changing?  It’s shocking, I know, but this is something that happens all the time.  I don’t want to scare you, but it’s happening right now.  Realtime strategy games, being part of the world, also change.  I’ve been playing the original Starcraft and its reminding me about how much the genre has moved forward since the good old days.  Here are a few things we should all be thankful for.

Varied Mission Design – In the olden days, campaign mission were skirmish maps with a story.  Sometimes they’d mix it up by varying the unit types or the map was a little strange, but the basic formula was build an economic, make an army, and murder the enemy.  Campaigns rarely focused on taking advantage of the single player experience by coming up with unbalanced units or unique scenarios.  They relied on constant repetition making the many campaigns feel like tutorials for the multiplayer mode.  In the end, the battles became progressively more boring as the player rebuild an army for the millionth time.  Starcraft 2 strives to incorporate varied mission design with game choices outside of the match allowing for variety in gameplay.  This evolution is more than welcome.

Better Pathfinding – Have you ever told a group to go one direction and a single unit decides they’d rather blaze a trail towards your opponent’s death ball?  Did that seem like fun?  No?  Great!  That doesn’t happen much anymore, but it used to.  Unit AI had difficultly figuring out the best path to reach wherever the player wanted them to go.  Oftentimes, it would consider fellow player controlled units as impassable blockades and send units around giant mountains and lakes rather than push through allied units.  RTS games caused much frustration because they were not only poor at translating player strategy into onscreen action, but because they did so in a manner that jeopardized a player’s ability to win.  Ugh.

Less Clunky Everything – Some of the changes to the RTS genre have been revolutionary, but most are evolutionary.  The basic Dune II template hasn’t fundamentally changed since the game came out in 1992.  That being said, developers have worked on refining the genre to include hotkeys, visual aids, and clearer user interfaces.  Units respond quicker and with more obvious movements.  On the whole, the player is better able to understand the battlefield and respond how they wish far better than the early genre forbearers would allow.  Developers have streamlined almost everything that players could want and it makes for a much more approachable and appealing experience.

Complexity –The currently RTS genre is filled with complicated tech trees, micro intensive spellcasting units, and countless interactions.  Each aspect informs detailed strategies which require quick minds and quicker fingers to perform.  The fact that the modern RTS has leagues and competitors shows how far the genre has come.  By comparison, the early RTS games are simplistic.  They lack the intricate interactions that form the basis of most modern RTSes.  While games were clunky and unwieldy, this was a necessity.  In many ways, the refining of the control scheme allowed for the development of more complex games by allowing players to have tighter control over the action.  Of course, this is a double edged sword.  The more complex the genre becomes, the harder it is for new players to learn it.  Many may give up, frustrated by all they need to learn to compete.  Complexity increases the appeal of RTS games for some, but it also weakens it for others.

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