Most of you have played at least one real-time strategy game in your life. For some of us, RTS was the highly potent treatment for an addiction to command and control, military history, or most likely both.
Part of it was roleplaying as Joan of Arc saving France from English invaders in AOE2, or as Jim Raynor protecting lowly colonists in Starcraft. Perhaps it was about the cadence of the games – building up a base from nothing and, within 20 minutes to half an hour, ascending a tech tree until you became the superpower of the minimap.
Unfortunately, my friends, RTS has been dead and buried for a while. No game of the genre since Rise of Nations or Warcraft 3 has been at all relevant in the PC gaming community (okay, fine, Starcraft 2 is important, but for competitive reasons, not because of its mediocre single-player gameplay).
Games like Age of Empires 3 and Rise of Legends were fine games, but they simply felt out of date. The RTS genre, narrowly defined, had reached its expiration date.
Could RTS really improve on this, anyway?
Part of the reason this occurred is because of the Total War series, which represented the culmination of the entire progress that the strategy genre had made up until the mid 2000’s. Everyone who has played the game knows what I am talking about.
If you have not had the pleasure, Total War combines the grand slow-paced strategy of Civilization with a battlefield mode that, at the time, was genuinely novel and still holds up well. The Total War games were big but not unimaginably so. All and all, they succeeded at doing what a game should do – engage the user without being torturous.
Let’s start with the multi-layered gameplay that I mentioned. While the existence of 5 games and numerous expansions across the series makes any definitive statement difficult, every Total War game had roughly 4 layers to it – battlefield combat, developing a functioning society and economy, managing your personnel, and foreign policy. Each of these layers was simple and did not tax the user, but presented still managed to present a challenge that was not extremely easy to take advantage of.
At the beginning of the game this complexity is a bit challenging, but the stress of having to be extremely economic adds to the fun. Not creating the right units while you are a fledgling empire marks the difference between life and being extinguished.
Funds are the limiting factor at this stage – not only does this present a bottleneck for further physical development of your empire, but also, it makes maintaining an army difficult (as far as I know, Total War was one of the first games to implement an upkeep system).
Perhaps the most interesting part is the almost RPG-style layer on top of all this – the personality and assets of your leaders greatly impact your success on both these fronts. The interplay between these assets creates a sort of game within the game, where battles are fought only to reduce the number of units you upkeep or to improve a general’s reputation, for example.
Often times the result of this complex interplay are poisonous choices that most other games do not make you make. One example of this is the strategy in Rome: Total War of exiting a discontent city that was recently conquered, allowing it to rebel, and then re-conquering and sacking the poor community.
The amount of dissonance this causes you, the player, is immense because it directly opposes the logic of promoting economic growth to improve your treasury. I would call this “good” dissonance, because generally you don’t feel cheated by the game so much as you feel like an actor playing the part of a brutal Japanese warlord, and playing that part well.
If you haven’t played the Total War games I would highly recommend that you give one of them a try. You don’t need to throw out the cash for Rome 2. You can buy any game in the series and get the Total War experience. I would recommend the original Rome. They clearly put the most work into making that game, including custom pre-battle speeches and a system of Roman politics that is Byzantine, infuriating and awesome.