There’s one genre that I don’t want to see migrate to consoles. It’s built for the PC and it should stay on the PC. As long as we don’t have a mouse and keyboard at the TV, there’s just no reason for real-time strategy to ever move. It’s a genre built around quick decision-making under mental and physical pressure to perform, where your ability to point and click is as important as your ability to see five steps ahead of your opponent. Multiple hot keys aren’t just there for convenience, they’re there to make you a winner.
I look at this genre as the PC’s equivalent to the one on one fighting game that dominated late 80’s and early 90’s arcades. While you can play it as a team game–and it’s awesome fun to do so–the real meat of RTS for me is going head to head with people you know and people you don’t. It’s your set of moves against theirs. Sometimes you have to alter your paths, change your strategy on the fly, but to do that you need to be practiced. A great real-time strategy game has a skirmish mode that can test you, help you see some opening strategies that work. The Age of Empires games really brought that part of the design to the fore, and pretty much perfected it in Age of Mythology. That game played a lot like a human would, letting you get a taste of what you’d encounter online even before you got there.
And online is where I always end up with the RTS. The campaigns are usually worth playing, but not the way to become a better real-time strategy player. That’s counter to what the fighting game did with AI in the arcades. The time you spent in single-player on Street Fighter II was time well spent preparing to take on human opponents. I’d like to see more RTS games aspire to a campaign that pushes you to play like you would against other people, then maybe more folks would take the time to go online with some modicum of skill under their belt? All too often people write off the genre as being too samey, but like the fighting game, every RTS has its skill set, its own rules and its own methods. You come into it with a good idea what might work, but spend your time enjoying the ways that new game differs from the last.
Today’s number four game is one that has a long history. It’s not going to be on many lists, though some people saw that it was a lot more than just another entry in the series. For me, it’s the most fun I had with an RTS online all year. Weeks after it shipped I was still coming back for more. It got a console release, but that version is nowhere near as entertaining as the PC version, and a bear to control. I plan to pull this one out again once the holiday deluge subsides and especially when the expansion ships…
4. Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
Command & Conquer 3 has some of the slickest presentation of any game released in 2007. Whether you’re watching the high definition video scenes or flinging Stealth Tanks across our ravaged earth, it looks phenomenal and animates with a sort of purpose that few games have. Everything in this game blows up real good, and the pyrotechnics aren’t even the highlight. No, C&C3 is a simple game that blows up into a myriad of entertaining strategies and action-packed combat. It can be a whirlwind of strike and counter-strike that ends almost as quickly as it begins. Between two evenly matched players, it can draw out beyond fifteen to twenty minutes online, but that’s the exception and not the rule.
For some people, that’s not cool. If that’s you, just move on. Not everyone understands that real-time strategy is not about the build, it’s about the command and the conquer! (Corny!) Everything you do in an RTS has to be laser focused on getting more and better guns while making sure you’re stealing your opponent’s butter. Never, ever, fight on your own soil. Take the fight to your opponent before he brings it to you and never let up, no matter how much that strings you out.
This game emphasizes that need for aggressive speed, and has a superb skirmish mode that will force you to up your game to match it. That’s the mark of good real-time strategy game design. Teach the player through failure? Yeah, that’s part of it, but if you’re willing to take the skirmish beatings a few times, you’ll quickly learn to be a heck of a lot more aggressive and streamlined in your builds. Command & Conquer 3 also brings this series up to date with replays and a much better interface with lots of hotkeys. Replays are the key to becoming a better player. Every time you play online, win or lose, taking the time to watch the replay will improve your game. You’ll see things you never thought of. It’s your way to watch the best players at the arcade in the age of fighters. I wish we could’ve done that with that genre back then like we can with real-time strategy today.
As much as I love the online game and skirmish, I think the campaign is definitely worth playing. Command & Conquer is one of the few series outside of everything Blizzard makes that has an interesting backstory and entertaining characters. It’s science fiction with a lot of nods to the modern day and Kane is still cool. I really appreciated this game’s use of full motion video instead of in-engine movie-making because it’s a really great change of pace in today’s game market. High production values always make me happy when I’m playing, and C&C3 doesn’t ever skimp. That’s how it should be in a game from Electronic Arts in one of the most storied franchises in gaming history.
All that full-motion story-telling is cool, but I love to break someone’s Nod Scorpion Tank rush on my GDI defenses. It’s a blast to quickly tech up to railguns and send an endless wave of Mammoth Tanks rolling through my opponent’s front line. Seeing a Scrin Mothership decimate a base is sublime. Best of all, I don’t have to wait for an hour before these things can happen. The game’s design makes each online game into another wave buildng up to crash upon someone’s defenses, wiping them away so you can jump into the queue for the next rush of whitecaps lashing the shores. There were other real-time strategy games I enjoyed in 2007–Supreme Commander and Company of Heroes among them–but Command & Conquer 3 just kinda got me right there. Real-time strategy is my fighting game for the 21st Century and I’ll keep on playing those like C&C3 until my hands can’t take anymore.