The Introduction (Or "Why Delays Are the New Thing")
Let's pretend that this article is getting published in a special part of a unique dimension somewhere in the vast reaches of time, space, and the Intarweb that wouldn't place it nearly two months after the last installment of this -- my four-part series dedicated solely to the fruitful kind of happyhappyjoyjoy feelings that the Real-Time Strategy genre can impart upon its gamers (and the other two parts: part one and part two). So, yeah, here's the much-delayed fourth part of my
Company of Heroes
When Relic released its first media and information about Company of Heroes I, like so many other gamers, sighed. It wasn't just a sigh either. It was a sigh. A lengthy, exaggerated-for-effect, loud, and blatant sigh that shook the Earth by the power of some imaginary Braingod of mine. Yet another World War II title to add to the stack of games that all draw from the same eight-word pool of words that function as titles -- "Company of Heroes," "Medal of Honor," "Brothers in Arms," "Battlefield 1942," "Soldiers: Heroes of World War II," "Call of Duty," etc.. Whoop-dee-fricking-doo. I've personally never had a problem with so many games drawing from the same era, but the fact is that most of these games all draw from the same perspective of the war: the Airborne infantry (as chronicled in Band of Brothers, D-Day, and other such famous battles. These are all truly aspects of the war well worth learning about and trivializing in modern games, but at some point there needs to be a line drawn in the sand that dictates when enough really is enough.
And upon the release of the game's single-player demo (I wasn't too enthralled with the multiplayer beta) I had every single preconceived idea about the game turned upside-down. I'm sure there have been moments in my gaming career where I've been so surprised by a game that it'd be absolutely impossible for another game to be more surprising, but off hand I'd say that Company of Heroes surprised me (a lot of build-up for such a mild ending statement, I know; "that's what she sa--"nevermind). The second I started the tutorial missions and saw the gameplay in action first-hand (and not in a multiplayer match) I instantly knew that Relic had something special on their hands with the game. I couldn't really place that feeling that was rising in my tummy while I made short work of the tutorial missions, but something about the game just felt good. I also played and loved the incredibly well-presented first mission (Operation Overlord!) in both its introductory cinematic and the very cool way in which the cinematic morphs into real-time graphics. I stopped playing the single-player demo after this, since I heard that the next mission in the demo was actually the fourth or fifth in the final game, and I like to preserve as much of the game as possible for the retail release.
Unfortunately, my drive to hold off on the game until the day of its release was absolutely crushed when Relic released a demo that had a skirmish mode coded into it. I jumped on that demo like a rabbit on to a carrot from Mr. McGregor's garden. And it was good. Oh, was it good. As a rough estimate, I believe I played that single, two-versus-two skirmish demo map approximately... Thirty times. Give or take [Give] ten. The way that the game was able to harness the kind of fast-paced, chaotic atmosphere I've only seen equaled in the best-of-the-best World War II shooters on the PC (Call of Duty if you were wondering). I had matches against the computer that placed me within a mere fifty or so points, out of an original three-hundred, from being eliminated and mocked by the "Easy" difficulty (what a misnomer that is) but, after more than an hour of struggling from point-to-point, securing choke points throughout the confines of the small map, I was able to pull out in the end due entirely to smart, strategic allocation of units and defenses.
Company of Heroes.
At least one of the rounds, maybe two, of the game I played against the AI in the demo map lasted more than an hour and a half. That may not seem like much but it's worth re-noting that this particular map isn't really all that big. It's, actually, just big enough for a two-versus-two game and not a whole lot more. The reason that these games tend to go on for so long is that Relic has these maps designed for combat along very specific locations on each map -- usually directly corresponding to "Critical Locations" or, in the case of the demo map, one of three control points which help to reduce/stabilize point loss for the player and his opponent (first to zero loses). The most fiercely contested spots on any given game map tend to occur around these locations (resource points too, but these aren't usually quite as intense), and Relic has done a masterful job in designing each map to support this sort of "bottleneck combat" that never allows any map to really be an easy victory for either the Axis or Allied team.
Company of Heroes' map design would be all for nothing if it didn't have the most frantic, visceral combat that I've ever played in a real-time strategy game before -- a praise which I've given, and hereby retract, to Relic's own Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Instead of relying on a large variety of units alongside a high population cap, the game allows every single unit on the battlefield to play a very important part while still putting an emphasis on a more "big picture" gameplay scheme. Similar to Dawn of War, Company of Heroes utilizes a squad-based infantry system that makes the player treat a squad as a single unit, while larger or more significant units such as tanks or snipers are treated on their own accord. I wasn't a really big fan of this system when it was present in Dawn of War, despite slowing growing accustomed to it over time, but in Company of Heroes it works like I believe Relic always intended it to function -- a byproduct of the game being far more militaristic in feeling than Dawn of War. And this organizational control scheme made me, as a player, made me take a step back after getting continually annihilated by opponents and take a second look at how I played the game. After a few trials, I learned how to adjust my control strategy: instead of grouping a logically-assigned mass of my units into a single hotkey and always moving and attacking the, say, three squads of infantry as "one," I gave each of my units a kind of mental hotkey. I split my five or six infantry squads into two separate hotkeys -- purely for reasons of their eventual distant location on the map, and that's it. For actual orders, I tabbed through the squad control (as you can control them individually within the hotkey group) and manipulated each and every squad separately. I never gave my tanks or vehicles hotkeys, as I always had them around my infantry to provide moving support as the click of my cursor demanded it. The only additional units I ended up choosing to have hotkeyed were the distant support and artillery squads. As I near the end of the single-player campaign, I find myself playing Company of Heroes unlike I have any other RTS game before it. I spend more than two hours on each of the later missions, I carefully plot out which units I choose to fit in the limited population cap, and I generally carry on two or three separate methods for achieving the same objective in a mission. I order all my units around the map individually, and I ensure that all of my infantry have heavy cover that they can seek before ever assaulting an enemy position as I have a backup rifle squad providing suppressing fire as they advance group scurries to their position. Excessive? Surprisingly, no. Effective? Definitely.
Any game that can force me into writing a single paragraph detailing even the most minute aspects of my militaristic tactics in a heavily combat-oriented real-time strategy game in this day and age is, without question, a game doing something to some degree of perfection. And that's exactly the case with Company of Heroes; the way the game handles combat is done so superbly that it, as I illustrated (or attempted to), manages to completely change the way that players approach and interact with a game that doesn't really deviate all that much from the basic RTS formula -- there's still the traditional base-building, need for resources, unit purchasing, and some form of tech tree advancement... But the way that the units themselves interact with the environment and their enemies puts the game over-the-top of what would, otherwise, be considered a very well-polished, by-the-books strategy game.
Company of Heroes.
All of the previously listed aspects of Company of Heroes are, certainly, the most obvious and crucial changes that the game implements to shake the standard conventions of the genre... But the way it handles some of the more common features that have crept into RTSs over the last few years are also a key to the game's success. And, by this, I'm referring primarily to the portions of Company of Heroes' incredibly sexy aesthetics. Let's face facts, people, the game has it going on in the conventional sense; it looks good, moves good, and has the kind of special effects that would even make Jerry Bruckheimer jot down a thing or two on his pyrotechnic notepad. The graphics are so good that the game is able to utilize the in-game engine to render cutscenes which are more detailed and life-like than most modern First-Person Shooters. And then there are them 'thar fancy-pants fisiks which have the two-fold purpose of throwing debris here, there (and everywhere!) and, also, the completely destructive landscape has huge gameplay ramifications. I mean, I suppose the pretty flying chunks of metal and cement impact the gameplay too but... Yeah, they really don't.
Anyway, the game's pretty bells, whistles, and abundant explosions end up having quite a drastic effect on the gameplay, which to me was a surprise. Sure, the graphics, animations, and physics help to make the entire game far more believable and intensely visceral than it may have been if the units were all stick figures and the tanks were all My Little Ponies... But specific aspects of the game's engine have a huge effect on how a heated battle can turn out; for instance, the game's combat is based heavily around the idea of "cover." An infantry unit is, essentially, screwed beyond words if he's caught in the open field with a tank gunning him down -- the unit is in, essentially, "negative cover" which ends up meaning that it is so exposed that it suffers a sort of sitting duck penalty in combat that usually ends in the unit getting absolutely annihilated by even the weakest of combatants. There are, of course, objects, tank traps, and sandbag mounds (the latter two can be built by the player) that can be used for varying degrees of cover to make early-match moments more even between the aggressors and defenders... But what's interesting is that any large chunks blown into the landscape, blown-out buildings and tank shells, along with chunks of rock blown from some of the larger buildings and objects can be used as cover as they fall to the ground (and persist if large enough). So, for example, let's say that you're in the middle of a heated tank battle and one of the enemy Panzers is annihilated by an M4 Sherman. That was a nice little morale boost, but the rest of your armor is only moments away from annihilate from a big 'ol Tiger tank. As soon as the enemy Panzer is destroyed, you can rush up some infantry troops, have them take cover around the hollowed-out tank shell, and then whip a sticky grenade or two onto the Tiger tank, have the infantry run for cover, and severely cripple (or completely destroy) the tank for your Sherman to finish off seconds later.
This dynamic battlefield restructuring works both ways, though; not only are chunks of objects or tanks usable for cover, but it should only follow that buildings (which can be dynamically inhabited by soldiers which will search for the best windows to attack from) can also be used for cover. And they can. The only problem with the whole idea is that Company of Heroes is a big proponent of its dynamic battlefield feature. At point in a game, I had an M4 Sherman equipped with something called a Calliope Rocket Launcher; I had it in my base in front of a building filled with two machine gun units inside of it to watch over the seemingly endless supply of charging Nazi infantry squads. I had never used this M4 Calliope, so I figured that, like the Howitzer emplacement, that the rockets would just be launched straight up into the air (ie, show the animation of them flying into the air, then wait a few seconds, and have the animation of them landing at the destination). Well, I was wrong. The game actually performs the legitimate rocket trajectory and I fired those Calliope rockets straight into the building housing my machine gun emplacements -- at least one of which was annihilated by the third or fourth (of about ten-twelve) rockets. The interesting thing about this, though, is that one of the rockets eventually broke through the building on both sides and the subsequent four or so rockets flew through the brand new holes in the building and managed to fly unobstructed right to the target that I specified. If that's not awesome, then I... Well, I don't care. It's awesome.
Company of Heroes.
All things considered, Company of Heroes is easily the greatest RTS to be released in the last three-four years. For the most part, players are able to approach the game much like any other genre title without too much confusion about a majority of the game mechanics. That said, the game's ability to completely redefine common expectations of "cinematic combat" in a strategy game without sacrificing the playability of the experience whatsoever is... Impressive (to say the least). Add an amazing campaign to that package and you have yourself a definite winner for RTS of the Year -- and, at least, a contender for overall game of the year. I haven't really been able to get into an RTS' multiplayer component outside of Warcraft III's, but from the limited amount of time I devoted to trying out some co-op against the Company of Heroes AI with some friends, it doesn't seem like too bad a system (but, it's hard to beat Blizzard's RTS multiplayer).
But, yeah, great game.
Supreme Commander is, without question, the most eagerly anticipated real-time strategy title to hit the genre in recent history. I realize that is a pretty big blanket statement to make, but having played the game after months upon months of hype, I can safely say that it's one I feel confident in making. The game bears a striking resemblance to Chris Taylor's last RTS, Total Annihilation, to the point where it's clear that, title aside, this is the sequel that the game never had. There are a lot of blatant similarities between the games that lead me to this ever-so-ingenious conclusion, but these are the kinds that can be found in any preview of the game. One of the things I'm really anxious to discuss about Supreme Commander is the game's sense of scale, which is a two-fold discussion: first is the scale as it affects gameplay, and then there's the scale of user interaction.
The sense of the scale of battle in Supreme Commander is something that I picked up on within of just configuring my first match in the game -- a multiplayer match where I was lucky enough to get an opponent who recognized me from Shacknews that was able to guide me through the early parts of a game which is, at first glance, incredibly daunting. When I was selecting a map for this first match, I was looking through options that had map size listed in terms of kilometers. At first, I thought this was some sort of cheap game design doublespeak to merely trick me into thinking that the game was huge. Yeah. I was wrong. Loading up the first match to reveal just how ridiculously tiny my own Supreme Commander (a behemoth, powerhouse of a unit until you hit the third technology tier) was in terms of the entire map was sobering, to say the very least. A few minutes later into the match after I had managed to finally get some unit production centers up, I realized the next important difference from every other RTS on the market right now: you aren't going to be establishing a few hotkeys for all the units under your control. You're going to construct squads of air patrols, land patrols, artillery squads, air bombers, land combatants, hit-and-run squads, infantry to fill up air transports to enact precision damage in the depths of an enemy base, a Supreme Commander unit to walk into an enemy base to self-destruct in a "last resort" game-ending act of nuclear detonation... Well, I could keep going, but I'll hold back just to say that there are a whole lot of possible combinations for military and tactical action that can be taken by a player at any given point in a match.
Remember that time way back in the day when I gave a bit of a tirade about the differences between what makes an RTS game tactical versus what makes it strategic? Well, to the best of my very limited ability to comprehend human thought and interpret the results, it seems that Supreme Commander handles these two gameplay variations incredibly well for a game that doesn't divide up the gameplay (a la the Total War franchise). There is still the necessity of building and assembling a base of operations, along with the resource management, that is becoming more and more typical of the genre with every game -- which isn't a shot at the convention, as I enjoy the practice, but it's always worth noting -- but it's how the game handles the differences between base-management, economy, and military that strikes me as fascinating. Once the very basic resource harvesting is established, the game becomes about trying to gather the two sources (mass and power) faster while continually increasing your max storage capacity for the resources. The problem, then, is maintaining these resource rates while you build more defenses, more factories, and attempt to reach that next tier of technological advancement. This all occurs, of course, while your unit factories should be pumping out unit after unit through a queue entirely of your own choosing at all times.
It's in the way that the game handles the military aspect (well, you know, the aspect) that it becomes a title worth taking more than a few moments of consideration. Supreme Commander isn't a Real-Time Strategy game in the conventional sense. It's a Real-Time War game. As I said in a comment under one of the previous articles, Chris Taylor is quoted as saying that "Strategy is what you do before a battle, and tactics is what you do during it." This seems to be the best way to describe the kind of gameplay found in Taylor's game. All of the player-controlled activities are certainly handled within the scope of a skirmish -- which is to say that there's no pre-battle prep work to be done -- but the game is so large in scope and, hell, general size that a match inherently discourages traditional RTS tactics of striking at an enemy's resources and workers as quick and fast as humanly possible. The presence of a hulking Supreme Commander unit to annihilate the small units also helps to deter from this practice (one which I've always held a certain level of contempt for). So, instead of fearing for your metaphysical life in the early moments of a match, your focus is switched to getting out some squads of various types of military units to begin precision assaults on enemy structures as soon as you can move the however-many-kilometers it takes to get to their position.
Supreme Commander isn't a game about numbers and massive assaults on enemy positions. The reason you'll want to be continually producing units is due to the fact that, for me, my best-played games were ones where I continually produced and refilled squads of units that I, just as often, sent on specific self-defined "missions" to slowly whittle down my opponent over time. I had a couple groups of bombers whose sole goal in their measly, mechanical lives was to fly through anti-air shell-riddled skies in an constant effort to disrupt the enemy's mass harvesting. I had a few groups of fighters who did nothing but patrol the borders of my brilliantly-designed base of operations. I had about four or five pieces of artillery that I guarded with a series of tanks and infantry units at all times in case they were spotted by the enemy. And over the course of this battle, which lasted almost three hours, I continually annihilated my opponents' attempts (most of the people I played, anyway) to rush at me with vastly superior numbers of a seemingly randomly-assorted ragtag force due solely to building smart lines of defense from the obvious land-based entry points. As a point of interest, I lost one of my most well-played games purely due to the fact that I accidentally bombed my Supreme Commander unit in battle and it just so happened that this has the ever-so-dire effect of creating a massive nuclear explosion which, if it occurs in a certain spot, pretty much ends any chance of winning the game (especially if you're playing the game mode that requires the unit to, you know, be alive). This is the kind of massive scale of war we're talking with in regards to Supreme Commander; games are almost certain to be long, potentially arduous endeavors of sortie after sortie, aggressive push after push, nuclear armament after nuclear armament, and so on (if certain settings are in place)... But that's the kind of game I think this genre is in such dire need of at this particular junction in time -- a topic I'll rant about, in length, in the next section of this article.
Another huge feature that the title is bringing to the genre is the manner in which it displays the game information to the gamer. Some people may refer to this as the game's "user interface" and the metric by which a game's user interface is measured is its "user-friendliness." I've played games that have had absolutely funtastic interfaces, yet were incredibly unfriendly for the user (Star Wars Galaxies comes to mind), and vice versa (the Total War games get a nomination from me in this category; I think they function very well overall, but they look so incredibly poorly done). At first glance -- see some of the non-PR screenshots scattered throughout if need be (like this one) -- the game's user-interface, on a purely visual level, is pretty standard fare for a modern genre entry. There are pop-up statistic/option buttons, building and upgrade options, and unit command features lining the bottom bar of the screen. Construction units line the right sidebar for easy-access, and resource generation rate and capacity (along with various other buttons) line the slim top bar. None of these, at first glance, seem too spectacular; they look great, and they function exactly as they should. Oh, and there's a minimap in the lower-left corner of the screen...
And it's that minimap where the first example of the pure and utter genius of Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games comes into play: that map is completely customizable in its viewpoint. If you want to check out a quick location on the map while you're in the middle of a heated battle, but don't want to switch your attention, you just take the pointer, hover over where you want to zoom in to, and run the middle-mouse button up until you get to an acceptable level. I was floored when I realized I could do this. I didn't see much of a practical use for it, but the option was nice. The time that this feature for abnormally detailed zoom really begins to come in handy is in the main screen. Whenever I start up my first match of a game (any RTS game, anyway), I always like to test out the zoom levels by first starting out with the closest and then heading in reverse to test the camera ceiling. I didn't go into Supreme Commander blind, so I had an idea of what kind of game I was expecting, but seeing the game zoom incredibly smoothly out to... Well, this. There aren't just four or five pre-defined "zoom steps" that the camera takes (Rise of Nations being an example of very blatant camera zoom steps), it just smoothly transitions from the closest view to a very large, iconic view of the entire map and its contents. You can order units around this way, coordinate patrols, check on the discoveries of radars, and so on and so forth -- a process made incredibly simple due to the game's genius queuing (and management of said queues) system.
I could continue about how the interface is completely customizable through scripting, or the dual-monitor support the game offers, or even the multiple-viewpoint option for a single monitor, or how the game in its beta stage offers some of the greatest RTS gameplay that I've seen in the genre for some time. The way the game handles all of the traditional strategy game components is done in such a new, fresh way -- even from the viewpoint of a Total Annihilation fan -- definitely seems like it's going to do a whole lot for the genre as a whole. If nothing else, though, the massive scale of the game's militaristic aspects is enough to make any PC strategy gamer happy for a long while whenever the game hits retail. I, personally, enjoyed the game's multiplayer beta to such an extent that, after playing a lot for about four to five days, I uninstalled it from my computer so that, come its final release, I could enjoy the game in its purest, most fully-featured form.
Though I realize abstaining from playing the game when I could be doesn't seem like as much of a praise as I'd like it to.
The Conclusion. For Real.
When I started this series out, it was intended to be nothing more than a two-part series inspired by an RTS article done by PC Gamer in August or September; I was going to cover very specific features that have crept into RTS titles over the last five-six years, and then take a look at specific games which had a big impact on the genre. This was, at most, intended to be a week-long project. I quickly got absorbed in a world of my research of the history of the genre (which was intended to be nothing more than a page or two of text) and, a day of work later, I wound up with an eight-page article that did nothing other than analyze games released from 1983 to 1995 and a brief expositional segment about my motivations for writing the series. At that point, the series was just going to be three articles long... And then I played Company of Heroes. As soon as I played the demo for the game, I knew that I was going to have to devote an article solely to upcoming hits that I was sure would do nothing less than revolutionize the genre in its current state -- this is a dream that was severely downgraded when I realized that, of the games I'm currently aware of, only two upcoming titles (as Company of Heroes wasn't released at that time) really had that ginormous potential. There are, of course, other games coming out in 2007 that have the potential to be big such as Command and Conquer 3 and War Front: Turning Point... But, while I'm looking forward to both of these titles as a gamer, as a supremely talented industry analyst (insert chortle here) I'm of the mindset that they're going to do little else than be fun preservations of genre norms.
The fact that Real-Time Strategy games haven't really changed a whole hell of a lot is a tough point to really contest. Developers have done a lot with the genre (I mean, try playing Dune II right after a years upon years of games like Dawn of War, Warcraft III, and Company of Heroes), but the most successful features that make it into the games are usually the least revolutionary ones. Warcraft III's use of heroes has been adopted by so many other games in the time since its release that gamers rarely need to adapt a whole lot to the concept -- they're larger-than-life units that, if utilized correctly, can hold an entire game on their shoulders. And, yet, in the grand scheme of the RTS this feature is really not a major change; the fundamental mechanics of the games are still relatively the same as they've always been. A player starts out with a main base, meager resources, and builder units. Resources are then gathered in the doldrums of the match as players build their first units, make necessary changes based on their strategy of choice for that particular match, then the game escalates into the "meat" of the match, and it continues back-and-forth within that meat until someone wins. It's all a very tried-and-true formula that, while antiquated in some gamer's minds, is essentially what an RTS is. I, personally, never really grew all that attached to fixed-unit strategy games, nor the Total War franchise due to the fact that I've always enjoyed the more action-oriented nature of games like Warcraft, Command and Conquer, and Age of Empires. When a new strategy title is released that tries to break completely free of the generic constraints (I think Perimeter is a great, recent example) it's a fun little diversion from the standard for a week or two, but for real RTS entertainment I always end up resorting to the more conventional genre entries. To me (and I'd like to emphasize the personal aspect of the following statement), "Real-Time Strategy" doesn't just mean that I'm playing a game centered around strategy in a real-time environment, but rather that I'm playing a game that sticks to a formulaic style of gameplay. What a game does within these conventions is a huge, huge part of the whole deal, but on a basic level, it's about conforming to the expectations I hold for an RTS game.
The idea of fragmentation within a kind of genre namespace is by no means relegated solely to Real-Time Strategy. The First-Person Shooter genre is filled with so many sub-genres that it's almost mind-boggling; there are action-oriented FPSs (F.E.A.R., Quake, Unreal), multiplayer FPSs (Battlefield, Counter-Strike), tactical FPSs (Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon), simulation FPSs (Operation Flashpoint, Armed Assault), RPG/FPSs (Dark Messiah, Deus Ex), and so on into eternity. The longer a genre is around, the more the experience of each individual game is going to be confined to a specific "play style." I'm sure there's always the possibility that any one of these days we're going to see a turn-based, 4X First-Person Shooter where you play as a marine stranded in space who is also inflicted with Midgetry (it's a space disease) that can only be cured by using a stylus on a touchpad in the upper-right corner of your computer LCD while moving your feet on a dance pad to control your ship's lasers as you fight off the Flood in a battle for the safety of a dainty princess.
I'm not entirely sure where I was going with this, but I know where I meant to go. Every now and again I hear people talking about how PC games (well, games in general) really will never have the same innovative qualities as they did back in the garage-development days. More to the point, I hear people say how every RTS is really just Command and Conquer or Starcraft with different graphics and, on the most basic level, this is probably true. That said, I spent at least nine pages in this article alone extensively detailing just how ridiculously fresh and cool two new RTSs (Supreme Commander only being out in a very rough beta form, of course) are even amidst the sea of absolutely amazing strategy games released every year. Sure, there are a lot of titles that will scream "Carbon Copy!" in the sense that, while playing it, you're overcome with some bizarre feeling of deja vu that you've played this game before when "it was called
... Yup. I think that was the kind of grand, overarching, optimistic concluding paragraph that this series should end with.
Update: One of the reasons this part was so far delayed from the other three is that I wanted to get some developer feedback. Eventually, though, I just got impatient and went to press with the article without the extra material. Well, post-publishing, Chris Taylor answered some of my questions about Supreme Commander, and although I'm entirely too lazy to go through the segment and re-write everything with the intent of smoothly integrating his answers into the text (which was the original goal) I'm not going to let these answers go to waste! The small interview can be found in the comments section of this article.