Monday, February 23, 2009

Comparing real time strategy games of the same genre.

I could start off by saying you how unabashedly Blizzard ripped of the Warhammer 40k franchise by making Starcraft. Indeed going on looks alone, both of these have Humans (Space Marines and Terrans), "the old advanced race" (Eldar and Protoss) and the insectoid aliens (Tyrannids and Zerg). The similarities are striking and not coincidental, yet they are only skin deep. But makes it tempting to compare them none the less. RTS players know it has happened before, and will happen again with the sequels. I could also say that Starcraft has been the dominant (video game) franchise. The offering of Warhammer titles had been quite meager up until Relic made Dawn of War. But with that, a more superior title was released in the RTS genre. With added mechanics and concepts, which led to radically different gameplay from what had been the standard in titles such as Command and Conquer, Age Of Empires and Starcraft.

All the latter have a arcade-like "spend and win" mechanic. Which boils down to massing an army together. Be it of one unit type or a mix of units. Eventually a battle is fought between huge armies and usually the biggest, or most expensive, comes out on top. Massing comes natural when you have to tech up one way or the other. Spending time and resources on buildings to build a specific unit type is risky. So a consequence of saving on the one building is the funding the one building you did build, and produce the specific unit type it produces.

I had to point this out because Starcraft has this gameplay down, almost to perfection. And with Starcraft 2, we'll see a further evolution of this kind of play. Expendable units, used to (hard) counter the others. With Buildings as technology investments. Starcraft 2 will even go as far as one unit per building. It's quite clear that reality has taken a back seat in this scenario. Which has led me to say that Starcraft is an Arcade RTS.
As a side note: It has become to such a degree that supply depots, which I take it were used to "store stuff in" (i.e. to expand your population cap), have taken the role of walls. This of course was because Starcraft players would wall off their base with supply depots. In Starcraft 2, Blizzard has added a "gate" functionality to the supply depot by making it possible to sink them into the ground. Or, how meta-gameplay feeds into the perceived reality of the Starcraft universe.
Disclamer: I am aware that the cream of the crop Korean Starcraft players don't actually mass all that much. They win matches with a handfull of units and godly micromanagement skills (which still strikes me as arcade play). And seldom make it into the endgame scenario. It is not how the majority (including you) plays the game however.

The opposite could be said for the Dawn of War series. Base building and resource management has been minimized and put in the battlefield to focus more on the actual tactics. DoW1 still had a case of teching with buidings. But the evolution in DoW2 has been an even bigger move into the battlefield. Bases consist out of one portal-like building that produces all units. Not all units are available at start but are unlocked by, essentially, buying the next tier. Resources are found on the battlefield as inexhaustable strategic points. These also form the goals of most battles. I should also mention that the influence of that other Relic juggernaut Company of Heroes was instrumental to the DoW evolution. In terms of gameplay CoH was based on DoW1. And in turn DoW2 was based on both of these. CoH cut back on base building and unit count, expanded on strategic points and added the retreat function. Coh is more complex in nature than DoW. This can both be a good or bad thing depending on what you want in an RTS. CoH has more complex strategy and longer games. DoW is more straight forward, has smaller maps and has shorter matches. But I digress. The biggest contrast between Starcraft and DoW is that in DoW units are a big investment, and letting one unit die can seal your fate. All these units are rather expensive and can be customized in various ways. Mainly modified weaponry lets you deal with different threats. Hero units can equip armor and weapons mid game to make them stronger. Much like you would in, say, Diablo. To help your units service there's a "retreat" command which orders your units to leg it back to base where they can be reinforced for a fraction of the unit cost. This also saves any special weapons they might be carrying and preserves their level, as these units gain experience.

The observation is this. Starcraft is heading along the way of fast paced arcade gameplay using expendable units. Dawn of War is going the way of an RPG with limited yet highly customisable "party members" and added realism with unit AI, physics and a cover mechanic.
And as such, they also become much harder to compare. Both being at their own end of the RTS spectrum.

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