Planetary Annihilation

In Video Games on August 17, 2012 at 3:31 pm

If there’s a genre that defines the split between my “real life” friends and my “internet” friends, it is the real-time strategy genre.

It feels weird even typing that out. That distinction is purely academic at this point. Given that I went through a period of time of only seeing my brother about once per year, there has been a period of time in my life where I saw my “internet” friend Jack more frequently than my brother. So mote it be. But anyway. Strategy games.

I more or less have an understanding as to why Poe Lucas Paynter doesn’t prefer the genre, something about preferring more intimate interaction with the characters to commanding armies of characterless units. Jack I’m less sure about. I’m making this assumption behalf Maggie but I honestly haven’t asked her, though it would shock me were I wrong.

Shoot. This list used to be longer.

My brother and I got into RTS games back in the day, though we preferred Red Alert 2 to Starcraft. In fact, I only got into Starcraft at the behest of an old friend who insisted it would be fun. It was, to a certain degree, but it is a different kind of game altogether, really. It was through that and Warcraft III that I hooked this genre around to my college friend Joshua, though he was an Age of Empires 2 addict and thus had some tenure in the genre.

So what I’m trying to say is, this article is going to talk about a real-time strategy game, and as such 50% of the people that read this will probably check out mentally until I swing this back around to nostalgia three paragraphs down.

So here’s a Kickstarter that I’m actually kind of interested in funding. It’s refreshing and unique and bold, qualities that certainly haven’t been part of this genre for quite some time (that and “frequent releases”). The concept is certainly out there: rather than the action taking place on a flat, square map, the game takes place on a rounded planet …within a solar system with other rounded planets and celestial bodies.

If there’s a moment in watching their promo video that made me squeal with glee more than watching units deploy via drop pods from the moon, it was when they attached thrusters to an asteroid and wrecked the planet. Good times.

The game is a spiritual successor to Total Annihilation, a game that none of us ever played (but a guy named Roland did). This game already has a spiritual successor in Supreme Commander — but not Supreme Commander 2 — but such is the nature of a developer’s extended and warped family tree that such projects claim many people as progenitors who go on with “the developer of…” as their eternal legacy.

Chris Taylor is really the name of the game here if you’re keeping score, however. As the mastermind behind TA and SupCom, it’s much easier to follow his legacy as the spiritual succession of RTS games starring huge armies clashing together on cyclopean battlefields (with persistent unit husks, streaming resources and construction et al). 

So, while I am excited about these unique ideas, I approach the game itself with its “spiritual successor to Total Annihilation”  byline as one might approach a sequel “from the executive producers of” as the ad byword. Granted, some refugees from the TA studio are on the project (as staff at Uber Entertainment), but it just isn’t the same. Not that it needs to be, but it would be better if it didn’t pretend so much.

But let’s go over some of the stuff you can see in the trailer.

First off, the art style is cartoony in the same way Team Fortress 2 is cartoony: bright colors, silhouettes that stand out against the planetary backdrop. The designers have gone on record stating that they are intentionally distancing themselves from a realistic design to aid in unit differentiation. Not a bad idea. It also helps for making the battles themselves visually distinctive. From the video, dark yellow robots battle their red enemies amid bright lasers and explosives hued with orange plumes and grey smoke; this, on a backdrop of green forestry and pale yellow desert. These creations remain as distinctive against the dark grey moon they expand to.

With as much action going on as this title might support, it’s important to offer that visual distinction without resorting to fat, ugly outlines (as Red Alert 3 did).

A rounded battlefield with no edges, corners or areas where approach is made impossible by limited geometry is an exciting prospect. Normally, you make base defenses in the direction of your enemy; the rear of your base is traditionally less defended because it’s more difficult for them to get around that way. While this line of thinking had its own exploitation (that I exploited on many occasions), that you can and should reasonably expect attacks from all sides is very interesting and adds a new dimension to the “sim base” aspect of RTS games that I do so enjoy.

While the developers have stated that battles can take place on many planets in the same system, I think it’s interesting that, on a smaller scale, different bodies pose different strategic considerations, rather than simply always being an extension of the battlefield. Building moon bases for rapid deployment just seems neat. And dropping asteroids on a planet is a cool idea that will be made better if the trailer is to be trusted — that doing so essentially wrecks the planet. With the larger scope of the game, it’s really intriguing that wiping out a planetary battlefield may not even end the game, and I like that.

Now, Uber Entertainment has more than a few industry veterans on board, but so far they’re only really known for Monday Night Combat. A fun game, but one of peculiar scope and made troublingly free-to-play on the PC. While I don’t imagine they would have a Kickstarter for a game that’s implied to be a retail, pay-to-play release, such thoughts are making me hesitate before funding the project. On the plus side, they seem to have things largely on track, with a release scheduled in mid-2013 and a beta before that — given their reliability with Monday Night Combat, I’m sure that’s a window they will soundly make.

In conclusion, everyone should be happy because I was going to go into the story of the beginning and evolution of the RTS genre, and I really couldn’t make it flow out of this.

  1. Roland? There’s a name drop. :-p

    Well, the game you’ve made your focal point sounds neat enough from a conceptual standpoint- not that it’ll be any exception to my interests, but I appreciate new approaches and I’m not aware (in my limited pool of knowledge) of anything too much like this. So bravo to them!

    As for my own interests, yeah, the faceless armies has been a major factor in not wanting to get into the genre in general- it was for a similar reason that I soured on the much revered Final Fantasy Tactics, as I wasn’t fond of the disposable mooks I had to hire.

    I’ve only had two that I’ve really gotten into, in fact- Sega’s Shining Force series, which is really fairly simplified insofar as unit management is concerned, and the recent Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked on the 3DS (which is just slightly improved over the original DS version), which deals with a small team (usually 3-4 characters) with each clash between them and the enemy forces playing out… as a turn-based RPG battle. It was funny ’cause the guy who turned me on to the series hated it, said it was too hard (which was one of his staple views as to the point of the series) and I ultimately tried it in spite of his warning and my disinterest in the genre.

  2. My problem with RTS games is mostly two-fold, with a small caveat that almost makes it three fold.

    1. I am not fond of gaming on a computer; this view has only increased since I switched to purely laptop computing.

    and 2. most of them are very samey or bland.

    I played the hell out of command & Conquer, but I never saw anything other games that made me want to jump up and dive in. Starcraft always looked boring to me, and even in the age of bad graphics I disliked it. Warcraft as well, but less about the graphics. Supreme commander was all about ‘big maps!’ but it was boring as hell and played like crap on my computer. And you can pretty much cross off anything WW2 related. I love “Warhammer 40k” though and that leads to the caveat…

    I have no one to play them with. Back when I was playing Warhammer every night I lacked a good net connection. Now time has moved on.

    This game looks pretty cool though. I like the graphics and the fractal-esque worlds. It has a neat concept, and sounds promising.

    That said, I can see Poe’s view also. I do prefer to either be on the front lines (Star Wars Battlefront II) or managing the whole affair from my throne (Sword of the Samurai) than hastily and awkwardly shoving around a small handful of faceless troops.

  3. Poe, the meanest way I can put this is that the RTS genre has a greater emphasis on gameplay, which you’ve always been willing to overlook in favor of story and not the other way around. This genre has traditionally been pure gameplay, with some of the meatier games omitting campaigns entirely, instead relying on backstory in the manual to provide a backdrop for the conflict and nothing more.

    I’d almost call it the difference between playing with legos versus action figures. Action figures represent characters and stories. Legos less so. My brother and I used to build elaborate vehicles out of legos and smash them together, identifying with our own skill in creation and the fun in watching and assessing the damage, rebuilding, and re-smashing. Today we even call games we don’t play well (with long “cease fire” periods while we build up forces) “smashing our legos together.”

    Now Jack, I will go ahead and say that it’s probably an overstatement to say they are samey and bland. As a genre, RTS is certainly more enslaved to certain tenants than other types of games, but there’s a great deal of difference to be had when it comes down to each game.

    How many factions are there? Are they high balance or low balance? Can you further specialize your faction or is it set? What resources are there? How are they gathered? What strategic implications do they possess? How much of a base can you build? Does your economy support your base being built or its upkeep? Is there a military focus or are there alternate strategic venues?

    To doll out some examples:

    Rise of Legends deals with three factions (the Italian modeled, steampunk Vinci, the sword/sorcery arabian nights inspired Alin, and the Mayan-themed gods-as-aliens Cuotl) that were completely distinct from each other (high balance). “Bases” were in fact cities; building up your base meant building additional districts to your city, which would shape your empire with its focus. More military districts mean more military units and a stronger “national border,” an in-game measure of your territory. Crossing said borders deals attrition damage to your enemy.

    Achron has two factions that are similar (low balance), with both sides presenting fairly standard low-sci-fi units. However, the big trick here is that you can travel in time. Specifically, at any given time, you’re playing across several minutes of “game time” and can switch between moments at will. If a battle doesn’t go your way, you can go back to reinforce. You can even reinforce units with their future selves. And then you can circumvent the attack by wrecking your opponent’s unit production before they build any units. This is multiplayer, by the way, so your human opponent is likely trying to do the same.

    And then you’ve got Sins of a solar empire, which has three factions that each have two versions, that all start out similarly but play out very differently in the long term (mixture of low and high balance). You build an interplanetary empire, making sure to account for the development of your planets to best suit your empire in the short and long term. Single matches can take hours, and you can win via military, research, or diplomatic means.

    ALL THAT ASIDE, the genre has some stinkers and certain elements tend to go through trends of being heavily favored or reproduced (the RPG-like “heroes” from Warcraft III, for example).

    And I am a sad panda that we never got to play Dawn of War.

  4. That WAS mean, Trod! I-

    Wait, no, I’m fine.

    I think it’s a bit of an overstatement that I’m willing to overlook gameplay for story, but vice-versa. It does depend on the type of gameplay, but I will concede that stat-intensive/management based games don’t draw me in on their own merits.

    That considered, with the two examples I mentioned that I did get into, Shining Force II was sort of a happy accident since I was really just looking for more RPGs on the Genesis; I wasn’t clear what kind of game it was exactly from the back of the box and it looked RPGish enough… and the $30 buck I got it for at Toys’R’Us ended up being criminally cheap.

    Devil Survivor, yeah, I definitely gave it more of a shot considering my burgeoning love of the SMT series and the semi-Persona-ish guise of it (even though I knew it really wouldn’t be). Even then, finding out what happened next is sometimes what pulled me through the more tedious fights, and even then it took me a few months of on-and-off gameplay.

    That said, the majority of RTS titles do tend to focus more on broader warfare, and part of my personal disdain may sway towards the fact that I don’t care for war much as an expressive medium.

    But, yeah, I’ve played my share of games where the story sucks or is non-existant and still liked them- I just find it better when there’s a positive synergy between the two. Just as much though, if the gameplay is the right kind of suck, the story would have to be damned good to make up for it. This is much of why I never got far in the much lauded Vagrant Story… I just hated playing it that much.

    • I should say “more willing” to overlook. But yeah, even in that case the gameplay has to not cockblock you from getting into the story otherwise the entire exercise falls apart.

      And, “war as an expressive medium” ? That sounds kind of weird. I’m not sure what I would call an expressive medium. Torture, maybe. I am a Terrorartiste.

      Conflict is at the center of all fiction, in one form or another. Through that, wargames express as much or as little as you’re willing to read into things. My playthrough of FFT: Advance was rife with personal motivations and relationships that I made up for my troops, to the point of choosing some over others out of this rather than tactical consideration. Watching an old friend fall in battle would lead to further challenges as I would deploy them as a rash, grief-stricken actor rather than looking to maximize stats.

      Jack is also one to do these things, usually much more than me. It all depends. As it has become my RTS du jour online these days, Sins of a Solar Empire has interesting moments where singular planets fall into and out of allied hands several times in a match. I just imagine a bombarded, crater-pocked face of a ruined world, houses filled with factories and garrisons rather than people living lives. Out of cruelty I will irradiate enemy worlds for no other reason than to punish its citizens for the sins of its empire.

      These little touches are a powerful motivator.

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