Tag: RTS (page 1 of 2)

Don’t Call It A Comeback

Courtesy Blizzard
Probes aren’t just adorable – they’re essential.

There are really only two games I’d consider playing competitively on a regular basis. I don’t think I have the skills to play a first-person shooter anything but casually in multiplayer, and while I used to play CounterStrike in university, I can’t see myself devoting the time necessary to the game now, let alone coughing up money every year for the latest iteration of the best “spunk-gargle-weewee” game around. I’m also not one for fighting games like Street Fighter; again, I’m much more casual with that sort of game, and Divekick is more my speed with that sort of thing. The two games I look towards as a true test of my skills and that engage me enough to drive me to improve constantly are Magic and Starcraft. While I still want to return to Legacy in Magic, Standard will be more economical, but that’s a post for another time. Even more economical is StarCraft 2 – unlike Warhammer or Warmachine, there’s no miniatures to buy or paint, and no need to find a table big enough to play on. The only investment required is time. And lean tissue in the brain.

Getting back into StarCraft 2 after a long break isn’t easy for anybody. Heart of the Swarm has hit since I last played on the ladder, and that may have changed things up drastically. My only recourse is to change with them, and that means starting over again, from scratch, to build myself back up into a better gamer. What I like about StarCraft as opposed to say, Magic, is that the random element is minimized and, on higher levels of play, non-existent. It’s entirely skill and strategy. But before I can get anywhere near that level, I have to get my bare bones basics nailed down. And that means mechanics. That means making workers.

Building workers is pretty much the foundation of any future play. It’s the fuel that runs a player’s engine in StarCraft. It’s the mana of Magic, the production certs of Axis & Allies, the planetary resources of Twilight Imperium. I can’t spend any time worrying about build orders or army composition counters or even the meta-game at large. Not yet, at least. As much as I love to tie my strategic and tactical gameplay into a greater philosophy or Sun-Tzu or something, there’s a reason soldiers start at boot camp and aren’t just shipped into combat. Eren in Attack on Titan doesn’t strap on the Three-Dimensional Maneuver Gear and get right to titan-slaying without some serious training. That’s the way it has to be for me, as well.

So I’ve looked up some notes on the changes to the game, watched some videos by Filter, and started drilling against the AI. Not to practice tactics, not to ensure wins, not to nail down build orders. I’m just making workers and basic units, focusing on the workers. So far, Terran and Protoss are going fine. Zerg, I’m struggling with. But I’ll get there. And when I do, at that point I’ll jump on the ladder and start fighting live opponents. Though ‘fighting’ may be a bit of a stretch, as all I’m likely to do is bunch up all of my basic dudes and lob them at the enemy with no real tactics involved.

Then again, I don’t think many people at Bronze level will know what to do when 50 Marines or 30 Zealots or 40 Roaches come knocking at their door en masse 10 minutes into a game. I guess we’ll see once I have my benchmarks nailed down.

The Speed of Strategy

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
First contact with the Protoss. Better think fast.

Yesterday’s Extra Credits discussed depth & complexity in games. When discussing complexity, James asks the question “How many mental calculations per second are you asking of your player?” He then goes on to posit that turn-based strategy games are no more complex than first-person shooters, based on the number and types of decisions a player must make based on the pace of play. But turn-based isn’t the only kind of strategy game out there. When considering the degree of challenge presented by a game based on strategic, overarching decision-making, the speed at which the game progresses is very important.

When I think turn-based strategy, I think Civilization. It’s the 4X game I grew up with and, while I miss Master of Orion, the latest iteration is very polished and well-presented. As all of your decisions are done on your turn, and no time limit is imposed on those turns, the pace of play is very leisurely. While you are making complicated choices, especially as you develop more technologies and expand your empire, you are under no temporal pressure to come to a conclusion. You have all the time in the world, and that makes a game of Civ truly relaxing, if incredibly time-consuming.

Some games present the choices of the player in relative real time but mitigate the pace with the use of a pause function. So it is with FTL. Weapons fire and teleporters activate just as soon as their cooldowns make them available, which can lead to some intensity, especially when you have multiple hull breaches and you have Mantis invaders chewing on your crew. But you can hit the Pause button at any time, catch your breath, and consider the situation from a broad perspective. This reduces the immediate burden on your brain and mitigates the pressure, thus making decision-making a bit easier and reducing what appears to be a daunting amount of complexity.

Online games do not afford the luxury of a pause function. Time manipulation in the real world would be a titanic advantage, but chronomancy is unfortunately restricted to speculative fiction. However, team-based play like that in League of Legends tends to take the burden off of the individual player. Ideally, five brains are better than one, and being able to at least discuss the situation at hand if not develop a plan of attack based on that information lessens the cognitive burden on the individual. The pace is still fast and some decisions will need to be made immediately without help from the team, but that ‘safety net’ is still there.

And then you have solo real-time strategy experiences like StarCraft 2. While a team mode does exist for the game, the play that earns the most attention, accolades, and money is the one-on-one experience. You can strategize and theorycraft until the exploding sheep come home, but when the game begins, all of your decisions need to be made immediately. You must process information on the fly, while carrying out your own plans. You must both out-smart and out-play your opponent, even if you’re going for a held-back strategy that works from the angle of base expansion, defense, area control, and technological upgrades as opposed to, say, a cannon rush.

Yet the decisions you have to make in a game of StarCraft – unit composition, the approach to the objective, examination of opponent’s weaknesses to exploit – are not that different from those in Civilization. They simply need to happen more quickly, and while this may make the game seem more complex, I dare say it really isn’t. The complexity of the decisions is magnified by the pace of play, but taken on their own the decisions themselves are not that difficult. It is, however, difficult to make a solid decision in a very limited span of time, and still have the confidence to know it was the right one to make (see also The Walking Dead).

This is both the challenge and the appeal of strategy. No matter what the pace of play might be, the brain is fully engaged in making decisions and carrying out strategies. Playing well is definitely more a case of mind over matter, and I for one am a huge fan of thinking your way out of a difficult position.

There Is Only War

Courtesy Relic Entertainment

For all of its great design work, innovative storytelling through games, flat corporate structure, and altogether positive image, Steam can be downright insidious at times. This past weekend, for example, they held a sale on everything related to Warhammer 40,000 and its games. I got Dawn of War II as a Christmas present, including the Chaos Rising expansion, and had only played the demo of the over-the-shoulder shooter Space Marine. So how do the games hold up, and how do they do representing the universe from which they come?

Dawn of War II & Chaos Rising

I’d played the previous Dawn of War game and its expansions, so I knew the sequel would likely continue being a different experience from other RTS titles. Not only does Dawn of War II provide that gameplay, it surprisingly also showcases a coherent narrative with interesting characters. Rather than split its single-player campaign between the different races available, it keeps its focus on the Blood Ravens chapter of the Space Marines, and the tale of a young and untested Force Commander (that’s you) dealing with the invasion of the chapter’s recruitment worlds.

Space Marines can come across as taciturn, even sullen warrior-priests in the lore, which as I understand it is a departure from their first appearance in 40k back in its first edition. The characters in Dawn of War II that make up your closest allies and battle brothers, by contrast, show a diversity of personality and motivation that works very well. Minor characters, such as the governor’s adjutant on Meridian and the Eldar farseer, also offer glimpses of depth and complexity you might not expect from this setting. All of the characters are voice acted well, which I’m sure is a relief to anybody who is at all familiar with the last original Dawn of War expansion, Soulstorm.

The gameplay is focused more on squad-based tactics than it is building a huge army and tossing it at whatever looks at you funny. Especially on Primarch difficulty, things like using cover and timing attacks properly is essential. The rewards for doing well are improved gear for you and your sergeants, as well as experience you can use to enhance abilities. It gives the game an RPG feel while holding onto its RTS roots. I didn’t really touch multiplayer in Dawn of War II, given the way the single player draws you in, and I do plan on running through and finishing the campaign again on that highest difficulty. It challenges my brain.

Dawn of War II: Retribution

The second expansion to Dawn of War II sees it returning to some older RTS & Dawn of War staples. There are now multiple single-player campaigns, which I suspect all play out along very similar lines. However, voice acting and characterization remain top-notch. I am, in particular, fond of the Imperial Guard’s Lord General, a man whose stiff upper lip can be difficult to see under his mighty mustache, moonlighting as a big game hunter when he isn’t sending waves of impressionable young men into the fray armed with glorified flashlights. I believe some of the characters from the base game and Chaos Rising return for the Space Marine campaign, so I may need to play through that one, as well.

Unfortunately, the tight focus on squad tactics has been lost, in favor of more traditional RTS structures and strategies. Building up sufficient forces to deal with incoming threats feels a lot easier than manipulating the limited resources of the previous campaigns. It’s still fun, but to me it just isn’t quite as challenging. It was Retribution, though, that introduced me to the multiplayer mode known as The Last Stand.

Being interested in MOBA-style cooperative strategy, The Last Stand is right up my alley. Three players, each commanding a single ‘hero’ unit, must hold off wave after wave of incoming enemy units from the various races available in Dawn of War. Each hero has unique abilities, equipment, and strengths. The speed at which you dispatch your foes, the number of rounds you survive without a player becoming incapacitated, and the strategic points you hold all factor into your score. Between games you level up your heroes and assign them equipment and abilities. As quick little bite-sized morsels of RTS & MOBA-flavored fun, it works quite well.

Space Marine

My first impressions of this shooter/spectacle fighter were good enough that I picked up the full game while it was on sale. The action maintains its weight and ferocity, and the story seems coherent enough so far. I can’t say the Ultramarines are showing quite the diversity of the Blood Ravens from Dawn of War II, but the voice acting is still good and the characterization thus far is coherent and consistent with the flavor and atmosphere of the source material.

With the full version I’ve also been able to try my hand at the multiplayer, which is a decent experience. Joining a small squad of Space Marines, be they loyal or Chaos, to control points, annihilate the enemy, or seize control of an ancient weapon has appeal in and of itself, but some of the nuances of the gameplay make it feel just different enough to be worth a look. At the start of the mission or when you respawn, you can pick from several different kits you’ve unlocked through gameplay: standard Tactical, a Devastator/Havoc heavy weapons loadout, and the high-flying Assault/Raptor kit. The biggest attention-grabber, for me at least, is that when you get killed, you can copy the loadout of the player that killed you. Even if they’re twenty levels above you with access to equipment and perks it will take you hours to acquire, you can load yourself up to mirror them and engage in a little payback.

It does have some issues, such as mics always being hot and the peer-to-peer lobby based system that indicates the console port nature of the game. Unlocks happen at a snail’s pace and there are a few weapon balance problems. I’m going to try the Horde mode and see what else I can unlock through some casual dabbling, but I don’t see it replacing TF2 or Tribes: Ascend any time soon.

Terribronze

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Another season has begun in the universe of StarCraft 2. And where does it find me? Yep. Bottom rung. Nothing’s really changed.

Or has it?

With the new job settling into a rhythm that I can cope with, I’m starting to plan more and stress less (at least a bit). Into those plans I’m trying to include things like eating better, exercising more (perhaps joining a gym?) and playing at least 3 matches of the aforementioned game a night. Why? The reason’s simple.

I’m tired of being terribronze.

I consider myself a casual gamer, in that I don’t really have aspirations of playing professionally at any point. I don’t want the game to become a job. And as envious as I am of the likes of Day[9] and TotalBiscuit who’ve managed to make gaming the central focus of their lives without the fun getting sucked out of actually playing said games, I do not have the financial freedom or liberty from obligations to make that drastic a career change. I’m pushing it as it is trying to find enough time to write in the space between seconds every day.

So why do I care about the arbitrary ranking I have in a online strategy game?

I guess it comes down to a measure of pride. Not the most noble of intentions, but there you have it. I fancy myself a bit of a smarty-pants. I got teased about it a lot in school. I was never good at physical activities, sports or even dancing, save for choreographed bits on-stage. I did all right in fencing, tennis and judo in college but it’s been a long time since then and my skills are rusty as hell. My brain, though? Sharp as ever. At least I’d like to think so.

Gaming’s a place where your physical prowess means nothing. It’s all about what’s going on upstairs. Strategy games are one of the ultimate expressions of this, and if it’s happening in real time? Even better. You need not only the capacity to plan and execute complex tactics but the timing and presence of mind to do so quickly and under pressure. It takes discipline and tenacity.

That’s the big, overarching thought, at least. I’m also not fond of losing to cheese and I’d like to think it happens less often in higher leagues.

The mere act of playing more often seems to help. Just a few days after the opening of the season and I’m already maintaining a position in the top 8. Granted, it’s among 100 players as terribronze as myself, but it’s better than nothing. My strongest matchup is still against Zerg while Protoss continue to beat me regularly. Even so, I seem to be winning more than I’m losing. I just have to keep it up.

Because at the very least, it’s keeping my brain in shape. And I don’t even have to pay a monthly fee to do it.

Learning New ARTS

Courtesy Riot Games
She’s like a miniature Tank Girl. Moreso than Strongbad, she is ‘tiny Heavy’.

I’ve had an interest in strategy games for many a year, from the tabletop war simulations like Squad Leader and Risk to 4X computer games in the style of Civilization and Master of Orion. I’ve made a series of entries on StarCraft 2. But like Master of Orion taking the 4X formula into SPACE, there was a precursor of the original StarCraft that shook up the standard RTS setup.

It’s a custom map for Warcraft III called Defense of the Ancients.

Often abbreviated “DotA”, the game does not focus on base construction or unit composition, but instead casts each player on the opposing teams as a single hero unit, supporting the automatically-generated waves of disposable peons called ‘creeps’ as they attack the enemy base. Each hero or ‘champion’ has a set of unique powers that they “level up” RPG-style and can also purchase items to bolster their abilities. This heady mix of RPG gameplay and RTS rhythm and competition has come to be known as either DotA-type, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games or Action RTS – ARTS.

I missed out on the initial DotA stuff, and actually had to dig out my old collector’s edition disk of Blizzard’s seminal RTS. Unfortunately I also require the expansion, The Frozen Throne, and while I have some copies of the disc I don’t know if such copies will be recognized for legitimate online play, even on a custom map. I don’t need Blizzard’s secret police knocking down my door. So while I wait for my next paycheck, I’ve been getting to know this variation on the game a bit more through Riot Games’ free-to-play take on the genre called League of Legends.

From what I understand thanks to some help from the fine gents and ladies of Team Liquid, there are some fundamental differences between League of Legends and the original DotA. The overall impression is that Riot’s entry into the ARTS is ‘easy mode’ as champions do not need to worry about getting in final hits, proper use of town portal scrolls and the mechanics of the more limited eengine. DotA sounds more unforgiving and, by extension, more rewarding than LoL. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

What makes games like League of Legends appealing is something I’ve alluded to previously. While you can get into team matches in StarCraft 2 they are not the crux of the game’s multiplayer scene. This may be the perspective of an admittedly casual gamer, but when it comes to extended sessions of games keyed for multiple players, going solo against a single opponent can get very lonely. I’ve had a few good experiences so far in LoL teaming up with others. I’ve had some bad ones, too, but I chalk that up to some of my fellow players being quick to blame newcomers like myself instead of examining their own shortcomings. Because that’s hard!

Anyway, League of Legends is at least helping me grasp the basics of this ARTS genre. Steam is working on a direct sequel to DotA itself, while Blizzard revealed that they are creating their own proprietary version with characters culled from their various IPs. I don’t feel pressed for time by either of these, and I do plan on firing up the original DotA once I’ve acquired a fresh, legit copy of Frozen Throne. For the most part this will strictly be for enjoyment, rather than some attempt to develop competitive skills.

I know I may never break into any level of professional gaming, nor do I want gaming to turn into a job to the point that I cease enjoying it. After all, if I had to focus entirely on one game for hours on end, things like League of Legends might pass me by completely. I’m entertaining the notion of starting an adventure in Terraria with a couple others, I plan on coaching a friend in Magic the Gathering and there will always be new single-player games to explore. However I spend my leisure time when firing up Steam or a console, the goal will not necessarily to be a top-level pro or boast the highest APM, but simply to have fun.

That’s what games are for, after all. Right?

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