'A Journalistic Bent' is a regular column in which our roving reporter takes a hard look at all the issues of gaming, games development, and the games themselves. This week's column looks at real-time strategy and the loss of the sceptic.
This week a games journalist said to me that he would never play Company Of Heroes because it was a real-time strategy game based on World War II. It's fair enough, I thought, he's right to be wary of such things. If there's one theme of video game that should be buried under a tree in the middle of Alaskan tundra, it should be that which spawned games based on 20th century conflicts of the Nazi variety.
But he wasn't talking about World War II games. He didn't want to play it because it was an RTS. And not just any RTS: it was an American, base-building RTS.
I took issue with this. Company Of Heroes is a muscular masterpiece of a game, loaded with action and tactical cleverness (even if the anti-tank gun is comparatively over-powered). It's refined, elegant, and intricate. It takes inspiration from the Bitmap Bros' Z2, which was a game that I wanted to be great, even if it was only reasonable competent. This was like seeing a failed uncle acknowledged as being a righteous bloke after all. If you wanted to know about what happened in games in 2006 there's really not much of an excuse for not playing it.
But then what was the last real-time strategy he had played? Oh well, Dawn of War, I guess. Oh, nameless journalist, how you missed out on something, I said. Dawn Of War was made by the same development team! Surely, if you enjoyed that then you would certainly hoot with delight at Company Of Heroes?
He shrugged. Dawn Of War wasn't based on World War II, and it had all kinds of problems, like base building. And really it might as well have been Dune II, but with a clever animator...
I surrendered my defence of the tank-happy genre and wandered away. But, as the day progressed, the idea bugged me. I began to think that perhaps the real-time strategy genre is an area of gaming where real potential for change lies. In fact, I think there's something going on in real-time strategy. Something that suggests change is already afoot.
The basic idea third person control of multiple units is one that offers itself to a vast range of applications. This is limitless soil, endlessly fertile. The genre and its offshoots represent a veritable encyclopedia of game models for designers to work with. It readily avails itself to other game-types, as the Total War series' carefully plotted turn-based campaign map has revealed in the last few years. (See Warhammer: Mark Of Chaos, see Battle For Middle Earth 2...)
Also, tellingly, there have been a number of attempts at cosmetic and stylistic overhauls to complex game models, such as Rise Of Legends, or attempts to change the dynamic completely, such as the addition of an extra plane in Homeworld. There have even been attempts to lose the received ideas about resource and base-building completely, as with the first Ground Control game (which I must rant about elsewhere), or the deliberate weirdness of Perimeter, which wanted to suggest that RTS games need not even have to make sense to still be fun. Hell, there's even the cute RTS of the Pikmin games. So hey, why wouldn't someone want to know about where these games are going?
Looking back I begin to wonder whether the RTS has been a genre looking for direction. There seems to have been no single event game that can lay claim to having transformed the genre as Half-Life did for the FPS. Dune 2 and Command & Conquer set things up and it seems to have ambled away in increments of progression ever since. There have been outbreaks of mixed genre madness such as Battlezone and Sacrifice, but nowhere has there been a landmark that sent us hurtling in different directions.
Perhaps this was what had defeated my journalistic companion. He didn't want a part of Company Of Heroes because, no matter its importance, there was no easy route to gauging its importance, no quick commentary, no analysis that wasn't going to omit all its hidden influences. Real-time strategy is such a gigantic soup of a genre that there are no shortcuts to understanding what's going on in there. And the crappy World War II games are legion.
If he ever does take a closer look he'll see that Company Of Heroes is spilling over with ideas and, well, it's not alone.
[Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]