In his ongoing series looking at the evolution/devolution of classic gaming genres, Nathan Lawrence turns his gimlet gaze to the RTS.
As I'm sure many of you are well aware, the long-awaited and highly anticipated real-time strategy extravaganza, StarCraft II, was released last year to glowing critical and consumer reception. It wasn't long before it became the fastest selling strategy title of all time and earned the mantra of the best-selling PC title of 2010. And why not; StarCraft II is a great example of a highly polished title that was, in many ways and for many people, well worth the wait.
But while StarCraft II stands as a shining example of how well a traditional formula real-time strategy title can still be near-unanimously well received by the gaming populace, I don't see it as a step in the right direction for the RTS genre. Certain reviewers have called the game StarCraft 2.0 - a statement simultaneously used as an accurate depiction of the game's evolution (or lack thereof) from the original formula and praise of StarCraft II's honouring of its roots. But a game honouring its roots or paying homage to what has gone before is one thing, while more or less cloning preceding titles is a problem I have across genres.
If you look at Relic Entertainment's gaming history, they seem to be comfortable with mixing things up. The two Homeworld games boasted a simple yet compelling storyline, persistent units across the campaign as well as three-dimensional movements and combat. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War forged the engine and paved the way for Company of Heroes, which was, for me, an RTS game changer.
Y'see, I've always loved the real-time strategy genre, but as soon as I encountered Company of Heroes, I realised how antiquated and just how over the tank/6-pool/insert-generic-unit-here rush mentality I really was. What used to be a race to get as many of the same units out on the digital battlefield had evolved to something that was more akin to real-time chess. In Company of Heroes, a squad of infantry or a solitary vehicle could turn the tide of battle; holding a critical section of the map or repelling/deterring an enemy attack. So instead of relying on building 100 bishops, I was able to hold my own with a single rook.
So when StarCraft II eventually rolled around, I felt seriously underwhelmed by the whole experience, yearning for an RTS experience that was more... progressive. That's not to say I didn't enjoy StarCraft II. But just as playing through a generic first-person shooter is not without its own mindless rewards, so too was the experience of returning to a formula I'd moved past. It was enjoyable but it didn't wow me.
On the flip side, though, too much of an attempt at evolution in the RTS genre is not always a positive thing. Dawn of War II essentially flat-out ditched the RTS element of its campaign in favour of an RPG experience, while R.U.S.E. had the 'strategy' component of RTS well and truly covered, but at the expense of the a well-flowing battle experience.
While I understand that there's a certain appeal in particular genre traits and conventions being upheld in any real-time strategy title, it's still disappointing to see when more game developers aren't actively seeking to push the RTS genre forwards. There's no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to any genre, but a polished stone wheel is still a stone wheel.