I’m not a very good real-time strategy game player.
Hang on, let me re-phrase that: I’m not a very interesting real-time strategy player.
I’ve been a fan of the genre ever since a youthful obsession with the early Command & Conquer and Age of Empires games, sending hordes of hapless troops off to early deaths all in the name of ill-defined domination, taking a frankly alarming delight in watching my foes die by the droves.
“I routinely exploited the dullest, slowest, most reliable strategy around: I turtled, and I turtled hard.”
I conquered campaign after campaign, but never with style, flair, or even a hint of panache. Instead, I routinely exploited the dullest, slowest, most reliable strategy around: I turtled, and I turtled hard.
For those not in the know, turtling in an RTS is essentially the strategy of keeping to your base as much as possible, shoring up your defences, developing your tech, and building the biggest army you possibly can before sending it out en masse to crush your opponents in one stroke.
There was no titillating back-and-forth for me, no feints and counter-feints. Just big, dumb, brute force. I played real-time strategy without the strategy, essentially reducing the genre to watching some numbers tick up for a while before going and killing everything I could find – the true spirit of mainstream videogames.
It gets worse, though. Not only did I not worry about anything as subtle as strategy, I didn’t really have much time for tactics either. Not for me was the fiddly business of micro-managing my forces, sending my aircraft to harry their infantry while my tanks crushed their structures, leveraging the complex rock-paper-scissors-rockets gameplay to my advantage. No, I was more of a Ctrl+A kind of guy – select everything, move them all together, and tell them to attack the biggest target I could see.
It wasn’t smart, it wasn’t clever, but it goddamn worked. Until Dawn of War III.
Relic’s third attempt to translate the grimdark world of Warhammer 40,000 into an RTS is a triumphant success, somehow managing to both amp up the scale of the first game’s giant battles while simultaneously perfecting the second’s focus on smaller groups of individual units. The campaign shows that off best – the missions with a handful of units in play at once are some of the most thrilling – even if the multiplayer inevitably tends towards the titanic.
“Relic’s third attempt to translate the grimdark world of Warhammer 40,000 into an RTS is a triumphant success.”
That’s in part thanks to the Elite units, named units with suped up stats and an assortment of unique powers. Each is more akin to a MOBA hero than a typical RTS unit, and to properly utilize them, you can’t just click and forget – they require active play. The Eldar Farseer Macha, for example, can throw her spear at a target – one click – detonate it once it arrives – a second click – and then recall it – a third click. Each Elite is similarly complex to play, typically with multiple active powers in addition to a few synergies with other unit types. Oh, and did I mention that you field three of them at a time? Or that just about every normal unit in the game also has at least one unique active power of its own?
The thing is, right, when you emphasize the importance of individual units while simultaneously allowing an awful lot more of them on the battlefield, you get what I like to call an exponential rise in oh-fuck-you difficulty. It’s a bit like playing League of Legends, except you’re expected to somehow control your entire team – and all the minions.
To Dawn of War III’s credit, it does make every effort to teach you to make the most of your units. The campaign begins by giving you control of a single Elite – the suitably surly Space Marine Gabriel Angelos – and only slowly gives you control of other squads once it’s taught you his core moveset. But it’s one thing remembering to make the most of his slam attack when you’ve only got to worry about him and a couple squads of Scouts, and quite another to keep it in mind when your screen is filled with more Orks than you can count and wait where’s he on the map and what was that keyboard shortcut again and oh God they’re all dead.
“At first, I usually won. Losses always seemed a bit higher than I’d expected, but hey, that’s war right?”
Despite the game’s best efforts to drill it into my head that I might actually need to pay attention to my soldiers in this game that is exclusively about managing soldiers, I resisted for as long as I could. I settled into bases, amassed huge forces, and sent them hurtling against the enemy en masse, again and again and again. At first, I usually won. Losses always seemed a bit higher than I’d expected, but hey, that’s war right? Something something omelettes eggs acceptable losses.
The problem is, the losses slowly edged from acceptable to the other thing. It was more World War II than, uh, well, I can’t think of a war with acceptable losses because I’m not an amoral monster but maybe insert one here?
The point is, I started losing. At first, it was just the odd campaign mission, and I figured it was just the difficulty slowly ramping up. That’s what games do. But then I played a multiplayer match with Outermode’s own Tim, who essentially kerb-stomped me. It looked a bit like that scene in American History X, but harder to watch. From about a minute in I was on the backfoot, and never once looked especially threatening right up until my base evaporated in a cloud of warp and Eldar bits.
“I don’t think you were using enough unit abilities?” Tim kindly suggested after the game, which must be the kindest way anyone has ever told me that I’m absolutely shit at a game before. It probably didn’t help that I was playing as the Eldar, surely the least hands-off faction in the game, but the point stuck with me. I wan’t micro-managing my forces, and I never had, in this or any other RTS. I was the big dumb brute of the strategy world – the requisite man-mountain who turns up in a martial arts movie only to have the shit kicked out of him by Bruce Lee.
I wish I could say I’ve mended my ways, that I’ve devoted myself to unit abilities and control group hotkeys, mastered micro-management. I can’t, because I haven’t, but good god am I trying. I’m splitting up my melee from my ranged, worrying about my anti-aircraft and my anti-infantry, and even sometimes using those stop bloody Elite unit abilities at the right time. I still don’t know for sure if this is what I want from an RTS – there’s something to be said about the simple pleasures of throwing a wave of troops against the rock of an enemy base – but I’m not giving up without a fight.