Posts Tagged ‘ RTS

Recent Work — 7 September 2015

Don’t be fooled by the fairly short list of things that I’ve been working on of late. The last week was a marathon sprint through a bunch of upcoming stories, but you’ll have to wait a little bit longer to read them. However, my review of Eugen Systems’ Act of Aggression did go up on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, so you can go read that right now.

It’s tough to review a game like Act of Aggression, both because it’s an incredibly difficult game with which to come to grips, but also because I came to it with a ton of expectations and hopes based on the developer’s recent output. This happens a lot, but it’s always a difficult thing to correct for, because I am constantly asking whether I’m reacting based on what I’m seeing and experiencing, or based on the gap between that and what I expected to see.

With Act of Aggression, it took me a long time to start meeting the game on its own terms. That has its own dangers: knowing that my opinion might be shaded by disappointment, I probably err on the side of being forgiving. A lot of my friends, I think, are more frustrated by Act of Aggression than I am. Even so, it’s a game that I am continuing to play and learn long after the review has been filed. It doesn’t make itself easy to enjoy, but it does start paying off if you’re willing to put in the hours to tease apart its overall design and how it wants you to play it.

The same could be said for a lot of RTS games, which is why I’m increasingly worried about the genre as a whole. The problem is that RTS games are uniquely miserable when you’re not good at playing them. I remember, when  he was trying to get a Kickstarter project off the ground, Chris Taylor (who designed Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander) remarked that he felt like RTS developers were constantly misreading the audience. When stats are available, most people play RTS games for the campaign, or they skirmish against the AI. Few spend a lot of time playing ranked games on a ladder. Yet RTS developers, Taylor said, always looked at that trend  and said to the audience, “We hear you! Here’s your hardcore competitive RTS.”

I like RTS games, but this is a hard problem to solve. I think Eugen have come closer to solving it with earlier games than they have with Act of Aggression. That’s why it was so frustrating to see Act of Aggression be so defiantly old-fashioned and cryptic. This is the first Eugen game I’ve played where my friends started bailing on our multiplayer sessions after just one game. I stuck around because it was my job. But for most people, why is this a journey worth taking? RTS developers need to start offering better answers than a hand-wave in the direction of skill and mastery.


Reviews / Crit:

Appearances/ Podcasts:

RUSE Roundup

It’s funny to think how unenthusiastic I was about 2010′s strategy prospects when the year began. I was indifferent to Starcraft II, had no idea a new Civilization was in the making, and had never heard of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. The only game that sounded interesting, and this was me really reaching for something to care about, was Ubisoft’s gimmicky-sounding RTS, R.U.S.E. But nothing beyond the deception mechanics sounded interesting, and the thought of a WWII RTS from a developer I’d never heard of was profoundly unappealing.

But here we are in the September of what has been a solid year of strategy gaming, and RUSE has proven to be one of the best entries so far, and an almost ideal cure for what ails the RTS genre. The beta showed that RUSE had a great interface and some good faction balance, and the final product confirms that Eugen Systems unexpected bridged the gap between wargamers and RTS gamers, and put the  casual gamer first.

My review is up at GameShark. It’s the highest score I’ve awarded a game yet, but I simply adore the genre blending at work in this design. I’m in good company. The gentlemen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun have said that, “It’s a game men should play.” And indeed they should.

However, my review would have been even more positive had Eugen Systems not created an utterly dreadful campaign. Almost against my will, I had to dock the game for making something so shoddy a part of this excellent package. Over at Gamers With Jobs, I explored some of the major sources of disappointment with this campaign, and some of the troubling things it, and other games, have revealed about the state of game development in France.

But really, there’s no limit to the nasty things one could say about this campaign. It’s sexism is utterly appalling, with a completely fictitious femme fatale introduced as a major player in shaping Allied strategy in WWII. Okay, we know that’s pretty much crap, women working for the War Dept. in the 1940s were more likely to be stuck in the typing pool than made an emissary to front-line generals, but we can roll with it. Except that the only reason this woman is a part of the story is to play the role of Lady Macbeth, using sex and manipulation to bring men to ruin and turn them against one another.

You know, like women always do.

But all of that is secondary to what RUSE is really about: multiplayer WWII combat. On those grounds, it’s a smashing success. Now go read my review and learn why.

Starcraft II Round-Up

Longtime TMA listeners and readers know that I’ve been deeply skeptical of Starcraft II for quite awhile, and now that I’ve played it, I think my skepticism was well founded. However, I didn’t expect to like the direction Blizzard have gone nearly as much as I do.

But I don’t think it’s the towering achievement that it is so often portrayed to be. In fact, I think this is one of the toughest games to assess.

Last night, Tom Chick rejoined us on TMA, and ex-Gamasutra writer and future Irrational employee Chris Remo stopped by to share his thoughts. We had a fantastic discussion, and wrestled with the many problems Starcraft II poses for those trying to judge it. Go give it a listen.

However, I also penned some thoughts of my own for Gamers With Jobs, a site at which I will now be writing regularly. This is exciting. GWJ is probably my favorite gaming community, and I’m friends with just about everyone who writes there. In fact, my not writing there was starting to seem a bit odd. So they took me in, and I promptly picked a fight about Starcraft II.

Go read my first piece for the site, and enjoy the brisk discussion that follows.

Reflections Regarding RUSE

Commando Supremo

I’m a sucker for touches like this: at minimum zoom, the battlefield looks like a sand-table exercise come to life. Stacks of chits topped by abstract unit icons slide glacially across the surface. Orbiting the camera around, I can make out the headquarters staff at work around the edges of the map. Signalmen sit at radar and communications stations. I am surrounded by the din of headquarters: phones ringing, wirelesses chattering, and the menacing, indistinct muttering of a PA.

Zooming in slightly, headquarters gets quieter and I can hear very faint sounds of fighting coming from the map. Mostly the dull crump of artillery. The stacks of units split into smaller stacks to better represent their positions on the board. I see three tall stacks of enemy tanks advancing against the crossroads on my team’s half of the map. I click on the “ruse” menu, since I have several of them and can afford to play one. I activate “radio silence” on the crossroads sector, which will mask my units there from enemy observation. Translucent bars appear across the sector, overlaid with “Radio Silence” and a timer. I have a few minutes of privacy there. I estimate his forces will be hitting my lines in about two.

We Have Incoming

I don’t have enough to stop him, assuming those tanks are real. It is possible this is a feint. The “decoy tank assault” ruse would make it look to me like a horde of tanks is approaching. So would the “reverse intel” ruse, which would make light units like recon cars and infantry look like heavy armor, and vice versa. So I hedge. My ally, Marcin, has the center right and right of our line pretty secure, but I’m going to have to draw troops away from my far left flank. I activate “spies” on the enemy sector opposing my left. I should see any build-up of forces taking place. With good intelligence telling me that my left flank isn’t threatened, I will be able to pull units off that part of the line.

But not yet. Right now I need more troops on the field to make certain that I can repulse this attack. I go into my “armor” and “antitank” menus and order up equipment to stop this assault. I’m playing the Italians, however, so my armor options are pitiful. My best tank, the Carro M15, still makes a US Sherman look like the HMS Dreadnought. My armor will be there to catch bullets and shells. But it’s cheap, and good for that kind of thing.

My antitank options are much better. I have a field-gun that can wreak some havoc from the lines of trees that bracket the crossroads and the field approaching it. I order two into the trees on the eastern end of the line. The two after that will hold the center. Now I can forget about them. There are no rally points to worry about: each unit I have ordered will proceed to the position on the map I have indicated. Production and reinforcement take place at the same time.

However, stopping this thrust will mostly be the work of my 90mm high-velocity anti-aircraft / anti-tank guns, which fill the same role as the 88 does for the Germans. Besides that, I’ve got fighter bombers waiting at the airfield. I repeat the ordering process for the high-velocity guns, putting two of them in the center. This places the entire line within their field of fire. Then I click on my airfield menu. In the lower left, I see the list of planes currently on the ground. I send all my fighter-bombers into  orbit above the line. They’ll provide air cover, and I can use them to strike at tanks.

That done, I check out a stack of units on my left flank. It contains my heaviest artillery, a  group of 210mm monsters, along with a lot of flak guns to shield them from bombers. I need them in the center to shell this group of enemy units, but the flak guns need to stay and watch the left. In the lower right of my screen, a group of tiles appear showing me what’s in this stack. I click on the 210s and send them to the center. They detach from the stack and begin moving east.

Less than a minute has elapsed since I spotted the German advance, and I have queued up all the necessary build orders and ensured that they will be delivered where they are needed. Momentarily bankrupt, I find myself with an unfamiliar luxury: a moment to think. Marcin is holding steady in the center and launching an attack on his extreme right. I think it’s premature of him to do this, but things still seem well in hand.

My free moment gives me time to worry, especially as I see another stack of unidentified enemy units converging on the crossroads from the center-left. He can’t pincer me – my line is in the wrong position for that – but I do worry that he will arrive with so many units at once that my center would give way. I pull my heavy infantry in toward the center from the left flank, and send my flak batteries to sit at the joint between my left and center left. My extreme left is now almost open, so I use one of my advantages as the Italians: Sahariana recon infantry. They’re very hard for the enemy to see, and have a great line of sight. I station a few on my left, and sneak a few into the woods on his side of the map. Now I know that he can’t sneak anything past.

The first new units are arriving on the front line, and I zoom in again. I need to position them carefully to turn back this attack. The stacks break apart again, into very small stacks of two or three units. I split my high-velocity guns apart and send them to different parts of the line. I do the same with the AT field guns and the tanks.  Now the stacks are disappearing, replaced by oversize icons on the map. My center describes a shallow V, backed by antiaircraft guns and heavy artillery. Just as the last units are getting set up, his troops come into visual range.


The sounds of headquarters are gone at this level, and the sound of battle is markedly louder. I order the 210s to commence firing on different parts of his columns, and shells begin arcing up toward the camera before plummeting back to earth. His units start scattering, Panthers and Tigers racing for my line while his infantry get blasted to pieces. He shouldn’t have approached in clumps like this, but “radio silence” meant that he didn’t know he would run into this. Still, he’s got a lot of heavy tanks. They are quickly blowing through my puny armored units and shrugging off AT fire. My tanks begin to break and reverse out of the line. The panzers are driving closer to the guns. I order up a bunch more tanks and send them toward the center. They might arrive in time to soak up some more punishment.

At this point, I only hear pounding guns, shrieking shells, and growling engines. Now that my tanks are routing, the panzers are opening fire on the 90mms and the field guns. Some of the crews are starting to bug out and I’m yelling at them to stay where they are. Their only hope is to stand at their station and kill Germans, but they don’t have the nerve. They’re dying as they run, and the entire center right is in danger of collapsing.

I re-task the 210s to start firing on my own positions, which are being overrun. The troops there are dead either way. A few of my tanks have rallied behind the line, and I send them back into the fray. Then I start selecting my Sparviero fighter-bombers and issuing orders for airstrikes. They peel off and begin diving toward the battlefield. Panzers begin exploding everywhere.

Between the airstrikes and the 90mm guns, the German attack is starting to peter out, especially as reinforcements arrive. I’m about to order up a counter attack against their center when I notice what my recon troops are reporting: his right flank is unguarded. Completely.

I start queuing units up in the woods behind my left flank while the last of his units try to extricate themselves from the center. His bombers arrive to take out my guns, but get devoured by AAA. Heinkels are fluttering toward earth in all the color and splendor of autumn leaves. Only a handful deliver payloads.

Meanwhile, Marcin has met with stunning success. His enemy, the other German player, has been completely caught out by his attack. Marcin will explain after the game that he played the “reverse intel” card and spoofed his opponent into sending a wall of tanks and AT guns against light infantry and recon cars, while his heavy armor plowed straight into the enemy base. By the time his opponent caught on, half his base was a crater.

Post-Battle Assessment

The rest of the battle is a foregone conclusion. My opponent’s attack, and the squandering of his bombers at the end of it, have left him without enough to regain the momentum, and his teammate is in his death throes. I use my recon infantry to spot for my heavy artillery while skirmishing using my tanks. He rolls up quickly.

Marcin and I have had a blast, and we’re both thrilled at the curious combination our team made. My Italians and his Frenchmen just pounded the Germans into the dirt. Two factions that most games don’t even bother to model are able to give the Wehrmacht a run for its money, using completely different methods. For me it was a game of information, line of sight, and opportunistic defensiveness. For Marcin, it was about holding the line early and then delivering a sledgehammer blow with his heavy armor. Both of us used our ruses to great effect, and neither of us can quite believe his reverse worked so well.

My opponent wasn’t particularly skilled, of course. His attack was sloppy and he didn’t support it with enough artillery or air assets. That he was using heavier German armor gave him a very slender chance of winning, but not enough to overcome my combination. But pause for a moment to consider a game that respects that the Italian army was not necessarily the demoralized, incompetent rabble of memory, or that the French were not mired in antiquity, meeting the panzers with nothing but trenches, rifles, and courage.

Afterwards, on Skype, we try and figure out what we really think of this game. This has become a ritual for us every time we play it. It is so very easy to play, and that keeps throwing me off. I’m used to wrestling with RTSs. I usually know what I want to do, the problems come when I try to do it. RUSE doesn’t seem to work that way. The interface lets me move about as quickly as my thoughts, and the game’s pacing gives me just enough time to consider each situation. It’s more like a fast-paced boardgame than a typical RTS.

Yet neither of us can quite figure out if there’s a lot there. It’s still a rock-paper-scissors game, with each faction having different strengths and weaknesses within that paradigm. There doesn’t seem to be much room for the kind of micromanagement that I associate with the power-users who dominate other RTSs. It’s so simple that it seems like it might be shallow.

On the other hand, I have a lot of games sitting on my shelf or in my Steam account that are models of depth and complexity that I have never quite managed to enjoy. Most of my RTS collection is aspirational, games that I keep promising to one day, some other day, get good at. In the meantime, I’m playing RUSE with my friend.

One Move Behind – Sins Diplomacy

For once, I don’t have too much to add beyond what I said during the podcast. I was a bit more nervous than usual during this recording because I don’t feel all that qualified to talk about Sins of a Solar Empire. As I pointed out during the episode, I didn’t come to this expansion with much Sins experience under my belt, and so I am still struggling to learn the game as a whole, much less the impact of one expansion.

This was one of those times that I really envied the other panelists’ abilities to see into the way strategy games work. I sort of felt like Charlie Brown in that one strip where he and Linus are lying on the hilltop, staring at the clouds. Charlie Brown asks Linus what he sees, and Linus describes this vivid, exciting scene that he perceives in the sky. Then Linus asks Charlie Brown what he sees. “I see a horsey,” he says.

Troy, Tom, and Julian seemed to get Diplomacy and understood the avenues of play that it opened up, while I basically did not. I have yet to decide whether that is my problem or the game’s. My own feeling right now is that Diplomacy runs on a parallel track to everything else I am doing. While I am fighting to stay competitive on the battlefield and keep a robust economy fueling my military, a diplomatic game is going on behind the scenes that allows players to do an end run around the core game. I can’t quite make out the connection between the diplomatic game and the rest of what is going on.

For example, my partner and I were playing a three-sided game and both of us were having serious problems with an AI player. It was overrunning the system and cutting off our avenues of expansion, and we were constantly skirmishing with it. It was an endless cycle of raid and counter-raid, and it was splendid fun. But when I looked at the “Relationships” window, I found that this aggressive AI was more than halfway to a diplomatic victory because of its good relations with other factions. According this readout, it was getting the most diplomatic points from MK and me! Excuse me, but I think if you’re going to be racing for a diplomatic victory, you should probably be penalized for pummeling the living crap out of certain players.

Update: A Discordant Note!

[Now fixed. See update below.] Since we recorded and I wrote the above, MK and I have played a great deal more Diplomacy and have discovered that the game is pretty broken for me. I basically can’t play multiplayer.

It’s insidious, because the game appears to be working. It isn’t until you and your playing partners start really communicating about what you see going on that your realize that you aren’t in the same game.

MK and I were two hours and fifteen minutes into a 2 v 2 v 2 multiplayer match when she asked if I could send a fleet to help her out at the planet Giada. Red had broken their ceasefire and was attacking. I said I could and gave the orders. Then I checked out what was happening in her part of the star system.

“Um, hon, red isn’t attacking you. They’re just hanging out at Giada.”

“What? No, I’m fighting them there right now.”

“I don’t even see any of your ships.”

She came over to my computer. “Wait, this isn’t right. I’m seeing something completely different over there. Does this game model delayed information due to the speed of light?”

I laughed. “No. That’d be awesome, but I don’t think it does. No.”

“Then this is all screwed up. I don’t even see you as owning that planet. I’m seeing that blue owns it.”

As we compared notes and looked at each other’s games, we realized that our games had diverged. In mine, she was at peace with red and I was aggressively expanding into blue’s holdings. In hers, red had just betrayed her and launched a massive attack at her frontier while I was pinned into a corner by an emerging blue superpower. In my game, the pirates were about to launch, while in hers there were 10 minutes left on the countdown timer. Later, going back through our save files, we found that the games had ceased to match after 1 hr 15 min.

It happens in every game we play together, regardless of setup. Now that we’ve started looking for it, we can see it happening as early as a half hour into the game. The pirate countdown de-syncs, and then we start looking for discontinuities. They’re easy to find: ships fighting in the center of an enemy system on my screen, the same fleet just dropping out of a jump on hers.

Depressingly, this appears to be a known issue with the game, and I’m not sure what progress there has been toward resolving it. But it is a total show-stopper if you want to play with friends. It was probably happening in the games I played with Tom and Rabbit, but the diplomatic victory brought the game to a close before anyone could notice.

Add the fact that the game will crash for me after two hours or so of play, and the future for me and Diplomacy starts to look awful stormy. Here’s hoping a patch fixes it soon.

Update II: Fixed

It does appear that the new patch for Diplomacy fixed the sync problem I’d been having. I haven’t had a chance to play more than 90 minutes of the patched version, but we didn’t run into any problems and the games still matched when we finally quit for the day.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more on this game soon.