Warning: This post is a little long. If you either love or hate RTS (real time strategy) games, you’ll probably want to read it all. If not, I won’t be offended if you doze off half way through. Be sure to skip to the bottom to help answer my questions though!
I watch G4 from time to time and record X-Play on my DVR. Normally I just skip through most the of the episode and only watch the segments on games that interest me, but occasionally I’ll find a new title by listening to their reviews and suggestions.
One such title was Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance. SCFA is a stand alone expansion to Supreme Commander from early 2007, but evidently I was meant to play the other game first so this one could 1) make sense, 2) be playable and, 3) end my will to live. At least, that’s what I think playing through two of these games would do to me.
I should get something out of the way before I go any further; I am not a huge RTS fan. I don’t do well in any sort of strategy game that requires maps, resources, or anything like that. Settlers of Cattan? I suck. Risk? I really suck. I can play chess, but just barely. I will rock your world at checkers though.
Back to the game . . . well where do I start? How about the interface! The game allows you to zoom in and out very rapidly with your mouse wheel, but handles it in the same manner as Google Maps (that is, you zoom into the area your mouse cursor is over and not the center of the screen). Not having to drag the map around to zoom into a specific bit of action is actually very nice, and allows you to move from battle to battle very quickly.
If you knew that battles were happening. See, where they gained points with the zooming, they lost them again by not providing a mini-map. All other reviews I read about this game go on and on about how detailed each unit is, and how you can zoom right up on them to see how they move and get ready for battle. That’s great, but if you’re zoomed in all the way on a unit, then you have NO IDEA your line of anti-air towers have just been wiped out just off screen. There’s no “We’re under attaaack!” to let you know that . . . well, you’re under attack. You’re best bet is to zoom all the way out, so everything just looks like dots on the landscape, thereby rendering the nice graphics pointless.
Construction is another gripe with the game. You have three levels of tech (okay, sounds good) and engineers for each level. A level 1 engineer cannot build anything but level 1 structures (make sense) while level 3 engineers can build anything in all three levels (still with me?). However, your Command Mech, which is supposed to be your primary hero and initial builder all in one, is also only a level 1 piece of equipment. This means that in any engagement you’re beamed into, you must ALWAYS start at the tech 1 level, no matter what the enemy has started off with. First off, you must gather resources (which aren’t so much gathered as they are a commentary device on US oil dependencies, more on that later). Then you build a factory. Then upgrade the factory . . . twice. Then you can build level 3 engineers.
This leads nicely into the my third gripe . . . TIME. That little strategy I just listed for you takes 40 minutes. Why so long? Well, resources actually. In any other game you send out minions to gather gold and wood (or whatever and whatever). In SCFA, you set up power plants and mass extractors (oil wells). Instead of stockpiling these resources, you are using them at a constant rate, and replenishing them at a constant rate. Think of it as a pitcher of water: You are filling it at a constant rate, but once it hits the top of the pitcher, that’s it. You’re still pouring water, but it’s not doing anything for you. Whenever you do or build anything, it adds to your “upkeep” of resources. If you’re using more than you’re getting, your construction slows to a crawl. Which it does repeatedly.
I read in a strategy guide that you can speed up construction by telling multiple engineers to help out, and while this would make sense, it actually doesn’t work in this game; if each engineer takes 100 energy/second to help out (making these figures up as I go) and you assign 7 of your engineers to help build a factory, you’ve just increased your power usage to 700 energy/second. If your power grid can’t handle that sort of draw, then you’ve just shut down your entire base for the duration of that build. In theory, your “power outage” should only last a few moments cause you’ve increased the number of workers. In practice, however, the workers are also effected by the “power outage” and slow to a crawl, thereby ensuring the construction never completes. This is really a drag when it’s a new power plant you’re trying to build!
While this would be considered somewhere in the area of level design, I’m going to group this next annoyance in with the “Time” complaint. I am dropped into a war-zone with a set of objectives. I build up some forces, and after an hour of play, I achieve my objectives. Those objectives give way to a whole new set of objectives and the map expands to show a whole new area of enemies who, until now, have been happily just sitting around doing nothing. Now, however, they just want to wipe me out. My previous set of objectives are completely at odds with my new set, so I haven’t built anything yet to protect me against the new horde of baddies that are throwing themselves at my base. Another hour and a half later, my second set of objectives are met . . . and a whole new set of objectives are dropped in my lap.
About this time, my HQ tells me they’ve authorized my use of a new type of unit. A unit that does absolutely NOTHING to help my new missions, but would have been really nice back in my first one!!! I now have to take out a monstrous enemy base across a recently revealed sea (read: water-based units) who also have air superiority over said sea. My previous missions of “infiltrate enemy shield generator” and “defend your base against overwhelming odds” have set me up in no way to suddenly build ships and aircraft at the drop of a hat. I’m nearly three hours into A SINGLE MISSION and am starting over with tech 1 facilities against an entrenched enemy with air and sea superiority.
As I stated before, I’m not a big fan of RTS games in general. However, there are some that I still enjoy playing simply for the storyline and how immersing the game world is. This would not apply to SCFA. I realize that this game is a stand alone expansion to Supreme Commander and so references it heavily, but this thing plays like it is the last level of that game! Absolutely no back story is provided, I have no idea who characters are, the training is boiled down to “click here, right click this, alright you’re done”, and your allies come across as downright inept. Adding to this bucket of failure is the horrible voice acting and CONSTANT “reminders” from allies to get your objectives done; “Commander, those power generators are still up. TAKE THEM DOWN!” . . . with what, an engineer and nothing else?
It’s at this point in a game that I go to the internet and get some cheat codes. If a game just isn’t any fun, I can usually at least get some enjoyment by playing in god-mode and wiping out all enemies with one click. Unfortunately, the available cheats for this game are invulnerability (sounds nice, but it makes EVERYONE invulnerable), extra resources (but since you can’t stockpile them, that does you no good), and teleport. Also, the enemy has access to the same cheats you do . . . so, sort of defeats the whole point right there.
At one point, I had enough. “Commander, you must destroy the enemy base NOW!!” No, no I don’t. I don’t have to do anything to the enemy base because I’m not playing any more. It’s not even that I’m losing at this game, its just that it takes too long to win to ever be considered enjoyable. Probably the best thing about the whole thing is that it takes only seconds (yes, seconds) to uninstall from my machine forever.
This leads me to my actual question: What makes a good RTS? Or is Supreme Commander a good one and I’m just missing the point? I read reviews online everywhere, and this game is applauded at every turn (except the story, which everyone seems to agree blows chunks). Either they are playing a different game than the one I got, or they actually enjoy this sort of drawn out torture.
Then it dawned on me . . . I think they actually do. They were probably the ones who spent weeks setting up a map and units across the ping-pong table in their parent’s basement for an exciting battle (which I totally ruined by bringing in my binary of modified assault omnimechs and star of aerospace fighters, reducing the enemy forces to nothing in only two turns . . . sorry Joey).
So maybe I’m missing the point of a game like this . . . but I don’t think I am (at least, not totally). There has to be a better way to build an RTS. If so, what would it be?