So, Ensemble recently released a trailer demonstrating the gameplay of Halo Wars, their much-anticipated RTS for the 360.
This existence of this game is officially a Big Deal. Ensemble is one of a handful of top-flight real-time strategy developers, and the console RTS nut has yet to be cracked, despite some noble efforts. Presumably, the opportunity to lock up a console RTS from Ensemble was one of the reasons Microsoft acquired Ensemble back in 2001. (Wow, has it really been that long?) Attaching it to the Halo franchise must have been icing on the cake.
I have been following the game’s news (little as there was) since it was first announced, and I had been encouraged by reports that the game would be focusing on very small squads, perhaps suggesting a rethink of RTS for the new platform. Thus, I am a little disappointed by the new video as Halo Wars appears to be another real-time strategy game focused on unit wrangling, which becomes significantly more stressful on a platform lacking a mouse and keyboard.
There are nice touches here, to be sure. The full-screen build menu nicely solves the modal problem so common to console games. The graphical detail is, of course, incredible. However, the firefight near the end of the video looks just like your standard RTS headache. Trying to handle that many units with a joystick in such a high-pressure situation looks like stress, not fun.
At the very end of the video, however, there is a tiny suggestion of just how fun an RTS could be on a console. The human side has some sort of orbiting uber-weapon they can use to wreck massive destruction on a specific target. The console interface for this system is a snap – it’s simply a huge reticule. Just aim and shoot. Sure, it’s a strategy game, but why not? The effect is not unlike the God Powers of Age of Mythology, Ensemble’s PC RTS from 2002. However, this mechanic is a perfect fit for the console. Personally, I was hoping that Halo Wars would focus more on these types of interactions – ones where the player is taking advantage of the joystick interface instead of fighting it. RTS’s truly need to be built from the ground up for consoles, without the expectation of controlling multiple groups of soldiers. Ensemble is one of the best developers in the business (Age of Kings was probably my favorite game of the ’90s), so they are more than capable of delivering an awesome title. They just need to unlearn some of what they have spent the last decade learning on the PC.
So, how should an RTS on the console work? I don’t know, of course, but there are a few games out there that hint at possibilities:
Moonbase Commander: The Psychonauts of the strategy genre, this brilliant game got overlooked because, ironically enough, it should have been a console game. The mechanics are hard to describe; the simplest way I can explain it would be as a cross between StarCraft and Tiger Woods. In other words, it’s a land-grab, space-themed strategy game using a golf-swing game mechanic. The remarkable thing about the design was that a) it was a blast in multi-player and b) it would have worked perfectly on consoles, the native platform for most golf games. (Technically, Moonbase Commander is a turn-based game, but it moves fast enough that it “feels” like an RTS. Further, one could tweak the rules easily enough to make it work in real time.)
Rampart: This arcade classic has some similarities to Moonbase Commander in that it is a strategy game that involves firing projectiles at your opponent – a very natural action for a console controller. Rampart also includes a Tetris-style puzzle for repairing your castle. I would love to see a more detailed modern version with co-op play where one teammate focuses on rebuilding while the other focuses on lobbing cannonballs at the enemy.
Defense of the Ancients: The most popular Warcraft III mod by far, DotA is the natural progression of the hero-based RPG gameplay Blizzard introduced in the core game. Instead of controlling an army, the player controls a single hero, on a team with three other human heroes and AI-controlled grunts. The AI units fight the battle using standard RTS rules while the human heroes wander around the battlefield, acquiring levels and loot, while trying to turn the tide of battle in their team’s favor. DotA is still an RTS, but the player’s interaction with the world is confined to a single hero unit, taking away the mental burden of handling large groups of units. Obviously, consoles handle avatar-based games quite well. Judging from the popularity of DotA, a console version of this RPG/RTS hybrid is a hit just waiting to happen.
M.U.L.E.: If you’ve read my writing over the years, you would know this one was coming. You could make a convincing case that M.U.L.E. was the first significant real-time strategy game ever made. You could also make a case that it is one of the greatest games ever made. It’s a game of cutthroat competition where you destroy your opponents not with missile but by controlling the market, driving up prices while reaping huge profits. The auction mechanic was legendary for creating head-to-head conflict. You don’t know triumph until you’ve made your friends pay through the nose for energy. Most importantly, M.U.L.E. was designed for a joystick, meaning that consoles would be a natural fit for the proven gameplay.
I hope this list emphasizes that console RTS’s do not need to play like PC RTS’s. There are always more games out there to make than we can possibly imagine, and I don’t feel like we have scratched the surface yet for strategy games.