Video Games have enjoyed an astonishing evolution in the last 20 years. That's true of any genre, really, some more (like FPS games), some less (like sport games). I recently got Red Alert 3 from my girlfriend, and watched the videos on strategy they included on a special disc. Being a fan of Red Alert 2, I was surprised to see, that the game looks almost nothing like that previous part. To be honest, for me it looks almost identical in some respects to the upcoming Starcraft 2. I'm not saying that's a bad thing (I haven't played either Starcraft 2 or Red Alert 3 yet), but it's definitely different than before. Let me elaborate.
Several of the first RTS games were Command & Conquer and Red Alert from Westwood studios, and Warcraft, by Blizzard. Say what you will, but those were not good RTS games - they had balance issues (like things costing too much), control issues (difficult managing of units) etc. If you think differently, that's the nostalgia talking (one which I'm relatively free from, because I haven't played the C&C games until recently and I had only a passing contact with Warcraft 1). Mind you, I'm not holding that against them - they were first, after all, so the could not be ideal. What I am saying is that there is a great, great gap between, say, Red Alert 1 and 2. Hell, there's even quite a big difference between Warcraft and Starcraft, and they have less time in between them. Warcraft 2, a game I still like a lot, was better, but still problematic to manage.
Both series spawned a lot of copies, and there was little in the way of innovation for several years. Even Starcraft, a game which is widely considered to be the most influential (or even the best) RTS ever made, was really only an improved Warcraft 2 with all the important issues fixed and generally more user-friendly interface. In that period, roughly until the beginning of the XXI century, there was a few titles which broke out of the mold. Neither of them really found much popularity, because people were over their heads about Starcraft, and C&C fans got their Tiberian Sun (a mediocre part of the series, if you ask me). Two of such games that are my personal favourites were Total Annihilation and Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns (though, to be honest, I got introduced to the series by a bit later expansion called Ahriman's Gift, which is superior to the original). Both have done something else than the 'mainstream' RTS games, both were innovative. Both are now, largely, forgotten. I won't get into much detail here, look them up if you want to know something about them. I'll be doing a review of both at some point. But, ad rem.
Then you have Warcraft 3 and Red Alert 2. The first changed gameplay by introducing Heroes with character advancement elements (not RPG elements, mind you - this is an issue I'm going to discuss sooner than later), items and creeps to kill and incorporate in your strategy. Other than that, it was only Starcraft, but with even more special abilities and micro management. It got critisised for that, since people were looking for some kind of innovation. Why, then, whenever they get that, the titles get quickly forgotten? Red Alert 2 wasn't really innovative in any way, other than the ability to garrison units in civilian buildings (and better graphics, but that's natural progress). But it was great. A game using simple mechanisms which worked in the last decade, since the first installment, only made more accessible and easy to use.
In my opinion the next big breakthrough was Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War. It was an attempt to translate the tactical turn-based tabletop game into the real-time mechanics. And it worked great - quick, brutal and intense, it's still one of my favourites. But there's one problem: there's very little strategy involved in that game. This change of pace, which made rushing not only a strategy for the beginning of the game (as in Starcraft and it's clones - something which both Total Annihilation and Kohan fixed for the genre), but speed was essential for the whole skirmish. I like to call Dawn of War an action-strategy - you are technically playing a strategy (more a tactical, really - the buildings' only purpose is connected to producing units) game, but you have to be as fast and on-your-toes as in a FPS game. So, a very good game, but definitely moving away from the strategy in RTS. Kohan 2: Kings of War also made an appearance. Though some changes were made to make the game more accessible to the regular gamer, the basic ideas stayed - company based units, streamlined economy, heroes and anti-rush solutions. And still very innovative, compared to Warcraft 3 and the like.
Company of Heroes, a WW2 themed game from the same company, Relic, used some of the same mechanisms, but it is not a click fest. Your infantry units are very vulnerable, you can loose entire squads if you try to charge a machine gun or a tank. To your advantage, you can also use artillery strikes, bombing runs etc. On the strategy spectrum, CoH is waaay superior to DoW.
Command & Conquer made a comeback with Tiberium Wars, but again, it wasn't really anything new. A few cosmetic changes, but the game was largely the same as in Tiberian Sun and Red Alert 2. But around the same time, Supreme Commander was published - a spiritual successor to Total Annihilation, and basically the same, mechanics wise. So, little progress in 10 years. And you know what? It was still very much innovative, because in that 10 year period, nobody did what TA did back in 1997. But again, the game was quickly forsaken, even though it's one of the titles most worthy of the "strategy" label - no rushing, speed is not as important, and you really have to plan out your attacks for them to make any sense.
And then, recent years. This is where it gets really tricky. You get Dawn of War 2, Red Alert 3, Command & Conquer 4, Supreme Commander 2 and the upcoming Starcraft 2. I haven't played any of them yet, but I am planning to play all of them at one point or another. But this is what I know:
- Dawn of War 2 threw out the economy system to become a more tactical gain in the vein of older W40K titles, such as Chaos Gate.
- Red Alert 3 gives most of the units at least two types of attack. This involves a lot of micromanagement in the strategy. It also has special abilities which can be unlocked - a bit like in Company of Heroes. Also, there's a change in the economy system, akin to what has been done in C&C: Generals.
- Tiberium Twilight (C&C4) changed its economy system and the battle scope. Generally speaking, a shift towards a smaller scale, and perhaps more tactical than strategic.
- SupCom 2, besides being one of the few RTS games to be introduced to a console is said to 'bridge the gap between complexity and accessibility'. Comments from fans of the first part on Amazon tell a different story: the game is simplified, dumbed down, and betrayed everything which made the first part such a good strategy game.
- Starcraft 2... well, the only thing that really changed are the units, which have a lot of special abilities which seem like there's a lot of micro managing going on, but the gameplay is unchanged.
Can you see the problem here? There's simply nowhere to go for the RTS genre. You either dumb it down, change the scale, or keep doing the same thing with changes to units. What's next? I really don't know. The dumbing down bit is what worries me. RTS' were a PC-exclusive (with the addition of the Mac from time to time) genre, because, put simply, the gamepad is a shitty tool for playing a strategy game (as it is, in my opinion, for FPS games, but I'm biased and I know I'm wrong here). And now they may actually creep their way into consoles. What will that change? Well, PC RTS' will stop being complex and strategic, instead becoming more like the fast-and-furious Dawn of War. The genre may eventually die away.
Wow, this was a long ramble. Whoever got here after reading through all this, get yourself a cookie. You deserve it.