wtorek, 21 września 2010

Anathomy of a bad strategy game

I'm playing two titles at the moment - Starcraft: Brood War and Age of Empires II. They both have something in common, namely, I don't consider them to be good strategy games, even though, back in the day, they were the best the genre had to offer. Here's why I feel dissapointed in these titles.

Let's start with Starcraft. I love what the game is about. I have become so used to the familiar factions that I could spend hours just creating units and listening to their chatter. I love the graphics in the game (if you ask me, RTS' didn't have to go any further than the beautiful drawn graphics of the day), I love the music, the story and the universe... But what I find at best lukewarm is the gameplay itself.

By now we all know that Starcraft is a gaming phenomenon, just because it's possibly the most 'serious' tournament game in the world. We all know the jokes about the Koreans, but you cease to laugh when you see this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbpCLqryN-Q This is just plain creepy. I think everyone will agree that this is not what a 'strategy' game should be about. This is pure dexterity and 'learning the game'. Not even learning about the game, or how to play the game, but just learning the game. In this light, 'strategy' means only that you know which units to use to counter the enemy's units.

But hey, I don't play online, so this is not my gripe. Hell, if somebody wants to waste his life on learning a single game (which has recently been replaced by Wings of Liberty), then have fun. My gripe with Starcraft is the game's mechanism itself. With Warcraft 2, you knew what to expect most of the time. Whatever forces you had, there was a good chance you'd be able to defend against the enemies attacking you, even if that meant a lot of losses. Starcraft improved on the formula by allowing you to queue units and making all three factions radically different from each other. What it also did, was going for the rock-paper-scissors mechanic by adding a lot of flying units and units which could be cloaked. Don't get me wrong, these mechanisms added a lot of variety to the game, but they also made it nigh impossible to complete during the campaign. Because for every Bunker or Sunken Colony I place, there's going to be a Reaver or Siege Tank out there. For every one of these, there's a Scout or Wraith. And then there are the Ghosts and Dark Templars.

What I'm saying is - there is not a single strategy which works for Starcraft. This is possibly a good thing, but on the other hand it becomes simply SICK when an attack after attack gets wasted because it just so happened the AI had something to use against you. In the campaign, it becomes a serious chore when you're supposed to attack or defend against several opponents. There's a limited amount of resources, so how should I attack if I have to spend all that money on defence, because you know, in other case I'll just die?

Starcraft is a bad strategy game in two ways. In multiplayer, it's bad because it allows players to win just because they can click faster. In Single Player, it's bad because there is no way in hell to be prepared for anything. With how expensive the units are, and how vulnerable some of them are, it just becomes an irritating chore to try and do anything later on in the campaign. Warcraft 3 did the right thing by adding difficulty levels to it's campaign missions and the whole system seems to be less irritating than in Starcraft.

Age of Empires 2 has a different problem. The most important one is the lack of variation between the factions. For a 'supposed to be historically accurate' game that AoE2 is posing as, it's just ridiculous that the Japanese, the Arabs and Vikings have exactly the same units and upgrades available to them, with very minor differences. When I play the campaigns, I really don't see much of a difference between playing with the Scots and the French, or even the French and the Arabs. The missions themselves are all exactly the same - built up a force, attempt to destroy their forces / base, fail, try again. Why 'fail'? Simple: the god-damn paper-rock-scissors mechanics. Also, the very poorly done behaviour settings. So you can choose between Aggressive (your units will follow enemies all around the map, spread out, get killed), Defensive (as above, but there's a slight chance they'll give up the chase at some point and get back to where they've been), Stand Ground (hello, archers shooting my cavalry with no reaction whatsoever!) and No Attack (why would I use this?). So you can see how the campaign missions can quickly become a chore here.

When I played Galactic Battlegrounds, a Star Wars-themed Age of Empires 2 rip-off, I thought that game wasn't very interesting. But there, at least, was some variation. The factions actually looked differently, even if a majority of the upgrades and whatnot was shared. The missions weren't as dull, some of them were even quite fun to play. Suffice to say, I didn't think that game was very good, but it was still a lot better than AoE2.

Closing notes - I decided to give in the temptation and finish the remaining 7 or so missions of the Zerg campaign in Brood War using the invulnerability cheat code. I just don't care anymore. I tried, I really did. I just don't think this kind of gameplay was ever for me. I used to enjoy it, but no more - I'm looking for something deeper in a strategy game nowadays. Preferably not as irritating, too. As for AoE2, I really don't enjoy the game anymore, but I feel I should at least try to get through it and its expansion's campaigns. I just think I'll stop playing it for now and divert my attention to something else.

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