by Peter Suciu
Real time strategy seems to have become one of the biggest gaming genres, with over a dozen titles being released and hitting store shelves in 1997. As anyone who's ever played Dune 2, Command & Conquer or Warcraft, knows that this genre is usually a one on one game with several missions of varying difficulty. The player(s) begin with very little knowledge of the landscape around the opening units. There is a small patch of visible land and just blackness or "fog of war," the area where the enemy waits!
The genre is getting pretty crowded and many of these games are starting to look pretty similar. It's hard to tell the good from the bad and from the graphically ugly. But overall, none of the games listed below fall into the loser category. Each offers something unique and different. All of them won't appeal to everyone, but here's a quick roundup of the best that real time has to offer so that gamer's can decide how to spend their "real" hard earned money on the virtual battlefield that is right for them.
The general premise of these types of games is that two opponents with cosmically opposing views face each other. The game takes place (usually) in individual missions on a limited sized map. Players start out in each mission with a limited number of forces and an even more limited knowledge of the surrounding area (so much for that advanced intelligence report!). Blackness is all the player sees around his tiny knowledge of the environment. The view of the action is seen overhead with the blackness/unknown world disappearing and/or being uncovered as players advance. Don't ask how the forces got there either, just go along with it and start building and exploring.
Since the forces are as limited as the knowledge of the surrounding area, it becomes necessary to build new structures, which in turn can build new units. This all takes place at unreal lengths of time (in contrast to the name of the genre.real time). The real time part is that everything happens as the player clicks units and gives orders. No individual turns, everything happens at once.
Don't even try to understand the scale of time, because it makes no sense. New structures and then units are created in the time it takes to move a few forces around the map, so this never really translates to a truly realistic scale of time. But it does keep the game flowing well and easy. Unlike turn based war strategy games, there are no movement points to consider, no chain of events. Every thing is just so easy and quick.until the hard missions start, those can take a real time forever!
To pay for the new structures and units, the player needs to have a steady cash flow. These games also (usually) require the player to continually mine and/or harvest some rare material (it can be gold, oil, some unknown and special chemical) and this in turn brings in more money so that the player can continue to finance his/her operation. These materials must be gathered and returned to a processing center and then the money rolls in.again in real time. The money is then used to build new units at quick speeds so we assume labor unions play no part in this operation.
The genre isn't for everyone and different games within the real time realm will also appeal to different people. The settings vary from the Stone Age to fantasy worlds with Orcs and Elfs to far off planets with advanced weapons, but they are all similar in their basic set up. Here is a quick overview of the best of the genre:
7th Legion (Microprose)
The buzz is good on this game but the buzz is also saying that this game doesn't have the best graphics. But in this genre, fancy graphics aren't everything, and playability brings a lot to the battlefield. 7th Legion has a great setup and some interesting elements to make this a real winner.
The story is one of classic tragedy. Earth was dying, the rich built starships and headed off to the stars! They left a dying planet behind.which happened to have several billion people on it, but they were left to die with Earth. Well, the poor did die, but some survived and they became stronger. In space, the Chosen (the Riché) fought hard and replaced their fragile organs with cybernetics to thrive in deep space. When the Chosen returned, they found Earth was repaired and could once again support life. But Earth had new masters and the battle between the Chosen and the 7 Legions of Earth began.
This game has added some unique components to the genre, the biggest was to do away with the need to harvest for materials or rare chemicals. Instead, money is earned at regularly scheduled intervals. The more you kill, the more you earn. Rank also comes into play in 7th Legion. As the weary battlefield commander makes a name, promotion is on the way and the more dough is earned. Individual units can also be promoted and they'll fight better too.
Finally, 7th Legion has done a nice job with the fog of war, as it appears as a real cloud of fog and even returns after a length of time, once again hiding the view from the player. The rich vs. the poor theme is also a lot of fun! Where else can you can blast away at the stinking rich for making such a mess out of things?
War, Inc. (Interactive Magic)
Think about the horrors and evils of the world. The greed, the pain, the suffering and this is just one half of Interactive Magic's War, Inc. The game is one-half mercenary war story with real time missions and one-half the business world with high stakes finance including betting on the market. Of course, the world of suits and high finance is the real evil. The days as a mercenary aren't nearly as horrible as dressing in that suit and trying to make a killing with the profits from the latest battle.
War, Inc. has taken the standard elements of modern real time battles and mixed it with a Syndicate style game where players are also leaders of big business. When they aren't dressed in cameo, it's a Euro-trash suit. The premise is original and offbeat. Players must take on missions, complete them to the satisfaction of their employers and then gamble the money on the market to make bigger profits to research and buy better gear for the next mission. Somewhere along the way, it gets serious, but a good leader of industry will be able to keep a cool head and know when to buy low and aim high!
Dark Colony (SSI)
As Arnold said in Total Recall, "Get your ass to Mars!" Well, get there quick. Earth has nice colony set up, and the planet is being Terra-formed and made more Earth-like every day. Then someone had to go and find some ancient crap from a long dead civilization. When things start to look strange, they get worse. Aliens, those nasty Grays who like to kidnap people and show up in various conspiracy theories, show up and claim the planet is theirs! Time for a showdown between the Gray warriors and the Earth Colonial Marines.
The graphics are a little shaky at times, often looking like lead miniatures (you either like it or hate it), but at least the settings vary a lot (though I'd like some red sand here and there since this is Mars after all!). The high point to this game is that units on each side are totally different. The Earth forces are definitely presented as the "good guys" (the manual doesn't say, the game doesn't say it exactly, but it's there) since this Earthcentric view of the action is made quite clear.
This also helps explain why the Grays are there (if you know how to look for it), they just need a new home and Mars seems like a nice neighborhood. What is nice about Dark Colony is that players can use traditional Earthcentric weapons like infantry and tanks, all powerful machines or they can take the role of the big headed, bug eyed (see even I'm Earthcentric!) aliens with their biological technology and living weapons. In the end, it's clear, both sides really want peace, and that's a piece of Mars.
Go to Part II
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Last Updated June 30th, 1998