For all the hullabaloo about the death of the real time strategy genre’s death or decline the years from 2015 to 2017 were probably among the best stretch of three years in terms of games released since the early 2000’s. In 2015 we saw the release of:
- Age of Empires 2: The African Kingdoms
- Act of Aggression
- Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void
- Grey Goo
2016 was nearly as good with the release of:
- Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
- Ashes of the Singularity
- Cossacks 3
- Battlefleet Gothic: Armada
- Offworld Trading Company (RTS economic warfare?)
- 8-Bit Armies and two expansions
That may lack the nostalgia factor of 1998 or 2000 but that is two years jam packed with high quality RTS games across the spectrum of playstyles. Then 2017 came along and dropped two of the highest production cost RTS games in some time (Dawn of War 3 and Halo Wars 2) along with the fourth game in a storied franchise (Sudden Strike 4) and a little gem that shifted the genre a bit (Tooth and Tail). Today I want to hand out a few awards and discuss how the year went as a whole for the genre that we love. First, the awards!
Best Graphics: Halo Wars 2
This was an interesting category this year as the main four titles released all had strong cases. The two big budget games rocked great engines while Sudden Strike 4 is no slouch. Throw in Tooth and Tail’s unique visual style that is so enrapturing this was something I debated a great deal over but in the end I kept coming back to Halo Wars 2’s beautiful visual style. While Dawn of War 3 is spectacular, especially the explosions, the lack of visual clarity and inconsistencies made me take Halo Wars 2 here. The smooth edges, clean effects and beautiful water and fire make the game pop even when it makes my PC chug just trying to keep up with it. Again Dawn of War 3 could take this spot and Tooth and Tail’s design is worth mentioning but the details Halo Wars 2 uses while remaining so clean was so invaluable to me as player, and that was an area Dawn of War 3 struggled.
Best Campaign: Halo Wars 2
Wayward once wrote that the real time strategy often lacks memorable characters and I agree with him and this is one reason I am selecting Halo Wars 2 for my campaign of the year. Atriox is such an outstanding villain in so many ways. His design is intimidating, his voice rumbles through your speakers or earphones and his actions prove he lives up to his image. It isn’t often a strategy game gives you a villain to fear. Blizzard’s villains are generally humanized since you play as their factions and the classic Red Alert villains are full of camp and wonder but Atriox just drips power. Even playing as his faction you see his power and ruthlessness. The game supports this as well through exposition (Isabel’s speech on him is one of my favorite in recent memory), gameplay and even the cut scenes. In the first Halo Wars game the Spartans were game enders who could alter a battle alone and in groups they were unstoppable but right away we see Atriox is different. Captain Cutter provides and excellent foil and we were already familiar with him from the first game. The game provides complex characters with strengths and weaknesses.Combine this wonderful villain with well designed, if generic, missions and excellent story telling and I dove head first into this universe.
I should note that both Dawn of War 3 and Tooth and Tail deserve praise here, both were amazing in entirely different way. Tooth and Tail’s setting, story and universe was incredibly unique and beautiful and had a story that drew you in. Dawn of War 3’s campaign was quite wonderful as well, filled with interesting missions and plenty of that classic Warhammer bombast. Both did lack the unique characters of Halo Wars though to me and that held them back the, along with length as both seemingly ended fairly abruptly.
Best Unit Design: Dawn of War 3
This could have gone to Tooth and Tail easily due to the units being animals in very funny and special circumstances but few universes provide the fun and crazy units like Warhammer and Dawn of War 3 does not disappoint. While there are balance and design issues that exist in the game the madness and wackiness the game provides overrides that for me. From the lowliest unit to the most powerful champion they oozed character and variety. The Orks have their natural inventiveness when it comes to their unit design and while the Space Marines and Eldar aren’t up to that level they still have a lot of unit variety and different production mechanics. Their is just a sense of fun when you see your units in combat, from your leaping Space Marines to the sweeping blades of the Eldar to the creaking and sparking of the Orks.
Best Music Design: Tooth and Tail
Tooth and Tail is a unique game in almost every aspect. From the setting to the units to the gameplay, no game really compares and this applies to the music as well. The game combines the wonderful sweeping strings of traditional games during epic moments and throws in a great deal of early 20th century Russian music that only adds another layer of depth to an already immersive setting and world. Few games stand out in their music these days but Tooth and Tail is music I’d recognize right away and wouldn’t turn off for a long time.
Honestly this year gave me a lot of time playing new RTS games. While each game had their flaws:
– Dawn of War 3’s struggles are myriad and Wayward has tackled many of the issues
– Halo Wars 2 struggled between its console roots and the move to PC
– Tooth and Tail’s multiplayer design has issues with balance and comeback potential
– Sudden Strike 4 is a well rounded game but bugs, AI and multiplayer issues hold it back
But many of the games this year still stand out despite their flaws. I haven’t replayed a campaign as many times as I did Halo Wars 2 since Starcraft 2. Dawn of War 3’s multiplayer, while shallow at first, has pulled me back in with its trend setting map mechanics and Tooth and Tail’s creative multiplayer and short matches makes me say “Just one more.” It has been a great year for the real time strategy after a few good years of great years. Honestly it is a good time to be a real time strategy fan, regardless if you want more tactics, micro, macro or planning, there has been something for everyone.