As i write this, are 30 hours and 14 minutes between midnight on friday, by which time I am supposed to have completed my 12-entry saga of game analysis. And so it begins, the madness of the ULTIMATE BLOGGIN’ ABOUT GAMES FINALE. My GOD I need to manage my time better. Too much Heroes of Newerth.

…pretend I didn’t say that

Total annihilation vs Supreme commander

First up, i’m going to address a genre that i haven’t paid much attention to over the last few weeks: Strategy. GOOD strategy games hold a very special part of the games market in that people can use their brains in clever ways, and get rewarded for it. Such games are beautiful, and rare, whilst the other 3/4 of strategy games available involve building as many of your favourite unit as you can, and right-clicking inside the enemy base somewhere. The first one thrives on having a large variety of unique options available to players, while the second thrives on dominant strategies, those loathesome enforcers of conformity.

As somebody who hates being told what to do, I also hate games in which there is a clearly dominant strategy. You could even go so far as to say I despise them. This is why I do not play MMORPG’s anymore, and this is why I am a massive fan of Total Annihilation.

1997. Lest we forget.

So anyway, back on track, Total Annihilation was a genre-defining real-time strategy game. It featured an innovative inflow/outflow system of resource management, which was much more about good management and holding territory, as opposed to building lots of villagers, or stockpiling. It was the first RTS game to feature 3D units and terrain. Units which had gotten multiple kills became more effective, and the soundtrack was a classical score. The visionary behind it was Chris Taylor,  and every single thing about the game was sophisticated and clever, and encouraged the use of both low-level tactics and high-level strategy. But the one thing I want to concentrate on is unit diversity. Because, as I said earlier, a large array of unique viable options is the cornerstone of a good strategy game.

Oh no, your enemy is dug in, but you have them surrounded! Build a gigantic plasma cannon and scorch their base from a distance! Or, if they have shields,  send in invisible crawling bombs to gut their base. Or, if they have sensors up, Air-drop your commanding officer into their base as a highly-powerful kamikaze bomb. Or if they’ve got a lot of anti-air, build a nuclear missile launcher and scorch it all in one hit. Or, if they have a missile defense system, you could…

Total annihilation had a HUGE array of options, all of which were viable strategies. In Total Annihilation, I could send a single construction aircraft behind my opponents lines at the beginning of the game to build a massively defended artillery emplacement that would open fire at a crucial moment in the battle. There was no dominant strategy, which is what made it great. If you came up with a clever and cunning idea, the chances were you could use that idea in your next game of total annihilation and it would be really fun and successful.

It seems that Total Annihilation may have been an accidental masterpiece, because Chris Taylor, the lead developer from Cavedog studios then went on to create Supreme Commander.

Now, i’m probably going to be pretty hard on supreme commander in the coming paragraphs so I’ll get one thing straight first. Supreme commander did a lot of things right. Everything was far more user friendly, with range and radar overlays, the ability to zoom out to fit the map on your screen or zoom in so you can see the scratch marks on each tank. It had the same resource management system as total annihilation did, and to its credit the economy building part was very well thought out; it forced people to make decisions between how much return they’ll get on the resources they put in, and how fast they’ll get that return, the risk being if they didn’t get it before the enemy attacked they’d be significantly under-strength. These are the things it did right.

Now let me tell you what it did wrong.

The wonderful array of choices that made total annihilation so great were gone; watered down to nothing. It was very well balanced, each side was equal, because each side was exactly the same. Oh sure, the numbers were slightly different, and they all had different names and animations, but you knew underneath that it was all the same. Tank. Anti-air. Scout. Artillery. Rinse. Repeat. Every single unit had an exact equivalent somewhere else. What’s more, lets look at the paragraph I wrote above about the masses of choices in Total Annihilation.

Oh no, your enemy is dug in, but you have them surrounded! Build a gigantic plasma cannon and scorch their base from a distance! Or, if they have shields,  send in invisible crawling bombs to gut their base. Or, if they have sensors up, Air-drop your commanding officer into their base as a highly-powerful kamikaze bomb. Or if they’ve got a lot of anti-air, build a nuclear missile launcher and scorch it all in one hit. Or, if they have a missile defense system, you could…

The plasma cannons? Now five times as expensive, and half as effective. Invisible crawling bombs? gone. Air dropping your commander? Your slow-ass transports won’t make it past their front line. Nuclear missile launcher, also five times as expensive. The only differences between the factions, the only original or unique units are the experimental units. There are nine such units. 90% of games will not last long enough for one of these experimental units to get built.

As such, any given game of supreme commander will develop into a battle of who can build their economy the fastest. And, subsequently, that is why Total Annihilation will be remembered in gaming history, and why Supreme Commander will not.

Intermission (Skip if you’re just here to mark me and get on with your life)

I hope that the people who are marking this will understand (and i hope they will, if they are in fact people) that I am incredibly torn between two masters right now. On one hand, I have an audience to appease, albeit a small audience, that is appeased by profanity and my own insane brand of absurdist humour. On the other hand, I have a marker to appease, who will have been marking this crap all day and will just want me to get on with the reviewing so that he or she can rubber-stamp my mark onto the online assessment system and continue their lives. What is most perplexing is there is no way of knowing if i’m doing the right thing. Until I get my mark back, i cannot know whether my convulsive ravings like this one are going to receive a comment along the lines of “A refreshing change from all the tedium of marking bland sub-par game reviews by first year students. Bravo on the eloquent lulz.”, or whether they will be more inclined to reply “Every paragraph you wrote that wasn’t about games is another pound of flesh i am going to carve from your back while i torment you in retribution for wasting my time.”

I find that uncertainty quite unsettling. And its also made me too nervous to make random raving divergences like this one you read now, which are bread and water to the hungry mouth that is my blog.

End intermission (start paying attention now)

Next up is….

Heroes of Newerth

Heroes of Newerth (hereafter referred to as HON) is a game thats hard to categorise. A lot of people would be tempted to call it a strategy game, because of its roots in DoTA and thus in warcraft 3, but since you’re controlling a single unit that respawns and levels up its more like an RPG. But then no role-playing or story really takes place, its just that RPG has over the years become synonymous with “stat-building game”.

Either way, regardless of attempted classification, it boils down to this: You control a hero, and you want to destroy the enemy base. In order to do so, you have to level up and buy items, which is really an easier said than done process, because there are a great deal of options for items and not all of them are good. Furthermore there is  a significant gold reward for every hero killed, so if you start to lag behind you can guarantee you’ll become the feeding ground for every enemy hero that can track you down.

Theres a huge array of items and heroes and skills to use, so the strategy is actually very deep, and there are even micromanagement tricks that you need to learn like getting the last hit on enemies so you get the money, and even euthanising low-hp friendly units so that your enemies can’t get the gold or experience points from the kill. Now, if you were awake during my Total Annihilation review you will have by now realised that I’m a very big fan of deep strategy, so this game gets my tick of approval over all. However i still have some very major quarrels with it, the chief one being the learning curve.

Now, when i first started playing HoN i’d had some very limited experience with DOTA in the past, so it wasn’t all that bad. And maybe this quarrel is premature and they’re going to fix it later in the beta. But the point remains that the learning curve is horrific. Its not so much a matter of skill, but a matter of raw knowledge, about knowing the huge number of items and skills and what they all do. Until a player knows all that, they can and will suck very easily. While the learning curve will always be deadly in a complex multiplayer-only game, no efforts have been made to cushion it what so ever. There is no tutorial, no “sandbox mode” where you can faff about without having anybody in the server screaming at you to lane mid, and this is something they are going to have to fix unless they want HoN to stay as impenetrable as DoTA was.

Now…the final review.

Counter strike VS Team fortress 2

Counter strike is a puzzling game. If one hadn’t heard of it before, they would play it and recognise the high accuracy and reaction time requirements as the mark of a game that was designed to be played competitively. Yet, counter strike is the most played online shooter ever. Played by people; NORMAL people, who aren’t very good at games and who don’t plan to join a ladder or a clan or be a pro gamer. This I simply can’t understand, because counter strike is not at all fun, and I once thought people played games either for fun or lasting rewards and progress like in an MMO. Counter strike offers neither of these things.

Counter strike is an unforgiving multiplayer first person shooter, originally created as a mod for half life 1, a mod which has since been bought out by valve itself and been released as a standalone game numerous times.

The weapons do so much damage that generally one or two bullets are enough to do the job, meaning a skilled player can generally survive potentially infinite encounters with less skilled players, because the skilled player will kill them before they are able to damage him, leaving him with no disadvantage in his next encounter. When a player is killed, they have to sit out the remainder of the round, normally something to the tune of 2 minutes 30 seconds, and twiddle their thumbs. This is horribly flow breaking, and as much as I would love to tear counter strike to shreds for containing probably 5 seconds of shooting in every minute of walking, and then making you sit out if you die anyway, its massively popular, so right now i’m trying to figure out what i’ve missed. Perhaps its popularity is self perpetuating amongst its tight-knit target demographic?

However lets compare it to a game that actually gets something right: Team fortress 2.

To start with, team fortress 2 (or TF2) gets a million points right off the bat for having respawn times capped at 20 seconds. Secondly, its a whole new ballgame as far as strategy goes: there are 9 different classes each with a unique role, all masterfully balanced (remember what i said about a variety of viable options being the cornerstone of strategy?).

Tf2 is far more forgiving than counter strike from a staying-alive perspective, making it far more friendly to the casual gaming public. While counter strike is designed to make sure the most skilled player always wins, team fortress 2 is more geared towards giving everybody a fighting chance and a challenge at the same time. Because of the class system, each player will have some easy victims around the place, and also some grave threats. If a new player is playing scout, and they can’t really get any kills, they’ll at least be able to kill most spies or snipers they come across. On the other hand, if a skilled player is playing scout, the presence of enemy sentry guns and heavies ensure he can’t do too much rampaging before he runs into somebody that can put him in his place. The same goes for pretty much every class, except for soldier, the all-rounder class, which will still get picked off by snipers every now and then.

This same approach, the idea that players of every skill level should be having a fun time, extends to pretty much everything in tf2. Every weapon, according to valve, “was designed to be easy to use, and nearly impossible to master”. The rocket launcher is very easy to use. You pick it up and point it at people, and a rocket comes out, and then it hits something and everything nearby takes damage. This weapon is easy to use. And yet i can show you that people have done amazing things with this weapon, and even the best of the best of the best miss sometimes, and thus have room to improve.

Team fortress 2 has a thriving competitive community, which I am proudly a part of. Team fortress 2 is proof games don’t have to be boring or impenetrable like counter strike to be good for pro gamers.

And thus concludes the ultimate bloggin’ about games finale. I hope you enjoyed yourself. I know I did.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go play garry’s mod. The rhetoric of play as frivolity: fuck yeah!