Articles & Editorials: Fighting In No Mans Land

During the development of C&C 3 I have been blind to the different mechanics used in the RTS genre. There are 2 to begin with. There’s the MCV and then the Peon/Dozer mechanics, Both have advantages and disadvantages to their credit. There is one that does work better than the other, but there is more to an RTS than that. Now, I shall explain why….

As an RTS veteran who has been playing this genre since Dune 2, I had always been a sure-fire supporter of the MCV system. It came about through an undeniable love for C&C. And in respect to others, those who support this system are those who grew up with C&C and consider it the number one title. Now with that said, I have full respect to the guys at Petroglyph and at EA who worked on C&C. But my personal feeling through hindsight is that the last decent RTS Westwood created was Tiberian Sun.

Red Alert 2 was just plain awful! My reasons are not only the game speed, or the huge cheese-fest, but the fact that the MCV system by then had been driven into strategic overkill. In other words, it was boring uninspired and restrictive. I had found the peon system actually allowed a freedom to work faster and get off the ground quicker. The gameplay just felt better because of it.

Now, before I continue, I am fully aware that C&C 3 is using the MCV system, but it is using cranes. This evolves the mechanic into a part peon process, which is good in my opinion, but you are still restricted unless you want to spend 5000 credits on another MCV to go kick ass somewhere else. While this is great, I still lean towards the peon system in the RTS Genre, but I still have a problem with it.

The gripe I have with the peon system though is the ability to build absolutely anywhere with 100% freedom. This is the one thing I detest. For someone who turtles rather than rushes, I found it a huge problem. I can blame C&C for the turtle tactic I grew up with, but the ability to expand without a limit was and still is, just too damn much to live with. Any game that uses this 100% complete freedom mechanic is gonna have a hard time convincing me that it is ultimately worth the time or the pleasure. Why you ask? Just carry on reading.

Now, there are a few games on the market that I do enjoy using with the peon system. And those are the sort of games that put a restriction on the freedom. Games where you can still build forward, but only at strategic locations. One game I turn to as an example is Dawn of War. The ability to capture strategic points in the game is one I welcome strongly, and was a reason I enjoyed Empire At War in Online Multiplay. Because I’m a strong believer in the notion that if you want to expand, if you want to build a forward base, you better damn well earn that right by capturing and fighting for that position before you can exploit the freedom to build there.

Believe me I have been a turtler for almost the whole of my RTS career. But when strategic points are involved and you have to earn the terrain you are fighting on, it becomes a whole different ball game. You are forced to rush, and if you don’t you won’t be rewarded. And as a result of this system, you get a more fulfilling gameplay experience. Battles rage longer and harder, and strategically it ends up more like Real Time Chess.

Each point is like a square, and you know that if the enemy wants a forward base, I will already have control of that sector of the map, and he will not sneak up on me so easily. The same goes for when the roles are reversed. I wanna have a fight and bring it to him hard, because it’s more satisfying when you have to work at things. There always is a greater sense of achievement.

This is really what war is about. Capturing strategic points to gain an upper hand on your opponent. This is what I have to coin as modern day warfare style gameplay. RTS games in the past have suffered the problem of what I call “World War 1 gameplay” where there are 2 bases and a huge no-mans-land outside the perimeter. Strategically the World War 1 style is ancient, and any developer that considers using it contradicts (in all fairness) the single most important element of war, and that’s territorial advantage.

Without territory, what are you fighting over in a mission, in multiplayer? To be honest, there isn’t much. You are simply marching over a pretty looking landscape hoping that when you get to the base of your enemy, you’ll take him out in one mighty sweep. Sure C&C 3 has the odd mutant hovel, the odd abandoned structure on a map, but is it enough to ensure modern warfare gameplay? Probably not.

Now if you split the many Tiberium Fields, the mutant hovel, the oil derrick or whatever else you could use and called them strategical locations. The player would have an extra problem on their hands. Because if you wanted to harvest Tiberium or you wanted to have mutants help you in your quest, you’d have to fight to capture it first. While this mechanic wouldn’t work directly like that in C&C, it does add an extra element to a game which has been lacking something within the gameplay department. Sure I can’t comment on C&C 3’s gameplay as yet, but in hindsight to all the other games in the C&C franchise, they could have done with some extra spice.

My problem with many RTS games is that the battlefield has no direct value to the player. In C&C especially resources are somewhat mutually shared at the beginning, contested in the mid stages, and then depleted or blown up shortly afterwards. Then it’s back to square one and all then all you have are the two bases, and the useless no-mans-land once more.

But then, take a look at games such as Dawn of War, Empire at War, Rise of Nations, Z: Steel Solders. The map can be boring, but they all have one thing in common and that’s the capture and contesting of strategic points and therefore territory. This, in all honest opinion works better, has more realism, and is more like war should be.

But then, another question arises. Population Capacities! All the above games have pop caps! Yes they do, and they have reason to, because of massing. Without the pop cap, games just seem like an arms race. Multiple tanks, aircraft, super weapons, it’s a joke! There’s no strategy, no real gameplay and in many varying degrees, no real fun.

Generals suffered terribly in this department. Alright, in all fairness, those who do actually try and play it properly do a good a job. They build quick, churn out 16 harvesters and all the other units at an unbelievably supernatural pace and trounce the opposition before they know what hit them. While these players do not “Mass” their units, they do with their harvesters. Even in pop cap games, the economic warfare comes down to who can accumulate the most money in the shortest period of time. But with games that have strategic points, the pop cap and territory both work together. eliminates the painful micromanagement and allows the most important element of war to flow in earnest, and that’s the skirmish itself.

You could argue in this article, all I have done is explain the mechanics of Dawn of War. And in some respects, you’d be right. But my love for this particular game isn’t just about what I see a great a great RTS to be. It’s about the benchmark of gameplay. Although C&C 3 promises fast, fluid and fun gameplay. How long will it be before people find a way to exploit the gameplay so it just becomes another bog standard RTS affair? Are we talking a few days, weeks, months?

The fact is pop caps and strategic points are my idea of a true fast, fluid and fun gameplay experience without the turtle or rush mechanic. If you want freedom, you need the peon. And if it’s money and expansion you’re after, you’ve gotta claim the territory. C&C 3 will be an interesting mix of Old C&C and Dawn of War style play, so they say. But will it be real war, or will it be stuck in no-mans-land once again? Time will tell, sooner or later, time will tell.

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