When I was young, when apparently, we were all young, we played RTS in a very particular way. Quite possibly because of the difficulty in setting up online games, or indeed the impossibility for some, between the ages of 5 and 10, we only played against the AI. We built grand cities in Red Alert and Age of Empires, complete with tower defense-esque mazes of walls and gates. Our armies never left the base prior having maxed out the population count and been upgraded to the very end of the tech tree. At the same time, juxtaposed against all these grandiose palaces and armies, we'd never think to build two barracks or stables.
Why could you possibly need more than one building that builds chariots?
As children, we are inherently insecure, as the world is a place for adults. We don't have any power. So when we play a RTS, we need the unbeatable mega-army. Additionally, as a child, just about anything you build feels like a pretty damn worthwhile accomplishment, as you lack any great understanding of how your creation fits into its broader context. At three, it's perfectly OK to have made a cake that's simply a handful of mud and give it to your mother. Why wouldn't she want it?
Any city you build in a RTS as a kid, particularly in Age of Empires where AI driven automatons take on society's various roles and make your city look alive, feels like an accomplishment. Especially if the game tells you it's good because there's nothing left to research or build.
Now it seems like a lot of gamers, having played one of these RTS in the 90s somewhere as a youngster, feels abandoned by the genre now. Between Starcraft II and DOTA, the genre seems hypercompetitive and alien. Starcraft handles a lot like the RTS of your youth, especially since that RTS might have been Starcraft. But the Multiplayer button is more prominent, the entire UI leads towards it. Every online match you play is over by the 12 minute mark, there's no chance to build Carriers and load them up with a full complement of ships.
The genre has become hyper competitive and no longer caters to people like yourself who simply wish to build up a nice big base and army, maybe fending off a few half hearted raiding parties along the way, before overwhelming the enemy.
They don't make 'em like they used to, do they?
My contention, as anyone familiar with argument introduction techniques and basic human tone can probably guess, is that they do still make RTS games much like they did in your childhood. It's you that's changed.
Take for example, Starcraft II, which still has that skirmish mode, still has options that make the AI as poor at defeating you as you remember. It's just as easy to set yourself up on a 4v3, where all your allies are slightly smarter than your enemies. The recent C+C Conquer games, especially Red Alert 3, had a million funny units to build and overwhelm the enemy with and base buildings to spawn them from. Halfway through the decade Supreme Commander was released, which might well be the best "build up like crazy then overwhelm an AI" game that was ever made. In Supreme Commander your armies were SO BIG and you knew that because you could zoom so far out and the bases were massive and intricate while still being hella simple to build.
Hell, in that game you couldn't actually run out of resources, so nothing ever stopped you building that base bigger and bigger.
Except you got bored. As a kid, everything you did seemed amazing, your time limitless. But more importantly you didn't have much context for what you were accomplishing or understanding of the systems you were interacting with. That army felt unique every time.
As an adult, it feels obvious, cheap and fake. We've seen the way humans play the game against one another. The idea that the game is "supposed" to work a particular way creeps into our minds. It cheapens the build up sensation of building up a Lego fort against the most passive AI and then knocking it over.
Of course you built every building, nothing could ever have stopped you. Of course your army rolled over the AI's, it clearly wasn't trying.
It's kind of cute the first time you do it. It's nostalgic. But you don't want to do it again. There's no unknown element, no chance of having a new experience. It's Solitaire without shuffling the deck, having rigged it so you'll win.
As the rerelease of Age of Kings demonstrates, the game really hasn't changed. I have.
SimCity feels like the realisation of an American ideal that has never happened. I'm not sure if my interpretation of this is largely due to my exposure to American culture through The Daily Show and Colbert Report, but some of SimCity's elements seemed intensely counter intuitive to me, at least at first.
The first and most obvious realisation of an American dream is what taxation the city's businesses and residents will accept. I've found, in my experience that low income residents will be OK between 9% and 10% tax. Middle class 10-11% and upper class 12-13%. This is a pretty clear far cry from the ~33% tax on the lower to middle class I'm used to in Australia and the ~25% it looks like is levied on Americans.
Additionally, when Australian and American hard industries have failed in recent decades, they generally don't reopen. They fail for good. The easy examples for both nations are our auto industries. Although Australia doesn't have a whole city as monument to that failure, there are plenty of auto plants that have been closed for decades and have no prospect for recovery.
However, heavy industries are still at the core of almost every SimCity's economy, at least in their opening hours, which certainly aren't meant to represent the roaring industries of the wartime, what with most SimCities initially powering themselves with wind power.
However, despite the profits and success these industries can find, individual factories are constantly failing, even to the point of the city needing to bulldoze the entire building to encourage new businesses to move in. As opposed to say, Anno 2070, produced by two German studios where well managed economies will never fail, in SimCity commercial ventures and factories are constantly going under and being replaced by others.
Extremely low tax rates as well as successful American heavy industries forming a keystone of the economy are a true American Fantasy from the conservative side. Businesses constantly failing and being replaced by more efficient ones. It's a capitalist paradise of an America and many things, the tax rate in particular, feel intensively counter intuitive to me. Probably to most Americans too and that's a shame, because I think the game might be more interesting if it played into real dynamics more and this odd fantasy less.
Essentially what I'm asking for is to be able to bail out failing factories. Simulate the American I've come to know and love, SimCity. Too big to fail worked for Obama, let it work for me.
Over the last year of two, at the precarious transition point in life that is being 21 years old, I've found myself being drawn more and more towards games which are in some way dealing with ageing, or change. I find Metal Gear Solid 4's depiction of the world as a place for sad, bitter old men as fascinating. Assassin's Creed 2 sticks out in my mind most for a low key cutscene in Venice, where Ezio and and his love interest of the moment sit on a bench while Ezio laments having spent the last twenty years killing people, rather than living for himself. They're fascinating stories of regret for ones misspent youth and fairly personal stories.
Where I wasn't expecting to find this feeling was with an RTS, which are usually quite bad at imparting any kind of emotional drama. Fall of the Samurai is the last DLC/Expansion pack for Shogun 2: Total War, which adds a new campaign set in 1860, a time of great change in Japan. Although the western powers had made contact with Japan hundreds of years earlier and sold them firearms, it wasn't until the 19th century that tensions between the old ways and the new turned to all out war, as the last vestiges of traditional warfare go out in a blaze of glory, as was immortalised in the Tom Cruise film. What's interesting is that although Fall of the Samurai does touch on these themes in explicit cutscenes and text, it also conveys nostalgia systematically.
Although the game, in contrast to previous Total War campaigns, only takes place over a decade or two instead of centuries, there's a definite systemic arc to each of the games, an condensed tale of the way warfare changed over the 18th and 19th century. At the start of the game, your clan starts out with 0 "modernisation", a resource that allows you to research higher level technologies but leads to unhappiness among your people, which will lead to revolts. Modernisation is acquired as a by product of whichever research you elect to work on down the tech tree. However, that progress down the tech tree is not optional; there's no way to prevent your clan from modernising.
Early on in the campaign, units of spear wielding peasants and samurai are usually more useful than the gunmen you can recruit who are inaccurate and take a lifetime to reload. Flintlocks are pretty hard to understand if you havn't even learnt how to read. They cost a premium, but recruiting the much higher morale samurai units is the key to taking castles. Additionally, everyone is happy around your provinces because you're still allowing in traditional technologies. Warfare is made up of counters, katana samurai counter spearmen, spearmen counter cavalry, all melee counter bowmen who must be protected and horsemen counter katanas and can flank bowmen. It's a giant game of rock paper scissors with some geometry overlayed onto it.
Now towns in Fall of the Samurai have garrisons, which are free units created at full strength whenever the town is attacked. A minimum army to defend it with, simulating the townsfolk just taking up arms to fight invaders.Early on, castles have a garrison of one of two or three hundred peasants armed with spears. A nice little bonus, but they won't stop anyone taking the walls, as any attacking army will contain spear or katana samurai who will outclass your poor, scared peasants, who are at least happy you aren't adopting western ways and changing their lives.
But then as we move closer to the mid-game, things start to change a bit. The gaijin have helped you construct an artillery school, from which you've built some wooden cannons. As you might imagine from cannons made of wood, they're haphazard, terribly inaccurate weapons as likely to kill their crews as anyone they're aimed at. Nonetheless, with enough of these you can knock down defensive towers on a castle and terrify the hell out of some peasants.
Additionally you can build an infantry training school, where foreign agents will teach your men to shoot in formation, making gunpowder troops far more deadly. Peasant gunmen break the second melee troops reach them, meaning you kind of hand to keep them up on a hill, behind your lines, since you can't arc a gunshot the same way you could an arrow. So these trained formation men called Line Infantry you get in the midgame are a great step up, because you can leave them out the front of your lines to shoot without having them break the second some spearmen make contact with them. Additionally, being better trained with their guns, they're going to kill far of them men charging at them before they even make contact, forcing the enemy to commit far more resources to any frontal attacks. This is the first instance where you'll find some smaller, peasant driven attacks just losing morale and breaking before they've even gotten into melee. Peasant spearman are now largely redundant in pitched battles.
As you move further into the midgame, artillery progresses at a fearsome rate. Wooden Cannons, which look more like firework launchers, are replaced by more conventional Parrot and Armstrong guns, which can utterly devastate an army from a kilometre away, ruining morale. These guns, with 30 man crews, can easily rack up two or three hundred kills per battery of four guns. Set at the back of your army, they're basically immune to damage outside of opposing gun batteries, since any flanking horsemen are now just large, poorly armoured targets for your line infantry. Much of the game is now determined by whose artillery decimates the others first and pity be onto the men who now have to attack into unanswered cannon fire. Additional research has made rifles more accurate too, developing staggered firing tactics and vastly improved reloading proficiency, so now even hardened samurai usually break before they reach your lines, under cannon and small arms fire. Battles now take place between great lines of highly drilled infantry and whoever has greater cannon support will win the day. The elegant rock paper scissors of earlier warfare has been replaced with the simple equation of whom has more guns.
Indeed, the guns have become so accurate and easy to use that peasants handed guns have become quite effective. Earlier on in the game these were a pure liability, as their lack of combat experience made them prone to breaking as soon as the enemy line reached them. This hasn't changed, but general fire power has increased so dramatically even for untrained peasants that most lines of infantry won't manage to close that distance. Although peasants will still lose badly to trained line infantry in a pitched battle, unless you have better artillery, which will do more damage to stationary ranged formations than training ever did.
All this modernisation though, it's started to make your peasants unhappy. Everyone's out of work, as most firearms are being imported from the Western Powers and the old crafts are no longer being needed. So the unemployed and disempowered samurai lead peasant revolts against your provinces. They raise large armies, from 600 to 1400 men and attack your castles. In the early game this was calamitous and you would need to send your main army to oppress them, however in this late stage, the garrison of 500 rifle peasants can easily break the rebels morale before they reach the walls. Indeed, these untrained irregulars can basically defend any castle as long as the enemy didn't bring any cannons to back them up.
If they do have cannons, they can sit back and laugh as your men and walls are torn to pieces. Unless you have more or better cannons.
The end game of Fall of the Samurai is far less tactically interesting than it's beginning. Gone are the clever formations and battle plans of combined arms. It has become about armies of cheap, untrained peasants supported by as many heavy guns as you can produce. Whomever has the most Armstrong Guns will win, as armies become increasingly symmetric. Gone is the Chosu's clan signature ninja, or the Date's feared Daikatana samurai. All armies can now be boiled down to as many with guns as possible, with expensive gun carriages in support.
Your people are constantly revolting against you, all over the empire, but your default forces in every castle are more than enough to slaughter them. You no longer need their approval because oppression no longer costs you anything.
It is in this late game that you can build the highest levels of samurai, called Samurai Heroes or Shigatori. These units of 60 men (on a battlefield where 150 men is default) are incredibly expensive. 60 samurai heroes cost more than 450 peasant gunmen. But they're strong and skilled and brave as all hell. They'll charge right through any fire you ask them too, or hold a wall until the last man dies. They can easily hold off two to three times their number and win.
But against artillery and mass firing lines, they're just more bodies. The age of the samurai, the warrior hero has ended. Bravery is obsolete, as is great skill. Guns are simple enough that anyone can be killing machine.
War is no longer elegant or interesting, it is just cold, cheap and efficient Much like a Metal Gear or Assassin's Creed, Fall of the Samurai makes you feel like an old man, nostalgically wishing for the simpler times in that unique way that only a game can.