In spite of all the fuss made this year about the new consoles, this has once again been a very good year for the PC game. And, once again, the strategy genre has been one of the strengths of the platform. In spite of the admirable steps taken to move RTS to the console world (see the Xbox version of Battle for Middle Earth II), for now the Windows gamers are the only ones who really have the power to be desktop gods. (Last year’s awards are here.)
Best Trend: “Real time” wargames – These aren’t new. Harpoon was a real time wargame that consumed me for years. But there have been a number of real time or pseudo-real time wargames released this year that stand near the top of the genre. Distant Guns, Defending the Reich, Take Command 2, Conquest of the Aegean… It’s probably no coincidence that some of the best wargames of the year have all but buried the turn-based, hex-based movement. It’s almost as if you’re playing them on a computer.
Worst Trend: Old Games At New Game Prices – WinSPWW2. The Operational Art of War 3. Harpoon 3. Shrapnel Games and Matrix Games are great friends of the wargame developer, but there is no real reason to sell ten year old games with mods attached for more than thirty dollars. When you hit the sixty dollar mark, you should be offering more than XP compatibility and some new scenarios. And you certainly shouldn’t introduce new, bigger bugs.
Best Game That People Forgot About: Rise of Legends – I have a review of Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends sitting around that never got published. I may just put it here in the next few days. While not the amazing shock to the system that Rise of Nations was, Rise of Legends deserved better than three weeks in the sun before being pushed away from the limelight. It looked better than almost any other RTS this year, and even the terrible storyline in the campaign couldn’t detract from the general thrill of controlling units you haven’t seen anywhere else. I think that the obscure mythology got in the way of people embracing this game like they should have. It’s not that no one played it – it’s that no one played it for very long. Time to try it again.
Worst Media Coverage of Strategy Games: Left Behind – I spoke to my father-in-law last night and he asked about the Left Behind game. Apparently CNN was reporting that the game was terribly violent and offensive to non-Christians. I think I read this story a million times, even before the game was released. It shouldn’t be surprising that most gamers aren’t rushing to defend this crappy game from a bunch of people led by questionable theology, but if you call out the media on misreporting Bully, you should do it for Left Behind, too. Accuracy counts. LB: Eternal Forces is no more violent than any other RTS and is probably less so, since conversion will be your major weapon for most of the campaign. Maybe people find conversion violent, since you are converting people to something specific. No one seemed to mind when my Assyrian priest converted Egyptian catapults in Age of Empires.
Worst Game: Left Behind:Eternal Forces – None of which detracts from the fact that it is a very bad game – but in all the traditional ways of bad games. It is easy to laugh at the sweater vests, really bad character biographies, Christian rock interludes and the like. But what about the campaign missions that have you running around New York asking random strangers if they know where Bob is? Or the pathfinding that both misses units in the middle of an empty street and leads to huge traffic jams? Or the advertising software that tells you to shop at EB? To buy another game, I hope.
Most Surprising Game: Heroes of Annihilated Empires – It’s simple, derivative and just a little bit brain dead. But, God help me, I liked it. It’s not a great game by any stretch of the imagination, but it shows more energy than I thought GSC Games was capable of. It’s as old school as you can get in a modern RTS and not lose your game making license.
Least Surprising Game: Medieval II: Total War – Though Caesar IV would be a good vote, too, Medieval is the best game that surprised me the least. When you have a formula that works, keep using it. Medieval II is a very good game, but takes very few risks. The big new innovation – the city/castle switching – proves to be much ado about little. It’s very nice looking, and the formula is a real winner. But I’m a little disappointed they didn’t try a little harder, like they did with Rome and the original Medieval, both of which were huge steps up from their predecessors.
Best Series I Skipped: Dawn of War – Yeah, I’m a very bad man.
Best Expansion Pack: Warchiefs for Age of Empires III – What’s not to like? Firey pits that generate warriors. Sioux raiders. Ninjas. Warchiefs turns its back on the staid and predictable Age of Empires III and goes a little weird. I like weird.
Best Independent Strategy Game: Dominions III – I think I finally know what I am doing, but I’m not sure. One of the glories of Dominions III is that I enjoy it even though I am really quite terrible at it. But when a plan comes together in this game, and your magic and military and sacred power all click at the right time, there’s a brief moment of transcendence when the game becomes exactly what it promised it would be. I can now say to those afraid of the game, enter and seek solace. You will lose – a lot – but you will lose in completely predictable ways. Meaning you will lose an entirely different way the next time around.
Best Budget Strategy Game: Defcon – Introversion are design geniuses. Not that their games are genius – Defcon itself is brutally simple and not always fair – but the developers always have the right look and feel to go with their ideas. Concept and image mesh to create a beautiful experience.
Best Strategy Game: Company of Heroes – Could there be any doubt? Like Civ IV last year, this is becoming the consensus pick for PC Game of the Year, so it winning a genre award should be no surprise. Company of Heroes breathes life into so many things. The RTS genre. The World War II setting. The mature strategy game. The RTS campaign. Simple design choices like letting units retreat to be reinforced. Or letting engineers remake a battlefield to suit your plan. I love this game.