2007 may be one of the greatest years ever for the gaming industry in general, and specifically for shooters and traditional RPGs, but the strategy gaming world seemed a little less surprising or interesting for some reason. Release calendars were dominated by expansion packs, very good games were immediately forgotten and everyone seems to be, as usual, waiting for the next big thing to come along – usually Spore or Sins of a Solar Empire.
Still, there was a lot of stuff released and a lot of things worth talking about.
Best Trend: Console strategy games – Nintendo’s DS has become the mini-strategy platform of choice, RTS games are now routinely ported to the Xbox 360, and XBLA has Settlers of Catan. Consoles will probably be the platform of the future for many turn-based strategy games, and there’s no reason not to celebrate that.
Worst Trend: Troublesome Expansions – OK, maybe it’s not a trend yet, but the fact I had to uninstall Medieval II to install the Kingdoms expansion and the seemingly endless trouble that the copy protection and online accounts are causing for Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts players is a little past annoying. These are standard QA things, OK? All it takes is one bad installation experience to prevent a casual PC gamer from buying another game that month. Stop it.
Worst Media Coverage of Strategy Games: Everyone Who Avoided Independents – As much as many gaming media types pay lip service to innovation and independent development, and worry about the growing power of corporate gaming monoliths, they don’t do a good job covering strategy games off the big retail highway. Eurogamer and Games for Windows are the only major outlets to review Armageddon Empires. Ageod’s brilliantly original wargames usually pass without mention. (Gamespot is now covering American Civil War since CDV is publishing it next year.) Larger independents like Stardock and Paradox can get their stuff covered. And talented self-promoters like Introversion have little trouble. And I’m not free of blame here, either.
And it can be difficult to stay on top of what is being developed in a Balkanized independent gaming scene, where people who know how to code don’t know how to market, and where Sturgeon’s Law is gospel. Independent developers must do more to solicit coverage. But when people who do go out and promote their work (whether through direct emails or hired PR) run into a Gamespot willing to review every arcade game on the Wii before they touch great strategy games, you have to wonder whether pointing readers to great new gaming experiences is really what many editors are interested in.
Least Timely Release: Universe at War: Earth Assault – If we ever needed a reminder as to why release dates matter, Petroglyph’s alien RTS will serve nicely. It missed a number of target dates and came out just when everyone was finishing their year end wrap ups. This played havoc with their marketing plan, I’m sure. So Universe at War is released to respectful reviews but no real buzz. What could have been one of the biggest multiplayer titles of the year lands with a yawn. I hope that January turns out OK for them.
Most Disappointing Game: Combat Mission Shock Force – This is an easy call. I won’t rehash all the stuff that happened when I made some accurate comments based on the initial review disk, though I will point out that Gamespot, PCGamer, GfW, Eurogamer and almost every other site of note said the same things based on the same material. The actual release candidate was noticeably better, but still not the great game we have come to expect from Battlefront. Maybe it’s all about having too high expectations, but that’s the thing with disappointment. It doesn’t have to be terrible for me to be let down; it just has to leave me a little sad.
Best Half Game: World in Conflict – I know. This is everyone’s pick for strategy game of the year, but not me. On the plus side, it is a beautiful game that’s a harbinger of the multiplayer only RTS world ahead of us. On the negative side, there is no real way to learn how to be good at the online game without actually doing it. Yes, this is par for the course in other genres, but it’s new for the RTS. If they had just released the MP game, I think I would like it more than I do, because none of the single player components do anything to prepare you for the online world. The bots aren’t very bright in the pseudo-skirmish game and the campaign is too scripted to teach the proper use of many military arms. Probably the best MP game of the year, but I think too many people bought into the Red Dawn connections. There’s the lesson for PR people – play on the nostalgia of your target audience.
Worst Strategy Game: Ancient Wars: Sparta – Sparta had some neat ideas (customizing units, horses for everyone) but was otherwise pretty bad. The AI cheated on land and was impotent at sea. It was too expensive to make any reasonably sized army, and the pathfinding meant your army might not get there in any case. Fortunately it came out six weeks after 300, so few people in America were tricked into buying it.
Best Life Sim: Kudos: Rock Legend – I didn’t like the original Kudos game from Positech. It played like The Sims with nothing to do but wait for all your friends to leave you. I’ve been a grad student, thanks. I don’t need to be told by a game that I have three bucks in the bank and only one friend who will return your call. Rock Legend is pretty much the same game, but with a much better sense of interesting trade-offs, challenges and minigames. It also got next to no coverage, even when everyone and their dog wants to be a pretend rock star. One man band Cliff Harris added enough spark to the Kudos formula to keep me trying to land bigger gigs with a more improbable band chemistry.
Best Independent Game: Armageddon Empires – Tom Chick calls it “the best non-Civ turn-based game since Imperialism II” which overstates a little. Maybe he considers Galactic Civilizations a Civ game, or maybe he’s not including the turn-based parts of Rome: Total War. No matter; there’s something special in this game. Yes, it is difficult to learn. Yes, it is unpolished. Yes, it breaks every rule about interface and tutorial design that I’ve been raving about for three years. But it’s got style, it’s got challenge, it’s got a unique aesthetic at a time when aesthetics are really starting to matter.
Best Wargame: Punic Wars – Paul Bruffel’s Punic Wars just calls to me. Part of it is my temporal bias (swords and pikes for the win) but it is also one of the best titles to come from HPS Sims in a long time. The scale of the HPS system works best for battles this size, and it avoids tacking on a campaign that no one will ever finish. It also captures the ebb and flow of ancient warfare, has simultaneous movement and tons of scenarios. (If I had played more of Napoleonic Campaigns, there’s a good chance it would have won here. But I haven’t. Sorry, guys.)
Best Expansion: Kingdoms – I go back and forth on this between Opposing Fronts and Kingdoms, but today I think it’s Creative Assembly’s huge reworking of the campaigns. Ask me tomorrow and it might be something different.
Best Strategy Game: Command and Conquer 3 – C&C 3 is being forgotten. It came out months ago and most people have stopped playing it. But it gave me more thrills and more fun than any new game this year. The single player campaigns were well paced learning missions, the single player skirmish matches and wide variety of maps made it a pleasant 15 minute diversion and the multiplayer game proved to be well-balanced and exciting, even when my allies are worse than me. I am already excited for next year’s expansion.