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The RTS Boss Battle

March 19th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 17 Comments · Design, RTS

In his mostly glowing review of Dawn of War 2: Chaos Rising, Bill Abner hits on one of my personal annoyances with RTS campaigns – the boss battle.

This annoyed me in the original game and it doesn’t serve its purpose any better in the expansion. It just makes no sense to me at all thematically that the big boss guy would wait until the end of the map to basically fight the marines solo rather than lead his/its troops on the field. Not only that but the boss fights are incredibly boring compared to the rest of the missions. It’s a rush to unleash hell on several squads of marines and a Chaos Dreadnought – not so much fun to just target the big baddie at the end of a level with very little cause for strategic planning.

DoW 2 is full of these. You lead your squad through hell to clear a map and then you find the big, bad general who probably has some special powers and take him/her down. It’s four against one and can be stressful in that enjoyable way that a tight RTS fight can be. Sometimes these boss fights can get downright silly though.

Supreme Commander 2 doesn’t have many boss fights, but in the second mission of the Illuminate campaign arc, a giant experimental unit comes out of nowhere. Oh no! Whatever will you do! You only have an army of three experimentals, ten bombers and 50 assorted other shiny metal weapons. Pardon me for not sharing the heroine’s fear and surprise.

The boss fight is a holdover from martial arts and James Bond movies. Once the hero has cut through a forest of henchmen, he must face off against their leader. He’s not always the final leader, but somebody in the hierarchy. Fantasy RPGs follow this trope and in this character arc concept it makes sense. You the hero are getting closer to your enemy by taking down his entourage one villain (and a hundred expendable ensigns) at a time. Personally, I was pleasantly annoyed by Baldur’s Gate when one boss character escapes from a fight – you end up meeting him again at the side of the arch-foozle. Then you kill him.

Real time strategy really doesn’t work like that, or it shouldn’t. Yes, the story campaigns generally follow the same heroic arc, but Abner is right to point that it makes for poor strategy to leave your strongest unit behind the rest of the army, standing on a platform and waiting for a squad of space marines to fight it. This is a war, and if your general is your strongest unit, you move it to the front line and support him/her with whatever it takes to stay safe and deadly.

This gets to the core of why so many RTS story campaigns are weak. They are written like movies, following one or two main characters through a war or struggle for something. But the gameplay is not designed to be character progression centered, so you end up with either a light combat RPG thing like Dawn of War 2 (which isn’t half bad) or a cliche monstrosity like almost every other one.

But if you tell me I am fighting a war, and the bad guy knows where I am and I am still building farms or mines or energy plants, you need to give me that sense of urgency if you want to have a boss battle. Show me a timer with a countdown to when the big bad and his army arrive. Then I know that this is serious business for my team and that the enemy is taking me seriously, too. Don’t make me kill a planet of bad lieutenants just so I can face off against Superman at the end of a mission.


17 Comments so far ↓

  • oMonarca

    I’m really curious to see how Blizzard will approach this in Starcraft 2. Their campaigns are memorable, and usually the final “boss” is an enemy base, which means that it’s still strategically reasonable – it is the assault on the Death Star, not the face off against Vader that I want.

    In fact, they leave the boss “fights” to the cinematics. I wonder why Relic did things the way they did.

  • Punning Pundit

    In modern wars, I think, your hardest battles will be about 75% of the way in. D-day (or Kursk?) was the climax of ww2, and the allied assults on Berlin were deadly, bloody, mop-ups. The German “soldiers” fighting the battle of Berlin were children, oldsters, and the infirm. They were certainly not the best soldiers the NAZIs had.

  • Troy

    But the Germans started the war with the best they had. They didn’t send the biplanes in to bomb Warsaw.

  • Kingdaddy

    I just finished the DoW: Chaos Rising campaign, and I found the boss battle at the end to be sheer tedium. It was sorta exciting to punch your way through the Chaos lines, fighting your way to the [spoiler deleted]. But, before you get there, you have to fight a [spoiler deleted], slowing down the scenario further. (Which matters, since the difficulty of the endgame is proportional to the time it took to reach that point. In fact, I don’t see how you could get to the end before it reaches maximum difficulty, but that’s another matter.)

    Then, it becomes a weirdly attritional battle. Attack, wear down the baddie, run away, regroup, attack again, etc. I loved the Chaos Rising campaign overall, but it ended on a sour note.

  • Angry Gamer

    Save this stuff for MMO’s I say

  • Punning Pundit

    @Troy: kind of my point. Enemy quality tends to deteriorate pretty rapidly towards the end of a war. Their logistics are shot to hell, their best forces are spent– or in another theater.

    It might be really interesting to see a study of casualty rates in international conflict broken down by month– do wars get bloodier as they draw to a close, or less so?

  • Troy

    WW2 is an odd case – for a number of reasons. It had a lot of urban warfare, weapons became an order of magnitude more deadly and civilians were sometimes acceptable targets.

    In that case, a cyber-Hitler boss at the end might have been a relief.

  • Punning Pundit

    I’d say that the 100 days of Canada were a lot easier than the Battle of the Somme. And Schwarzkopf’s Left Hook was a hell of a lot harder to pull off than the Highway of Death.

    Can you imagine the final battle of a game being nothing more than shooting at a demoralized enemy as they flee for their lives?

    I think Homeworld: Cataclysm did this just right. They ended the “war” with the battle against the beast mothership– and let you know in a cut-scene that the war went on for a while longer.

  • Punning Pundit

    BTW: am totally laughing at the idea of mech-hitler.

  • Alan Au

    Wait, so Wolfenstein 3-D wasn’t historically accurate?

    Boss fights are a narrative tool, not a gameplay tool. Part of the problem of adapting a historical context to that structure is that real-life tends not to have “boss fights” against individual archvillains. Rather, there are “set-piece battles” and pivotal moments that decide the outcome of a campaign, and some of those pivotal moments actually occur in the command HQ long before the effects are realized.

  • FhnuZoag

    Nah, boss fights can be a gameplay tool, as well. Boss fights enable games to alter the gameplay temporarily, and also combine multiple elements of the previous parts of the game in one set piece.

    The problem is when designers do this properly, and just make one big monster with lots of HP.

  • LintMan

    I can see boss fights having some benefit in single player RTS campaigns, but unfortunately they’re mostly reduced to brainless cliche now with little care to actually have the encounters “make sense”.

    The other RTS cliche that annoys me far worse, though,in SP RTS campaigns, is the “limited tech tree” where your first mission gives you a bare minimum of tech options, and gradually over the course of the game things open up. Then, only at the last mission or so do you get to use the best most powerful techs. And if the game has multiple sides to play, you have to start out with the limited tree all over again for each side in turn. Gah! You end up spending almost all your time in the game without being able to use the coolest, best stuff.

  • Chris Nahr

    Complaints about boss bottles in DoW2 campaigns are largely missing the point. Those campaigns aren’t strategy games at all in the common sense — they are action-RPGs that happen to use a tactical RTS engine. Boss battles are perfectly appropriate for this format.

  • bill abner

    Chris, my point is that they are boring. I don’t enjoy them. The fact that they make no sense is just the cherry on top.

    I’m pretty much anti boss battle right down the line regardless of genre, but taking your point at face value if this type of mechanic is fine for this type of game is it too much to ask that it be entertaining?

    That said, I strongly disagree about this being appropriate for this format. I look at this as a 40K game and from a thematic perspective it’s as dumb as a doorknob for a hero to sit back and watch his forces attack the Marines while he sits and waits for them to reach him. The campaigns in DoW are story driven so not only is it an unfortunate game mechanic it’s also incredibly stupid.

    I waited for the Black Legion hero to stop mid sentence and quip, “Hey you almost caught me monologuing!”

  • Brian

    The boss battles in the game are absolutely inappropriate to the 40k setting in addition to being a dull part of the campaign. There are simply better ways to do it if you want to bring the chapter to a close (for instance the boss battles consisting of a massive force led by a leader as opposed to the leader by himself).

    I think Relic has most of the bosses alone and stationary because the skirmish AI simply isn’t up to the task of matching human player movements (this hasn’t changed from CoH).

    That being said, the allure of the campaign isn’t the light strategy or the MMO-esque implementation of tactics, it’s the loot and the story, that’s the draw for single player.

    These two factors are not enough to sell me on the singleplayer, however. I simply don’t play it. I did buy CR the day it came out and I’m playing multiplayer religiously. If you’re looking for tactics and leaders taking squads into battle, start up a game of MP.

    Well, if anyone is interested or even wants some help getting into it, send oilypenguin a friend request on Games for Windows Live. I’d be happy to spread the joy of MP to the SP and last stand people.

  • Rythe

    Blah, RTS boss battles. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t like Dawn of War II’s campaign mode. Trying to micro all your units into dying less and then having to pull back so they could heal back up and then going back in to do the same thing all over again.

    Speaking of, there’s one at the end of the Nod campaign in C&C 4 that annoyed the hell out of me. Giant airship with stupid amounts of health. All my (mostly borrowed) super units were generally ineffective simply because they had mediocre anti-air and were slow as hell. Aircraft were ineffective because it insta popped ’em all. I ended up having to infinite queue cheap laser spiders and chipped away at the thing for way, way too long.

    I’ll agree that they *use to* know how to do the RTS boss battle, and that was by putting you in a sucky position and having you blow up a couple monster bases. The last mission in Brood War could be especially brutal.

  • Gormongous

    Meanwhile the FPS genre, one that more or less subsists on boss fights, has produced several interesting subversions of the formula in recent years. Both “boss fights” in the first FEAR were such pleasant surprises that they turned a game I liked into a game I’m still talking about almost six years later. Bioshock turned its expected boss fight into a narrative set piece that is probably one of the most haunting in a decade (though in my opinion it spent all that goodwill by ignoring the triumph of that to throw in the most generic confrontation imaginable at the end).

    I’m sure there is similar potential in the RTS boss fight convention, although I can’t start to imagine what. But when a large segment of your audience both expects it and hates it, that’s a powerful tool for storytelling. I hope they do something. Right now the boss fight is just a narrative technique that only breaks narrative flow in a genre already suffering from disjointed plots.