In general, it was a good year for strategy gamers. A lot of variety. If you are reading this expecting to see Starcraft 2 or Civilization 5 win strategy game of the year, sorry. When the year started, I expected one of them to be the odds on favorite. In fact, I bet every other website will pick one of those games as their strategy game of the year. And they might be right.
But not for me. Read on to see how 2010 stacked up for me.
I Wish I Had Played This When It Came Out and Had More Time: Greed Corp: You could really put any console strategy game here, but Greed Corp was also on the PC. It has a central strategy gaming mechanic going for it – short term gain vs long term costs – and sounds like just my type of light gaming experience. But life and other things, etc.
Best Trend: Board Games and their influence: From the introduction of exclusive bonuses and hard victory counters to the city builder Settlers 7 to the very obviously board gamey Bronze to the rise of the iPad as a board game device, the influence of cardboard and plastic on strategy game design is testimony to how a new generation of game devs and programmers are looking at how to keep things simple but challenging. The one great advantage of board games is that your status is often obvious and transparent. Though I love my fog of war and trying to determine how strong my opponent is, transparency and simplicity are good. Throw in a clever card based system like RUSE that uses fog of war, though and you can still see how measure/countermeasure work like in any good card game.
Worst Trend: More DLC: The new way to keep a franchise profitable is to sell add-ons, be they unimportant tweaks like sprite packs for Hearts of Iron 3, interesting chrome like unique units and troops for Napoleon: Total War, or truly important game things like new nations for Civilization 5. I get why publishers want to do it, but how far can we be from a world where publishers make you mix and match from an a la carte menu of factions and designs and options? Strategy games are the one genre that is both easiest to break into component parts and the one most easily undermined by having so many different core experiences based on who owns what.
Most Disappointing Game: Elemental: War of Magic: Is there anything really left to say here? Elemental was anticipated as a pseudo-sequel to Simtex classic Master of Magic and ended up being nothing of the sort. Stardock’s reputation for quality products took another kick the teeth after 2009’s Demigod multiplayer debacle. To their credit, Stardock has worked overtime to fix it, but Elemental is still – even after a big patch – a dull and uninteresting place to visit with less magic than the name implies. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and Elemental turned off many buyers. They are making progress – for their sake I hope it helps.
Worst Strategy Game: Command and Conquer 4: I don’t care how amazing and World in Conflict-esque your skirmish game becomes once you have unlocked every unit and power and ability. It’s an RTS and I shouldn’t have to play your game for dozens of hours before I see the cool stuff. That’s just not how it is done. Does the game get interesting once you have more to play with and you can assume different roles online, just like an MMO? Absolutely. But it is not an MMO and most RTS players don’t have the patience or interest in slogging away with crap units so they can earn experience to build a tank. Stop it.
Biggest Surprise: Supreme Commander 2: My admiration for Supreme Commander 2 grows with every day. The patches made the skirmish AI more interesting, but even in its original version SupCom 2 was a very good game. In some ways it is the anti-Starcraft 2. Like that other good RTS, SupCom 2 had a poorly written story based campaign that was filled with unique puzzle maps and challenges. Game journalists who love zombies were naturally thrilled about the Outbreak mission in Starcraft – SupCom 2 has missions equally interesting with naval invasions, robots gone crazy, and platform sieges. But unlike Starcraft, it turned its back on what the first game was to make a more modern and streamlined RTS. The research trees let you plan how you will focus your economy, the giant robots get out faster and the army management is easier. A lot of the core Total Annihilation/SupCom 1 fan base felt betrayed, and I understand that – the original games were grand and obtuse and had a certain majesty because of that. I prefer the new one. A lot.
Best Independent Game: Distant Worlds: In a year full of good and great sci-fi games, Distant Worlds stands out with both its immense size and its innovative approach to virtual viceroys and AI governors. I wish I had more time to visit this game before the expansion, but Code Force and Matrix deserve credit for making science fiction 4x a little more interesting for me.
Best Wargame: Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943: OK, it’s not Combat Mission. But Graviteam’s WW2 real time wargame stands out in a year with very few really great new wargames. I still haven’t decided how I feel about War in the East, but it would have to be really special to trump the sight of my troops trudging behind their tanks, slowly executing a strategy that I had made in the turn based planning phases. It makes great use of sound and tactics to create a world that I have absolutely no interest in ever visiting because it almost feels like a war.
Strategy Game of the Year: R.U.S.E: I’m as surprised as your are, since I was not at all excited about the game when the year started. RUSE is that careful blend of familiar and unique that just calls out to me. I wrote before that the fact it is World War 2 is almost irrelevant, and I stand by that. This design of cards and seizing supply points could really be set anywhere. World War 2 was chosen for its shorthand signal to strategy gamers that they won’t have to learn much new stuff – just like Memoir 44‘s card play system can be stuck anywhere in history. RUSE encourages lying and deceit as military tactics in a way that no strategy game has in a long time. It’s not just about gaining intelligence, but about undermining your opponents. And it works as well on the 360 as it does on the PC. I am not very good at RUSE, and it does have pacing problems, but the game is fast and exciting and never really fails to surprise you in multiplayer. The campaign isn’t half bad either, which is more than I can say for just about any RTS story based campaign in history.