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Real Time Campaigns

January 4th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

The campaigns in 3H real time strategy games have come in a lot of shapes and sizes. If you are doing a fantasy or sci-fi RTS, like Warcraft or Starcraft, it’s not too hard to put together a story campaign based on one or all of the races/cultures/heroes of the game.

Historical (or semi-historical) RTS have it a little tougher. The Age of Empires series tended to put the player in the role of a historical figure like Joan of Arc or Genghis Khan, or, like in the original, simply let them play out episodes in the history of the various cultures in the game. This was, to be honest, unsatisfying. RTS games can’t really approximate history all that well – the Julius Caesar campaign in the Rise of Rome expansion could have been named after Biggus Dickus for as close at it came to looking like his life. Telling me that I am controlling a hero unit called Joan of Arc is not the same thing as feeling like I am the Maid of Orleans, so the effort to put the player into the history is kind of wasted.

The Cossacks games did something similar to much worse effect. Of course, it was a poorer series than the Age series and the historical campaigns were merely poorly strung together battle sequences with a modicum of base building. In American Conquest, the effort to make Spanish contact with the natives a challenge ended up making the whole history laughable.

These campaigns added nothing to the game and I often wondered why developers even bothered designing them. Did anyone every buy one of these games because they heard that the campaign was so good? Starcraft had a really special one, to be sure, but it was the game’s innovations in making three radically different but balanced races that made it the MP hit that it was, and still is in Korea apparently.

There are exceptions. The critically acclaimed Celtic Kings games (which I could not like no matter how hard I tried) had better story driven campaigns than core games, but this was mostly because the AI was so inane in the skirmish maps that it could only provide an “interesting” game when the adventure scripting forced your hero to run around and do stuff. In Praetorians, there is minimal base and unit building and the campaign based around the wars of Julius Caesar was really well done without doing too much damage to history in the process. For the big shots, though, the challenge of fusing a campaign to a 3H model is only now getting some satisfactory resolution.

In Age of Mythology, a nice fusion between fantasy and history, the campaign followed a single hero through the three mythologies that the game covered to good effect. This story approach worked pretty well, in my opinion. You got to play all three sides – unlike traditional story campaigns – and the climax was more than fitting.

Rise of Nations went the other direction by putting the RTS game on top of a Risk like board game that kept you to a certain historical setting. Once you dropped from the “strategic” level down to the usual base building stuff, you were plopped down into a wide range of different game styles. Some were pure defense, others required you to hunt out specific units or buildings. Winning on the RTS level would be reflected in greater resources at the higher level. This was a clever way to bring a little of the TBS magic to the RTS world.

In the upcoming AOE3, the campaign will be a story format again. The player will lead the Black family through the generations as history unfolds around them. This may work a lot better than the tradition historical hero campaigns that Ensemble has used since the hero of the piece is not a familiar character from the past, but a fictitious family caught up in events. Kind of like those old network miniseries from the 80s.

Still, the campaign seems to survive in spite of the fact that it is a mere add-on, even an afterthought, to what the game is all about. Someone must insist on these, but I’ve never met anyone who has. Like the human appendix, it sticks around though it provides no evolutionary advantage and serves little function beyond demonstrating the talent of the creator.


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