Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Politics By Other Means

So I just got two PC games: Company of Heroes and World in Conflict. Both excellent real time strategy (RTS) games, and each is nothing short of emotionally draining. Lots of explosions, a visceral feel to the combat, and generally compelling story lines.

And most important for me, no resource micro-management. While something about RTS always appealed to me, I hated the "generate masses of peons to gather raw materials" design. This was mostly because I could never devote the time or effort to learn all the hotkeys required to build a specific building or perform actions. In other words, I could never "actualize" my economy. Games devolved into a series of scrolling around the map, pausing the game, hunting and pecking for a build order, and repeat. More often than not, the result was that my peons were quickly killed in all kinds of horrible ways.

I understand where these games were trying to go. The economy obviously lays the foundation for military choices, and a good RTS will have the player make interesting economic decisions that affect their military options later down the road. But too often - for me at least - the games just get bogged down in a mindless game of digital "gopher". This always left me wondering where the real focus of the game was: warfare. It was like I had to bore myself for hours just to get that five minutes of desparate payoff. And of course, my failure at economy building was eventually a failure on the battlefield, especially as I couldn't hotkey unit orders and have them come directly to the fight. The learning curve is far too steep for a casual player.

Which is why these two games are wonderful. WiC is the "purer" of the two, eschewing all resource gathering and superficially similar to the Panzer line of games (which are also fun). The beauty is that, while you may have no resource gathering, you are fundamentally concerned with resources. You get a steady supply of points, up to a certain level, and you have to spend them on just the right mix of units to win. If your unit dies, the points a credited back to you, although it does a little while for them to be available for use.

CoH makes things even more meaningful. Again resource acquisition is non-existent: you get steady supplies from key points that you hold. But you have to fight for those points, which neatly folds your military decisions into your economic ones. The point is not just to eliminate the enemy, but decide where you want to eliminate them and what can be gained from it.

All this frees up the player to concentrate on the action. They do say that soldiers worry about tactics, generals about logistics. But frankly, if logistics is that boring, I'd rather be a grunt. And besides, modern militaries take their time when planning their economic and political foundations. If I want that, I'll play Civ.

In other nerdiness, Wesleyan students be proud. Now, I'm off to play flag football.