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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Real-time strategy is back from the brink of death

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A few years ago, I asked “Can real-time strategy come back from the brink of death?“, and the outlook wasn’t great. The genre had been dwindling for two decades, a process that seemed to accelerate over the last 10 years, and despite a few bright spots, it didn’t look like the hunger for new games was there. The remaining RTS fans like myself, it seemed, were in for another gloomy decade. I’ve never been so happy about being wrong. 

It’s perhaps a bit too soon to call it a comeback, but lately it’s been impossible to look at the genre and not feel optimistic. Just look at what we got excited about at Gamescom: Homeworld 3, The Great War: Western Front, Tempest Rising. The accidental theme of the event this year was the return of the ’90s, but these upcoming real-time romps aren’t all just trading in nostalgia. Homeworld 3 is doing some really interesting stuff with terrain in space, and The Great War splices the real-time shenanigans with a dose of grand strategy—there are plenty of novelties to be found.  

Not long after Gamescom, we got our first glimpse of another returning RTS titan: Sins of a Solar Empire 2. And, once again, the excitement is due to a lot more than just nostalgia. Sins 2 is doing some really wild stuff with physics and celestial mechanics, making you fight across solar systems that are constantly moving, with planets orbiting stars and moons orbiting planets, forcing you to adjust travel plans. And each ship is like an army, with turrets that independently track targets, shooting—or shooting down—missiles that are all individually simulated. 

There’s quite a bit going on in the World War 2 front, as well, and next year we’ll get to play Company of Heroes 3 and Men of War 2, a pair of long-awaited sequels that are approaching the conflict from very different angles. With CoH3 there’s the Total War-style turn-based Italian campaign, along with a more traditional North African campaign, while MoW2 has fancy features like the new dynamic frontline that determines where you can reinforce and construct fortifications, as well as the ability to take direct control over units, letting you drive tanks and fire artillery—not a first for the series, but extremely cool nonetheless.  

If you’re hankering for some classics but don’t want to wait for these impending sequels, there’s Command & Conquer Remastered, which launched a couple of years ago and is exactly what you’d want from a remaster. It should keep you going until the arrival of the aforementioned Tempest Rising, which harkens back to the old C&C days, with its factions heavily evoking GDI and NOD. There’s even a tiberium-like resource. Last year also gave us Age of Empires 4, which lacked the ambition I’d normally expect from Relic, but was otherwise a very good instalment in the beloved series. Old armchair generals are still being well taken care of in the RTS nursing home.

We’re not just witnessing the reappearance of old favourites, though. A lot of new and upcoming RTS games have hitched their wagon to the immensely popular survival genre, just like their city builder cousins. Popularised by They Are Billions, these games blend RTS battles and base building with tower defence quirks and relentless waves of enemies that fill the screen. Now we’ve got Diplomacy is Not an Option, Alien Marauder and Age of Darkness, to name but a few. These new kids on the block are targeting a very different kind of RTS itch, but already they feel like they’ve always been part of the genre.  

Even one Steam’s most wishlisted city builders, Manor Lords, is taking some cues from real-time strategy, letting you recruit troops and send them into real-time brawls to defend your territory from other feudal lords. So we’re seeing a lot of different approaches to hybridisation, which will hopefully allow those uninitiated in the mysteries of the RTS to dip their toes in.

On the subject of letting new players take their first furtive steps into the wonderful world of real-time strategy, I’ve got my eyes on Stormgate, a free-to-play RTS with a co-op campaign. That should make it a bit easier to talk my more hesitant friends into playing. But there are also reasons for veterans to take notice. Developer Frost Giant was founded by StarCraft 2 devs who’d grown tired of waiting for Blizzard to make a new RTS, so they know their stuff.

One of the most reassuring things about this new wave of RTS games is that there seems to be enough faith in the genre to justify the use of big licences like Dune and Terminator. Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance developer Slitherine also released a Starship Troopers RTS this year. Times have changed a lot when licensed games are actually good news. [I incorrectly included Respawn and Bit Reactor’s Star Wars project in this list, which will actually be turn-based.] 

It’s worth emphasising that I don’t think this potential comeback could have happened were it not for the communities, modders and indie developers keeping the lights on for all these years, along with the few big games from studios like Eugen Systems and Relic. Plenty of teams have been working away within the genre, and while most haven’t been able to attract many players, they were still experimenting and giving the genre a bit of visibility, holding it back from the edge of the cliff. 

Now we’ll just have to wait and see if this is just a temporary blip or if enough players will swarm these games to justify more of them. Even with my penchant for negativity, I’m feeling pretty positive. What’s exciting about this new wave of games is their diversity, reflecting just how broad the genre can be. They aren’t just appealing to antediluvian diehards like myself—all kinds of players should be able to find something to pique their interest. Come back in a few years to read my inevitable follow-up to see if I was right. 

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