R E A L    T I M E

S T R A T E G I C    C A R N A G E

Lindsay's attempt at a real time strategic netgaming session.

The netgames sessions have been fantastic affairs, but ts been a little frustrating to find them almost completely overwhelmed by first person shooters. Not that that's really a problem, but shooters are like a single guitar riff compared to the full symphony of a real time strategy game. Great tune (all two bars of it), fantastic graphics, and there's the overcranked visceral experience, but all that can't diguise the complete lack of depth. The shooter variants of Dominon, Assault and Capture the Flag, as well as Team Fortress Classic, Tribes and the new generation of team-orientated games are a welcome improvement.But...

It's still not as in-depth as a good strategy game; I'm still getting a bigger buzz from the RTS genre: its still a damn sight more challenging and rewarding in terms of gameplay, even if the graphics no where near as immersive. The complexity is a bit daunting for beginners or casual players, which is why the simplest games, the shooters, tend to dominate. A few RTS netgames should redress this woeful imbalance!

What Games?

    There's some exceptional software out there. But only two or three titles per event will be covered, due to complexity and learning curves for many people. The plan is for some shorts before the main feature; a series of short skirmishes to get people up to scratch, and then several  major battles between two or more multiplayer teams. The two main titles should complement each other for variety. Light relief will come from a shooter like Tribes or from a completely different game--preferably something new that no one is familiar with, that we can try out as a test--but not something we have to rely on.

    The Games I'd like to play are:



This is an excellent all rounder: the Brood War expansion pack filled in all the holes in the first release to make for a high value game. There are three races fighting for their survival: the nomadic and versatile Terrans, the super powerful Protoss and the mostrous Zerg hordes. Starcraft is colourful, versatile and very personable. Games can take anywhere between ten minutes and four hours, and if you tire of one race, you can swtich back to another.  Furthermore, by using the inbuilt map editor, you can change the games rules completely. Starcraft has prebuilt custom maps that include a Cowboy roundup, a Pac Man variant, a Galaxian shoot-'em-up and other weird scenarios. Great for any change of pace.
   At first glance, Starcraft seems a little simplistic: it uses a small 640x480 screen--with a third of it obscured by wide dashboard of a menu--and certainly lacks some of the technical innovations of more recent strategy titles. Pushing units around the map can prove singularly frustrating: the idiots love nothing better than getting lost, tripping up on each other or doing the lemming thing and charging into the jaws of death. Any small discrepancies between the abilities of players can quickly translate into an utter rout for the losers...a frustrating experience all round, and one that can (and has!) made previous netgame sessions go sour.  But there's nothing like a little bit of practise,
    There's an excellent blend of micromanaged manhandling of units, resource management, tech upgrades and strategic decision making. A very worthy and  polished title, and one that can be used to quickly pass an hour or an entire weekend. It installs very quickly and easily.
Starcraft can Spawn and uses IPX to network up to 8 players. 
The current patch is 1.07.



    TA is a  technically more sophisticated but "drier" game than the colourful, personality driven Starcraft. Its set four thousand years in the future, where two galactic robot armies are warring to the death. However, it truly does rock in the gameplay department. First and foremost, it uses genuine 3D models and landscapes, so those tanks really do drive in and out of ditches, climb over hills and can rotate their turrets and raise their guns to track a target.  Its still presented as a top down, no-perspective view, but everything is a 3D model; including the particle driven explosions and flaming debris. Units move gracefully and with lots of moving parts. The shape of the terrain itself can shield your precious units and buildings from enemy fire. When Bots bite the dust they leave wreckage behind that can be salvaged for more metal, or left on the field as obstacles for the Enemy. You have unlimited resources, but a limit on how much you can extract at any moment.

    Unlike Starcraft, TA units can actually navigate fairly well, and can be ordered to do a number of sophisticated actions, ranging from Holding Fire (thank heavens!) to extensive Guarding and Patrolling, which and orders of all kinds can be queued up, freeing you from the constant manhandling that characterises the Starcraft experience. The beauty of it is that you can preprogram a factory to spit out units on a long patrol route, so you can queue up a hundred bots and then forget about it! The number of ways that you can build and manage your base is practically unlimited, and again, unlike Starcraft, it is possible to build a near-impregnable defence and then leave it to make a coffee without pausing the game or losing the base! Sim City fans should have fun. There's as many defensive units as there are offensive ones--and with nuclear weapons in the game--well, let's just say it gets interesting. With the Core Contingency add on, and the TAUIP unit pack on top of that, each side has 256 different robots, tanks, hovercraft, ships, submarines, planes, helicopters, missile turrets, laser turrets, walking landmines, nuclear silos, anti-nuclear silos, long range artillery, radar and radar jamming to build...oh, and of course the factories, walls and constructor bots, tanks, ships, subs and planes to build all this wondrous stuff, with the wide range of energy producers, metal mines, and storage facilities needed to build, power and maintain it all. TA has two resources: unlimited energy for weapons and factories, and unlimited metal for everything. But the restriction is how much you can extract at any moment.

    Confusing? A lot of units to the newcomer look suspiciously alike. But the basics are quick to pick up, although newcomers may spend a fair bit of time trying to pick the right bot to build and use. But the great thing about it is that you can play TA many, many ways and there's no end to working out new ways of wiping each other out. This is the only game I've actually had as much fun losing as winning; there's nothing like watching a screens wide battle involving two hundred units. And that was only on a two player game...

    TA can be a little problematic and time consuming to install, and occasionally the TAUIP pack can show bugs. It shouldn't be too hard to find a cheap bargain basement copy of TA somewhere. Its definitely a main event game.

    Total Annihilation Spawns, and uses IPX to network up to 10 players. The current patch is v3.1
    The TAUIP (Total Annihilation Unit Independency Pack) is a fan built collection of a LOT of custom units, currently up to v2.1, and can be found at . This has been successfully tested on a two player (1 CD, 1 spawned) copy

RTS is notoriously complex--hence the added buzz afterwards. Beginners, confronted with a bewildering number of  units, orders, and resources to manage, usually experience nothing but utter frustration when playing more experienced players. It feels more like your fighting the computer instead, tripped up that stupid interface, bogged down by the mouse, sending the wrong command, angered by those suicidal lemmings at your command who merrily run away from the battle, get lost on the map somewhere, get stuck on a corner whilst being shot to pieces or even worse,  enthusiastically throw themselves to their doom by charging like fools into the maw of the Enemy's strongest defences. The Enemy seems untouchable, but your stupid morons simply evaporate when looked at. Anyone who's had tried to play an unfamiliar strategy game against a knowledgable opponent knows what I mean.

You're involved in the hands-on manouvring dozens or hundreds of units around a obstacle filled map, building and repairing defences and bases, deciding on tech upgrades and making critical decisions as to what course of action to take next. You're scouting the enemy, racing to cut of his next expansion before he can build up too fast, running suicide raids to dent his production, skirmishing  vulnerable points or just bombarding his heavy defenses with long range artillery. The graphics are usually just a top down isometric map with  not even a hint of perspective, where cute little characters or sprites run around like ants whilst you, godlike in the sky, direct these hapless minions with utter impunity. Real time strategy games have a definite start, middle and end, with all the dramatic arcs and tension that go with it. They can be quite memorable affairs, whereas one clever headshot tends to look pretty much the next.

Where and When?


Machine Preparation

The People