Spawn Point: how to get into real-time strategy

spawn-pont-company-of-heroes

Hello. This is Spawn Point, a new not-quite-regular feature in which we take a genre, series or other facet of gaming culture, and try to convince you to give it a shot. It might be those hero shooters you’ve always wanted to get into, or that terrifying space game played by thousands of jerks. We’ll briefly explain the thing, followed by some ways for you to breach it.

First up, it’s… the real-time strategy.

The RTS, eh? Yes, the RTS is a genre where–

I know what it is TELL ME HOW TO LIKE IT. All right, jeez. The most important thing to know is that you aren’t just stuck with Starcraft II or Supreme Commander. There are RTS’ about martian businessmen, digital stickmen, and cuddly Vikings.

Cuddly Vikings? Yes, it’s called Northgard. And it’s a great starting point.

North-guard, you mean. No, there’s no ‘u’.

I know, I’m just disembodied bold font. Ha ha. Anyway, Northgard is a full-on RTS in many ways, there’s lots of land-grabbing and securing resources to grow your war machine and economy.

spawn-pont-northgard

Yuck. But it’s also one of the most easy-going and newcomer-friendly strategy games around, without sacrificing the core of the RTS. There’s a lot of town-building elements to it. You can only attack territories adjacent to ones you already own, giving you plenty of time to make a home. And battles aren’t overwhelming disasters of blood but small skirmishes between a handful of raiders.

So there’s still a fair bit of murder? Yes, but when the killing is done you can bring warriors back and turn them into fishermen for their retirement. And if you don’t like subjugating others by force, you can win a match just by being more prestigious than your foe, sallying forth to defeat big mythical beasts or holding sacred territory.

I do like sacred territory. I know.

But what if it’s still too stressful? In that case, there’s always the lightweight option of Ultimate Epic Battle Simulator, which is more like a sandbox for silly fights. You can make a Jedi army fight penguins in that game, with no consequences. Or, if you like a simple interface but still want a little peril, you might like DEFCON.

What’s DEFCON? It’s about watching bright lines criss-cross the sky, like beautiful shooting stars.

Oh that’s sounds lovely. The lines are nuclear bombs.

spawn-point-defcon

Right. Isn’t there anything with, like, fluffy woodland creatures? Yes, it’s called Tooth and Tail.

WHAT. It’s about the rats and squirrels of the proletariat overthrowing their “civilised” masters so they can eat some clever pigs.

I’m listening. It’s a little different. Instead of being an all-seeing mouse cursor, you control a single rat who rallies gangs of troops around the map. You have to lead the charge and build everything yourself. It’s far more straightforward than the 300 actions per minute of Starcraft. And if things get tough, you can burrow back to your HQ.

tooth-and-tail

That sounds way better than being a Viking. Maybe so, but it does have some drawbacks. There aren’t a huge amount of players online, if you’re looking to fight others. And the single-player campaign has a few bizarre difficulty spikes.

Another revolution cut down in its infancy. I’m sorry, comrade.

Okay, let’s say I’ve mastered all these but I want more. I want a REAL RTS. Well then! There’s the whole Total War series, where you command geometrically pleasing legions of troops on a battle map but then also have to order them around on a bigger world map. Or the recent Offworld Trading Company, which is about being a capitalist on Mars and running your business more ruthlessly and efficiently than your competitors.

You know how I feel about capitalists. Oh right. If you ask me though, Company of Heroes, an RTS set in World War II, is still one of the best ever made.

spawn-pont-company-of-heroes-2

Why? Because you can lay out mines, barbed wire and machine guns and slowly turn the map into a defensive mess. Certain missions in the campaign hit harder than a sack cloth full of bricks, so be warned. But it’s a solid place to go if you don’t want to go all the way back to the old Command & Conquer games or Age of Empires II – both very well-respected among fans of the genre.

Tell me more of these Commandants & Conquerers. As games, they’re older than a wrinkly granny, but they did lay the foundation for much of the genre. And they include some of the best b-movie performances in videogames, like Tim Curry holding back the laughter as a space communist.

Space communism!? WHERE CAN I GET THIS. You can download the first Command & Conquer: Red Alert for free here.

The people will rise. Yes, comrade bold font.

45 Comments

  1. Oakreef says:

    Telling people they’re going to see Tim Curry establishing SPACE COMMUNISM and then linking to the original Red Alert is a little mean. It’s not the most serious game ever made but it’s a hell of a different tone to 2 and especially 3 – the Soviet campaign starts off with Stalin soberly and casually inspecting figures of how effective sarin gas is against children.

    • LagTheKiller says:

      Damn Yuris controlling ninjas to cut onions.

      Kirov reportin!

  2. TotallyUseless says:

    Grew up playing and loving RTS. From the run of the mill RTS, to unique ones like ‘Ogre Battle March of the Black Queen’.

    Damn! Hope Ogre Battle gets a spiritual successor on PC.

    • frightlever says:

      ‘Ogre Battle March of the Black Queen’ – you’re stretching it calling that an RTS. Whatever, if you enjoyed it you can think it was whatever you want.

  3. agentgray says:

    I have found 8-Bit Armies (and their series) to be pretty accessible. Affordable too.

    link to store.steampowered.com

  4. spamdangled says:

    No mention of Dawn of War 1? For shame!

  5. frightlever says:

    I was a big fan of RTS games but at some point the micro-management and the necessary reflexes beat me.

    Anyway, Total Annihilation can be had on GoG for about six dollars, and often considerably less in sales. I tried to like Supreme Commander but it just fell short compared to the hundreds of hours I had with TA.

    I used to play TA with my seven year old nephew. We would agree a strict no nukes policy, then both proceed to develop nukes as quickly as possible. Bit like our “co-op” sessions on original Diablo. He’s tearing up a career path at one of the big four accounting firms now, so I guess you can teach sociopath if you get’em early enough.

    • Unclepauly says:

      Brool story co.

    • FredSaberhagen says:

      Have you played planetary annihilation? It’s boiled down to that pure TA experience. Love it

    • Premium User Badge

      Neurotic says:

      I’ll second Planetary Annihilation for the essence of TA. Good stuff.

  6. smuppet says:

    I somehow own both Company of Heroes 1 and 2, but have never played either of them. Which one is best?

    • Premium User Badge

      SlugMan says:

      Play ’em both! They have a great solo campaign to play through, especially the first.

    • SaintAn says:

      The first one is a masterpiece made by fans of the Band of Brothers HBO miniseries. It’s still extremely fun to play.

      The second was pretty hated when it came out so I never played it.

      • Rich says:

        Unfairly so. It’s a solid campaign, plus there’s a more dynamic campaign in the Ardennes Assault expansion.
        I think most of the hate was due to the huge amount of DLC, which is pretty aggressively marketed in game. It was all multi-player focussed, so I was able to easily ignore it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Big Dunc says:

      The first is a masterpiece and you should play it now! Make sure you play Opposing Forces too as it lets you play as both the British and Germans, who have very different tactics from the Americans.

      CoH 2 is definitely worth playing, but it really isn’t a patch on the original.

      • Vesperan says:

        But… I’ve bounced off Company of Heroes 1 twice now (single player) due to the AI having blatant map hacks going on – it just finds the one gap in your line and runs through it without you ever seeing them. The advance on Cherboug by the USA turned into a bizaare WW1 trench war. Love the atmospherics, hated the cheating AI.

    • Premium User Badge

      FesterSilently says:

      I’ve got *hundreds* of hours invested in CoH1, with no stop in sight.

      And, though I’ve got somewhere around 40+ hours invested in CoH2…most of that time was looking for the “fun”. I don’t know – something about the way they changed the basic game mechanics made me bounce off *hard*.

      But, hey – I saw someone else mention they tried it (CoH2) first and love it (over CoH1), so…ymmv. ;)

  7. frenchy2k1 says:

    Ars Technica just did a history of the genre.
    link to arstechnica.com

    It goes over its evolution and explains the changes with a lot of examples through time.
    So, if you need more ideas of RT games and if they are worth it, this is also a good place to read.

  8. dylan says:

    When was the last time you actually finished an RTS campaign story?

    If your answer comes from the Bush years, consider giving Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak a chance.

    • Rich says:

      That’s one of the few RTSs I haven’t gotten around to finishing. The story is compelling, but the game itself felt so empty. It didn’t help that you can’t zoom out enough in normal view, so I had to play the whole thing in the sensor view. Shame since Homeworld is one of my all time favourite games.

  9. Blad the impaler says:

    As someone with 6000+ SC2 matches – many very scrappy wins or losses – I can reliably say that you need to win a couple in this genre to enjoy it. SO, I guess what I’m saying is: Win some games, then tell us if you dig RTS’s. Also, be patient.

    Also RPS – There is a remastered version of Broodwar that a lot of people are playing. Maybe think of tagging it too? Cheers!

    • msterofthe says:

      Are you saying that RTS are only enjoyable as multiplayer, and then only if you can win games?

      I never played much of them but this reassures me that I shouldn’t anyway.

      • SuddenSight says:

        I would argue that RTS games can be very enjoyable with just the campaign. Warcraft III, Starcraft 2, Age of Mythology, Sacrifice, C&C:Generals are all games where I spent most of my time on the story mode and was very well entertained for many hours.

        However, most RTS games are designed around the multiplayer component. Just like modern shooter games, a large fraction of players only play the story mode, while the main design focus is on multiplayer.

        • fuggles says:

          That’s a modern development which occurred in line with the lamentable rise of e-sports. Rts took a big nosedive then – everything was asymmetric but blandly balanced. I would love someone to return to a devoted single player – look at the earth series with the homebase, which was amazing. It’s cheaper to make a game, so maps and lacklustre AI for skirmish and declare it for multipayer.

          Look at dow3 – campaign is just dow1 again, people expected better.

          It’s cost-cutting and laziness, somehow now accepted as truth. Especially Dow3, you could make dlc campaigns like the old x-packs of yore with one new unit and a 10 map campaign which would sell strongly.

          • LagTheKiller says:

            There is no such nonesense as DoW III guardsman. Now report to comissar for summary execution for lowering the battalion’s morale.

  10. bill says:

    As someone who finds most RTS dull and is mainly into the single player, let me recommend a few RTS that have actually appealed to me (and which seem to also appeal to other non-RTS fans.

    Homeworld
    (I haven’t tried the remaster, but I guess that’d be more accessible these days.)
    It has great atmosphere and the slow pacing makes it a bit more accessible. The original was hard in some places, but by that point I cared enough to persevere.

    Hostile Waters
    A bit old now, but an action-rts hybrid where you can jump into any unit and take control of it. Plus with fun AI sidekicks and Tom Baker.

    I’ve only played a bit of Dawn of War, but it seems to share elements of CoH in terms of being more about positioning/cover than base building and clicking… while being enjoyable in that dumb-but-fun 40k way.

  11. Paranoid says:

    Spring RTS (Balanced Annihilation) needs more love in articles like this. It has at least the player level of some of the games mentioned here and the interface is literally years ahead of anything else on the market, and it’s free.

  12. Jurple says:

    So which is the ‘digital stickmen’ RTS?

  13. Bobtree says:

    The important thing is to find a game you like and just play it. Don’t worry about being good at it or fear losing, skill will come with practice.

    Infested Planet is a superb indie asymmetric single-player RTS. If you only play one RTS ever, this is my recommendation.

    Lost Technology is another indie with a quick turn-based RISK-like map and Total War style battles. It’s a gem and a steal at $3 on Steam. Simple, but satisfying.

  14. dare says:

    This article didn’t really tell me how to like RTS. There’s a list of games to test, but I’d have liked some pointers on how to approach the games, what to expect, what are the things that are likely to frustrate newcomers and how to relate to them etc. I think the only RTS I’ve ever played was Defcon, and I didn’t even realise it was an RTS. (Actually, now that I think about it, Uplink and Darwinia were RTS games as well, weren’t they?)

  15. Premium User Badge

    jssebastian says:

    Great idea for a column, and great name for it too.

    But I would have liked to hear more of why I should care about this particular genre… What makes you love and enjoy these games? You know, enthusiasm can be contagious.
    A list of games to get into the genre is nice but it feels a bit like… well, a list…

    As someone who played RTS games from Dune 2 to Star craft the first, and has not touched one since, maybe I’m not the perfect audience for this particular post, what I might have needed would have been some suggestions on how to get over the twitchiness, competitiveness and 300-clicks per second and find a reason to play these games again.

  16. Urthman says:

    The main obstacle to me to playing RTS is the RT part. I think the closest I came to enjoying an RTS-type game was Freedom Force which let you pause the game and take your time looking around the map, seeing what was going on, and choosing your strategy.

    I tried Command and Conquer Red Alert a long time ago and didn’t make it through the tutorial. It’s not just the pressure of having to make decisions instantly, it’s that I felt like I was missing out on the action! I didn’t have time to watch and appreciate all the cool skirmishes because the timer was always running.

    Didn’t Homeworld have a pause button? Are there other RTS that let you pause in single-player? That’s what it would take for me to give these kinds of games another try.

    • draglikepull says:

      I’d recommend trying Offworld Trading Company. It’s real-time in a sense, but there are a lot less actions to perform, and most of the actions (like gaining resources) are done on timers, so it’s a kind of turn-based real-time, if that makes any sense.

      And if you play against the computer rather than other humans, you can pause at any time.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Neurotic says:

    I bought Rise of Nations: Extended Edition the other day for the price of a packet of peanuts, hoping to relive some glory days. Once I’d got in and was sitting there, staring at my first city, I thought, ‘Nah, can’t be having with this anymore, sorry man’, and quit. Couldn’t face it all again tbh, although it makes me happy knowing it’s there in the Library (and on my shelf, in plastic DVD cases).

  18. Catchcart says:

    Nice article but it doesn’t really address why (I suspect) some of us are just turned off by RTS.

    My inner control freak can’t handle the clash of UIs that scream micromanagement and the inherent loss of control due to real time. Hitting spacebar every third second and checking up on everyone doesn’t really alleviate the stress and destroys any sense of fun and thrills.

    The closest I come is probably lettting Crusader Kings 2 run until it autopauses and even that has a certain anxiety-tinged unease to it. What if I just missed the narrowest of windows to claim the Kingdom, kill the wife, etc.?

  19. Daddy Stalin says:

    THE PROLETARIAT WILL RISE AGAIN BROTHERS! FOR THE PEOPLE!

  20. Premium User Badge

    quasiotter says:

    I’m still not convinced :( It just seems like homework to me!

  21. shoptroll says:

    This is a great idea for a column. I’m looking forward to seeing what other genres get covered!