Perhaps a slow decline into niche-status is just what the RTS genre needs. No pressure to include a fistful of cutscene sugar in order to make the gameplay medicine go down, no expectations of lavish artwork and massive unit lists. We can just play more RTS games that aren't at odds with themselves and their intentions, and we can maybe calibrate our own expectations a bit better around the present state of the genre, and not hazy memories of a golden age.
On the other hand, I'd hope that a retreat to the highlands of creative obscurity would allow RTS games to clamber out of the shadow of StarCraft, a place where Meridian: Squad 22 [Facebook page] seems resolutely determined to stand.
That's not necessarily a damning indictment of the game, but rather an expression of frustration that such a competent RTS effort so often comes across as "StarCraft, but with more high-dynamic range lighting". There are things I like here, but it's echoing StarCraft so much that I'm constantly stumbling across all the little areas where the lack of obsessive Blizzard polish makes Meridian: Squad 22 seem like an awkward understudy.
To Squad 22's credit, it's not a matter of production values. While it's absolutely a game made on a budget compared to the StarCraft series' art and cinematics, Squad 22 makes the most of what it has. Voice acting is surprisingly good, if poorly paced due to significant lag between audio clips, and the cutscenes look pretty good as spaceships zip over futurist cities and get in firefights over alien worlds.
Not that any of this is in service to a particularly original or exciting set of ideas. In a vaguely dystopian future where humanity is ruled by a callous technocracy, the government sends a special forces team to investigate the disappearance of a colonial expedition on an alien planet. Your team arrives to find a verdant paradise devoid of any animal life whatsoever, and is instantly set-upon by killer robots. Still, it gets off to a competent start with hints at some interesting divisions among the crew that puts the campaign on a track to easily best the likes of Ashes of the Singularity or Act of Aggression's dismal campaigns.
But it's also hard to escape the feeling that we've seen all this before, done better, and fairly recently. Mission design is about as bog-standard as it gets. In the first four missions, you'll go around the map killing everything, you'll build a base and go around the map killing everything, you'll take a small squad through a linear level and kill everything, and then you'll have a "hold-out for 20 minutes" mission. It's all very familiar and old-fashioned, hearkening to the campaigns of early Command and Conquer games and the original StarCraft.
Squad 22 is quick to remind you of StarCraft in other ways, too, right down to the crescent shapes of the magic mineral patches, called Shardium (a name filled with ill-advised courage in the face of an almost inevitable and unfortunate typo), arrayed next to big, donut shaped headquarters buildings.
It's does try to inject some action RPG elements into the mix by having technological progress decided by a series of unlocks that you get by spending special resources you find scattered around the map, so that each battle or mission requires you to make stark choices about the kind of army you want to build.
I kind of like that limitation, especially since it livens up the player vs. AI battles by ensuring that you can't entirely harvest-and-spend your way out of a difficult composition match-up. When you've gone-all in on infantry and realized the enemy is swarming you with infantry-hunting mechs and artillery, it's important to either find more of those upgrade resource out on the map, or figure out a way to micro your army effectively enough to overcome the mismatch.
It doesn't have much impact in the campaign missions, which are dead-simple, but it's a bit more important in the conquest mode, where you play a series of missions and skirmishes to take territory and open a path to the endgame mission. Hopefully more will be added to this kind of meta-campaign, because right now it plays like a series of random scenarios, but they offer more challenge than the campaign we have so far.
On the other hand, Squad 22 comes across in many ways like an inexpert copy of other games. Shift right-clicking doesn't set waypoints, which is especially frustrating given the sluggish pathfinding in this Early Access build. That may be intentional, since the odd way the units clump together requires extra micro-management to compensate for their inefficient grouping (which makes it less of an "attack-move your way to victory" kind of game than StarCraft 2), but not having waypointing is one of those grating imperfections that reminds you of all the things you take for granted in the current crop of RTS games.
Of slightly more consequence is the fact that there's just not much in the way of character to the units in Squad 22. All the infantry look like astronauts with rifles, while giant tanks look like armored ottomans or Roombas. All the buildings look like futuristic grain silos if they're economy buildings, or warehouses if they are production buildings. The relative weight or role of each unit doesn't really come through in the art or weapon effects, and I'm not sure they even deliver on the roles ascribed to them in the tooltips. Tanks prove to be glass cannons, while the humble tier-1 mech seems to be able to chew through every single unit type it encounters without breaking a sweat. You can build a navy on some maps, but the scale of most maps makes those naval units feel like the mightiest fleet afloat on the koi pond.
It's early, but right now I feel like Squad 22 is too content in its genre conventions, satisfied with evoking memories of old favorites rather than trying to create new ones. As an homage to classics it's not a bad one, but it's also inviting comparison to some of the richest and most well-made RTS games in the genre's history, as well as the later Command and Conquer games. The future of the genre may indeed be smaller, indie-scale projects like Meridian: Squad 22. But for that future to hold much promise, games like this shouldn't be such slavish adherents to the familiar.