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Searching For The Young Strategy Rebels

Presumably because I'm still heavily damaged by a weekend of hard boozing and harder dancing in the company of those elements of RPS who enjoy fun, the loose connection between my brain and my typing fingers has dribbled out some stream of conciousness about RTS.

That strategy is on my/RPS' radar so much at the moment is probably an inevitable result of an Autumn and Winter spent happily gorging on first-person shooters, followed by the early months of 2008 being distinctly short on big-name games. In the sudden absence of fast action snacks, we turned to our long-lasting strategy game rations for survival. It seems to be a trend within the microcosm of PC gamers I know. Where not so long ago there was this daily pile-on into Team Fortress 2 servers, now my taskbar fills with instant messages about playing Dawn of War or World In Conflict. And it’s been ace, not just for the actual playing, but also the post-match analysis, which reaches the sort of insane blow-by-blow detail that would be reason enough for the rest of the world to demand that all PC gamers be rounded up and executed for the good of humanity.

Soulstorm's a game that score 6s and 7s, and yet we keep playing it, keep talking about it. Couple that with the slightly surprising success of Sins of a Solar Empire, and clearly strategy is on a lot of folks' brains. Looking at the months ahead in the release schedules, RTS also offers the most obvious talking points, outside of Fallout 3. Starcraft 2, Empire: Total War, Red Alert 3 and Dawn of War 2 loom, versus what’s a comparatively weak FPS hand – Project Origin? Tiberium? They’ll probably be fine, but I can’t see ‘em being RPS’ most-read posts, somehow.

Tellingly, the PC-specific FPS is conspicuous by its general absence of late. Crysis and UT3 (if you excuse its presence on PS3), the most definably PC of late 2007’s many shooters, were somewhat lost to the multi-format thunder of Call of Duty 4, Bioshock and The Orange Box. Outside of Stalker Clear Sky, It’s hard to see that trend changing, which means strategy is something for PC gamers to cling to as a genre that’s palpably theirs, something meatier and deeper alongside the MMORPGs and match-three casual games that increasingly characterise the PC.

But will it stay ‘ours’? There’ve been renewed efforts to realise strategy on console of late – notably C&C3, and upcoming rethinks of Supreme Commander, World in Conflict and Civilization. Mouse – gamepad has historically been an awkward transition, but sooner or later someone’s surely going to nail it. We can be confident in a sustained, healthy dribble of SOASEs and Armageddon Empireses, but in parallel to that I’m absolutely convinced the Team Fortress 2 of RTS is coming, and soon.

I don’t know what it’ll be or who’ll make it, but there’s a desperate need for it. Much as I enjoyed the mammoth five-man bouts of Soulstorm we waged over the weekend, I was bothered by the frustrations of just how well you had to know your side and each unit within it, the need for all those minute tech upgrades, the ease with which one player could gain the upper hand, the intense stat discussion all across the fan-forums. I’m fine playing with chums I know are around my skill level, but it’s very rare that, outside of nosing at the multiplayer modes for a review, I’d dare venture online to play randoms. I know how quickly and brutally I’d be destroyed. I wouldn’t have fun.

To put it another way, I’m scared. I am, it’s true, a lily-livered wimp with a yellow streak as wide as a rainforest, but I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. (As a games journalist, I’m also worried about the growing divide between what my necessarily omnivore nature picks up on, and that extra degree of numbers and imbalances and hotkeys the dedicated RTS fan sees.) World in Conflict makes some decent strides in terms of ripping out the knotted mess of wires and circuitry that make most RTSes so inaccessible to a rank newcomer and to less frenzied players, but it’s hardly a level playing field.

So what will be the great equaliser? Perhaps a class system of sorts - Tanks Guy, Anti-Tanks Guy, Planes Guy, placed into a many-playered co-op structure. Give people just a couple of things to worry about rather than the whole gamut (again WiC plays with some of those ideas), plus the presence of comrades makes the whole affair a little less threatening. The most enjoyable of our DOW bouts saw a couple of us teamed up against a phalanx of angry AI; it’s perhaps less of a challenge, but the sense of shared excitement amplifies every skirmish into something that much more thrilling.

I dunno what will happen, but I just get this itch at the back of my brain whenever I play an RTS, this feeling that, much as I enjoy it and certainly don't want it to be replaced by some Nu-RTS, it's high-time for an optional alternative. Videogames are getting so hard these days, to coin a phrase. TF2 and Battlefield Heroes are the apparent vanguard of a new trend in accessbility and all-welcoming entertainment, and I simply can't believe there isn't someone out there applying the same values to an RTS. Someone’s gonna come up with something that lets everyone playing have a great time, whether they win or lose.

However good is turns out to be, Starcraft 2 is certainly not going to be that something.

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