Epic Units: Part 2

This is the continuation of the epic units topic from previous post. Epic units had finally begun to enter mainstream Real-time Strategy gaming. Now it’s time to see what developers did with this growing concept.

When Electronic Arts defied expectations and made their RTS adaption of the Lord of the Rings film series an epic retelling with massive battles, grand fortresses, and larger than life heroes, it only stood to reason that such a game needed at least one super unit thrown in.   The fiery demon of Moria, the Balrog, fulfilled this requirement in every way.  The pinnacle of the evil forces’ power tree, the Balrog required a large number of power points to unlock (or successfully progressing through 2/3rds of the evil campaign).  It was summoned rather than built, and only remained on the battlefield for a limited amount of time.  Yet its raw power and special abilities gave it every advantage against whatever enemies it faced.  Unless the great Gandalf was on the field, the Balrog was pretty much guaranteed to take the day.

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The balrog assails the men of Gondor.

By this point an epic unit of some kind was practically expected in any true RTS publication that was not a strictly historical/contemporary setting.  If  the game’s genre was sci-fi or fantasy, an epic unit was almost guaranteed to appear.  This became readily apparent when Big Huge Games announced Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, the series’ first foray away from historical settings.  The epic units, or Master Units as they were called, were advertised from the beginning and no one was surprised at their inclusion.  Indeed, their presence was a source of great excitement and anticipation among the RTS community; and they did not disappoint.  Each unit was worth an army by itself, and possessed capabilities beyond what any other single unit-class in the game could deliver.

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The Vinci master unit, the Land Leviathan

Now that epic units had become commonplace in RTS titles, it was time to make them a central part of game design.  Gas Powered Games’ Supreme Commander was released to great excitement in the RTS community as it was billed as the spiritual successor to the much beloved Total Annihilation.  Supreme Commander featured a full tier of epic units, dubbed experimental units (and buildings in the some cases), and a great deal of the game’s overall strategy revolved around acquiring these units quickly, or ensuring that opponents could not acquire them easily.

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UEF mobile factory

Some such units were so powerful that they were classified as “game-enders” and could be disabled in online or skirmish matches if the player(s) so choose.  Surpreme Commander 2, a sequel released three years later, not only featured even more experimental units, but made them almost ubiquitous by going so far as to sideline conventional combat units to the pure rolls of cannon fodder and swarm tactics.

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A Cybran Monkeylord. Note the regular units for scale

Even though the Command & Conquer franchise had been one of the first to introduce a super unit worthy of the title, it became rather anomalous by staying in production for over a decade without an epic unit of note. This would change with the release of Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath, which introduced three epic units, one for each game faction.  These monstrous war machines physically and statistically dwarfed any other unit, and featured customization slots allowing them to be equipped with a variety of secondary weapons systems.  Each epic unit could only be produced from an advanced version of the war factory and cost more credits than any other unit in the game.

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GDI Mammoth Armed Reclamation Vehicle (MARV)

Another Command & Conquer title, Red Alert 3, would be released later the same year.  It never approached Kane’s Wrath’s level of epic integration, but it included a campaign only epic unit, the Shogun Executioner, that the player was allowed to control on a few occasions.  On an interesting note, this would mark one of the rare times in all of RTS history that a campaign only epic unit was given freely to the player.  In fairness, the Shogun Executioner was far from invincible, but its destructive capability surpassed even the faction super-weapons.

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The Shogun Executioner emerges from its assembly area

The epic units of RTS were the arcade bosses of old brought into the RTS genre.  They were rarely the centerpiece of the game’s design or story, but each one almost always left a notable impression on the players that encountered them.  As the years passed some players used them as a sort of handicap mode to test unique strategies or challenge themselves to defeat otherwise unbeatable opponents.  Designers and producers that had grown up experiencing these battlefield giants in action now applied the concept to new genres and mediums; with movies, card games, literature, and video games on other platforms all featuring super units in one variation or another.  The RTS genre may have become obscure as the new millennium moved on, but its contribution to the media presence of epic units is undeniable and will continue to be felt by gamers of all genres for generations to come.

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The GDR from Civilization 6

Epic Units: Part 1

For a Real-Time Strategy player, there are few things more satisfying than the comprehensive act of causing immense digital destruction in a short amount of time.  Traditionally this is accomplished utilizing super weapons like nuclear missiles or orbital bombardment, but starting in the mid-90s game developers provided players with a new way to devastate their opponents on the battlefield.  Epic units, as they would come to be called, were powerful creatures or war machines that were incredibly durable, possessed immense destructive power, and were typically the pinnacle of the player’s economic and technological development.  Their presentation and themes took different turns over the years, but the trend is unmistakable.

As with Westwood Studio’s iconic Mammoth Tank, the development of epic units had a slow and indeterminate start.  In Blizzard’s landmark title Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, each race is able to use its highest tier caster to summon a powerful, temporary unit; the Water Elemental for the humans, and the Daemon for the orcs.  While both units were not in the strictest sense epic, they were notable for requiring the highest possible concentration of resources to produce, and possessed combat abilities far beyond anything else the rest of the army rosters could muster.  Despite this being something of a hallmark for things to come, Blizzard would never fully pickup on this trend.
WC1PWaterElemental.gif     WC1WaterElemental.gif                    WC1PDaemon.gif     WC1Daemon.gif

 

That Westwood Studios would be the next developer to produce an example of a proto-epic unit is quite ironic given the rivalry it shared with Blizzard.  Red Alert: The Aftermath, the second expansion to the popular Command & Conquer: Red Alert title, featured a single mission with three AI controlled “super tanks”.  Although un-buildable and uncontrollable for the player, these tanks had all the features of an epic unit, which the mission proceeded to showcase as the tanks shrugged off tesla coils and nuclear warheads while laying waste to an extensive Soviet Base.  Editing the unit files would allow modders to gain access to the super tanks, but as yet a true epic unit would remain out of reach of players for a few more months.

Super tanks used the same unit model as the Mammoth Tank

 

In March of 1998, Cavedog Entertainment would release the first expansion to its seminal product, Total Annihilation.  The Core Contingency, as the pack was titled, introduced a host of new units to the base game, including the mighty and powerful Krogoth Experimental K-bot (k-bots being essentially single-purpose mechs).  The Krogoth was a surprise for many Total Annihilation players as it had no direct counter or equivalent in the opposing faction.  Additionally, its only weakness was its inability to cross water; in all other respects the Krogoth annihilated any form of opposition that could be sent against it aside from massed, accurate, long range firepower.  The Commander unit could destroy it easily with its disintegrator, but only a skilled player could micro a Commander close enough without being obliterated in turn.  Krogoths required immense time and resources to produce, and typically necessitated an immediate response by the opposition before the battle was swiftly resolved.

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The unit model is hard to decipher, but it essentially resembles an evil war god when in battle

 

Westwood Studios would take a cue from the arcade and console traditions of the previous decade and introduce a “boss battle” in their Firestorm expansion to Tiberian Sun.  The Core Defender was an enormous humanoid mech that towered over every unit and structure in the game.  It activated after players completed the pen-ultimate objective in the final mission; with no warning or foreshadowing given that the Defender would even appear.  Capable of dispatching the strongest units in seconds, the Defender’s only weakness was a lack of air defense, yet its enormous pool of hit points necessitated some very creative tactics that can still be found on various forums and videos today.

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The Core Defender unit model

 

As the development era of the 2000s came into full swing, developers knew that super units were a rare but accepted aspect.  The only challenge was balancing them, if they were available to the player at all.  Ensemble Studio’s Age of Mythology featured several in-game cutscenes were deities and similar beings appeared on the battlefield and wrecked havoc, but it wasn’t until The Titans expansion came out that the enormous Titan units were made available to the player.  Titans were far from invincible as they lacked air defense and the ability to traverse water.  Yet they had the largest hit point pool of any buildable unit by a vast margin, and their attack could level buildings and finish off most units in a couple of hits.  The most impressive feature of the titan was its scale, the enormous model was quite often the largest single object on the map.

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A newly trained Egyptian titan

 

After the success of Starcraft, and the publishing of expansions like the Core Contingency or The Titans, two developments became increasingly apparent.  Firstly it was possible to safely provide players with epic units, secondly the standard “heavy” or “high tier” units like Terran Battlecruisers had slowly become just expensive cannon fodder in the faster paced meta of modern RTS games.  Relic Entertainment’s Warhammer 40k franchise, Dawn of War, took this to heart by providing each playable faction in the base game and its expansions with a top tier unit.  Typically these took the form of super heavy armored vehicles or supernatural gods and demons.

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An Imperial Guard Baneblade super heavy tank

Each of them was, by default the last thing unlocked in a battle and required more resources than any other technology or unit.  Additionally, players had to control at least one relic resource on the battlefield in order to even build these epic units, and only one such unit could be built at any time.  Once constructed, these epic monsters and machines typically required an opposing epic unit to stop them, otherwise the battle was often resolved quickly.  Another new development was the uniqueness of each epic unit.  Each had its own quirks and mechanics, and they were not balanced around each other, but around their faction as a whole.  Some were more effective as support weapons, others as frontline units or building destroyers.  For the first time, epic units had transitioned from a class or type to an actual unit tier.

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A Bloodthirster of the Chaos Space Marine faction

 

This topic turned out to be a bit longer than expected, so it’s being broken up into two releases.  Now that we’ve had a chance to see where RTS epic units got their start, next time we’ll see what they turned into as the concept entered mainstream RTS gaming in force.

Hearts of Iron II

First published in 2005, Hearts of Iron II, with its accompanying expansions, is considered one of the flagship titles of Paradox Interactive and the title that launched the Hearts of Iron series, which at the time of this writing is on its fourth iteration. Following a design formula that would become Paradox’s standard, Hearts of Iron II, abbreviated Hoi2 by the fanbase, is one of the largest scale grand strategy games about WWII that has ever been produced.

Hoi2 takes the setting of WWII and puts the player in an almost godlike position of control over a country. The player must manage national resources, production, politics, and the command logistics and organization of their nation’s military. Many mechanical liberties are taken to showcase the level of removal that the player has from the day to day business in their nation, and to simplify complex processes like weapons research and industrial production. The smallest controllable unit is a division, air squadron, or naval flotilla, with brigades appearing as dependent attachments to divisions and ships. Industrial production involves simply ordering a unit to be produced with parallel and/or serial runs, while ensuring there is enough Industrial Capacity, or IC, to complete the process on time.

Yet the simplification of most of the specific processes in Hoi2 has resulted in many general processes being included, such as the management of specific territorial infrastructure, the direct diplomacy between over fifty potential nations, and the hidden nature of combat modifiers such as weather, terrain, and division overcrowding. This has all resulted in one of Hoi2’s biggest noted flaws: abrupt complexity. Beginner players see the exact same user interface as advanced players do, and must manage all of the same systems. The tutorial covers the basics of gameplay, particularly the movement and organization of divisions, as well as the basic controls for diplomatic and political interaction, but fails to accurately inform and test the player on the nuances of combat or the potential optimizations of even basic systems like industrial modifiers and chains of command.

All of that is to say that Hoi2 is very hard to learn; it’s not to say that Hoi2 is a bad or poorly designed game. Once a player has broken through the wall of ignorance that effectively locks all but the easiest playable nations, they are able to explore and enjoy a wide range of options and possibilities. Although the game is primarily a WWII simulator, with historical events coded in and most national AIs programmed to follow historic courses, the player can take their nation in any direction they please. Radical changes like turning the United States communist or Japan allying with the Soviet Union take time and skill, but more subtle actions such as successfully defending France can be accomplished with only a modest level of familiarity with the game.

An introduction to Hoi2 cannot be made easier for new players, but is absolutely worth the effort for anyone looking to take on the roll of a major world power in one of the most significant periods in human history. Obviously the major powers of the period are the ones with the most capacity for flexibility and outright conquest, but any nation that was present at the period can be played. Most importantly, the game proceeds in a sort of real time, with each hour of each day from the start point (as early as 1936) to the game’s end (as late as 1964) proceeding at a rate between 1 hr every five real seconds to 4 hrs per real second. The player can adjust that rate at will, and even pause the game to issue detailed orders and react to events and notifications at their leisure.

If any gamer every looked at a map, illustration, or diagram of a WWII front or operation and imagined moving those unit markers and shifting vector arrows, than Hoi2 is their dream game. It’s primary learning method is failure, but the player loses nothing but time by exploring different nations and strategies that might end in defeat in order to acquire essential familiarity with the game’s mechanics and nuances. Hoi2’s simple graphics and well designed processes ensure that it runs smoothly on old and new machines with minimal software requirements. The grand strategy genre will not appeal to all strategy gamers, but for those that enjoy the complexity of large scale command, Hearts of Iron 2 is a title worth mastering.

XCOM 2 | Game Review

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XCOM 2 is the successor to Firaxis Games’ reboot title of the famous XCOM series: XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  XCOM 2 was produced by 2K Games and released in February of 2016.  An expansion pack, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, was released in August of 2017.  XCOM 2 follows right on the heels of Enemy Unkown’s premise and greatly expands on the story, gameplay, and experience of its predecessors.

XCOM 2 begins its campaign twenty years after Earth’s original attempt to fend off the invading aliens, the XCOM Initiative, suffered total defeat.  The aliens now occupy the Earth through their puppet government, the ADVENT administration, and maintain a benevolent facade while developing their secret Avatar Project.  XCOM has morphed into a resistance movement led by the Commander, the player’s avatar in the campaign.  XCOM’s forces are now based out of the Avenger, a retrofitted alien supply ship that keeps XCOM’s assets on the move and away from ADVENT retaliation.

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Galactic Civilizations III

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Galactic Civilizations III is the long-awaited sequel to Stardock’s enormously popular Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords and the third title in the Galactic Civilizations series.  It was published by Stardock in 2015 and has since then received two expansion packs, Mercenaries, and Crusades, and a third is to be released later in 2018.  Similar in nature to the Civilization series of 4x strategy games, Galactic Civilizations holds one of the premier positions among the space 4x titles of the 21st century.

At its core, GalCiv III follows a familiar pattern of 4x gameplay.  Individual planets take the place of cities or settlements, with each planet featuring a number of build slots where improvements can be added to increase planetary production of such resources as research, credits, and production.  Each planet contributes to a global fund for credits and research but utilizes production individually and production is further diversified into social production, which is used on other improvements, and military or ship production.  All planets that sponsor a shipyard can contribute their military production to the construction of space vessels.

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Total War: Warhammer II

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Total War: Warhammer II, is the sequel to Creative Assembly’s landmark title Total War: Warhammer and is published by Sega.  It is the second title in a trilogy of Total War: Warhammer games based off of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle tabletop game.  Warhammer II was released in September of 2017 and brings with it an abundance of new features to add to CA’s developing Warhammer series including a new narrative campaign, four new races, and an overhaul to many of the campaign map mechanics.

One of Warhammer II’s primary features is its new single-player campaign called the Vortex Campaign.  Unlike previous DLC mini-campaigns in the first Warhammer, the Vortex Campaign covers an entirely new campaign map featuring the fictional New World continents of Lustria and Naggarond as well as the paradise island of Ulthuan and the Old World Southlands.  The campaign is also the primary delivery vehicle for Warhammer II’s new mechanics and campaign overhauls such as the introduction of settlement climates and treasure hunting.

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Cossacks: European Wars

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With the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation’s commencement fast approaching, it seemed appropriate to reminisce on the Renaissance period with a game that covers a large portion of that period.  Cossacks: European Wars was developed by GSC Gameworld and published CDV Software Entertainment in 2000.  Two expansions, The Art of War and Back to War, appeared in 2002 expanding game content with new nations, units, and missions.

European Wars is the first title in the Cossacks series and, like many of its contemporaries, features many of the standard mechanics and conventions that defined RTS titles of the era.  Factions appear as different historical nations from the 17th and 18th centuries and each brings a few unique units and/or buildings to differentiate their approaches to the battlefield.  Base building and resource collection are accomplished by peasant worker units that are trained from the central town hall.

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Supreme Commander 2

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At its core Supreme Commander held true to the overall conventions and mechanics of its series.  A centrally important command unit begins the construction of a base with static resource-generating

Supreme Commander 2, which was developed by Gas Powered Games and released in 2010 by Square Enix, follows in the footsteps of the highly successful real-time strategy game Supreme Commander as a spiritual sequel to the combined arms, free-range style of combat pioneered by Total Annihilation.  The single player campaign continues the story of the three competing human factions, the UEF, Aeon, and Cybrans, and is set several years after the events of Supreme Commander.  Unlike the first game, Supreme Commander 2 did not receive a full fledged expansion, but a large DLC featuring many new units titled the Infinite War Battle Pack was released later in 2010.

structures and unit-producing factories.  Naval, air, and land units could be produced and conduct operations in their respective terrain types across the battle map.  The super-powered experimental units return from the first game with a greatly expanded role and are now divided into two tiers based on their level of power and the effect they could have on the overall battle.  These experimental units are produced from dedicated factories instead of engineers in the field. Continue reading

Episodic Sequels

Recently I watched a gameplay exposition and review for the upcoming Total War: Warhammer II video game, the highly anticipated sequel to Creative Assembly’s landmark title, Total War: Warhammer, set to release on September 28th.  The review itself was straightforward and highly informative and I had no trouble with it.  However it brought up an interesting point that relates directly to the nature of episodic titles in video games.

An episodic series of video games is a run of at least two titles with a single, overarching plot that runs through each title, tying the series’ storyline, characters, and even mechanics and themes together across the series.  Normally the release dates, intended consoles, and even genre of the titles don’t define if a title is part of the episodic series; content is the only determining factor.  Yet perhaps the most important aspect of an episodic series versus a franchise or saga is the proximity of each title’s release to the releases of the other titles in the series.  It’s not enough to share the title, setting, and mechanics of prequels and sequels; an episodic title must be an indispensable part of a larger whole. Continue reading

Axis & Allies

Axis & Allies is a video game adaption of Milton Bradley’s Axis & Allies strategy board game of the same name.  Both games simulate the broad strategic situation of World War II at the beginning of 1942.  Players take on the role of one of the five great powers: Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  The original board game focused on the strategic aspects of gameplay, while Axis & Allies the video game emphasizes real time strategy combat.

Axis & Allies features three single player modes.  These include the campaign, in which the player takes the role of various Allied or Axis factions in key battles throughout WWII, with fictional “what-fi” scenarios serving as the majority of the Axis missions.  Skirmish mode is a one-off match between the player and up to seven AIs played out on of the maps featured in the campaign or in WWII mode.  Since there is no resource harvesting in Axis & Allies the size of the map is the only limiting factor for the number of players.

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