Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
July 2007

Strategy vs. Tactics

"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." -Sun Tzu

So what is it that appeals to you in battle games? Is it balancing resources, building, and battle plans or do you like to get down to the nitty-gritty unit-vs-unit fighting? Just about no combat simulation game is without the broad plans of strategy or the tactical details of implementation, but usually these game categories are clearly defined.

Despite Old Man Tzu's wise words, very few games successfully blend the usefulness of strategy and tactics. Starcraft, gaming legend that it is, is one of the few in my mind that successfully rewarded playing both on a large, strategizing level but also right down to the per-unit impact. Sending a group of units to attack would work fine, but the best players gained an advantage by directing the efforts of the individual pieces.

I certainly don't believe that every good game needs to try to cover both; many great games hardly try, choosing instead to perfect one side while letting the other be simply good enough. Many excellent strategy games eliminate the resource gathering and long-term planning altogether, leaving the player having to worry only about a small group with a specific mission.

The Titan of Tactics

X-COM: UFO Defense and its successors were defining games for the tactical genre yet they still had a strong emphasis on strategy. I somehow missed the series when it first came out, but over this summer while I was stuck with a somewhat dated PC, I decided to see what all of the X-COM excitement was about.

After firing up UFO:Defense, I saw that there are really two distinct sides of the game, the strategic base and world management, and the very tactical squad-based missions. From the world map, you can manage your bases and research new technology that will help you battle space fiends. Your research can be augmented by bringing back artifacts from slain aliens, and it is important to keep your equipment up to date. From this view you can also build up your base with hangars, research facilities, etc., or you can deploy ships to intercept alien craft or land at downed UFOs.

When you land at a crashed UFO the game switches from a strategic overview to a squad-based, turn-taking tactical shooter. If you succeed in planning your turns well and manage to cap all the malicious Martians, you may get to take home some of their loot for further analysis.

Unfortunately for me, early in the game I found myself at the receiving end of a lot of advanced weaponry and was eventually kind of soured on the game because of the too-challenging squad missions. Many love this game--IGN.com even declared it the #1 PC Game of all time in an article this year--but I just wasn't completely sold on it. I loved the research, loved the creepy "where will they hit next" feel, but the insane difficulty and repetitiveness of squad missions kept it from being one of my favorites.

Still, the X-COM idea is a great one and has spawned many sequels and remakes, both official and not. UFO: Alien Invasion is one such open-source game that tries to remake some of the feel and gameplay of the X-COM games with better graphics and a smoother interface. I spent a few hours in UFO:AI and actually enjoyed it more than I did the original UFO:Defense. I'm sure there are many out there crying blasphemy, but I guess I just didn't experience the magic of the XCOM when it was young.

While I wasn't bowled over by the XCOM experience, there are some tactical shooters that I think are really top notch. Chief among these is Fallout Tactics, an excellent game set in the awesome Fallout world. The Fallout series is set in a post-apocalypse Earth, and the combination of grunge and trash with tech and mutants makes for an immersive and interesting backdrop.

Fallout is also known for a quirky, somewhat random sense of humor and Tactics doesn't disappoint. From brahman tipping to a Reaver dance and the Brothers Grimm, Fallout is about the only setting I know that can incorporate real world and even current references and not feel out of place. (OK, perhaps Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, a console-only action-RPG crossed the line. I never played it but I heard that the blatant and overdone advertising for a certain energy drink really killed the environment.)

If you are looking for something to hold you over until Fallout 3 (which may be a while, but at least a trailer was released), Fallout Tactics is a great way to do so. If you are looking for something a little more strategic, Supreme Commander takes warfare to a whole new level.

No other RTS handles scale like SupCom

Supreme Strategy

I delayed buying Supreme Commander for a few months while I gathered the resources to put together a new PC suited for handling a game like SupCom, but the wait is over. Supreme Commander was one of my most anticipated releases for this year, and while it hasn't lived up to my wildest expectations, it is still an excellent game and a lot of fun.

Being a huge fan of the original Total Annihilation and a regular player of TA:Spring, a 3d remake of TA, I have been eager to see what Chris Taylor put into this spiritual successor to TA. Playing the single player campaign I was immediately impressed with the scale of the game and how well SupCom handles scale. You can seamlessly zoom from a unit-level perspective right up to a strategic, map-wide view that lets you see the status of the entire war.

A wide view shows just how complicated things can get

While zooming is cool and well executed, with as much as you have to manage you quickly take it for granted and wonder what you did in games without it. Although SupCom limits the resources you need to gather to two, mass and energy, it still takes a lot of mental effort to continue expanding and building up your base while you try to also build up an army and stop your enemies.

A smart queuing system allows you to set up a chain of orders for a unit - such as telling an engineer to build a mass extractor and then build a couple of turrets around to defend it. Like the zoom, it's a pretty intuitive concept but one that many RTS games don't seem to get. With SupCom, these neat features are indispensable as you try to manage hundreds of units on land, sea, and air.

Queueing up orders helps you manage your time

Another feature that I've been waiting for in strategy game campaigns is persistent bases. Just about every RTS campaign will make you rebuild a base every time, or else start with a prebuilt one that you have no input on. The missions in SupCom's single player campaign start small with a simple objective, but as you reach goals, the map boundaries expand in new directions, letting you keep what you have built up and customized while giving you new obstacles to face. This little touch makes a huge difference: the scenarios feel much more grand and significant as you wage longer, broader wars.

There really isn't any question that SupCom reigns supreme in RTS games this year, but it does so at the expense of tactical mediocrity. Although there are three races, you can play all of them just about the same because the differences are pretty insubstantial. Further, you never really have time to manage things at the unit level; all of your mental energy is spent trying to win the war, not individual battles and skirmishes. Still, despite these shortcomings, as long as you have a rig that can handle it, it is a fantastic game.

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