It’s going to be a big year for real-time strategy fans with several eagerly anticipated games slated to come out this year.

There is, of course, Blizzard’s long “in progress” Starcraft II which still seems to be on track for a mid-year release.  It is Blizzard so it will probably be a very good game.  It is Blizzard, so it probably won’t be terribly innovative (and early reports have not been encouraging in that regard) because that is Blizzard’s MO: nothing particularly new, but do the tried and true better than anyone else.  There are more than enough Blizzard fanbois to ensure that this will be a huge hit, although expectations are so insanely high for this game that there is no way it can possibly deliver everything to everyone.

Ubisoft is releasing Eugen’s R.U.S.E. in the first quarter.  Whether or not its deception-based game mechanics will “refresh” the strategy genre remains to be seen but it is an intriguing idea with a lot of potential.  It is a considerable advance over the traditional (and usually poorly and unimaginatively implemented) “fog of war” approach.  The term “fog of war” is usually misapplied, actually, when it comes to strategy games.  In combat situations it refers to the wide variety of factors that sow the seeds of confusion in the minds of commanders: limited knowledge about the enemy, about the terrain, about the disposition of your own units, previously unrevealed problems with your own communications infrastructure or the capabilities of weapons and units, and so on.  In gaming terms, it is simply “here is a part of the battlefield that we won’t let you see” and more by good luck than good management this approach usually manages to accomplish the first two limitations described above, but little else.   R.U.S.E. takes this one step further in that some of what you see will in fact not turn out to be what you think you see (a column of light tanks rolls toward your position and is suddenly revealed to be a squadron of King Tigers , that sort of thing).  While many RTS games (the Command and Conquer series, for example) have employed units with stealth and/or deception capabilities, this falls well short of R.U.S.E.‘s vision of deception as a core gameplay mechanic on the virtual battlefield.  Again, some suspiciously high expectations for this one, but again, that may just reflect your average gamer’s inability to keep the potential of any game in meaningful perspective once they catch the scent.

Napoleon: Total War has just been released.  It has been promoted as the game that Empire: Total War should have been upon its release, with an improved battlefield AI, some long overdue campaign options (armies suffer attrition when marching through extreme cold and heat) and better eye candy.  I have it, haven’t played it yet, reserving judgment.

These, then, are the heavy hitters of the RTS gaming world.  However, the anticipation surrounding the release of all these titles will ensure that other titles, potentially just as innovative if not more so, will go unnoticed, simply because they come from smaller studios that don’t have the means to blanket the Internet and the gaming press with publicity.

One game that will probably get over-looked is Scourge of War: Gettysburg.  And this would be grossly unfair.  This game is being developed by a small team led by the lead developer of the award-winning Take Command: Second Manassas (TC2M), one of my favorite games of all time.  TC2M was and still is a superb RTS game, and it drew a dedicated player base that evolved into one of the friendliest, most supportive groups of players with whom I have ever had the pleasure of interacting.  If you were an RTS fan, and especially if you were an RTS fan who was also a Civil War buff, you knew you were in the presence of greatness.  Prior to encountering TC2M my favorite RTS game had been Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, a game that was so well executed on almost every level that I thought it had achieved a standard of greatness in terms of Civil War sims that would not be surpassed in my lifetime.  OK, slight exaggeration. . .but only slight.  And yet TC2M blew that game out of the water after a couple of hours.

What made TC2M so great?  In a subsequent post I want to talk about the AI in this game in more detail, because I think it is a model example of how to deal with some of the AI design issues we’ve been talking about on this blog.  Suffice to say for the moment that it is the only AI I have encountered that has made me feel like I’m playing a human being.  The level of tactical authenticity in the game also made it one of those experiences where the basic game was easy to pick up but took a long time to master (in fact, I’m not sure you ever really do).  Even commanding a brigade was a challenge; commanding entire army Corps was an exercise in exhilarating, white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat, deeply satisfying frustration.

TC2M is in many ways an example of everything that is right about game development but wrong about the game industry.  The developers eschewed bleeding-edge graphics in order to ensure a game that would run on a wide range of systems.  There were a few presentational rough edges in terms of help screens and the like, but the core gameplay was solid, deep, and intensely immersive; nineteenth-century ground combat unfolds with stately inevitability and balletic precision, yet the game would quickly start to feel as overwhelming and frenzied as the most brutal FPS fragfest.  The core of any good historical RTS game is that it should simulate that with a high degree of probability what did happen historically should happen for the player, but that there is always the possibility of things turning out differently.  Thus the game effectively models some of the less popularly familiar but truly epic moments of the entire Civil War, such as the battle of Brawner’s Farm and the two-day long Federal attempt to drive Stonewall Jackson out of an unfinished railroad cut.

The game however is still not widely known.  Players’ conversations on the Mad Minute Games forums with the developer tended to suggest that the choice of Second Manassas might have been a problem from a marketing point of view.  Most casual gamers are going to know only Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Antietam (and given the average US citizen’s grasp of history even that might be pushing it).  Likewise, the more basic graphics might have been a problem given the tendency of players to focus on graphics at the expense of gameplay.  After all, if you can’t actually see individual fragments of shrapnel flying about, how are you going to justify spending $500 on a graphics card only just out of R&D?  (I should add that the game’s graphics were pretty good, with the battlefield maps in particular being very nice, but the units weren’t as detailed as those of CoH, for example–which automatically translates into “crap” in the minds of many would-be players).  But the real problem was basically size.  A small outfit like Mad Minute Games is never going to have the voice that the money of a Blizzard or Sega will purchase (the Supreme Court’s recent decision notwithstanding).  Gamers by and large buy what the gaming press tells them to buy.  To make your product stand out in a market (even one normally as sparsely populated as the RTS genre) you need cold hard cash and lots of it in order to get your product in front of those press representatives.

TC2M is still available and well worth picking up.  If you don’t know much about this particular battle of the Civil War it is extremely educational.  If you don’t give a damn about history but care about damn good, truly challenging, authentically difficult gameplay, this is probably the most fun you’ll have without an actual musket in your hand.

(One of the things that testifies to how truly remarkable this game was for those lucky enough to play it was that players themselves undertook a grass-roots initiative to help promote the game: developing their own marketing flyers, burning versions of the demo onto mini-disks that they could hand out at Civil War re-enactments and the like.  When you get a game that is this good in your preferred genre, when you have been starved for its like for so long, you will go that extra mile.  I have a hard time seeing people being motivated to do that for Starcraft II.  Then again, of course, they don’t need to.)

Now the developer’s new studio, Norb Development Software, is giving it another go.  This time they are attempting to address one of the perceived problems with the previous title by focusing on the most well-known battle of the American Civil War, with plans for a late-March release.  Gameplay video available on the Scourge of War: Gettysburg website demonstrates the extraordinary attention paid to the terrain; those who have visited the battlefield will feel like they can almost identify the individual rock formations in the Devil’s Den, for example.  While the game’s website contains some useful info, better information is to be had at the Norbsoft site itself.  The game will continue one of the hallmarks of TC2M, its extensive support for modders (the modding community for TC2M lost no time in producing a number of first-class battle maps replete with historically authentic orders of battle for each side, including Antietam, Stones River, and the Wilderness).  It will also add the feature that players have been clamoring for: multiplayer support.

Do yourself a favor and check out the game because there is a principle at stake here.  Just as it is important to support indie musicians, film-makers and programmers just to ensure that the world doesn’t end up being ruled by a tyranny of bland, the same is true of indie game developers. Besides, if you are playing something that no one else is, that is the epitome of cool.  Ultimately, being cool is much more important than being popular.