Real Talk about Real-Time Strategy

Real time strategy (RTS) is generally a genre of video games I avoid. This is not because it doesn’t draw my interest–far from it. The idea of commanding an army sounds like one of the best premises for a video game: you get all the explosions of war without the real-life casualties. No, I avoid real time strategies because I’m downright terrible at them. That is the devastating conclusion I have realized. Although I know this, I want to play them so badly. Every few years I see a game that tempts me with awesomeness and overcomes my knowledge of my horrible RTS skills, slog through the single player campaign to the end, then try online multiplayer for a few weeks until I’ve been soundly beaten enough to give it up again.

RTS requires so much simultaneous action it numbs my slow-witted mind. Other genres suit me fine because they mostly have one thing going on at a time. When I play a first person shooter, I’m only worried about shooting and/or moving. A role-playing game might be comprised of thousands of parts (character stats, maps, quests, etc.), but the player isn’t bombarded with all of those at once. Every element of an RTS has to be executed at every moment in order to be play effectively–or at least so that you can put together a solid enough online showing that you don’t get laughed at.

Recently a few of my friends purchased Company of Heroes from Steam during the most recent sale. They also convinced me, while I was drunk enough to be reasoned with, to join them in multiplayer matches. Of course, I was either the loser in every match or the weakest link on the winning team. When you play with friends, though, the sting isn’t so bad, so I kept at it as long as they were there to soften the blow of crushing defeat.

After the holiday season ended, so did our matching periods of free time. Those games populated exclusively with friends ended, giving way to me and a friend fighting strangers. Eventually that gave way to me playing all by myself against online strangers, and get this: sometimes I won!

In hindsight this seems obvious, but once you get to know an RTS rather intimately, you don’t consciously execute all the elements of the game. Well rather, you in actuality do, but this happens as a byproduct from establishing routines and patterns and reacting to changes to make those routines or patterns continue as planned. Even if the plan isn’t the greatest, as long as you can calmly keep patching holes that develop in the plan, it works better than trying to think of every aspect of the game independently. When I tell my friends this realization they are astounded–and not in a good way.

If this progress with Company of Heroes keeps up, I might feel saucy enough to try another RTS. Maybe even that great big demoralizer: Starcraft 2. Nothing wrecks my self esteem quite like an online match on Battle.Net, even among the scrubs in the bronze league.

Playing with friends is always more fun than with faceless online strangers, win or lose. A unique benefit to playing with friends is having a tutor to help you understand how a game should be played. I played Company of Heroes before and made an effort to get better at it by reading wikis and watching videos between matches. This is paltry assistance compared to having somebody tell you, or sometimes ridicule you, as you make mistakes. Instead of trying to cobble together tips I heard once while under fire, I subconsciously built patterns when my friends assisted my decision making. If it were not for these last few weeks of playing with experienced–not good, honestly, but merely experienced–CoH players, I would have left the game as another failed foray into real time strategies.


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