Is Total War the Last Bastion of the RTS genre?
I’ve always been a huge fan of real-time strategy games. Some of my first gaming experiences were in the RTS genre with games like Age of Empires II and the Command & Conquer series. My local library actually had a copy of AoEII and I must have rented it upwards of nine hundred times, accumulating my fair share of late fees along the way. I spent countless hours playing skirmish games, building elaborate bases and raising armies to crush my opponents. I never got tired of experimenting with the myriad of unique units and factions available to me and trying to find new creative strategies to use (like using monks to convert the enemies castle). I credit these games heavily with getting me into gaming in the first place, specifically on the PC which pretty much had a monopoly on RTS’s at the time.
Sadly this genre has faced something of a decline in recent years, the number of RTS titles being released has decreased significantly compared to golden years of the 90’s and early 2000’s. Many of the classic franchises have either faded away or been reduced to a shadow of their former selves. A number of factors can be attributed to this trend including the rise of free to play MOBA’s and the increasing accessibility of mobile strategy games which filled the niche that RTS’s held for so long. The truth is that most RTS titles simply failed to adapt to the changing landscape of the gaming industry and it is unlikely we will see any significant resurgence in the near future.
However, that isn’t to say that the genre does not persist. For the most part the days of traditional base building and resource gathering seem to be behind us, many games now fall into the sub-genre of "Real-time tactics" which focuses primarily on advanced battlefield simulation. Regardless, there are still some fantastic titles that provide the large scale battles combined with tactical micromanagement that defined classic RTS combat. Creative Assemblies Total War series has been one of my go to strategy franchises for quite some time now and they’ve consistently put out quality titles since their first entry Shogun: Total War back in 2000. While the games have evolved considerably since then, they’ve remained relatively faithful to the formula that has defined them. Every game focuses on a specific setting whether it be Rome, the Middle Ages or Feudal Japan and features period appropriate factions and technology. As a history buff myself I’ve always appreciated being able to take command of these civilizations and reenact my own version of events like the Crusades or the Rise of the Shogunate. The games have always presented a mix of turn based and real time strategy elements, both of which are components of the games campaign mode. The strategy portion has you presiding over a massive map showing your armies and cities as well as those of your allies and enemies. During these portions of the game you get your fill of the political intrigue and diplomacy that one might find in a similar game like Crusader Kings. You can form alliances, order assassinations and develop your cities infrastructure and economy amongst other more administrative matters. But every so often another faction needs to get knocked down a peg and this where we see the real bread and butter of every Total War game: the battles.
Since its inception Total War has always excelled at one thing, scale. The huge maps and massive unit sizes have been a major selling point for the series and it’s one of the things that attracted me to the games in the first place. Battles can potentially involve thousands of individual soldiers, horses and artillery pieces meeting in head on clashes creating a feeling of epicness that no other RTS has truly been able to replicate. In addition to their grandeur the battles feature a number of unique elements that require the player to focus their attention on both individual units and the big picture. Having a cohesive strategy, utilizing formations and playing to your armies strengths and weaknesses are key to victory. There is also a healthy amount of realism which adds to the immersion factor. Encircling your enemies can give you a huge advantage even if you’re outnumbered and taking morale into account is critical as units will often decide to break and flee rather than stand and fight if the battle is turning against them. On more than one occasion I’ve fought a technically stronger army with an inferior force and come out on top. It’s these moments that are the most memorable for me, the time where your tactical genius snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and left you feeling like Alexander the Great. Nowhere is this more satisfying than in the multiplayer where battles are purposefully matched up to be as even as possible. Typically players are given access to an equal pool of funds which they then use to build their armies. It forces you to be smart about your troop composition and even smarter with the way you use them, though this does not stop some players from exploiting some rather cheesy tactics. Which brings me to some of my problems with the series.
Obviously the games aren’t the perfect, they still suffer from many of the flaws that are typical of past strategy games. As mentioned before the multiplayer component suffers from frequent exploits by players looking to get an easy win, often involving tactics such as unit spamming which takes advantage of the frequent balancing issues that tend to plague the Total War games. RTS games in particular have a long history of broken units being exploited by players with often the only counter being to unit spam yourself, resulting in rather boring uninteresting matches. Thankfully, I have observed a degree of etiquette amongst many players who recognize this very fact and agree to unit caps before hand. Another common issue is the AI, both enemy and ally. Units will still suffer from the age old RTS problem of bad pathfinding; this is extremely apparent in siege battles where units tend to clump up and get stuck accidentally. The enemy AI will also not always provide the most challenging competition and is known to be a fan of the “throw every unit they have at you in a disorganized mob until everything's dead” tactic, somewhat sapping the satisfaction of victory during single player. On a lesser note, while I find it immersing, the historical periods may seem a bit dry to those used to the more fantastical settings present in their strategy games.
That issue, however, has been attended to by the latest entries in the franchise Total War: WARHAMMER I & II. These games, taking place in the world of Games Workshops Warhammer Fantasy universe, represent a radical departure from many of the previous titles. Powerful monsters and heroes as well as magical abilities create a wild new dynamic for the battles and the factions have never more diverse. Races range from the savage Orcs to the regal High Elves and each one comes with a completely different play style giving incentive to try out all of them, particularly in multiplayer. I recently purchased WARHAMMER II and have been absolutely enthralled by it so far, hopefully once I clock in a few more hours I can give you a full fledged breakdown on why this game is a must if you’re a fan of the genre. The newest addition to the series, Total War: THREE KINGDOMS, set to release some time in 2019 promises to combine some of the more fantastical elements of Warhammer with the grounded historical setting of previous games. It's refreshing to see Creative Assembly continue to release new titles on a fairly regular basis in a time where most studios are content to simply re release older games such as Age of Empires or Starcraft.