So, I’m not any good at real-time strategy games, but I hold a certain spot in my heart for them nevertheless. As a Nintendo fanatic, though, I don’t get to experience many RTSs on a Big N console. Sure, a few have popped up on various handhelds from time to time– Heroes of Mana, Spectral Force Genesis, and Age of Empires all immediately come to mind– but not many that can be played on one’s television, from the luxury of one’s couch. Now, this RTS drought isn’t exclusive to Nintendo, and, in truth, the real time strategy genre as a whole just doesn’t seem to translate well from the PC, where it’s mostly resided for decades, to home systems. The ones that have made it console-side, have been stripped down or just plain bad (here’s looking at you, Halo Wars and Red Alert 3). Wii U, though, presents an opening for the genre to branch out and reach a wider audience. By way of the GamePad, and utilizing it as a means of effective control over the typical mechanics present in real-time strategy games, we may find that Nintendo’s upcoming console could be the ideal way to play these complex titles from the comfort of your living room, without having to drop additional cash on a fancy gaming PC.
Wii U’s GamePad is a peculiar little device in that it opens so many doors to how a game can be experienced and played. This seems to be especially true when evaluating how a real-time strategy title could theoretically work on the system. The problem with RTSs on consoles is that, without the presence of a keyboard and mouse, some notion of control is lost, which is paramount to the entire process. RTSs demand quick movement and a proficient ability to multitask, both of which seem to almost require a mouse and keyboard. With consoles, and better yet controllers, we lose a lot of the aforementioned aspects of the precision needed to enjoy an RTS in the way it’s meant to be enjoyed. Controllers cannot jump from one end of the map– to see what your opponent is doing or building– and then back to your base to continue amassing your units. Controllers also cannot scan a map quickly like a mouse can.
To seemingly put another nail into the proverbial coffin, controllers only have so many buttons to work with, and while using button combinations can allow for more commands to be executed, there’s merely too much exertion that must be put into the entire process to get a result that can be so easily replicated by the mouse/keyboard combo in about half the effort. Needless to say, controllers are slow, inaccurate, and in this case almost wholly ineffective. They are exactly what’s held the RTS genre back on consoles. But with Wii U’s GamePad, we could see the gap between PC and console RTSs become narrower.
An important question to first ask ourselves, when looking at the transition of RTSs from PC to console, is: what’s the game’s focus? Essentially RTSs can be broken down into two distinct categories– those that employ heavy micromanagement, and those that concern themselves with macromanagement. To clarify what those terms mean for those unfamiliar with the genre, micromanagement is simply when a player directs most of their attention to the management and maintenance of their own individual units and resources. This creates an environment in which the interaction of the player is constantly needed, such include the likes of Starcraft, Dawn of War II, Company of Heroes, and Supreme Commander. Moreover, micromanagement frequently involves the use of combat tactics, meaning players must be thoroughly engaged in, and at all times aware of, their troop activity. Macro, on the other hand, refers to when a player’s focus is directed more toward economic development and large-scale strategic maneuvering, allowing time to think and consider possible solutions. Titles like Sins of a Solar Empire, Impirium Galactica 2 and the original Dawn of War could probably best be described as macro-intensive.
The problem, then, with RTSs on consoles, is that developers tend to focus on the micro aspect of the genre, when in fact, to get the most effective results, they should be looking at the opposite. Sins of a Solar Empire, to me, is a no-brainer when we look at RTSs making a smooth jump to home systems. All battling takes place automatically (for the most part, though you can take control of your units and place them or issue another order whenever you see fit), thus leaving you with focusing on other aspects of growing your empire by means of establishing relationships with other factions, researching new technology, hiring pirates to do your bidding against a rival opponent, selling and buying supplies on the black market, colonizing planets, and generally fortifying new worlds. The problem I see folks having with Sins, however, is it’s more of a 4X RTS, and not what most people envision when they think real-time strategy.
The original Dawn of War, however, is a bit more in line with what people think of and want when they hear console-RTS. Dawn of War, from developers Relic, is the epitome of a real-time strategy game for the RTS-newbie because it blends micro- and macromanagement perfectly. Even though you’ll spend a great deal of time managing troops in the game, all you really need to focus on is placement, which is something that could be easily replicated on Wii U, with the incorporation of that lovely GamePad.
As I conceptualize how a more standard real-time strategy game could work on Wii U, I immediately think of the GamePad as a mouse of sorts. True, it doesn’t support multi-touch functionality, but it may not really need to. The GamePad plus stylus, along with the d-pad and face/shoulder buttons, puts us on a much closer level to that of the mouse than any other controller out there currently. I won’t say that the combination puts us on even playing ground, but it allows us to get a little closer nonetheless. What’s crucial here is how the stylus and GamePad present a very point-and-click like experience. Picture this: we have the game projected on our television, devoid of most of the user interface, and instead of cluttering up the play area, the UI is displayed on the GamePad. We also have all the structures that can be built ready to be clicked on by our stylus, enabling rapid base building mechanics (remember this is a genre that is time-sensitive). But the process is made even more fluid by the fact that, when you choose your structure of choice, the GamePad could bring up a map of your immediate base. Let’s say it displays a certain radius around your headquarters. From there you can drag and drop the structure you wish to build and place it wherever you’d like, and once it’s been properly planted, the GamePad could return to the build screen.
After that, let’s say you’re done building for the time being and you want to scan the map now. A small map icon could be touched in the top corner of the Pad, allowing the entire GamePad to transform into a map display. Here, you can point and click on any location, or drag your stylus around, which would be depicted on your TV. With some practice, you would be able to zip to various corners of the map, without even looking at the GamePad anymore; you could just watch it all go down on your TV while your hands glide this way and that on the GamePad with a sort of instinctive ease.
Moving forward, let’s pretend that you’ve surveyed the scene and you want to start micromanaging your troops a little bit– it’s time to send them into battle. You could certainly stay in map mode on your GamePad, and drag simple boxes over all your configured troops to issue a single move command– this command could even be issued by the face buttons– but what happens if you want to really get into the nitty-gritty of troop micromanagement? Well, that’s when you could look for the icon that pulls up all of your units. On the GamePad, you could be presented with a list of each squad you have built, and each squad could be represented by an avatar that represents that specific squad and unit type. For instance, it could be that each squad of infantry is capped at 10 soldiers. So, let’s pretend you have 100 soldiers on the battlefield– you would only need 10 icons, since each squad would be broken down into groups of 10. A click on the squad’s icon would select them on the main screen, and from there a touch of the face buttons or a tap on another part of the GamePad, brings back up the map, and you’re off to issuing a move order to wherever you so see fit. Pressing the face buttons could even put these troops into a particular stance– defensive or offensive– making it so that when you issue your move command, your units will attack anything they see and give pursuit, or, if in a defensive stance, their priority is to find cover and return fire should they run into hostile forces on their way to the destination you set earlier on the GamePad.
When we couple this with the analog stick, gyroscope controls, and especially the shoulder triggers– which could snap to certain fixed locations on the map or units to promote excellent battlefield awareness– we start seeing how the buttons, plus the GamePad’s touch screen, could be used in a very streamlined way. Sure, Wii U or any other console that’s working strictly with a controller, isn’t capable of handling some of the more micromanage-y titles, but if it can take a more macromanagement approach, with micro-lite elements, we could see tremendous results. This level of efficiency, and the sheer amount of options one could employ to control their troops, build bases, and maintain a solid sense of battlefield insight, makes Wii U a place where gamers can enjoy a decently solid RTS experience. It has more options than any other system out there right now, and because of that Nintendo has the opportunity to carve out a niche; a niche to be the first RTS-friendly console, and a place where real-time strategy games feel both right and relevant.