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Dota Fusions Released on Steam Workshop!

DotaFusionsLogo

I’ve been working on this mod intermittently over three months.  It’s been a great learning experience, and now, anyone can experience it.  You will need the Dota 2 Alpha Workshop tools before you can play.  Hopefully, Valve will soon (ha!) open the floodgates for anyone to easily download and play custom Dota 2 mods.  Link to Steam Workshop page.

Dune 2: The Building of a Dynasty 1992 – RTS Retrospective

Dune2Cover

The father of the modern RTS

Son… let me tell you how it all got started.

Developed by the legendary Westwood Studios and released in 1992.  Lets start right of the bat by saying that no other game has done more to define the RTS genre that we know today.  A landmark that serves as the archetype for games like Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires, and many more.

Dune 2… The search for Dune 1

Wayback in the 90s, Now defunct Virgin Interactive had in its possession, a license to produce games based on Dune.  And during that time, they were producing one… and adventure game.  Originally, they were plans to cancel that one and instead focus on another one that stayed truer to the struggles present in Dune like fighting over spice.  However, the other game was never canceled.  And now the legacy of Dune 2 lies in being a sequel to game with few praise and bearing no real connection to it, only by the property itself.

Early in the development, its referenced by several interviews that the 1989 game, Herzog Zwei was one of the most prominent influences on the design of Dune II.  Its mechanically and visually similar (though I say that Herzog still looks better).  They share similar units (infantry, tanks, turrets), base capture mechanic with the use of infantry, they even added an air transport unit to simulate the player behavior of picking and dropping units in Herzog Zwei.  They also mentioned other influences like Peter Molyneux’s Populous, Military Madness (precursor to the advanced war series), and Sid Meir’s Civilization.  Another important influence was the Mac GUI at the time since the game took full advantage of the mouse input.

Game Structure

When you start the game, you are asked to choose from three Houses which represent a faction.  They are mostly mechanically identical.  Its only when you reach the last branches of their respective tech trees that you notice they have around two or three exclusive units and abilities.  Besides that, each house has a different adviser that helps guide the player through the campaign.  The advisers help characterize each factions personality through their dialog.  Although the Campaign plays the same regardless of house, there is a house specific ending.

The campaign mission scenarios were the most realized up to that point.  Ancient Art of War (1984) had a dozen scenarios, which varied objectives and starting conditions, but they were not connected and could be played in any order.  Mega lo Mania / Tyrants : Fight Through Time (1991) had a campaign, in which the player advanced by defeating scenarios, but they all had the same objective and similar starting condition.

Dune II combined the two so to speak, and added cutscenes to help tell a compelling story.  The scenarios aren’t particularly varied.  Mostly the objectives are to collect a set amount of credits, and later on, to destroy the enemy structures.  But one thing the campaign does well is give you the illusion that you are in strategic control.  Before each scenario, you are presented with a risk-style map showing the territories each house controls.  You are then presented with a choice of which territory to advance to, which can be unoccupied, resulting in a gather X credits, or in control of one of the other houses, which results in a destroy all enemy buildings scenario.

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A look into the campaign map

This structure gives the player the feeling that there is a battle for control of the planet, and that his decisions of which territories to go after affect the outcome.  Another element of the campaign design, one that has become a staple in RTS campaigns, is that after each scenario, the player usually unlocks a new stage of his tech tree, allowing the use of new buildings and units.  This gives the campaign a natural complexity curve, and motivates the player to complete scenarios in order to find out what new units will be available next.

Gameplay

The actual gameplay itself is familiar to anyone who has played an RTS in the years after Dune II’s release.

Resource gathering is an integral part of Dune II, a reinforcing parallel to Dune’s narrative of the importance of “the spice”.  It is the first of its brethren to introduce the mechanic of having specialized individual units actively search and gather a physical resource, and return it to a storage area in order for it to be ready for use by the player.  Another important element is the fact that the resource is limited.  If your current source becomes depleted, you must find a new source, and most likely fight for it.

It is scattered around the map, visible as red dust on top of the sand.  Sometimes, its hidden its spice blooms, that must be damaged in order to force its unto the surrounding area.  To collect them, you must build refineries and harvesters, the latter, a unit which sole purpose is to harvest the spice and return to a refinery for processing and storage.  An important distinction about spice is that it is not a separate from your credits, they are one in the same.  Spice is stored in refineries and spice silos.  There is a limit to how much you can store inside them.  That means if they are up to capacity, any spice collected afterwards is lost.  If one of your spice silos or refineries are destroyed, you lose the spice / credits.

Another resource in Dune II is power, power is produced by buildings called wind farms.  Most buildings need a set amount of power to operate.  So it’s important to balance the production of new buildings with the power generators.

Your typical base.  Here you can see the orange-colored spice fields to the right

Your typical base

The most important building the player has is the construction yard.  This building is responsible for the building of all structures, except the construction yard itself.  You always start the game with one.  Buildings can only be built on rocky surfaces and have to be next to another one of your structures.  Also, you can place concrete foundations of the surface of the rocks, to help cover more space for placing buildings and making sure they don’t require repairs the moment you build them.  That’s because without a foundation, they start half-damaged.  Some buildings can also be upgraded, giving you access to more units.

Units can be built from certain buildings such as the Barracks, Light and Heavy Vehicle Factory, Starport, or Palace.  There are over 15 unit types, from infantry, troopers, quad bikes, tanks, air transport and attack vehicles, and house specific units like the Death’s Hand missile strike, and the Sonic Tank.  There is a small limit to how many units one can have in the battlefield, however it can be circumvented by purchasing units directly from the Starport, which sells them at a higher price.

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War is pixelated hell.

There is a special unit called the MCV, which sole purpose for building more construction yards, and expanding your base beyond the initial rocky patch one starts in.  You simply move it to a valid spot covered by rocky terrain, and deploy to build your new construction yard.

The terrain plays a vital role in this game.  There are 5 different types of it.  Rocky terrain allow for the construction of buildings. Sand covers most of everything else.  Essential spice fields will be scattered about.  Sand dunes slows down the movement of ground units.  Finally, mountains will serve as impassable barriers to all but infantry.  There are also hidden dangers in the sand.  Sand worms can attack any units wandering about in the sand.  They can swallow them whole and retreat.  There are also the spice blooms which resemble mounds that when damaged, explode and release spice in the surrounding area.  This mechanic alone helps give players motivation to explore the map thoroughly, as they are easily missed.

An an essential feature that this game helped standardize was fog of war.  Like today’s RTS games, areas not explored are black.  When units move in, they reveal the surrounding area.  Though in Dune II, revealed area remains fully visible even if you don’t have any units nearby.

One of the, if not the most influential aspect of Dune II was its interface design and usability   They state that they took many inspiration in the GUI of Macs at the time.  They wanted to replicate the usability features of operating a computer through a GUI.  This made playing the game almost instantly intuitive to anyone who used computers.  It bears some resemblance to Nether Earth, but with the availability of the mouse as an input device, it greatly improved the experience.  It features the standard game window, where all the action happens.  The mini-map, conveniently positioned in the same screen.  A unit info section, so you can see the name and health of the selected object.  And finally a command section below, for issuing Attack, Move, Retreat, and Guard commands.  Most RTS will not deviate from this basic pattern even to this day.

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The enemy would always send its army using the same predictable path

The AI is an improvement from its predecessors.  Units know how to move from one point to another without getting stuck or doing weird things, like in Herzog Zwei or Nether Earth.  But it still leaves much to be desired.  The enemy AI only knows how to send units directly to your base.  No flanking and no attacking any other of your other potential bases.

Graphically, the game looks decent.  Sprite work is fairly good and they have proper visual design to separate units and factions.  On the audio front.  It features a notable soundtrack, and actual voices for plenty of actions, like selecting and ordering a unit, which is a standard in RTS games of today.

Dune II’s legacy impact is without question, but its certainly not without its fair amount of blemishes.  The game moves at a glacial pace, even on the fastest game speed.  There are also are certain gameplay elements that worsen the pace and undermines the experience.

The biggest one is the excessive durability of units and buildings.  Units take far too long to destroy, even with a small army concentrating fire.  Also made worse with the fact that the strongest unit, the missile tank, fires rockets that have a tendency to miss.  Buildings are even worse.  Though they can be taken quickly with a focused attack, they can be repaired at any time, even while being fired upon.  A funny thing about the enemy AI is that they have infinite credits, so your will find yourself trying to take down a structure, only to realize, you don’t have enough firepower to counteract the repair, or have to coordinate your army to concentrate completely on that structure.  Because of the slow pace of destroying buildings an units, it can get frustrating quickly.

There is no benefit either in micro-managing units in battle.  It becomes hard to get pleasure from engaging in combat.  Though, much to my modern RTS standards dissatisfaction, even with a mouse, you still can’t select several units at a time.  You have to order desired every unit, one at a time.  Finally, no multiplayer.  A vital element to subsequent RTS, most notably, Warcraft (which pretty much came about because Blizzard saw a huge opportunity with adding that crucial missing feature.

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All those tanks, all that power… and so little control.

Thoughts

Many more words can be written about Dune II’s impact.  Not only for the RTS genre… but for entertainment as a whole.  To put it simply, today’s superstar gaming genre…  the MOBA, would not exist without Dune II.  A game that had no right to be as influential as it is.  Especially for a licensed property.  But, by removing the veneer of its legacy, and judging it for what it is, I found a game that is immediately familiar but filled with dated mechanics long since improved.  Overall, I enjoyed it.  Even with its frustrations, what made it a success in the past can still be felt each time you start a new scenario.  May the foundations it laid forever stand, lifting the real-time strategy genre so it can continue to reach higher and higher.

Tyrants: Fight Through Time 1991 – RTS Retrospectives

Also known as Mega Lo Mania in Europe

Also known as Mega Lo Mania in Europe

Petty gods and tiny wars

Developed by Sensible Software.  Mega lo Mania, or better known as Tyrants: Fight Through Time in the US, is a real-time strategy game that introduced some interesting new features to the genre… but first, let me get the premise out of the way.  Out in space, when a new planet is born with intelligent life, a game between gods is played to decide who will look over them… control them.  The game is a battle between gods through the history of mankind, where the objective is to wipe out the other gods forces completely.

Game Structure

The first thing you do before anything is choosing the god you want to be.  Its really only a cosmetic difference, which is a lost opportunity.

There are four gods you can choose from.  The only difference is the snarkyness of their dialogue.

There are four gods you can choose from. The only difference is the snarkyness of their dialogue.

The game is divided in epochs (time periods) that relate to the progress of mankind technologically.  The first epoch, you fight with sticks and stones.  The last epoch, you fight with laser guns and nuclear missiles.  Each epoch contains three islands that represents levels.  After you conquer the three islands in each epoch (each island is a battle between 1 or more gods), you move the next set of islands and the next epoch.  That is until you reach the final epoch… Mega lo mania.  Here, it is just one square island where all you do is prepare your army with the latest weaponry and battle it out.  The victor, is declared ruler of the planet.

Another cool feature is that you can decide how much manpower to use per island.

Another cool feature is that you can decide how much manpower to use per island.

Gameplay

During the actual battle, you can move to the next epochs temporarily.  You always start each battle on the epoch you currently are in the campaign.  But you can progress to the next two epochs while in-battle.  This is important to know because battles are usually determined by who has the best technology first. Battles take place in islands.  Islands are divide in sections. Some islands have more sections than others.  Each section represents an enclosed non-scrollable area that can be used as a base.  For each section, you can have 1 castle, 1 of each of the other buildings, and also each section may have a different combination of resources available.  You will always start with a base / castle.

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This is how you start the game, the other colors are the other gods. Everyone is in their own section but you can teleport units to other sections in an instant.

Your main resource in this game is manpower.  Manpower literally represents individual units.  They can be used to fight, to defend structures, to research new technologies, to collect resources like wood or minerals, to work in factories to produce items, and to capture island sections.  Also, everything that requires manpower can be made to go faster the more manpower you assign to the task.

Before you start the battle, you have to decide how much manpower you want to start with.  In each campaign scenario, you have around three islands and 100 manpower to divide amongst them.  In-game you can gain more manpower simply by idling them in you castle.  They “clone” themselves.  The more you have idling in your castle, the faster you gain manpower.

The most important tool you have to win battles is in the design of blueprints.  In order to equip weapons to your units, first you have to design the blueprint for it, or in other words, use manpower to research a new technology.  In order to have the blueprint available for design, you have to have the necessary resources.  The interesting thing is, that items can be made with different interchangeable minerals.  Some produce better versions of the item than others.

In order to design the blueprint when you have the required minerals, you have to assign manpower to the task of researching the blueprint.  The more assigned, the faster its researched.  Once it is done, if the item is not sufficiently advanced that it requires a factory or lab to create, then if you have the resources specified in the blueprint, you can assign manpower equip the items.  Items like a throwing rock, spear, catapult, longbow, cannon, plane, etc…

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Getting access to planes gives before your opponent gives a significant advantage since they move fast and can’t be easily hit by most units.

You can also trash a blueprint if you want to design a blueprint that uses better resources to make a better version of the item. Items that you can research can be split into offensive weapons that you can use to fight enemy units and buildings, or defensive weapons that are equipped by units that are placed in the limited number of towers on top of your structures, or as shields to repair your structures. If you research enough blueprints, you automatically jump to the next epoch, providing new upgraded blueprints to research items or new structures like a mine or factory.

Also important, a blueprint is only available in the specific section of the island that it was researched.  However, you can equip weapons to units ( each unit is equivalent to 1 manpower), and send them to other sections, where they will be stored in case you need to use them again.

Thoughts

I came into this game with zero expectations.  Up until I started my research, I never heard about it before. At first glance, it seems like such a weird game.  Not like any other strategy game I’ve played before.  But after spending some time with it, I started to enjoy myself and its peculiar systems.  I also started to realize that this game had many innovative features that would later be standard in the RTS genre. Here is a short list:

  • Researching tech for upgrades.
  • Advancing tech levels (Like Age of Empires).
  • Voiced in-game characters.
  • Varied amount of different resources to gather.
  • Ability to assign more manpower(units) to speed up task (like building structures in Age of Empires).

Overall.  It sits besides Herzog Zwei as the two games I’ve played in the pre-Dune II era that I was having fun while playing.  Funnily enough, they were both console games.  To me, it deserves to be remembered for all the unique things it tried to do, and fairly well at that.

Powermonger 1990 – RTS Retrospectives

Populous + War

Populous + War

An Ambitious strategy game by the greatest hype man in gaming, Peter Molyneux

Developed by Bullfrog after having made the landmark Populous game.  Powermonger is a real-time strategy game where the objective is to gain a majority control of the land.  The game features a 3-D map just like Populous, though only the topography is in 3-D, the rest are sprites.  It also features an advanced AI system (for its time) similar to Tropico that both make the game lively and interesting, but also frustrating.

Game Structure

You start the game with a few soldiers under your command, and a captain representing your avatar.  You become the victor by capturing territory and literally, tipping the scales to be in your favor.

Gameplay

To conquer territory and grow your army, you must send captains to capture neighboring towns and turn them to your side.  You always have the option of passively turning them, or slaughtering them for quicker dominance, however, you have less possible recruits to fill your army.  You will also encounter the enemy’s army – battles being decided by numbers and equipment.  Food is really important as a resource, as its used to keep people loyal, and also used to create equipment.  There other resources like steel and wood which again are used for equipment.

A cool battle

Here you can see you have two captains under your control and a town being dominated.

Through equipment, you basically turn regular soldiers into what the equipment is , like swords, bows, or even catapults.  You can gain new captains by conquering cities with neutral captains. These other captains are important because if your starting captain dies, you lose, so you will be delegating to the other captains to do more dangerous task.  Another interesting aspect of the subordinate captains is that the farther they are, the longer the delay between the orders you give them, since a carrier pigeon must fly and give them the orders.

Conclusion

As true to the Molyneux style, this game is ambitious in its design.  Every unit has their own jobs and status, like in Tropico or a more simplified Sims.  A lot of what happens in the game does so without your input.  Its a very interesting game, though for me, I was unable to grasps its mechanics easily.  Its user interface is obtuse in its design.  You must depend on a guide to be able to understand what each of the buttons do.  Even though most of the screen is UI related, it still feels like there is missing information.

There is so much UI in comparison to the actual game section.

There is so much UI and decorative art in comparison to the actual game

You also have to constantly use a query command to know the status of towns, troops, pretty much everything since it’s not displayed anywhere else.  It needs a lot of re-design to make it more accessible for newcomers.  In the end, I wasn’t able to play very much to form a more robust retrospective.  But it still served as a view into a different kind of RTS – a more sim-like experience.

Herzog Zwei 1989 – RTS Retrospectives

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Heavily influenced the game that will later define the genre.

Mechs + Jets + Kicking tunes

Developed by Japanese developer Technosoft in 1989.  It is considered by many to be hugely influential towards the RTS genre.  In this game, you and your opponent each control a transforming mech.  It can change from a high-speed jet, to a powerful ground assault mech.  A true late 80’s power fantasy. It’s the most powerful unit in the game… as it should be.  Your view and controls are tied to the mech.  With it, you can both attack and defend, or help ferry your units to key parts in the battlefield.  The goal is to destroy the opponent’s home base.  And the best way to do this is of course is to build up an army, capture bases, secure resources, and crush your opponent’s units – all in real-time baby!

Attacking the enemy base will kill the enemy base

Attacking the enemy base will kill the enemy base

Game Structure

The game contains 8 levels.  Each one has a different terrain and layout.  For example, there is a swamp level which has large tracks of muddy terrain that slows ground movement considerably. There is another one that takes place at a volcanic area – featuring rivers of lava sectioning off the different bases.  You can play the levels either against the CPU, or against a human opponent through split-screen.

Gameplay

When the match starts, the players immediate focus should be in capturing bases.  Bases are extremely important, and its easy to tell sometimes who is going to win by the number of bases under their control.  This is due in part for the two main benefits bases provide.  The only resource in this game is gold – it is acquired periodically for every base that you control.  You start with your home base but you must quickly expand if you want to generate enough gold to build a decent army.

The other essential benefit of bases is that they automatically repair your mech jet, refill ammo, and recharge energy.  Energy being extremely essential.  Every time you move, you consume energy, which is more akin to fuel.  If you run out, you die.  Death though isn’t a huge impediment.  You will respawn at your home base a few seconds later.  Because of the energy system, your incursions into enemy territory require careful planning, and the accompanying capture of staging bases to give you refueling spots.  The map usually contains around 6 to 8 neutral bases.  Depending on the map, they will be separated by obstacles like cliffs, lava or water.  In order to capture bases, you are going to need units.

Units can be queued to be built anywhere in the map, but the trick is that you must pick them with your jet, at any base you control, and then drop them on the ground before they are active.  Only one unit can be built at a time, and before the next one can be queued, you have to first pick and drop the last one that was built.  Another important detail is that units are assigned orders at the moment they are queued, and interestingly… different orders have different costs.  It’s cheaper to queue a unit to hold a position than to have one ordered to attack the enemy base.  You can change the orders when you have a unit picked up, but it still cost to change the orders.

This is the screen for queuing up units.  You can see the price of the unit plus that of the order

This is the screen for queuing up units. You can see the price of the unit plus that of the order

Unfortunately, the AI is not smart enough most of the time to choose the best route when you give them orders to move to a certain spot.  You will find yourself babysitting them – making sure they don’t get stuck or self-destruct by going into lava.  Usually, your best bet is to drop the units as close as possible to the base you want to capture.

Most units are also limited by energy just as your mech.  Thankfully, they don’t die when they run out of energy, they simply are unable to move.  That’s where the supply truck becomes important.  A specialized unit designed to automatically refuel nearby units.  Or you can simply drop them off at a base to refuel and rearm.  A unit that doesn’t need refueling – being the second most important unit behind your mech, is the infantry.  It’s the cheapest, weakest unit, but it’s also the only unit that can capture bases on top of requiring no energy.  Its also important to know that in order to capture a base, you need a total of 4 infantry units stationed inside.

Other units consist of the armored truck, a step up from the infantry – the motorbike, weaker than the armored truck, but it is also the fastest unit – the tank, which should be the backbone of your army – the gunboat, which can only be used in water and has the greatest visibility – the SAM truck, the only mobile unit that can attack the enemy while in jet form – finally, the cannon, a static and vulnerable defensive unit, that can attack both ground and air.

Thoughts

Oh man… this is the first game out of all the previous RTS retrospectives were I was having a blast playing.  Attribute this to several important factors.

  • Great presentation – The art and sound for this game is miles better than any previous strategy game released.
  • Much better pacing – Although still limited to selecting only one unit at a time, the fact that you can breeze through the level with the jet really heightens the pacing.  Units are also built fairly quickly – bases captured at a brisk pace – Gold accrues quickly as well – units can die quickly, including your jet, forcing you to keep your attention in the game – the enemy can drop in tanks at a moments notice behind your base.  I only played against the CPU, but I can surely feel that playing against a human player would ramp everything up to 11.
  •  Good balancing – Most units feel like they have a purpose and place.  Although my later strategies consisted of mostly amassing tanks and cannons, I’m confident that I resorted to that strategy due to the AI opponent’s basic strategy.

Overall, this game can still stand proudly of its accomplishments.  It is easy to see how it changed the landscape for RTS games, and laid the foundations for Dune II.  The only thing missing from the RTS formula we know today is the building of structures, resource gathering through specialized units or structures, and a tech tree.

Carrier Command 1988 – RTS Retrospectives

You can be my wingman any time.

You can be my wingman any time.

Combining Sim and RTS, It flies in the Danger Zone…of Innovation.

Developed in 1988 by Realtime games (Ian Oliver, Andrew Onions and Graeme Baird).  Carrier Command is a mix of First Person Simulation and real-time strategy.  You are in command of an advanced robotic carrier, and your objective is to destroy the more advanced enemy carrier.  In your way, lies an archipelago that you and your opponent must colonize so that you can construct factories for ammo and vehicles, resource gathering, or erecting defensive encampments.

Game Structure

You have two main options.  Either play a short skirmish (action game), or play the long campaign mode (strategic game).  What differs really is the scale of the map.  In the strategic game, It will take much long to engage the enemy, since the map is much bigger, and you start farther apart.

Gameplay

Your carrier is a mobile platform for launching air and amphibious vehicles, firing surface to surface long-range missiles, volleys of precision lasers, ordering transport drones to re-supply, etc…  It certainly earns its simulation tag.  Its also important to note that most of the time, you will be micromanaging every unit, and every defensive weaponry on the carrier.  Everything is managed through CCTVs.  When you switch to one of your air units, your camera switches to a first-person view.  It does have an autopilot option, but its only for moving to locations.  Controlling the unit means steering the unit manually, adjusting its speed, and firing when necessary.

For new players, its an overwhelming experience.  Most likely, you will have to read the manual to grasp the interface enough to the point you can even perform an intended action.

Here is the menu for controlling the carrier's offensive and defensive capabilities

Here is the menu for controlling the carrier’s offensive and defensive capabilities

 

Here is the manta loading bay menu.  You can load weaponry, repair, build, and deploy them from here.

Here is the manta loading bay menu. You can load weaponry, repair, build, and deploy them from here.

Thoughts

Its not a game for the casual strategy game lover.  It requires dedication to learn just enough to get by.  It also requires great micromanaging skills.  But it also makes you feel cool as hell.  Launching a manta (aircraft) opens up the docking bay, and you see the aircraft slowly rising towards the launching deck… ready for takeoff.  And then it zooms straight out of the ship.  For its simple vector graphics, it manages to fill the simulation with enough detailed actions, that you truly feel in command of a carrier.  Unfortunately, I didn’t play enough for me to actually stand a chance against the AI.  So I didn’t get to experience the full depth of the game.  Even then, It feels ahead of its time.