Just around two years after the monumental RTS pioneer Dune II released, came its first descendant… Warcraft : Orcs and Humans.
Developed by Blizzard Entertainment in 1994, it’s easy to say that this title, more than any other, has defined and cemented Blizzard’s direction and soul to this day. Without this game, there would be no genre-perfecting StarCraft, no monumentally impacting World of Warcraft.
Warcraft was developed out of an admiration to the groundbreaking Dune II. After almost two years, no other studio released a similar title, though unbeknownst to them, Westwood Studios was working on its spiritual successor, Command & Conquer.
The folks at Blizzard saw potential in the RTS genre after having played Dune II. They also saw issues with it, something that would be the heart and soul of most RTS games… online multiplayer!
Although not the first RTS in that regard. Modem Wars in 1988 had the ability to play a human opponent through a modem connection. But Warcraft made it a staple, and certainly through the leaps of technology, a more fun and engaging experience.
Although it’s easy at first glance to call it a fantasy clone of Dune II, that would be a disservice to the innovations it brought to the genre.
Its campaign has over 24 missions split over two factions, orcs and humans. It features a CG intro to the game. Each campaign has a voiced intro, with a progressing storyline. Although it includes the collect X resource and destroy all opponents scenarios, it also adds creative new ones like defend the target, defeat a specific target, or build X building. It also has dungeon missions with just military units, a scenario type that will be heavily used in future Blizzard RTS games. They accomplished in creating a more engaging and varied campaign, an area that they will continually improve in each iteration.
Blizzard made several improvements and changes that would be prominently adopted by successors in the genre.
Firstly, and most important, the game is more personal. Instead of barely discernible humanoids or mechanical vehicles, units in Warcraft are larger, more visible, more pronounced. You don’t control a squad. This zooms in the perspective and, in effect, adds more life and personality into the game.
Another big improvement in Warcraft from Dune is that units are more unique and even have special abilities and upgrades. Each unit feels like it has a purpose, clear pros and cons. This means that there is an added tactical feel to managing your units in battle. Spearmen are weak up close, but very effective at medium range, they need to be defended with Grunts, who are more resistant. Raiders are fast and strong, but expensive. Catapults are very slow and can’t fire up close, but can lay waste to whole groups of units in its blast radius. Warlocks can summons spiders or even an unstoppable Daemon.
There is fair amount of strategic choices a player can make with its unit composition. In Dune II, most of my strategies consisted of stacking combat tanks, rocket ranks, and siege tanks. I didn’t find a good use in mid to late games for infantry or light vehicles.
Also units with abilities limited by mana, like the warlock or the mage, later become standard in all other Blizzard RTS, and the catalyst for MOBAs like Dota. Units can also be upgraded with researched tech, like stronger attacks, defense, or new abilities. Tech trees are more prominent too. All the advanced buildings, like the Tower or Blacksmith, require certain buildings to be built. And those unlock new units to build in the barracks.
The starting building is mainly used to produce peons (the builder / gatherer unit). Through peons, you can build new buildings, repair them, or gather resources like gold or wood. They can’t fight, and can be killed easily. Future RTS will use this pattern heavily, such as the villager in Age of Empires, or the SCV in StarCraft.
This change in comparison to Dune II’s build mechanic, where you can construct a building and place it instantly, adds risk. The player can now destroy a building before its fully constructed, adding a vulnerability to the process. Also, they are a tangible link to the player’s economy and infrastructure.
There are a total of 2 gather-able resources, wood and gold. Wood can be gathered from trees, and gold can be gathered from sparse gold mines. The addition of another resource presents the player a choice of how they want to develop their economy, and with what priority. Though in most cases, gold is king, used for everything from units, buildings, repairs, and research tech. Wood is mostly for buildings and some special units.
There is another resource akin to Dune II’s power… food. Food is determined by how many farms you have. Food limits the amount of units you can build. It is a population soft cap. The more units you have, the more farms you must have already built.
The effect this has is that it helps prevent players from amassing a huge force quickly. And it also forces player to gather wood for building more farms.
The map design is also significantly improved. Maps include intentional chokes like bridges and strategically placed gold mines. They also streamlined the terrain types to just passable or impassable, and trees give the player a measure of control of adding additional paths through impassable forests.
The AI is also much improved compared to Dune II. They can determine your weakest access points to your base and send units there. Though it’s still fairly predictable and exploitable in its attack pattern.
A key missing feature from all previous RTS, that is synonymous with the genre now, is the multi-unit rectangle selection. It’s hard going to back to an old RTS like those before Dune, and having to manually order every individual unit. Though, for Warcraft, they decided to limit the selection to only 4 units at a time, citing that they wanted players to focus on tactical decisions, instead of sending hordes without much regard to them. I think in retrospect, this didn’t add a new tactical mindset, but only created frustrations in having to manage small groups at a time.
Presentation wise for me, a big improvement. The art is vibrant, colorful, and well executed. They had artist who were accustomed to creating art for consoles like the SNES, which demanded overly saturated colors to combat the limitations of the display which dulled the colors. The music does a good job, and it includes higher number of voices and SFX than Dune II did.
Warcraft : Orcs and Humans is an improvement in all regards when compared to its progenitor. It’s also the foundation for the Blizzard of today. Demonstrated in physical form are some of Blizzard Entertainment’s core. Values like gameplay first and commitment to quality. Also the common poke at the studio about not being original and simply improving upon an already successful idea is not true. Part of the reason of doing this retrospective is to demonstrate the long line of evolution that follows a genre. To show that innovation comes from not just implementing new ideas, but also reworking other ideas that may have failed or not been given the spotlight before. And buffing it up at the end with a little bit of the good ol’ “Blizzard polish”.
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.
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, it’s referenced by several interviews that the 1989 game, Herzog Zwei was one of the most prominent influences on the design of Dune II. It’s 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.
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 faction’s 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.
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.
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, it’s hidden in spice blooms, that must be damaged in order to force it 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.
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 on 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.
There is a special unit called the MCV, which sole purpose is 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.
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 it’s 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 and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.