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.

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