Die-hard fans of real-time strategy games may disagree with me, but I've felt like the genre has been due for something of a new approach for some time. So I'm definitely intrigued by Order of War, the World War II-themed RTS due on PC from Square Enix this Fall.
Order of War Trailer
Though it might appear to be a fairly standard RTS at first glance, the designers are aiming to create something that's much more accessible than games in the genre tend to be. Gone are micromanaging of bases and units. Gone is the need to harvest any sort of resource. In their place is a streamlined game of large-scale tactics.
As a high-level commanding officer in World War II, you take control of either American or German forces through nine key battles in the European theater. You have a wide variety of different units at your disposal, from basic grunts all the way up to seriously powerful tanks and aircraft. But where many games give you the option of directing units individually, Order of War puts you in command of much larger groups of units, and relies on AI to give the individuals their immediate objectives.
The result is a game that appears much simpler, and yet in many ways more realistic. "You're a division commander," says Victor Kislyi, CEO of developer Wargaming.net. "You're not going to be telling a soldier to throw a grenade. The AI takes care of all that for you." So instead of painstakingly organizing units into formations, you simply grab a squad and point them in the right direction. Kislyi was careful to point out to me that the entire game can be played easily with just a mouse; no keyboard work required (though of course customizable shortcuts and hotkeys are available for players who want them). "We spent about two years of experimenting with controls and types of orders," Kislyi told me, "so it's a very refined and balanced interface. Sometimes we say it's an 'iPhone-style' interface."
But it definitely does not have iPhone-style graphics. Given the huge scope of the battlefields -- a couple square miles -- the game is absurdly detailed. From high overhead you can see for miles, but zoom down to ground level and individual units look nearly as good as in any ground-level shooter. (OK, maybe any ground-level shooter from a few years back. But still). The engine apparently applies some sort of dynamic graphical voodoo to ensure that no two units look exactly alike or move exactly in tandem. It's a subtle effect, but when applied to the 1,000 troops the game can fit onscreen, it definitely creates a noticeable sense of realism. The designers are so proud of the graphics that they created a "magic button," which the player can press at any point to switch to a dynamic, shifting, cinematic view that shows off the units at close range.
As for multiplayer -- always a key component of any RTS -- Kislyi was reluctant to divulge many details. He did say that the game would support both one-on-one and two-on-two play, and that they plan to have a game mode in which players compete for control of specific areas of the map, which rewards them with money to buy advanced units. Also, for multiplayer only, players will be able to take control of Russian troops. (Apparently a Russian-centric version of the game was released in Russia already, and the team has been implementing player feedback for the U.S. release).
With such a focus on a simple control scheme, I had to ask if the designers had any plans for a console release. "Our only priority right now is to finalize this game," Kislyi replied. "We have so many ideas about add-ons, sequels, console versions…the answer is that we've discussed it, we have it in our minds, but nothing will happen until we nail this one."