Making Real-Time Strategy Work on Consoles
Balancing the need for complex strategy while keeping the controls simple is tough but doable
I grew up playing Starcraft: Brood War and Warcraft III, two Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games that arguably catapulted the genre into the mainstream. I was never competitive at either one, but I do have fond memories of hosting many LAN parties with my friends and family, battling against ever more challenging opponents, celebrating our wins and rehashing our losses over and over again.
RTS games have a certain allure to them, a grand scale that is fun to take in. The best players employ complicated strategies like the fabled war-time leaders of history, stewarding a robust economy while managing defenses and implementing military tactics to subvert enemies. The battles are epic, the scale majestic, and the fun plentiful.
Now, many years later, I don’t even own a PC. My gaming hours have migrated over to either an Xbox or an iPad. While I am not at a loss for a variety and uniqueness of content at my disposal, I do wonder if I’ve unintentionally limited myself. Maybe it’s the pandemic, or perhaps I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately, but I do long for a robust RTS made for console.
The criteria in my mind for a good console RTS are simple:
- appealing mechanically and visually,
- a depth of complexity that the genre is known for
- a streamlined system of management
While I still have yet to find the perfect blend of complexity and elegance, I have discovered a few candidates that have, with varying degrees of success, delivered on my nostalgic desires.
Halo Wars 2: An appealing (but ultimately flawed) game to sell
Released in 2017, Halo Wars 2 was billed as a revitalization of the genre. I’ve always been a massive fan of the Halo series. I played Halo: Combat Evolved on the Xbox when it came out. I am immensely excited for Halo Infinite when it eventually comes out, so trying out an RTS version of a Halo game was an easy choice for me.
Theoretically, the game has everything going for it: a built in audience that is devoted to the series, a robust world and lore to draw inspiration from, and several clearly defined factions that are in constant conflict. In practice, even though the game did make some improvements on the original Halo Wars controls, Halo Wars 2 feels clunky on console. The mechanics were both too simplistic leading to severe limitations in where you were allowed to build and what strategies you could employ to win.
I tried the game out for a while, but I ended up not finishing the story, opting to instead move on to other more appealing console games. Part of me does want to go back and finish the story at some point, but we’ll see if I ever get around to it.
Ancestor’s Legacy: Too complicated for console controls
Ancestor’s Legacy arrived on console in November of 2019. Researching the game gave me great nostalgia for arguably the gold standard of RTS games: Age of Empires. The art, the environment, gameplay, and the setting all appealed to me.
I tried the first few missions and was immediately disappointed. Something as simple as trying to keep track of which units I had selected at any given time was a challenge. The game also limits how many units can be in a squad while giving different types of units multiple different abilities and attack stances. The first mission of the campaign had you managing a dozen or so squads at one, trying to control both their positions and their attacks. It’s a lot.
The complexity of trying to manage all of that with a controller was overwhelming. Combine that with the trouble I had in trying to orient where I was on the map in relation to all of my units, and it made for a frustrating experience. I may give this game another chance at some point, but right now it is not high on the list.
They Are Billions: A Victorian horror game that straddles the line pretty well
Created by Numantian Games, They Are Billions originally debuted on Steam but was then later ported over to console. I tried it out on a whim and was reluctantly impressed. The story is buggy as hell, but the gameplay, the art style, and most importantly, the controls more than cover for it.
The single biggest innovation this game adds that I have yet to see in other console RTS games is the pause button. It does wonders in letting you get your bearings, develop strategy, and plan your defenses. Also, it lets you practice the controls, a crucial requirement for smoothing out the RTS experience on console. Simply put, allowing the player to pause the game at any moment and still access building queues and unit positions and all the various menus is a huge leap forward.
Things like the handy toggable sidebar that goes over every input with its corresponding action, and the simple grid and easily identifiable icons that tell you exactly where you can build and what resources are required to do so are incredibly helpful. It’s these little elements make this game an initial success for me. After about ten minutes, I had gotten the hang of the basics of the game and was ready to go.
Additionally, I love the art style. It gives off strong Bioshock vibes, and it mixes that aesthetic with terrifying hordes of zombies. Be warned, though. I was shocked to learn that there is no loading feature built into the game. You can save only up until you die. If you fail, there’s no loading an old save point. You have to start again. It’s a design decision that I respect, but it can be frustrating to have spent so much time on a build only to get mowed down by legions of zombies and have to start over from scratch.
The dream of the perfect console RTS still lives
RTS games offer a scale of gameplay that almost no other genre can match effectively. That being said, hitting that sweet spot between overly complex and boringly simple is undoubtedly hard. Ultimately, I don’t think any of these games fully scratch the RTS itch for me, but since cordoning off these unique experiences this genre of games has to offer would be a tragedy, I will keep searching for that perfect RTS on console.