The Vices of Polite Criticism & The Console RTS

24 Feb

First of all, there is no such thing as polite criticism.  Criticism should hit you like a truck, reveal the hard truth and make you think.  If I had worked on, say, Halo Wars, I would rather someone call out its faults than laud them — because doing otherwise is useless fluff.

Yesterday Kotaku posted a puzzling Love/Hate review of Halo Wars — Crecente loved how simple the game was while still managing to be somewhat difficult, but he also hated how simple it was and didn’t think RTS fans would play the Ensemble RTS.

What does that tell developers?  Absolutely nothing, is what it tells them.  It’s the equivalent of gushing over someone’s homemade pizza, saying ‘It’s so simple, I love how the only topping is tomatoe sauce!’, but then reminding them that it’s not a real pizza, and they shouldn’t make it again.

Now, RTS games on a console are tricky.  The trickiest, maybe.  It’s the sort of game that doesn’t just rely on the computer mouse and keyboard, it was built around it.  The very core design principles of an RTS were built around the luxurious thought that the genre would remain on the PC; fast screen movement, navigating through the minimap, using hotkeys to cut corners, clicking constantly to micromanage units.  Take away the mouse pointer and large array of keys and slap it onto a control device created for action games where players control one entity, and you have a disaster.  Try downloading Devil May Cry 3 on Steam and playing it with the mouse and keyboard controls, and you’ll find the same sort of crossover problem.

The holy grail of console RTS design is to achieve something like Max Payne, which proved third person action controls could work on a PC.  But it’s a big assumption to assume that if the relatively few controls for a point and click shooter can be translated across the board, then so can the myriad controls that an RTS needs access to.  EA’s Lord of the Rings console RTS games proved it could be done, but only by rewinding the complexity back about five years.  In an age where gamers will have access to Dawn of War II, Starcraft II, Empire: Total War, and Massive’s World in Conflict franchise, the act of making simple console RTS games amounts to begging for change on the street.

The target demographic doesn’t want to play it, and in the case of Halo Wars you’re relying on people buying it for the license.  It’s a terrifying realization to see that even the traditionally higher brow RTS genre is now subject to cashing in on trashy licensed titles.  I suppose it comes with the console territory.

I assure you even the RTS development community doesn’t think it’s a good game.  Bungie was supposedly looking over Ensemble’s collective shoulder to ensure that the game was as ‘Halo’ as possible; making an RTS worth its weight in polycarbonate plastic came second.  This makes it all the more laughable that the game has been relatively well received.

Perhaps it’s most telling when a game receives polite but not enthusiastic praise — it means it was a flop, but nobody wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially when the anyone is Ensemble, and they’ve been laid off.  It’s a nice sentiment, but it has no place in games criticism.  Withholding your true opinions in order to put it nicely devalues any weight games criticism had in the first place.

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5 Responses to “The Vices of Polite Criticism & The Console RTS”

  1. Duncan February 25, 2009 at 10:46 am #

    Mainstream game journo’s aren’t writing reviews for the benefit of the developer. They are writing for the consumers (well they are writing to increase readership yadda yadda, but lets not get into that). This isn’t peer review. I don’t WANT to be reading develop peer reviews before I go out and buy a game, like the average consumer I’m only concerned as to if I will like or hate the product. I wasn’t puzzled by the Kotaku review, I would like it if I was looking for an interesting single player RTS, but multiplayer didn’t really work.

    Developers have their own ways of learning things like doing postmortems, peer review and such. There is no reason to run around pointing the accusing finger of justice at journalists who are writing for gamers and not games designers and yell at them for not delivering constructive criticism. It’s not their job. Christ they have enough trouble just being responsible journalists most of the time.

    Oh and the ‘highbrow’ RTS genre has been relying on licenses for years. There have been umpty ump Command and Conquer, Age of Empires oh and every bloody Warhammer game ever. Its very rare when an RTS gets made these days that isn’t based on a franchise. Even if that license was grounded in strategy it doesn’t really make it any ‘better’ than one that was. If that is you definition of sinking low, then the RTS genre is already there.

    Anyway, I get it. You didn’t like Halo Wars. Perhaps you should post a blunt review yourself rather than criticizing other people for trying to be ‘nice’.

  2. nickhalme February 25, 2009 at 11:21 am #

    I’m not sure how an RTS can be a good singleplayer RTS and a bad multiplayer one; it’s good or it’s bad.

    Most game developers look down on games journalists specifically because they don’t write for them; everyone who really wanted to buy Halo Wars wanted to buy it before any reviews came out. Game reviews can be a ‘peer review’ and be an entertaining and informative read for gamers — game designers are gamers; when you’re writing for designers, you’re writing for gamers. But gamers aren’t all designers; when you’re only writing for gamers you’re inhibiting your audience.

    As for licenses, that’s not what I mean. Call of Duty 4 is a ‘license’. What I mean is that Halo Wars could mark the beginning of an RTS licensing extravaganza. Resistance Wars, Call of Duty Wars, X-Men Wars, Spiderman Wars, or something else equally silly. There’s a difference between a licensed game and a franchise game; the former is cash-in shit and the latter is the real deal, no matter how worn out. I’m not complaining about Dawn of War because it’s its own franchise now, not just a licensed game.

    Halo Wars is more Halo license than RTS, I’m afraid.

  3. Brian February 25, 2009 at 7:29 pm #

    I have not played the full game yet, but I had a blast with the demo. What they have managed to do with the game was superb; they made an RTS on a console that works.

    I don’t play, nor do I like the Halo games. I don’t play the RTS genre save for Starcraft way back in the day. For people who do NOT play RTS (perhaps people that play HALO or other FPSs) I think it transfers very well. Simple selection mechanics, simple base building and simple units ADD to the experience. I don’t want my brain to hurt trying to memorize 300 different unit stats and formations; sometimes I just want an engaging experience.

    The game isn’t out yet, so nobody but the reviewers really know what the game is and is not.

    All I know, is that I had fun playing it. If your experience is ruined because you are an RTS snob, so be it. Let’s step away from the word ‘RTS’ and look at the word ‘game’ and then make up our minds to what really matters, shall we?

    …that would be the target audience. And that audience is not you. 🙂

  4. nickhalme February 25, 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    People may enjoy it; it’s a well-made game and I’m all for subjective opinion.

    But I am an RTS snob, and that means I know what makes a good RTS and what makes a bad one. Halo Wars is much closer to a bad one. A good RTS doesn’t require memorizing 300 units, stances, or formations — EA’s LoTR games are a good example of taking the old rock, paper, scissor formula and making a console game out of it. The game was more fun on the PC, but it was playable and fun on the console — if it’s fun when you have full mouse control and a keyboard to move around and learn hotkeys with, then they have a good base game.

    If Halo Wars were ported to the PC, I doubt it would be any fun for RTS players. The developers themselves can only come up with basic meta strategies to learn; turtling, booming and rushing while focusing on building different min/maxed groups of units such as two Scarab walkers and 20 repair drones. There is no low level strategy, strategy that should have been apparent in the demo — it’s specifically a C&C style bounding box game (grab group of units, send them out, ignore the fight and build more units to send) mixed in with the classic Ensemble focus on high level strategy.

    Imagine a Street Fighter game with only two characters, and each character only had two or three moves — attack high, attack mid, attack low — that’s it, that’s all they can do. Now the strategy won’t be so much about actually fighting, it’ll be a high level game of predictive rock, paper, scissors. That’s what it feels like to me, and as an RTS is just a bunch of number values; that’s what it is — limited, not simple. It has nothing to do with less of any thing, there’s just less thinking.

    So, people will enjoy it — it’s a bit like a ‘my first RTS’, and the production value is great. But the people that enjoy it — and you admit you don’t play RTS games that often — will be ignorant to the fact that it’s an out of date formula, and there are much better games (even other console RTS’s) to spend their money on. I’m not the target audience, and I’m glad.

    That said I like some of their interface improvements, such as the brush selection. Well, I guess that’s it, but it’s something I hope other console RTS games pick up.

  5. Mack March 2, 2009 at 5:14 pm #

    As a non RTSer I find them to be incredibly daunting.

    I’m scared to start them cause it feels like busting out Axis and Allies.

    It’s too big.

    So the dumbed down idea seems good to me. Of course in this case I find the Halo universe to be about as exciting as rewarmed meatloaf so this won’t be the one that gets me started.

    Some day I will be converted.

    If they make a Mario RTS I would give a finger off my left hand to try it. But then I would have to buy a Wii, so scratch that.

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