Onward, to Glory

You’d think RTS titles would have such a wealth of epic storylines. There are huge armies, forts, even villages and cities, not to mention heroes of the land, huge monsters, aliens and other such antagonists. Yet, whenever it actually comes to it, there’s not really that many titles you can name that have narratives that really stick in that genre.

StarCraft and WarCraft are still, hands-down, the best examples of telling a story and keeping it interesting, even while you’re waiting for a Protoss Reaver to finish building, or watching Orc peons chopping wood.

Three races will always compete in the "Craft" universes, and they’ll always be along the same lines, interestingly enough. Elves and Protoss will always hold the position of lofty, intelligent, near-immortal wispy little men and women who are intent on patronising the lesser races. Humans, Terrans, even Orcs, are those stubborn, over-courageous honour-nuts who are intent on showing the world that things aren’t easy, when you’re green, and even harder if you’re pink.

But my personal favourite would be the "hordes" races, of whom you can find in any RTS you could name that’s hit high sales, bar the obvious Total War franchise. Tyranids, the Scourge, and the infamous Zerg are utterly horrifying, for their sheer willingness to throw thousands of themselves at a wall of turrets for hours, simply to slowly work their way into the enemy base. The mindless devotion of it all is horrifying; that loss of self-preservation that we, as humans, value so much.

I’m not saying anyone’s selfish, by any means, but no-one’s ever going to be that keen on throwing themselves into a hail of enemy gunfire if they could simply sit and chew grass instead. I wonder what the Zerg were like, before they assimilated the characteristics of millions of races. Who knows, it could have been bird flu run amok.

Sadly, there’s not much of a story to be had, when it comes to mindless monsters in huge numbers, unless you’re going to stick a cold, super-intelligent being at the top of the food chain to control the mindless hordes. Meet Arthas, the OverMind, and of course, Games Workshop’s infamous Hive Mind. The big, usually immobile creature who’ll be somewhere very well protected, dishing out orders with a slight hiss of the tongue and glint of the inhuman eye.

But so many hordes, says you! Where are our armies, our noble warriors, to fend off these terrible monstrosities? Well, the answer is, that’s usually up to you. Sometimes I wonder if the Terrans ever wonder why they bother landing their bases on the ground if they could just float them around all day. All you’d need would be some ropes and marines that don’t suffer from vertigo and you’d be set.

Four hundred and sixty three words in, and you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. My point is simply that armies are full of stupid, stupid people. Can you name a single Orc peon that hasn’t once gone "right, I’m sick of this, nuts to you and your castle, I’m off to go make friends with the Night Elves"? Or how about a heroic knight who’s suddenly decided that, as noble and honourable as using a lance would be, maybe a gun would have a slightly better effect against three hundred zombies?

I just think it’s hard to have a believable narrative that requires intelligent heroes in an RTS title. Arthas was strong, courageous, ambitious, corruptible, but ultimately, really thick. If you saw a huge, evil sword made of skulls, frost magic and death, would you honestly see that as the saviour to humanity? Even if it had been whispering to you, was older than humanity, and probably didn’t give a monkeys which empire you were from? I know I wouldn’t. I’m aware he’s now the Big Scary Man of World of Warcraft, but so was Illidan in the last expansion, and he was simply another person who thought picking up something ancient, evil and magical was a great idea.

It’d also be wonderful if the camera wasn’t so insistent in me seeing something important happening on the map that it yanked my field of view halfway across it to show me two seconds of a big evil monster spawning at a cave mouth. Look, in reality, if I’m trying to organise two hundred knights, I’d rather find out about the monster once it ate someone. More than once I’ve sent those two hundred knights after the creature of the night, only to have a bunch of Orcs storm my village while it’s practically defenceless, simply because I’m supposed to find a bunch of greenskins more threatening than a fifty-foot ogre made out of bits of dead people.

On the other hand, the Total War franchise is pretty realistic. You’ve got thousands of troops at your disposal, and the only logical enemy would be the other thousands of troops on the opposite hill who aren’t waving your banners around, and seem to prefer throwing arrows your way than shaking hands. It’s simple, straightforward, and I know where I am.

With an RTS title, you often wonder who you’re supposed to fear most. I can understand the Zerg are an evil race, intent on wiping out all life in the galaxy, if not the universe, headed by a mind as old as the universe itself. But honestly, I find the Protoss a little scarier. They don’t even die properly, not to mention the fact they’re smarter than every other being in that particular narrative universe. Oh, and they were the ones who killed most of the Zerg anyway.

I knew where I was with Halo Wars, but I had to play three long FPS campaigns over five or more years to understand who was bad, and who was good, and even that changed when the Elites decided to defect to humanity’s banner. Just show me a red army, and a blue army. I’d be happy. But, even if Blizzard themselves were to make such a thing; they’d probably stick a purple army in too.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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