PC GAMER (US) - - PREVIEW - By Fraser Brown

Some of strat­egy gam­ing’s most in­flu­en­tial ti­tles were de­vel­oped for con­soles, but by 2000 the genre had been syn­ony­mous with PC for a decade. The launch of the PlayS­ta­tion 2 saw more and more peo­ple drift away from their PCs, prompt­ing Mi­crosoft to make the Xbox, which ap­peared the fol­low­ing year. It might have looked like a PC, but when it came to tra­di­tional strat­egy games, it was just as hos­tile an en­vi­ron­ment as any other con­sole. The au­di­ence was shrink­ing, pub­lish­ers were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly risk-averse, and play­ers were co­a­lesc­ing around stal­wart fran­chises.

Out of this came odd­i­ties, hy­brids, spin-offs, and more ex­per­i­ments with 3D maps and cam­eras, like Mas­sive En­ter­tain­ment’s real-time tac­tics game, Ground Con­trol. Sim­i­lar to Relic’s Home­world, it gave you free rein of the cam­era, let­ting you zoom out for an over­view of the battle— though not quite as far, given the smaller scale—and then all the way up to your beefy sci-fi units, watch­ing them from ground level as they bom­barded enemy for­ti­fi­ca­tions or stormed bases. It looked great, and it boasted plenty of other note­wor­thy fea­tures, like 3D ter­rain that could mod­ify ac­cu­racy, fo­liage that could hide troops, and cus­tom­iz­a­ble units.

At the same time, Shiny En­ter­tain­ment in­tro­duced the world to Sac­ri­fice. In another re­al­ity, Sac­ri­fice is prob­a­bly hailed as an im­por­tant and in­flu­en­tial RTS, but for some rea­son we’re stuck in the one where it’s more of a bril­liant, over­looked cu­rio. With a li­brary that in­cluded Earth­worm Jim and MDK, Shiny’s games were typ­i­cally strange and in­ven­tive, but the stu­dio had never worked on any­thing close to a strat­egy game. That might have been an ad­van­tage, as Sac­ri­fice ripped apart RTS con­ven­tions.

Sac­ri­fice looked noth­ing like an RTS, bor­row­ing its per­spec­tive from third-per­son ac­tion games and keep­ing the screen de­void of clut­ter.

Play­ers di­rectly con­trolled just one char­ac­ter, a wizard, who could cast apoc­a­lyp­tic spells and sum­mon all sorts of col­or­ful, mag­i­cal units. The sum­moned crea­tures fol­lowed the wizard around, and could be given or­ders or put into for­ma­tions. In­stead of fuss­ing with re­sources, build­ings, and large armies, all of your con­cerns were right there in front of you: The wizard and their crew of weird min­ions. And it looked in­cred­i­ble for the time. It was a sur­real, bro­ken dream­scape that looked like it leaked out of the brain of Sal­vador Dalí or Hierony­mus Bosch. The unit de­sign was just as strange, fea­tur­ing a large menagerie of out­landish beast­ies that could be thrown into battle.

Es­sen­tially, you were a Dun­geon Mas­ter, send­ing heroes out on ad­ven­tures

These new strat­egy games were pos­ing in­ter­est­ing ques­tions about what in­gre­di­ents the genre re­ally needed to suc­ceed, and what could be thrown away or re­con­sid­ered. Majesty: The Fan­tasy King­dom Sim, for in­stance, asked if we re­ally needed di­rect con­trol at all. In­stead of com­mand­ing units, play­ers had to tempt heroes to set up shop in their town by pro­vid­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate fa­cil­i­ties, and then en­cour­age them to go and solve nearby prob­lems by cre­at­ing quests and re­wards. Es­sen­tially, you were a Dun­geon Mas­ter, send­ing heroes out on ad­ven­tures to ex­plore a new part of the world or mur­der some pesky mon­sters.

Es­tab­lished fran­chises were get­ting smaller, but still notable, shake-ups. Age of Mythol­ogy ap­plied

the Age of Em­pires for­mula to an­cient myths and le­gends, throw­ing mon­sters, magic, gods, and heroes into the mix. Com­mand & Con­quer: Gen­er­als, the first post-West­wood game in the se­ries, switched the set­ting to another near-fu­ture cri­sis, ditched har­vesters, and went 3D. Civ­i­liza­tion had also re­turned home to its cre­ator af­ter some drama, lit­i­ga­tion, and Ac­tivi­sion’s Civ­i­liza­tion: Call to Power. Civ­i­liza­tion III would prove to be a di­vi­sive in­stal­ment, but it also in­tro­duced the cul­ture sys­tem, chang­ing the ways civ­i­liza­tions could ex­pand and open­ing up new paths to vic­tory that didn’t in­volve conquest.

In 2002, Bliz­zard re­turned to Aze­roth with a story of un­likely en­tentes, de­monic armies, and su­per­pow­ered heroes. War­craft III: Reign of Chaos was a fan­tasy epic not just driven by armies and re­source-gath­er­ing, but by sym­pa­thetic, mul­ti­fac­eted char­ac­ters whose sto­ries con­tinue to de­velop to­day. The plot ac­tu­ally started out as an ad­ven­ture game, War­craft Ad­ven­tures: Lord of the Clans. With it, Bliz­zard wanted to chart the life of Thrall, the even­tual leader of one of War­craft’s fac­tions, the Horde. It was ul­ti­mately shelved, but the story of Thrall got a sec­ond life in Reign of Chaos.

The im­por­tance of these heroes went be­yond the nar­ra­tive. When War­craft III was first an­nounced in 1999, it was a strat­egy RPG, rem­i­nis­cent of King’s Bounty or Heroes of Might and Magic. A lot of the RPG el­e­ments ended up on the cut­ting room floor, but the role of heroes per­se­vered. Heroes were pow­er­ful units who grew as they gained ex­pe­ri­ence, de­vel­op­ing handy new abil­i­ties. They could equip mag­i­cal gear, too, and even do a spot of shop­ping to give them an edge. Sure, they were sur­rounded by small armies and fight­ing in a world­shak­ing war, but these were ad­ven­tur­ing RPG heroes.

It was still un­doubt­edly an RTS, but amid all the

base-build­ing and troop man­age­ment were nods to RPG de­sign, such as quests and NPC en­e­mies that were hos­tile to ev­ery fac­tion. Be­cause they’d per­sisted through all the other changes, they weren’t nov­el­ties; they were built into the game’s foun­da­tions. Thanks to these in­no­va­tions, as well as Bliz­zard’s bril­liant bal­anc­ing and clever mis­sion de­sign, War­craft III and its ex­pan­sion, the Frozen Throne, be­came sem­i­nal strat­egy games.

Frozen Throne marked the end of War­craft, at least as a strat­egy fran­chise. The crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess of War­craft III, in­stead of paving way for yet more RTS games, set the scene for its MMO suc­ces­sor, World of War­craft. Its strat­egy legacy is just as im­por­tant, how­ever, with War­craft III at least be­ing partly re­spon­si­ble for the birth of mul­ti­player on­line battle are­nas, or MOBAs.

De­fense of the An­cients was a War­craft III mod that gave play­ers di­rect con­trol of their hero, and noth­ing else. Armies and bases were still in­te­gral, but there was no con­struc­tion, nor could these armies be com­manded; in­stead they au­to­mat­i­cally marched down lanes, at­tack­ing enemy tow­ers or any other units they came across, un­til they reached the op­pos­ing base. De­fense of the An­cients was based on a StarCraft cus­tom map, Aeon of Strife, but used War­craft III’s RPG hero sys­tems to cre­ate the blue­print for the vast ma­jor­ity of MOBAs that would fol­low in its wake.

Though it would take sev­eral years for the pop­u­lar­ity of De­fense of the An­cients to in­spire com­mer­cial im­i­ta­tors and spir­i­tual suc­ces­sors, plenty of vari­ants were de­vel­oped by other War­craft III mod­ders. Kyle ‘Eul’ Som­mer de­vel­oped the orig­i­nal mod, but when Som­mer ceased up­dat­ing his ver­sion, new mods filled the vac­uum. DotA: Al­ls­tars at­tempted to cap­ture the best of this bur­geon­ing genre of mods, throw­ing an as­sort­ment of heroes from across mul­ti­ple vari­ants into one map. Al­ls­tars grew, and it even­tu­ally passed into the hands of even­tual League of Le­gends de­signer, Steve ‘Guin­soo’ Feak.

Feak de­vel­oped a lot of new fea­tures, heroes and items, but per­haps the most im­por­tant thing to come out of Al­ls­tars was its com­pet­i­tive com­mu­nity. Tour­na­ments had started kick­ing off, the fo­rum was a con­stant hive of ac­tiv­ity, and the mod was al­ways be­ing tweaked and bal­anced by a grow­ing team and a com­mu­nity quick to give feed­back. Al­ls­tars’ pop­u­lar­ity was un­prece­dented, and it would sit at the top of the pile un­til 2009, when League of Le­gends

Frozen Throne marked the end of War­craft, at least as a strat­egy fran­chise

launched. Valve’s stand­alone se­quel, de­signed by another DotA mod­der, gen­er­ally known just as Ice Frog, fol­lowed soon af­ter.

To­tal War marched onto the strat­egy bat­tle­field in 2000, mix­ing grand strat­egy and gar­gan­tuan real-time tac­ti­cal bat­tles with au­then­tic his­tor­i­cal set­tings. Shogun: To­tal War got the ball rolling, though it was al­most a very dif­fer­ent game from the one that gave birth to the se­ries. Cre­ative Assem­bly had been de­vel­op­ing EA Sports ti­tles when it got an op­por­tu­nity to work on a new ti­tle for the pub­lisher; the catch was that it had to be an easy win. At the end of the ’90s, real-time strat­egy couldn’t have seemed like a surer thing, thus the stu­dio started work on its very first RTS.

Shogun quickly grew be­yond ex­pec­ta­tions. With its 3D bat­tle­fields, thou­sands of war­riors, and an un­shack­led cam­era, it seemed far-re­moved from a Com­mand & Con­quer knock-off. Once the team had set­tled on the Sen­goku era and an ap­proach to com­bat that was both his­tor­i­cal and tac­ti­cal, a mil­i­tary his­to­rian was brought in to make sure ev­ery­thing felt right. Cre­ative Assem­bly’s rule of au­then­tic­ity over ac­cu­racy was es­tab­lished early on, so Shogun wasn’t be­holden to his­tory, but it was con­vinc­ing enough.

The cam­paign layer was a later ad­di­tion. The real-time scraps needed some­thing to glue them to­gether, but in­stead of build­ing a lin­ear cam­paign that led play­ers from one battle to the next, Cre­ative Assem­bly crafted a map of Ja­pan full of prov­inces, fortresses, and war­ring fac­tions. All the big strate­gic de­ci­sions took place on this turn-based map, from diplo­macy to troop move­ment. With those two lay­ers com­bined, To­tal War had its for­mula.

Medieval: To­tal War fol­lowed in 2002, ex­pand­ing the army size to a whop­ping 10,000 troops and set­ting the wars amid a mas­sive map of Europe and the Mid­dle East. Medieval also in­tro­duced sieges, though with mixed suc­cess. Of the first trio of To­tal War games, it’s the third and fi­nal en­try that set hearts aflut­ter. Rome: To­tal War is where the se­ries started to get dense, with its civil wars and Se­nate mis­sions and fam­ily trees. It was no longer a Risk- in­spired board that linked fights to­gether, but a com­pli­cated 3D map that was sup­ported by en­hanced trade and man­age­ment fea­tures. Though the tac­ti­cal brawl­ing re­mained the star, it was the first cam­paign that seemed like it could ex­ist as a stand­alone game.

There was a good rea­son why the bat­tles were al­ways in the lime­light. They looked in­cred­i­ble. The new 3D mod­els made armies seem like real, tan­gi­ble things, and when they clashed it looked like no other game. It was al­most pos­si­ble to feel the im­pact of these charges, es­pe­cially when they in­volved thun­der­ing war ele­phants and many un­for­tu­nate soldiers be­ing flung into the air. To­tal War’s bat­tles have be­come more and more strik­ing, but Rome still looks in­cred­i­bly im­pres­sive.

Though all these hy­brids were ap­pear­ing, Relic proved there was still room for a more sin­gle-minded RTS. Fol­low­ing a sec­ond space out­ing with Home­world 2, the stu­dio set about bring­ing the 41st mil­len­nium to life. Warham­mer 40,000: Dawn of War flung Space Marines, El­dar, Orks, and Chaos at one another in the bat­tle­fields of Tar­tarus. The name should have been a give­away.

At the end of the ’90s, re­al­time strat­egy couldn’t have seemed like a surer thing

Relic main­tained a lot of the con­cepts from Games Work­shop’s en­dur­ing table­top game, bend­ing them around a fast-paced RTS. Your typ­i­cal RTS re­sources, for in­stance, didn’t fea­ture in Warham­mer 40,000; send­ing out gath­er­ing units or fid­dling with your econ­omy wasn’t re­ally in keep­ing with the hy­per-ag­gres­sive set­ting. Dawn of War used re­sources more to push play­ers into con­flict. Req­ui­si­tion points were re­quired to plonk down build­ings and re­cruit squads, but in­stead of be­ing gath­ered, these were gen­er­ated by cap­tur­ing and hold­ing strate­gic points.

The small num­ber of strate­gic points en­sured there was an end­less sup­ply of lively bat­tles. In­stead of hun­ker­ing down and pro­tect­ing your base, you had to strike out, ordering your squads to travel all over the map, not just to find strate­gic lo­ca­tions, but to re­in­force them, pro­tect­ing them from enemy as­saults. A morale and cover sys­tem made its way over from the table­top game, as well. It was a tac­ti­cal layer that ne­ces­si­tated a bit more think­ing and a lit­tle less scream­ing, “Blood for the Blood God!”

With Com­pany of Heroes, Relic swapped the grim bat­tle­fields of Tar­tarus for Nor­mandy. The things that had set Dawn of War apart, Relic ran with. And it ran far. Morale and cover were re­fined to the point where play­ing an RTS with­out these sys­tems sud­denly seemed crazy. Ev­ery squad was this squishy, vul­ner­a­ble group of soldiers which could be wiped out at a mo­ment’s no­tice, or bro­ken and forced to flee for their lives. But with the right com­man­der, they could do won­der­ful things.

A tank might be able to make short work of some in­fantry, but hide foot­sol­diers be­hind a wall, wait for that tank to roll by, and you’d get a shot at its weak points. Or the tank could just smash the wall and kill all your lads. The Ha­vok physics en­gine fu­elled Com­pany of Heroes’ de­struc­tible maps, so units couldn’t get too comfy. Luck­ily, cover was al­ways clearly marked, not just show­ing you where your units could seek pro­tec­tion, but ex­actly how pro­tected they would be. There was also an un­usual de­lin­eation be­tween troops and weapons. A weak squad of ri­fle­men, for in­stance, could cap­ture an anti-tank gun, let­ting them lock down a road all on their own. In­fantry could pick up aban­doned weapons and com­man­deer them from en­e­mies, mak­ing them ex­tremely ver­sa­tile.

Com­pany of Heroes of­ten seemed more like a squad-level wargame than an RTS, evok­ing the likes of Close Com­bat rather than Com­mand & Con­quer. There were even sup­ply lines, though they were heav­ily ab­stracted. Like Dawn of War, play­ers fought over cap­ture points, but each point was con­nected to the rest, simulating a sup­ply line. Tak­ing out just one part in the chain could de­stroy

another player’s econ­omy and force another con­fronta­tion. It wasn’t like tak­ing out an enemy har­vester—the only way they could fix it was by tak­ing back that lo­ca­tion, even if it seemed hope­less. There was real drama be­hind the bat­tles.

Com­pany of Heroes heav­ily drew from Band of Broth­ers, 2001’s HBO minis­eries, and was thick with the show’s at­mos­phere. The ru­ined coun­try­side and vil­lages

Com­pany of Heroes of­ten seemed more like a squad-level wargame than an RTS

of Nor­mandy were un­like any other bat­tle­fields. Each map was elab­o­rate, dy­namic, and, of course, in­cred­i­bly dan­ger­ous, full of places for snipers and mor­tar teams to hide. It was emo­tion­ally res­o­nant, too. The pock­marked roads, the de­stroyed Euro­pean towns, the ter­ri­fied men try­ing to es­cape ma­chine gun fire—even when it was ex­plo­sive and ex­cit­ing, a me­lan­choly cloud loomed over ev­ery­thing.

It wasn’t enough to slow, let alone stop, the de­cline of the RTS. There were still notable ti­tles ap­pear­ing, but more of­ten these were se­quels and spir­i­tual suc­ces­sors. A year af­ter Com­pany of Heroes launched, we saw To­tal An­ni­hi­la­tion res­ur­rected in the form of Supreme Com­man­der, de­signed by orig­i­nal cre­ator Chris Tay­lor, while Mas­sive En­ter­tain­ment fol­lowed up Ground Con­trol 2 with the su­perb World in Con­flict. RTS games were still alive, but only just. To­day, the most pop­u­lar RTS is still Star Craft II, which launched in 2010. Its ex­cel­lent ex­pan­sions and huge mul­ti­player sup­port are re­spon­si­ble for its longevity, and it helps that it fea­tures some of Bliz­zard’s best mis­sion de­sign, but it’s still very fa­mil­iar.

Else­where in the strat­egy genre, peo­ple could sat­isfy some of their turn-based crav­ings with To­tal War, but em­pire-build­ing wasn’t quite what it used to be. Wargames had be­come a niche sat­is­fied by a few spe­cial­ist pub­lish­ers. In the 4X realm the long-awaited se­quel to Mas­ter of Orion II launched to dis­ap­pointed grum­bling in 2003, and aside from a few ex­cep­tions like Galac­tic Civ­i­liza­tion, new ti­tles be­came in­creas­ingly hard to find.

There were bright spots amid the gloom. In 2005, Civ­i­liza­tion IV saw de­signer Soren John­son re-eval­u­ate ev­ery­thing, right down to the se­ries’ foun­da­tions. Along with be­ing the first 3D Civ­i­liza­tion game, it was also the first to be built from the ground up as a mul­ti­player game. It in­tro­duced upgrad­able units, a re­li­gion sys­tem, and more ac­ces­si­ble mod­ding, giv­ing it a sec­ond life as a plat­form for not just new sce­nar­ios, but en­tirely new games. Civ­i­liza­tion IV marked the begin­ning of a new

gen­er­a­tion of Civ­i­liza­tion games, with its suc­ces­sors fea­tur­ing even bolder re­designs.

Carv­ing out an em­pire didn’t have to take place turn-by-turn, of course. Sins of a So­lar Em­pire made a great case for 4X games to dip their toes into real-time ac­tion, mash­ing up em­pire man­age­ment with gor­geous RTS space bat­tles. You could quickly dash be­tween com­mand­ing a fleet of ships, laying siege to an out­post, and gov­ern­ing worlds, seam­lessly. And where other 4X games could be slow-burn­ing, Sins of a So­lar Em­pire had the pace and ag­gres­sion of an RTS. Al­liances could be forged, but conquest was al­ways on ev­ery­one’s minds.

Through­out the ’00s, Para­dox De­vel­op­ment Stu­dio had been cre­at­ing some of the most com­plex and dense grand strat­egy games around. All of them played out in real time, but with speed con­trols and lib­eral use of the pause but­ton. Years could fly by in-game, but equally you could spend hours not mov­ing time for­ward at all, ob­sess­ing over trade deals and as­sas­si­na­tion plots with your nose buried deep in the menus. The Europa Univer­salis se­ries, set in the late Mid­dle Ages, is the flag­ship of the bunch, giv­ing play­ers con­trol over the fate of a his­tor­i­cal na­tion across cen­turies. There’s the econ­omy to jug­gle, along with wars, colo­nial am­bi­tions, re­li­gious crises, civil wars, and po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships with count­less other na­tions all across the world.

The suc­cess of the first Europa Univer­salis spurred Para­dox on to cre­ate more grand strat­egy romps, in­clud­ing Hearts of Iron, set dur­ing World War 2, and Vic­to­ria, which honed in on the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion and the dra­matic po­lit­i­cal and so­cial changes that the era brought with it. All of them were lib­er­at­ing sim­u­la­tions that let play­ers chart their own course through his­tory, cre­at­ing bizarre al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties that only made sense if you’d read the af­ter ac­tion re­port. They were also in­cred­i­bly rough around the edges, buggy and a night­mare for new­com­ers to get their teeth into.

Sport­ing a new en­gine and an ex­tra layer of pol­ish, Cru­sader Kings II was a turn­ing point for Para­dox. Though its pre­de­ces­sor had been tepidly re­ceived in 2004, Cru­sader Kings II found a much larger au­di­ence, who then spread bizarre sto­ries and anec­dotes of the his­to­ries of their char­ac­ters and dy­nas­ties. In­stead of run­ning a na­tion, play­ers con­trolled the leader of a medieval fam­ily; you might be a pow­er­ful em­press or a count with no vas­sals and no ducats. Through po­lit­i­cal mar­riages, wars, and Choose Your Own Ad­ven­ture-style events, you could end up los­ing ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing your head. Or you could kill your spouse, marry your horse, leave ev­ery­thing to your chil­dren, and flee to another con­ti­nent to start a new, more en­light­ened king­dom. Cru­sader Kings II could get weird, es­pe­cially when you throw in ex­pan­sions that in­clude Aztec in­va­sions of Europe and Satanic cults.

Para­dox’s pe­cu­liar grand strat­egy RPG ar­rived dur­ing a more hope­ful time for strat­egy games. The first decade of the 21st cen­tury had not, when all was said and done, been par­tic­u­larly kind to the genre, but things seemed to be slowly chang­ing. More new 4X games were ap­pear­ing, like the ex­tremely com­plex Dis­tant Worlds and the Mas­ter of Magic-in­spired War­lock: Mas­ter of the Ar­cane. Af­ter overex­tend­ing with the mas­sive and un­gainly Em­pire: To­tal

War, Cre­ative Assem­bly re­turned with a fo­cused and re­fined stand­alone ex­pan­sion, which it then fol­lowed up with ar­guably the best game in the his­tor­i­cal se­ries, To­tal War: Shogun 2. Then, in 2012, aliens in­vaded Earth again.

De­vel­oped by Fi­raxis, XCOM re­booted the ’90s tac­ti­cal ti­tan, UFO: Enemy Un­known. It had been a whop­ping 15 years since X-COM: Apoc­a­lypse, the last suc­cess­ful X-COM, with the pro­ceed­ing years only see­ing a mixed bag of spin-offs, cul­mi­nat­ing in 2001’s com­pletely for­get­table third-per­son shooter, X-COM: En­forcer. Though it was de­signed with­out se­ries cre­ator Ju­lian Gol­lop, XCOM nonethe­less felt like a re­turn to form. More than just a mod­ern up­date to the orig­i­nal game, it was a slick reimag­in­ing. The large, loose teams were switched out for spe­cial­ized squads full of soldiers who could be ob­ses­sively cus­tom­ized, while ran­domly gen­er­ated maps were re­placed with hand-crafted en­vi­ron­ments. There was stream­lin­ing, but there was also plenty of ex­pan­sion.

XCOM didn’t just ap­peal to the diehards who had been keep­ing the flame alive for over a decade, or even just the gen­eral strat­egy crowd; its ac­ces­si­bil­ity and flashy pre­sen­ta­tion opened the doors wider, but not at the ex­pense of the chal­lenge. XCOM proved to be a de­mand­ing game at times, forc­ing play­ers to make hard choices and sac­ri­fices, but it usu­ally stopped short of

XCOM re­booted the ’90s tac­ti­cal ti­tan, UFO: Enemy Un­known

be­ing over­whelm­ing—un­less you were play­ing in Iron­man mode. That forced com­man­ders to live with their mis­takes and de­ci­sions, in­clud­ing the loss of a sol­dier or even en­tire squads, by only giv­ing you a sin­gle save file that got over­writ­ten with ev­ery turn.

A lack of pub­lisher con­fi­dence had been hold­ing strat­egy games back for years, but here was XCOM, a niche tac­tics game, get­ting lots of at­ten­tion and launch­ing on ev­ery­thing from PC to mo­bile. XCOM was pub­lished by 2K Games, which had ac­quired Fi­raxis in 2005, but pub­lish­ers were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly op­tional thanks to crowd­sourc­ing, early ac­cess plat­forms, and more ac­ces­si­ble game de­vel­op­ment tools. Sud­denly it was im­pos­si­ble to keep track of all the new games pop­ping into ex­is­tence.

In­vis­i­ble Inc., Klei En­ter­tain­ment’s es­pi­onage-themed tac­tics game, ap­peared on Steam Early Ac­cess in 2014. It was end­lessly in­ven­tive; si­mul­ta­ne­ously an ex­cep­tional stealth game and a land­mark tac­tics af­fair. There was some­thing lib­er­at­ing about its pure-stealth fo­cus. There were no drawn-out gun­fights af­ter you’d been spot­ted. You ei­ther used one of your agent’s tricks to get out of the way, or you were done for. Ev­ery mis­sion was a ran­domly gen­er­ated puz­zle that could blow up in un­pre­dictable ways, lead­ing to agents need­ing res­cued or even a playthrough that ended in fail­ure. But it was also a game that begged to be played over and over again.

It wasn’t just in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers tak­ing ad­van­tage of new mod­els like early ac­cess. End­less Leg­end launched on the plat­form in the same year as In­vis­i­ble Inc., and quickly set about rewrit­ing the 4X genre. Am­pli­tude’s pre­vi­ous game, End­less Space, had been a com­pe­tent, Mas­ter of Orion- style 4X with an un­usual card-based com­bat sys­tem, but it was as ster­ile as the cold vac­uum of space. That wasn’t a prob­lem End­less Leg­end had. No 4X

game since Al­pha Cen­tauri had fea­tured such a fas­ci­nat­ing, rich set of fac­tions, and here their dif­fer­ences went far be­yond ide­ol­ogy or well-writ­ten flavor text. Take the Ne­crophage — they’re an end­lessly hun­gry species of plague-spread­ing in­sects, which means they will never make friends with any­one. The Cult, mean­while, is ma­nip­u­la­tive and in­flu­en­tial, but can’t build cities. There are mages, space marines, and even a group of dragons who just want ev­ery­one to get along, and each rep­re­sents a dis­tinct way of play­ing the game.

Evo­lu­tion­ary dead ends were spring­ing back to life, and old fran­chises were mak­ing come­backs. It was strange to think that strat­egy had been look­ing sickly only a hand­ful of years be­fore. Dark­est Dun­geon, Home­world: Deserts of Kharak, Eu­gen’s Wargame se­ries, Of­f­world Trad­ing Com­pany, Ashes of the Sin­gu­lar­ity, North­gard, Battle Tech, Into The Breach— the list is vast, and fea­tures ev­ery kind of strat­egy game imag­in­able. And while a lot of se­ries have fallen by the way­side, plenty have sur­vived. Civ­i­liza­tion is prob­a­bly im­mor­tal by this point, Star Craft con­tin­ues to be mas­sively pop­u­lar, and To­tal War now counts the Warham­mer fan­tasy uni­verse among its bat­tle­fields. Even table­top games, where our trip through the his­tory of strat­egy be­gan, have seen a resur­gence. Strat­egy games are as vi­tal and cre­ative as they’ve ever been.

while a lot of se­ries have fallen by the way­side , plenty have sur­vived

BE­LOW: Sac­ri­fice’s crea­ture designs were fever dreams brought to life.

RIGHT: There’s noth­ing cow­ardly about hid­ing be­hind a big hill.

ABOVE: Frost Wyrms just want to help ev­ery­one cool down. Hon­estly!

BE­LOW: Don’t let the teeth fool you— Thrall’s a big softy on the in­side.

ABOVE: ‘Lots of War, But Also Other Stuff’ didn’t have the same ring to it.

Ev­ery good siege needs a tre­buchet. Or two. Any num­ber, to be hon­est.

ABOVE: The only thing that could be pret­tier than Home­world: Home­world2.

Com­pa­ny­ofHeroes’ fights were full of smoke, fire, and crum­bling build­ings.

ABOVE: Relic left space­ships and Space Marines for World War 2.

ABOVE: Worldin Con­flict lit a fire un­der­neath the Cold War.

LEFT: StarCraftII sold like no other RTS be­fore it, or since.

ABOVE: Map porn doesn’t come bet­ter than a Para­dox game.

BOT­TOM: XCOM: Ene­myUn­known reignited the fight against aliens and RNG.

Be­low : Ev­ery In­vis­i­bleInc. mis­sion could cost your agents their lives.

ABOVE: That se­cu­rity guard prob­a­bly isn’t get­ting a raise this year.

Am­pli­tude’s End­less Leg­end was a les­son in how to de­sign com­pelling fac­tions.

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