A while back I may have accidentally revealed to a not-gamer acquaintance that I occasionally play computer games now and again and may think rather highly of certain long-dead franchises involving dungeons and the keeping thereof but essentially boiling down into exercises in chicken-battering. This got me thinking about my occasional forays into computer gaming and prompted me to chunter about my adventures in various dubiously-rendered fantasy worlds. I shall begin with the place where I began (that seems sensible): the RTS, and I promise that after this point I’ll not mention how these should be called Real Time Tactics games because strategy would involve supply lines and jockeying for position on a worldwide scale.
I’ve played more RTS games than I should. I say this because most of the ones I’ve tried are essentially the same: Command and Conquer (where I came in, although Tiberian Sun had rolled around before I actually owned a computer on which to play games of my very very own), Warcraft III, Dawn of War, Battle for Middle-Earth, it all seemed to boil down to the same tedious routine I’m told we owe to the Dune game. Build yer base, gather yer resources, build a squillion turrets, climb yer tech tree, build as many of the new unit the level’s introduced as possible because they are ALWAYS the key to winning it and don’t ever try the skirmish mode without cheating because the AI is a cheating nutsack itself.
All of them had some degree of aesthetic variation and all of them at least tried to do something a bit different; Tiberian Sun had a couple of stealth missions where two characters and a bunch of engineers had to steal a plane from the other side of the enemy base they were escaping from (I took over half the base and used it to destroy the other half because, well, I assumed that was the point of the mission). Warcraft III had the little mandatory sidequests with your hero unit du jour wandering round decapitating critters with a few minions on side, which were actually a lot more interesting than the actual build-em-up fighty bits. Dawn of War had that interestingly abstract resource gathering mechanic where resource-gathering was part of the exploration process, which at least moved the turrets-a-go-go gameplay out into no-man’s land a bit. Battle for Middle-Earth has the decency to automate the gatherer units and not have them bother you unless they were being shot at, leaving you to decide where to put your million and six Warg pits and how to get past the AI’s cheeky always-having-troops-in-exactly-the-right-place-to-fuck-up-your-sortie shenanigans and some rather interesting maps.
The two I played which felt remotely different from that cheerfully generic RTS experience were the aforementioned Dungeon Keeper and Warhammer Dark Omen, which was a spirited attempt to make a non-turn-based version of the tabletop game, right down to the slow, clumsy regimental formations and the horrendous brokenness of some magic items. I liked it for the gorgeous water effects and the developers’ decision to kick all that tedious resource-gathering shit right into the realm of the abstract after-battle recruitment screen and concentrate the gameplay on killing all the computer-mens without losing too many of yours. There was something pleasingly bloodthirsty about the whole business, a reminder that war is hell and that even the undead will weep when their painstakingly levelled up Necromancer catches the tenth ill-aimed cannonball of the battle in the teeth. The artillery fired quite realistically, the missions were pretty fair apart from the ones with teleporting wizards, skullchucking death catapults or the bloody Steam Tank, and my only problem with this diamond of yesteryear was that I never got to play the Undead, because ‘Internet’ was a dirty word to my family and single-player Undead were not a thing at all.
The other was Dungeon Keeper. Ah, Dungeon Keeper. The second game I ever bought, and the only one which ran efficiently on the chugging Pentium I in my grandmother’s spare room where I did all my formative gaming. Stupid-broken-hard expansion pack aside, I loved this game. The build-em-up aspect was heavily influenced by the usually quite clever level design and the areas available to expand into and the certainty that Heroes could be anywhere. The nailbitingly frustrating tendencies of your minions to shuffle off and eat, sleep, pray, torture one another or bump into someone they didn’t like in the corridors and start a good old-fashioned barney over what the Skeletons said about our Sandra at last year’s Christmas party while everyone else stood around and watched like the boring units in a boring regular RTS did whenever they weren’t fighting was, well, really quite enthralling. There was something about vaguely influencing a bunch of irritable creatures with preferences in who they shared space with and what they spent time doing and had a tendency to wander off and do their own thing that added a whole new level to the experience. The micromanaging took on a dimension beyond “drag, click, butcher, repeat”, what with being able to hand-pay, hand-feed hand-relocate, hand-buff and hand-motivate-with-a-swift-cuff-round-the-ear’ole any of your minions, and having to physically lock them into rooms if you wanted a job done fast or efficiently. And then there was Possession.
I’ve never been much of a one for first-person games, as a rule, but the idea of integrating first-person gameplay into an RTS thing was really quite innovative to my thirteen-year-old mind. I probably didn’t quite think it like that at the time, admittedly, but that’s mainly because I was having far too much malicious fun either wandering around the maps and exploring and enjoying the various distortion effects that appeared depending on who was being possessed or, far more often, possessing a high-level Warlock and personally blasting heroic interlopers to kingdom come. It never felt like it was actually a necessary part of the game or anything, but to their credit Bullfrog made it useful, with the chance to buzz around and recruit free-roaming creatures or discover secrets that might make the RTS bit a little easier.
Of course, Dungeon Keeper was unbalanced to buggery – being able to transfer in a high-level research/fighty creature from a hidden level to anything you were having trouble with made the power balance and research tree into an absolute farce. Destroy Walls and Disease spells, the kills-everything-in-the-game Boulder Trap and the nigh-indestructible Magic Door ballsed up the strategy like you wouldn’t believe. The enemy Keepers usually recruited or, worse, Scavenged everything except the Warlocks and assorted insects after about the tenth level, and the Warlocks you ended up with invariably spent the whole game being beaten up by the Vampire you’d transferred in (because why wouldn’t you?). Oh, and I still occasionally scream the names of the Deeper Dungeons expansion levels in my sleep, that’s how hard some of them were.
Dungeon Keeper II was a much more polished experience, overall – the balance was better, with no irresistible forces or immovable objects buggering up the tactical aspect, and with differently-defined roles for combat creatures based on the time it took them to recover from being dropped face-first on the other side of the map to react to an enemy. The bloody Scavenger Room was no more, the creature range was tightened up a lot and the levels became more complex, with named enemies and more of a story element, and the interesting room-efficiency system where it really mattered exactly where you built things. The hidden levels were incorporated into winning the game properly rather than as a device for breaking it, and my beloved Possession gained an interesting dimension as the Possessed creature now gained a few extra powers and could lead half a dozen of its mates off on its suicidal rampage. And it looked STONKING. It’s one of the rare occasions when a sequel has actively improved on its predecessor in pretty much every way, and talking about it today makes me feel that I should actually abuse the fact I now own a Windows computer again, after five years, and should go and play the damn thing.