Not every war game is like some steroid-riddled Michael Bay explodo-fest. I mean, yes, people line up to buy Gears of War 2 as I write this (to learn more about the newest Xbox 360 hit, read Matt Peckham's take), but I want to be in command, not just a grunt. I want to take the time to survey the battlefields and be the armchair general. Lucky for me, no less than five strategy games--each with a very different take--have come out within the past few weeks. But it comes down to the same old problem: So many battles, so little time. You need a quick breakdown of intel on what's new on the store shelves--thereby helping you win the ongoing war against productivity.
The Not-So-Turn-Based Game
The classic strategy game--whether you're talking chess, Risk, or Axis & Allies--usually goes something like this: Two mad geniuses chin-stroke for a couple hours, pondering Every...Single...Move. You weigh choices carefully, deploy your troops...blah...blah....blah. And maybe add a little more action to your battles. Sega's Valkyria Chronicles is a high-style take on turn-based strategy for the Playstation 3 that you really have to see in action to believe. In an alternate-reality take on the World War II era, you find bits of sci-fi steampunk plunked into a pastel-colored battlefield. In fact, it almost looks like you're fighting your way through a storybook landscape--with bullets.
Here's where it gets interesting: You select the unit you're deploying for the turn, then you walk in that solider's shoes. You're running for cover and taking shots while a movement timer ticks down. Or you can save up your tactical movements to blaze through the battlefield. I'd say that Valkyria Chronicles is probably one of the smarter takes on tactical shoot-outs since X-Com--it's certainly one of the most visceral I've ever played. The only real downside is that the enemies you fight are far from Mensa candidates. Then again, I was a little dumbstruck by how much fun this game is--so I guess it does come out to a level playing field.
Everyone talks about how the Wii is so ingenious for having what amounts to a remote control to play games--and remotes are something that people already know how to use. Yeah? How about using just your voice? Tom Clancy's EndWar (for the PS3 and Xbox 360) hinges upon one very cool gimmick: you're shouting out the orders to your troops.
All modern-setting Clancy games are grounded upon near-futuristic scenarios, and this one pits the U.S. against European allied powers and a revitalized Soviet republic. Thanks to defense programs, the threat of nuclear war is gone, so it's back to basics in the field. Unlike traditional real-time strategy games, there are no resources to sweat. Just get into battle and boss around the troops.
To make this strategy game work on a console, your voice does most of the work. Mash a button, bark out a command, and release the button--just like a walkie talkie--and the units do exactly what you tell them. I tried to catch the game off-guard, speaking like a slangy New Yawker, a twangy Texan, and....ok, I tried my horrible impersonation of "Diamond" Joe Quimby (think JFK) from The Simpsons. In each attempt, it translated my orders into actions. Crazy stuff. The only time it didn't work was in the heat of battle as I quickly spat out commands at the speed of sound. Lesson learned: Speak slowly, and you won't rattle the troops.
As for the game itself, the battles are big, but not unmanageable. If I have any advice to give, it's to keep your troops together and not spread out all over the map--the AI (artificial intelligence) that handles your forces when you're not around is no replacement for a good commander.
Though the game may be a little flawed, it still has the first great implementation of voice command. When perfected, this feature will change how you play in the future.
The Gentler Side of Strategy
In the outside world, the ninja are mysteries--shadow warriors feared by all (except maybe pirates). At home, in Ninjatown (just next to Funkytown), they lead quiet lives, go to work, and need the occasional hug. Ninjatown is a cutesy strategy title based upon a toy line of cuddly plush death dealers. What you need to know: This game recently crept onto store shelves and provides silent--but deadly--fun for the Nintendo DS.
In a column a few weeks ago, I talked about Desktop Tower Defense and the whole notion of a defensive strategy game. The way these games work is that you have a set amount of time to plan your defense and repair damages. When the timer runs out, the enemies invade. Repel the attack. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. The enemies--in this case, demons--threaten to run amok through the quiet burbs. That's where you come in. As Ol' Master Ninja, you need to plan the counterattack. And use some of your magical ninja powers (blow into the mic) to knock back foes.
It's not exactly a punishing strategic game, and it's probably among the least violent of the ones out there--which is ironic, I know, considering that we're talking about ninjas here.
Putting the "Arrrrr" in RTS
If we're going to give ninjas love, pirates need fair and equal representation. So check out Age of Booty, a fun little strategy game for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Cruising around a hex-based map, you're doing the usual: Plundering cities and villages, ambushing passing ships, and upgrading your Flying Dutchman. Still, without making someone walk the plank or engaging in swashbuckling sword fights, how piratey can this game be?
Plenty. You're trying to reach each level's goal before any competing pirates. In the single-player game, you're up against AI. That's fun enough, but trying to form alliances with other players in online matches? People can (and probably will) turn on you at any given time. That's just downright sinister--and more fun than 16 men on a dead man's chest.
The Old Standards
Then, of course, there is the classic real-time strategy (RTS) game. That usually means scraping dirt to farm resources, hastily constructing factories, and unleashing waves of troops upon the enemy. Me? I've always been a big fan of the Command and Conquer series--I just can't decide which I craved more: the fast and furious game play or the mega-cheesoid full-motion video clips. But hey, that was a different era, right? Wrong!
Electronic Arts has been actively reviving the C&C brand, first with Command & Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath, and now Red Alert 3. Of course, it's a PC staple, but it's interesting to see how a strategy game is also being (fairly successfully) brought to the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well.
But let's get to the game itself. First thing you're going to see here: Super-cheesy video delivered tongue-in-cheek from a great cast. I'm talking George Takei, J.K. Simmons, Tim Curry, Jenny McCarthy...just go with me on this one. It also happens to have a wonderfully wacky cast of units that you're blazing into battle with--in addition to the standard planes and tanks. I mean, dolphins with mounted sonic disruptors and trained Russian bears?
Now, by far the sickest thing I've seen here--and something genuinely new (gasp)--is the ability to use the buddy system for the single-player campaign. Going solo, you give general orders to your AI crony. Online, you can wage war alongside a friend. How cool is it in practice, though? Well, I'm enjoying it. Stay tuned because Game On's Matt Peckham plans to dig deep into the trenches.
All right, so which one of these five titles is right for you? Any of them! Just figure out how much time you have to spare. And be careful out there.
Until next time....at ease!
Casual Friday columnist and PC World senior writer Darren Gladstone geeks out over gadgets, games, and odd uses for humdrum tech. In other words, he's a nerd--and he's okay with that.