Shadow Watch is kind of a sacred cow at this website, sort of like Flying Heroes and very much not at all like Deus Ex. I also noticed that a lot of Usenet denizens chose Shadow Watch as one of their best strategy games of 2000, while all Odium managed was a few avoid at all costs posts. Im here to tell you that this is backwards.
To compare Odium and Shadow Watch, Id love to ponderously enumerate how the two games stack up in terms of graphics, interface, sound, gameplay, multiplayer, and box art, much like one of those endless Adrenaline Vault reviews. Unfortunately, Ive been informed by Adrenaline Vaults lawyers that I cant license their game review engine, so Im pretty much stuck evaluating one thing: the game design. Fortunately for this article, thats all that matters.
Those of you who are afraid this is going to degenerate into some long, pointless philosophical essay about how game design can emulate art can rest easy. Games arent art. I disagree with basically everything Tom Chick has ever said or will say on any topic, but I agree with him about that. While Diablo may be in the details, the basics of what gamers look for in strategy games come down to three simple criteria: a game should be about a subject that interests them, have a reasonable number of non-trivial decisions to make throughout the game, and look really, really cool. Thats it.
Oh, sure gamers concoct all sorts of 95 Theses of Gaming to post on game developers doors, but the reality is that if the notoriously bad Squad Leader had had decent terrain graphics and believable unit animations and no actual gameplay changes whatsoever, it would have been a decent game instead of an abysmal one. It still wouldnt have been a realistic wargame, but it would have satisfied a lot of people. Only a small minority of strategy gamers really wants to model the differences between an M4A1(76)W and an M4A3(76)W, and they all hang out on the Combat Mission message boards, anyway. As for topics, the Hague Convention of 1978 limited developers to a few subjects for computer game stories: aliens, Tolkien-based creatures (orcs, elves, hobbits), medieval times, military-history-based situations somehow involving Hitler or a Hitler-like character, and secret agents. Considering how most of the classic games of the past twenty years have stuck to these subjects, it obviously doesnt take much to satisfy criterion number one.