Sadly, I agree that conventional real time strategy games are dead, if by dead you mean there aren’t many of them being made anymore. But how dead can they be? I still play them. Company of Heroes, Rise of Nations, Age of Empires III, Sins of a Solar Empire, and even the venerable Age of Mythology (just last night I beat my buddy with a cheesy Promethean/Murmillo rush) hold up beautifully. Splendidly. Immaculately. Did we appreciate how great they were when they came out? I sure do now. How can conventional real time strategy games be dead when these games are still so good and I’m still playing them?
But there are precious few latter day equivalents to those games. Instead, we have a deluge of me-too MOBAs. These are RTSs for people who are so bad at multitasking they can only play one character at a time. They furthermore need a map that shows them where to go with wide obvious lanes leading to the enemy base. But it doesn’t have to be that way! An RTS doesn’t require a commitment to multitasking, or a map on which you can get lost. Because one of the great RTSs, which only takes five minutes to play and is accessible to even the most hapless MOBA player, just got a sequel.
After the jump, Swords & Soldiers, too!
Swords & Soldiers II is the sequel to Ronimo’s underappreciated Swords & Soldiers. I say underappreciated even though it was successful enough to be ported to every platform this side of your microwave oven’s clock. It was a brilliant distillation of the principles of real time strategy into a side-scrolling five-minute game with tons of personality (it’s worth noting that Ronimo’s contribution to the passel of me-too MOBAs is also a side-scroller). But it was underappreciated, because it deserves to be mentioned alongside actual real time strategy games instead of written off as some cute little curio that found its way out of the Nintendo eShop.
Like any real time strategy game, Swords & Soldiers II has to be three different things in one box: a single player campaign, a skirmish game, and a multiplayer game. The single-player campaign is a cutesy series of scenarios arranged into something approximating a story. I’m not sure why anyone bothers with playing the gradually unfurling version of what is already a pretty simple game, but it’s here in case that’s your thing. The skirmish game is for people who don’t need to watch cartoons between their play sessions and are ready to have everything unlocked. In skirmishes, the computer can be annoyingly efficient, but that’s true of any RTS.
The real joy of Swords & Soldiers II — and also the real joy of the first Swords & Soldiers — is the multiplayer. The previous game had split-screen support, which worked well since the game map is just a long strip of side-scrolling screen. With simple controls, each player just Wiimoted on his own half of the screen and real multiplayer RTSing happened, with each player sharing a couch and a screen.
But on the WiiU, one player gets the TV screen and the other player gets the WiiU’s gamepad. Gamepad players, don’t cheat and peek at the TV! Since there’s not a lot of maneuvering, you might think there’s not much hidden knowledge. But some of the meaningful gameplay is based on which units a player researches first. The opening build, if you will. Furthermore, what little maneuvering there is matters. You can choose which way units will travel at forks on certain maps, and this is intentionally hidden from the other player. So, as I said, no peeking, gamepad players!
Swords & Soldiers II has some nice interface improvements over the original game, but it mainly has three all new factions. The demons and the Persians are completely new, bringing clever tricks to the game, such as demons that snatch victims into the sky to devour them, suicide bombers, flying carpet riders soaring over defenders, magic portals, cannons that fire djinnis to anyplace on the map, a crazily powerful siege troll, and plenty more. The Vikings aren’t technically new, since there were Vikings in the original game, but these Vikings get new stuff, including an opera singer who boosts morale and a hearty blizzard. They’re still the equivalent of the game’s easy mode, as anyone can just crank out the basic Viking warriors and keep them going with the healing spell. Repeat until you win. It’s pretty annoying to be on the receiving end of someone who does this over and over.
But part of what I love about any good RTS is figuring out ways to trump any given strategy. The Swords & Soldiers games have small tech trees, but that makes the choices all the more meaningful. So after a few games, I’m more than happy for anyone to come at me with your basic Viking warrior and heal spell. I got this. Besides, in addition to the usual tactical interplay among units, Swords & Soldiers II adds more economic options. The main way it does this is by occasionally paradropping mana and gold onto the map. If you want these resource drops, you have to send a worker out to get them. Now before you start fretting about possible peon management, all you do is press the Y button while you’re looking at a paradropped stack of resources. This designates the resources with a flag of your color — this also means you can see which resources your opponent is going for — so one of your workers will automatically waddle over, pick up the supplies, and then slowly waddle them back to your base. If he survives, you get the goods.
But whereas the original game let you build up to ten workers, all of whom never did anything but waddle back-and-forth between your base and the conveniently located gold mine next door, this sequel only lets you build six workers. How often do you see that in a sequel? Fewer units isn’t exactly a bullet point.
These deceptively simple tweaks — paradropped supplies and fewer workers — accomplish three things. The first is that it means the early game is about more than just booming your way up to ten workers. You need fewer workers, and you’re just wasting your money if you build more than three or four because they’ll jam up at the gold mine’s entrance. This wasn’t the case in the first game, where every worker boosted your income rate. So you now have more money available to either rush or tech up in the early game. I realize it’s a bit weird to be talking about the “early game” in a game that lasts five minutes, but it’s a testament to how Swords & Soldiers is every bit a real RTS.
The second thing these economic tweaks accomplish is that controlling territory now matters. It behooves you to push back the front line where your units meet the enemy units. The more of the map you control, the more of the paradropped resources you can claim, and the more money you’ll have for upgrades and units. The previous game was mostly an all-or-nothing affair about trashing the other guy’s fort. Until the front line was at that little slice of map where his workers were carrying gold, it didn’t matter much. But now territory control matters. Which means each faction’s buildable buildings matter even more. The demon’s magic portals, the Persian gates, and the Viking axe-thrower towers are arguably part of your economy.
And the third thing that’s accomplished is that your economy isn’t just a steady flow. It’s a series of spikes that lead to bursts in activity. One of my favorite discoveries in Swords & Soldiers II is seeing how quickly the demons can amass an insanely large horde when they get an income windfall. In the original game, the only way to accomplish an insanely large horde was to just save up your money, which was often a bad move if the other guy was sending units at you, as he should be doing to keep you from saving up your money. But the sequel has more exciting ups and downs tied to how much gold you have to spend.
If you’re just a casual WiiU’er, I might have scared you off with this talk of economic tweaks and tactical interplay of units and opening builds. The marketing folks at Nintendo would probably be aghast to hear me portraying Swords & Soldiers II as anything other than a light-hearted romp for the whole family. But it’s that, too. There’s not a man, woman, child, or MOBA player on this earth who I wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting down in front of this game and saying, “Here, have a try, it’s crazy fun!” I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily have them play against me. I’d wipe the floor with them. But with the right opponent, this game is utterly irresistible.
I’m disappointed there isn’t more of a campaign with some sort of strategic overlay or even unlockables. It’s also a bit of a shame I can’t play this online with my non-local friends, but who uses a WiiU for playing console games online with his friends? That’s the Playstation’s job. And since this is a good enough revision that it’s completely obsoleted the previous Swords & Soldiers, I miss my Chinese zen masters and Aztecs skeleton priests from that game. I’d love for Ronimo to add them as DLC. Ronimo’s side-scrolling MOBA, Awesomenauts, was supported with plenty of new post-release content, so perhaps they’ll do the same for Swords & Soldiers II. I’d also be delighted to see new maps (there’s a great gimmick map here with no gold mines, which means you have to rely entirely on paradropped resources). But even if they just stopped development right now, I’m happy to be getting a damn fine RTS for my WiiU at a time when RTSs are supposedly dead.
Swords & Soldiers II
Gather resources, send out armies and support your forces with a wide arsenal of magical spells. All from a side scrolling perspective, but that doesn't mean Swords & Soldiers II is easy to master. Only the most cunning of Chiefs can lead their side to victory!