Look, ma, no mouse!
TomChick - News - 03/29/06 - Link

There was a time when people said you couldn't do a shooter on a console. It was partly a matter of horsepower, but mainly a matter of interface. Over time, developers learned how to adapt shooters to consoles: don't force a lot of spinning around, work in some sort of discreet autoaim, don't focus too much on the nuances of location-based damage, and so on.

And now my 11-year-old Little Brother wants to hook up a gamepad to a PC when we play Star Wars: Battlefront II. To me, that's very much like sullying steak with catsup. To him, it's How You're Supposed To Play. Of course, he doesn't even invert his mouse, so what does he know?

Now we're in the "people say you can't do a real time strategy game on a console" era. It's entirely a matter of interface. The RTSs that have transitioned to consoles have done so by shifting their focus from sprawling armies and economies. They instead narrow the action down to what Herzog Zwei did before the genre even had a name: give the player a powerful unit that can make RTS kinds of stuff happen. It's how Pikmin, Goblin Commander, and The Outfit work. And until we move beyond conventional gamepads (hello Revolution!), it's probably the genre's best chance at making the leap to consoles.

So the most surprising thing about the Xbox 360 version of Battle for Middle Earth II is how little changed it is from the PC version. It's a bold choice for such a twiddly RTS and it either demonstrates that Electronic Arts is out of touch, or that they're smarter than the rest of us. Either way, there's an almost admirable hubris in refusing to compromise Battle for Middle Earth II just to introduce it to the 360's userbase.

I got to sit down with the gamepad interface for about an hour, and here's how it works. Like any interface, it's got a learning curve. You'll have to train your brain to clutch your fingers one way to do one thing, and another way to do another thing. And it's no substitute for a mouse. But, yeah, I guess it works after all.

So maybe there will come a day when my Little Brother's Little Brother asks him to hook up a gamepad to a PC when they play Battle for Middle Earth V and the rest of us will look back at Pikmin as a first fumbling step, a sort of Goldeneye of RTSs before we knew better.

Frankly, I doubt it, but there's a reason I'm just one guy who plays games and Electronic Arts is a multi-million dollar company.

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