Rush, Rush, Rush: Halo Wars and the Endangered Turtle
"Standard tactics are your rush, your boom, and, sorta, your turtle. Which is sorta the in-between build defenses to hold off a rush, but yet don't boom up your economy quite as much as a pure boom that leaves itself undefended."
This was the comment made by Ensemble's Justin Rouse in a developer diary video created to promote Halo Wars. For starters, Rouse's definition is technically wrong. The term "turtle" refers to building up your defenses against a rush instead of booming your economy; there's no "in-between" about it. But I was more taken aback to hear Rouse using classic real-time strategy terminology to talk about Halo Wars, which is one of the latest RTSes to subvert the classic formula. Can he do that? Can he talk about Halo Wars, a game I like in theory more than practice, in those terms? Ensemble's Xbox 360 game is perched proudly on the bandwagon of streamlined RTSes, at the vanguard of a parade of games with no patience for booming and especially turtling. Booming and turtling require a robust economic sub-game. But kids these days -- there were some on my lawn earlier today -- just want to rush. Rushing is supposed to be more fun. You can't see me, but I just did the air quotes thing with my fingers when I wrote the word "fun".
Back to school for a sec
But first, a quick primer for kids these days, like the ones who were on my lawn. Contrary to popular opinion, rushing is not when the other guy attacks you before you're ready or when you have fewer units than he does. Those things have their own terms: "not being ready yet" and "not building a big-enough army," respectively. But kids these days consider such situations a rush, which is tantamount to cheating. This is what kids mean when they host games with instructions like "no rush [insert absurd length of time here]."
The textbook definitions of rushing, booming and turtling define a paper/rock/scissors concept that plays at a macro level. Rushing devotes your economy to attacking so you can counter a boom. Booming devotes your economy to your economy so you can counter a turtle. And turtling devotes your economy to defenses so you can counter a rush. It's rarely quite so neat, so I should cut Rouse some slack for mincing his words a little. But traditionally, this model is fundamental to real-time strategy games. It's the foundation on which they were built.
But many RTSes with simplified resource models are engineered to force players out onto the map where they'll bump into each other. It's a mandatory rush, where you have to go out and grab your economy. It's a trick as old as Tiberium fields. The thinking is that a game is more action-y and therefore more fun -- I did the air quotes thing again -- if players can't win by staying home and playing city-builder (by the way, don't bother trying to explain all this to Total Annihilation or Supreme Commander fans, because once they start talking about adjacency bonuses, metal maps and Big Berthas, you'll never get them to shut up).
This line of thinking has led to the slow and steady death of the turtle, which is currently an endangered species in real-time strategy games. Part of the problem with turtling is that it's often going to run out the clock. If you can establish and defend a complete economy in one place, and still eventually win, it's going to be a long game. You might not even finish on your lunch hour, and you certainly aren't going to get in as many matches as you would playing Command & Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath. The videogame industry knows you're no longer a kid with limitless time, or that if you are, you're probably also going to want to spend some of it playing shooters. So games are made to play in shorter, self-contained bursts. And the way to do this in an RTS is to kill the turtle -- which also kills the boom, because a rush/boom game makes about as much sense as playing paper/rock (pro tip: Throw paper).
The state of the turtle
So where do the latest games stand on turtling? In Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, Relic has kicked rushing, booming and turtling out of the house and dumped all its stuff on the lawn. Company of Heroes, Relic's last game, allowed for all three, with economic upgrades for capture points (booming), powerful defenses including a variety of walls (turtling) and lots of variations on funneling your economy into attacks (rushing). The beauty of Company of Heroes was that these were all situated out on the map, in the exact same places that the fighting was happening. It was a hybrid of a map-control economy mixed with instances of rush/boom/turtle gameplay. But now Dawn of War II has decided it wants none of that. Of its two resources, you can only upgrade one of them. The other is gated by an under-the-hood maintenance cost. Active defenses (turrets) are limited to specific factions or commanders, and are almost always vulnerable to being flanked or trumped, and passive defenses (cover) is vulnerable to being trampled by a vehicle. You could make a case that Dawn of War II doesn't even want to be an RTS anymore. It's an action game masquerading as an RTS. Where's the turtle in Dawn of War II? And without the turtle, where's the boom? And who cares, anyway? Just cry, "Waughhhhh!" and rush.
Tom Clancy's EndWar is another example of an RTS subverting the traditional structure. It uses a system of points, awarded evenly over time, with every unit costing the same amount of points you earn when you capture an uplink. Basically, each uplink captured is one additional unit. Capture more uplinks and you have a bigger army. There's a lot more to it than that, but the bottom line is that there's no booming or turtling in EndWar, because there is no real economy. It's board-game elegant and needn't be bothered with any traditional RTS trappings. It's a blissfully pure game, as deep and simple as chess.
What was the last game to embrace the turtle? I'd say it was Ensemble's Age of Empires III -- and specifically the Dutch faction. In that game, gold (called "coin") is the resource used to force players out into the world, competing for the limited number of mines on each map. Plantations generate coin in the later ages, but they require villagers. However, the Dutch are the only faction that gets banks. Banks just spit out a constant stream of coin, without diverting any manpower from other resources. Because they get their money for free, without having to grab it from the usual sources on the map, the Dutch are built to stay home. Bless their nidifying souls. It'll probably be a long time before we see the likes of the Dutch in another RTS. They'll still have to break out at some point to grab a victory condition, but their coin will buy enough artillery that it should be simple, assuming they're turtled long enough.
Games like Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, Kohan and Dragonshard (ah, my beloved, overlooked Dragonshard, the redheaded stepchild of innovative RTSes!) start you out with pre-turtled bases, but don't allow you to continue that way. In those games, you'll gimp your economy if you don't get out there and grab the map. Stay-at-home players will lose. Both Kohan and Rise of Legends allowed for a lot of economic choice, but it was mostly in terms of how you split your resources between your army and your economy. Dragonshard was all about using your army to venture out and gather more economy. Similarly, The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II has as pure a map-control economy as you'll ever see. You literally claim swathes of territory by dropping economic buildings on the map. The more territory you get -- and therefore have to protect with your army -- the more money you're earning.
Turtling in Halo Wars
And so we're back to Halo Wars and its stance on turtling, advertised by Mr. Rouse as a feature in the game. In some ways, Halo Wars resembles Kohan's model of economics and map control. As with Kohan, you grab "cities" (called "bases" in Halo Wars). As with Kohan, you develop that city with individual buildings to determine how tough the city is, what units it can build and how much money it makes. To develop your economy, you have to use the precious slots available in each city. You can spend resources to grow the city itself, getting more building slots in the process. Call it investing in infrastructure.
However, each of Kohan's cities was pre-turtled, with walls and built-in defenders. Kohan was more of a game about making grand strategic choices about army composition and positioning. It wasn't about the fighting so much as the deciding. Kohan was too brainy for its own good. Halo Wars makes no such mistake. Ensemble knows you want to play with toy soldiers, and even make them shoot each other.
But wouldn't you know that it's the guys at Ensemble, the guys who've been making RTSes all along, the guys who gave us the Dutch in Age of Empires III and the Wonder victory in Age of Mythology, who build into their streamlined, console-oriented, action-y RTS a faithful gameplay model based on the traditional rush/boom/turtle foundation. I'd been playing it for a few weeks before I was jarred into this realization by Mr. Rouse's comment.
Your first decision upon starting a multiplayer game of Halo Wars is basically one of three things. Do you build your barracks for an immediate army (i.e., rush)? Do you build supply pads for an emphasis on economic growth (i.e., boom)? Or do you pay the resources to put a turret or two on the front of your base, hoping to break an early rush (i.e., turtle)? What's more, these are important decisions with each additional base you take as you're playing the game. There's an added dimension when you consider that you can upgrade and customize turrets. The Covenant player can even build shields over their bases, with multiple shield generators compounding shield strength. There's no grand scheme of rush/boom/turtle in
Unit of the Week
This week's honors go to the Spartan in Halo Wars, partly because he gets top billing on the box cover, but mostly because I can't stand him when he's on the other side. His special ability is to hijack any enemy vehicle. What this means is that anyone facing a UNSC player needs to build n+n vehicles, where n is the number of Spartans the other player has (fortunately, this is hard-coded to never be higher than three). You can be sure that as soon as you drive up to fight, a jerk Spartan is just going to take one of your vehicles, so you need an extra left over to fight each one that was just stolen from you. It's like having Yuri around from the old Red Alert games. This is especially true if you're playing against the artificial intelligence, which has no problem managing the fussy button-pressing it takes for a human player to hijack a vehicle.
Furthermore, vehicles are essentially an extra suit of armor for the Spartan. Once you kill the hijacked vehicle (which was yours just a minute ago!), the Spartan is alive and uninjured. Contrast this to Dawn of War II. I found out the hard way that it's not a good idea to load a bunch of Space Marines into a Razorback and drive into battle. If the Razorback is destroyed, everyone inside is killed.
Spartans are also great in Halo Wars for how they die. As soon as you hear that little tone meaning shields are low -- you'll know it if you've ever played Halo -- there's a sense of relief that the Spartan is almost dead. Not that it will stay dead. Like the explorers from Age of Empires III, Spartans will revive after a time if friendly forces are nearby. These guys are like a bad penny. So the Spartans get the Unit of the Week award, for Ensemble making them as much of a pain to the enemy as they must have been historically.