2005 End of Year Strategy Wrap-Up
It's been a good year for strategy games. The best indie game of the year is a strategy game. The best game of the year is a strategy game. The best budget game of the year is a wargame.
With every up, there's a down. Missed opportunities. Fumbled franchises. Failures to learn from history. So, without further ado...
Best Trend: Console Strategy Games - Even if it leads to the end of AAA turn-based strategy titles for the PC, the continuing success of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series is now coupled with the excellent Advance Wars and better than expected Shattered Union. It's not quite enough to make me invest in a next gen console, but it is enough to make me stop looking down my nose at the machines altogether.
Worst Trend: WW2 RTS - It's not that they are bad, it's just that with Blitzkrieg II and Codename Panzer and now Company of Heroes on the way...enough already. Or at least change the formula some.
Best Idea Implemented in the Worst Way: Borders in Empire Earth II - When Rise of Nations introduced borders to the RTS a couple of years ago, they put a new wrinkle in the whole land rush mentality of the genre. When Empire Earth II did it this year, it lacked all of the urgency and importance. It had no dynamism - just sections that could be captured.
Worst Idea Implemented in the Best Way: All of Dragonshard - From the snicker-worthy name to the idea of a fantasy RTS set in the blah Eberron world, this D&D strategy title had little going for it. It turned out to be a gentle reminder that good art direction and a few changes to the old RTS formula could overcome even the most dubious of starting positions. I mean, come on. War golems?
Least Surprising Game: Cossacks II: The Napoleonic Wars - Given my tepid reaction to the earlier Cossacks games, my "Meh" tone to Cossacks II was completely expected. I opened the box, looked at the game and was only shocked by how little had been done to win me over.
Most Surprising Game: Act of War: Direct Action - Jingoistic, Jerry Bruckheimer-esque near future RTS against a tired opponent with full motion video interludes. I should have hated this game. I did not. It had an interesting single player campaign (that never happens) and had infantry in their proper role as versatile and essential battlefield units. And it's getting an expansion titled High Treason. I won't be surprised if it's good.
Best Independent Game: Darwinia - It not only looked good, in a retro kind of way. It also had some very interesting level design and some interesting game challenges. Introversion is the master of self-promotion, but at least they have something to promote.
Best Budget Title: History Channel Bull Run Take Command 1861 - Or something like that. This Civil War wargame from Mad Minute Games was a critical darling and deservedly so. It took the one battle it had (and one battlefield) and somehow made every experience with it new and shocking. The news that they are working on another Civil War game is heartening. Lots of time and money went into making Bull Run and it gets sold for $19.99. Glad to see that they think they have another one in them.
Best Game the Mainstream Game Press Didn't Tell Me About: Ticket to Ride Online - Game suggestions that come from friends can be iffy. Board games doubly so. But the friendly recommendation of Ticket to Ride Online was such a success that you have to wonder why most of the gaming press ignores the entire online board game world. TTR is not a "casual game" as is usually understood, but involves just enough thinking to make it a great strategy game. I'm already planning for the PC version's arrival. Then the game will get some press. And a year late.
Worst Game: Diplomacy - There haven't been a lot of terrible strategy games this year. You had Heritage of Kings: The Settlers. I never even looked for a Cold War Conflicts demo - Gamespot didn't bother reviewing it either. But Diplomacy gets my vote for worst strategy game simply because of all the misplaced energy. A 3D board that spins and never lets you focus on what's happening. Grunting enemy avatars. No real way to engage in private negotiations in game. Well, the latest patch includes private chat - after weeks of people defending this design decision. Given the failure of other attempts to translate the classic game to PC, Paradox deserves some credit for ignoring the past and surging ahead. They also deserve the blame for repeating the past.
Best Game: Civilization IV - This isn't even close. No other game has given me the joy, anger, thrill of discovery, and remembrances of things past. Sid Meier's name's on the box, but the afterword in the manual shows that Soren Johnson gets it. He gets what makes Civ great. I can't think of a single addition to the game that was a mistake or misstep. This will be the PC game of the year, I suspect, for most of the major gaming press outlets. Unless Gamespy does something stupid and picks Empire Earth II (they picked the first one, after all).