Real time strategy games are often taken quite seriously by players and writers: in-depth articles are penned (or more often typed, I suppose) on income/expenditure ratios, the balance or imbalance of games at a given point in their history, the minutia of balancing such-and-such a mechanic… and for people ‘on the inside’ – that is, serious players of the game being discussed, this information can be interesting and beneficial for improving play.
But every now and again it’s worthwhile and even important to revel in the joy of the design of these games – not necessarily the pacing or mechanics, but sometimes the art and the story, or maybe just grin like overgrown children while we extol the virtues of our favorite units. Which, of course, is what the writers at Wayward Strategist are going to be doing over the course of the next several thousand words.
Perhaps games were better ‘back in the day’ or perhaps nostalgia is rearing its head, but to me, some of the most memorable and straight-up fun units in the RTS world harken from the hoary days of the year 2000. The Desolator is a unique unit from the Iraq sub-faction and boy, is it a doozy. In its primary mode, it deals hot acid death from a generous range against both infantry and vehicles in spectacular fashion – infantry units that die to its effect collapse in a green goo-coated tarantella that is glorious to behold. In its alternate or ‘deployed’ mode, a Desolator generates a large area of radioactive desolation around itself that can wipe out infantry and damage (most) vehicles that travel through it.
The Desolator is a good offensive and defensive unit with tons of character. It’s perhaps not one of the most iconic Red Alert units (mind controlled squids, anyone? Tesla Troopers?) but its utility and visual design provide it an enduring place in my RTS hall of fame.
Ah, the Necrons. Those undead of the Warhammer 40K universe, whose basic infantry can crit a vehicle and who can take a Lascannon in the face and stand up again (provided you have a Necron Lord in close proximity with the appropriate wargear, of course). Those causers of angry rules arguments (due to the ambiguity of their custom rules). And their greatest weapon is the Special Rules brick of death, the deepstriking Living Metal block of doom – the Monolith.
The Necron Monolith is, in Dawn of War 1, the Necron faction’s super unit and also happens to be their HQ and production structure. Once the Necron player navigates their tech tree, the Monolith uproots and can start teleporting around the map causing extreme havoc and woe. It combines the best parts of super unit and mobile factory; the ultimate Necron “F U” to the other factions, providing Necron Warriors more nuanced use of their Defensive Teleport ability and making Flayed Ones so very happy. I think throughout my list, you’ll find a combination of brutality and utility, and I think the Necron Monolith exemplifies that brilliantly: a deadly weapon, that can produce units and call Necron armies from around the map.
Right off the bat, let me say that I tend to favor anti-spellcaster units and mechanics in general: spell casters tend to be “glass cannons” that can wreak havoc on enemy armies… unless they’re caught in the open and then tend to die horribly. Any mechanics that increase the fascinating counterplay of spellcaster relation to larger armies is welcome to me.
Introduced in the Frozen Throne expansion of Warcraft 3, the Mana Burn mechanic was easily my favorite addition, punishing opponents for overproducing spellcasters and not utilizing them (that is, stockpiling mana for battles). And my favorite instance of Mana Burn, is the Spell Breaker. Spell Breakers were one of the ultimate Human disruption units, shuffling buffs and debuffs, taking over summoned units, and completely immune only to negative magic. They were – are – glorious. While only of middling HP, they could turn enemy strategies on their heads while casually walking through friendly-fire damage like Blizzard and Flamestrike. They perfectly exemplified the best of what a utility unit can be, and are easily one of the most brilliantly designed units in any RTS, period.
I instantly fell in love with the Dark Archon when they were released in the Brood War expansion of StarCraft. Produced by merging two Dark Templar, these spell casters were part Arbiter, part Spell Breaker and all badass. The Dark Archon’s spell list is fully as evil as that of the Spell Breaker, with the added bonus that they look about 800x cooler. Another paragon utility unit, and one of the single most badass unit designs out there. Instantly classic, if situational, unit.
Aside from the fact that this specific image, taken from the pages of the Warcraft 2 manual by the way, was directly responsible for my childhood dream of a career in the graphic arts, the Death Knight is also one of the most completely wicked and memorable spellcaster units of all time.
Where to start with this guy? First off, they’re trained out of the innards of a giant lich structure – a skeleton as big as a building. Bigger, I suppose, as the structures theoretical legs would be underground. They throw ghost tornados, can kill enemy units with a single spell, can raise corpses, and can seed the ground with a spell called Death and Decay that deals % max HP to any unit or structure in its radius. They were terrifying and perfect engines of death and combat manipulation. Arguably, no other spellcaster unit in the history of Warcraft has been as well constructed or memorable, and the Warcraft 3 version, the Undead hero (the Arthas template), is a pale imitation.
While the Warcraft series chose to emphasize the skills of individual units like the Death Knight and Dark Archon, the Command and Conquer series tended to view individual units as largely individually simpler playing pieces. Perhaps they dug underground when ordered to move, or took off in the sky, or could be deployed, but by and large units in C&C had unique attributes rather than active or passive abilities. And perhaps no unit was more exemplary of the difference of philosophy between these two schools of RTS thought than the Engineer.
The Engineer, in the oldest C&C games, had basically 1 use: they transferred the control of a single structure from another player to that of the player who owned the that Engineer. Typically, that structure could then be sold, or used as a means to deliver additional structures (such as Obelisks of Light) to the proximity of the newly controlled building, thanks to the unique vagaries of the C&C production model. The delivery and prevention of Engineers to enemy bases became an art form throughout the history of the franchise, with the coup de grace always being the capture of an enemy Conyard. The Engineer is the epitome of a unit with a simple mechanic that has a surprising amount of depth.
I have always -always- preferred the Command and Conquer style of mind control to that of other RTS games. In C&C games, the controlling and controlled unit are linked such that if the controlling unit ever dies, the controlled unit reverts to the original player. It’s an elegant system with surprising depth. The Mastermind tank from Yuri’s Revenge is basically the ultimate expression of this concept. The Mastermind is ever balancing on the knife’s edge: they can control any number of enemy units, but if they control more than 3 at a time, they start taking damage.
This allowed the player to choose how to utilize these expensive monstrosities: to temporarily break up large enemy armies by controlling significant portions of the force, briefly, or to control smaller numbers over longer periods of time to bolster one’s own army. Difficult to use, but gloriously, evilly fun when used well.
Though fairly readily maligned by ‘hardcore’ RTS gamers, I found Petroglyph’s Universe at War to be one of the most instantly fun and memorable RTS games I’ve ever played. Among its achievements is the Hierarchy faction, whose Walker units produced the faction’s other units while stomping around the map generally making a nuisance of themselves, and capable of literally crushing enemy bases under their feet. There were 3 Walker types available to the Hierarchy: Habitat Walkers, which produced infantry units and had 8 total hardpoints: 4 on the top shell and 1 on each leg, Assembly Walkers, which had 7 hardpoints, and produced vehicles, and Science Walkers, which had 6 hardpoints and tended to be used as a sort of mobile superweapon, depending on the upgrade path the player took in a particular match.
One of the neatest things about the Hierarchy faction to me were the modules that could be affixed to hardpoints: a player could outfit their Walkers to be production facilities, weapons platforms, or a combination of the two, and at this there was really no better tool for this than the Assembly Walker. Going down one tech tree, the player could unlock the Beam Cannon, essentially turning the Assembly Walker into a mobile superweapon (typically the purview of the Science Walker). While the concept of hardpoints is not unique, nor are mobile production structures, the style and versatility of the Hierarchy war machine, as exemplified by the Assembly Walker, is undeniable.
In many RTS games that feature naval units, at least 1 or 2 of these units may be able to traverse land. One of the foremost examples of this is the Cybran Megalith from Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance, which was terrifying to see walking up a coastline from underneath the sea. Likewise, in the history of RTS there is a storied tradition of ‘taunting’ units, like the Stone Giant from Warcraft 3, which forces enemy units to attack it for a short period of time.
But, as boring as this unit might look, few units combine this to such complementary effect as does the Assault Destoryer from Red Alert 3. The Assualt Destroyer is a lynchpin of most US forces I produce in Red Alert 3, as its influence is a stalwart bulwark that allows more fragile weapons such as the Athena Cannon to do their jobs. It’s cumbersome and looks dumb on land, but darned if its sacrifice doesn’t just perfectly round out US armies.
in Supreme Commander, gunships were one of the go-to weapons. They were air units that did consistent, high damage to ground targets, and for a long time were en vogue to mass early game to take out Commander units before the game even really got rolling. But the mac daddy of Gunships was the Soul Ripper – a base-eating weapons platform that could outgun almost anything thrown at it, a flying beetle that could pop up almost anywhere and eat up anything thrown at it. While this unit was not as iconic as the ‘fatboy’ or ‘monkeylord’ or even the Illuminate’s Galactic Colossus, the Soul Ripper was fairly cheap, and desperately powerful. They were also very hard to take out cost-effectively, which is a huge deal in this style of game.
Command and Conquer: Generals is known for being over the top with its unit design. No unit shows this more than the Chinese unit known as the Nuke Cannon. When the unit enters the battlefield the driver says “Behold, the bringer of light” and “This day is to be remembered” when ordered to attacked. These quotes also really set a good tone for the unit. It’s literally an artillery piece that launches tactical nuclear weapons upon the enemy. While incredibly fragile and the fact it’s way to easy to blow up your own units, few pieces in the game cause an opposing commander to pause and rethink their plan. With an incredible range and both high initial damage and radiation damage over time, it’s a great zoning tool for forcing charging opponents back.
A largely impractical unit that didn’t see action in online matches often, the Nuke Cannon remains one of my favorite units purely for it’s design and style, it’s a cannon… that fires nukes, what more do you want?
No unit in any real time strategy game, besides maybe the Scarab in Halo Wars, scared me as much as the Tiger tank. Actually no unit type is as scary as tanks in Company of Heroes. When a tank rolls into the battlefield and you don’t have anything to stop it, you are scared, you know you could lose the game if you don’t research Sticky Bombs or get an AT gun out right away. When your infantry are out scouting a forest or moving through a town and in your headphones you hear those tracks creaking and rolling, you tell all your troops to stop moving immediately. You slowly poke forward, afraid to garrison and wary to do anything. When you find that tank, or when the tank finds you, things change.
All these feelings are exaggerated when you first encounter the Tiger. At this point in the game you have tanks of your own, you fear little the enemy can throw at you, but when you see the Tiger barrel through a building and destroy your Sherman with one shot, those feelings come back. You feel afraid again, as the Tiger marches forward your see your Sticky Bombs do no damage as you waste your munition, your own tanks try to flank but stand no chance. You scramble your AT guns to get into flanking positions, hoping to bring him down with better positioning but any good Axis commander has support coming. Your positions collapse, your base scrambles to defend but before you know it you’ve lost.
In my history with real time strategy no unit inspired fear and told stories like the Tiger tank, I love this unit for how it impacted the psyche of your opponent.
The Liberator isn’t even out of the Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void beta yet and I am in love with the design of this unit. While it may not have the emotional attachment of other units, it ranks among the most inspired and impressive unit designs I’ve ever seen. Many great units are just straight forward, the Grunt in Warcraft, Marine in Starcraft or the archer in Age of Empires. These units are fine but I love units that force decision making by both the user and opponent. The Liberator is a unique air unit because in it’s natural form it is an area of effect, anti-air unit, it’s good in this form alone since it can deal with masses of air units in small numbers. But what makes this unit truly amazing is that it has an alternate form that can attack ground units. Now in this form it can no longer attack air, is stationary and can only fire at ground units in a small area. So right off the bat the user has to decide what role they want the Liberator to have at certain times. Have a slow arm that is susceptible to air harass? Keep it in it’s air form. Want to control ramps or prevent flanking? Switch it to it’s anti-ground role.
Another great thing is your opponent also has counter play option. Your air harass being shut down? Try forcing the Liberators into anti-ground mode and then swing in and take them down while they are unable to counter attack. The Liberators in anti-ground mode and lacking anti-air? Since it’s stationary try harassing where the Liberator isn’t. The plays and counter plays are amazingly deep and we’ve only had the unit for a few months. This is a unit you can tell was designed to make players and their foes think, force them to adapt, both have map awareness and knowledge on how to deal with the treat.
It’s been a short, fiery affair but I am in love with this unit.
I love units that can ambush, that play mind games and cause opponents to be paranoid. From the Dark Templar of Starcraft to the Sniper of Command and Conquer: Generals, I love ambushes and stealth, the Mirage Tank was my favorite at this, a tank that would look like a tree. Now like the Liberator I chose this unit because of how tactical this unit was. You could act like an idiot and make a line of trees thinking you are setting up an ambush but when your opponent sees trees that obviously don’t fit normal distribution, they immediately avoid or destroy your tanks. What made this unit have such a high skill ceiling was knowing where and how to position your tanks. Players who loved these units would learn what roads had trees on the side so your opponent wouldn’t notice your tank/trees standing there. You’d know how many tanks to put in each patch of trees to remain normal looking. This unit was extremely weak for new players but in the hands of a player who understood the maps, it was incredibly deadly.
Planting some near resource fields to quickly destroy them before they can set up or laying a trap in wait along common attack paths, the options for ambush were so rich and varied depending on the map. Few units in real time strategy inspired me to study maps as deeply as the Mirage Tank.
Like the Liberator mentioned above I have only spent a short time with the Adept as it’s still in beta but it’s design is amazing to me. Also like the Liberator the nature of the Adept is one of complexity. The Adept is a basic ground unit that is study and a ranged combatant but what separates it from other units is its ability. On a timer it has the ability to launch a shade of itself away from its body and after a set amount of time the Adept will phase to the shade’s location. The player can control both the Adept and the shade at the same time allowing him to send the shade in to scout or use it to retreat while you harass enemy workers. The amazing part comes from the player being able to cancel the shade at any time. This means that a person defending against a shade attack must think “do I chase the shade and hope they shift or do I stay and call their bluff and potentially let them escape?” This level of play and counter-play is on a whole other level of psychological gamesmanship. Though the Adept is less than 3 months old but already we are seeing how pros use this unit both straightforwardly and with complexity. Any unit that brings game theory into an RTS is high on my list of praise.
This is a funny unit to include since it’s not very interesting, it’s a melee swordsman who was resistant to ranged attackers and was a faction specific unit. My reason for liking this is likely the reason anyone likes an Age of Empires unit, it was overpowered. The Age of Empires series has brought me some of my fondest memories but it’s also pretty imbalanced in relation to which factions were on equal footing. The power of the Teutonic Knight was my main reason for Teutons in multiplayer. I won so many games purely from amassing them with a some support behind and just marching from town to town. This unit is purely an emotional pick, and I love my Teutonic Knight.
Many of the units I choose from older games were chosen for their emotional impact and this holds true for the Giant Turtle. As a child I preferred playing the “good guys” in my games, this held true in Warcraft 2. I loved being the humans, leading my knights, mages and gryphon riders but one area I always enjoyed the Horde more was their naval units. Now Warcraft 2 was almost perfectly symmetrical in it’s balance of the Alliance and Horde but aesthetics mattered when I was a kid and I just felt the Alliance ships were super lame. The Alliance did have a submarine for their version of the turtle but a turtle that launches torpedoes was too awesome to not love.
While the Total War series isn’t your traditional real time strategy game it’s on field combat has some amazing depth to it. I have likely spent more time on the Total War series than any other and it’s partially because the combat can stand on it’s own. My favorite game in the series was the first Rome and my favorite unit in that game was the Hoplite used among any of the Greek or Egyptian factions. Some units are fun for being overpowered while others have amazing mechanics, this unit is on the list for the fantasy. One of the great things about the Total War series is the scale of conflict, you see hundreds of units clashing in battles on a level rarely seen and it’s why I loved the Hoplite. That line of spears, spanning across a hill, presenting that intimidating wall of death. As cavalry would charge into my spiky formation or as arrows would bounce off my shields, I lived that fantasy and loved every minute of it.
Like the Necrolyte in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans the Necromancer in it’s second sequel carries both the appeal of getting to play with a fantasy as well as having a great mechanic. The Necromancer is the truest example of a unit that raises the bodies of the dead and use them against their former masters. It was a simple mechanic but incredibly fun and something we haven’t seen used often outside of the Warcraft universe. It felt amazing to watch both your, and your opponent’s, units die and knowing you still had soldiers yet to come that would carry on the fight. This is an incredible power fantasy combined with a fun and unique power. While massing them would prove unfruitful for young me, I found with the right combination they would prove very frightening to my opponents.
I’ll finish on another Command and Conquer: Generals unit and I’ve included it for the same reason as I included the Nuke Cannon, it’s both singular in it’s style and bombastic. The Angry Mob is a unique unit since it’s not a single character and doesn’t have traditional health or damage. The longer the unit lasts the larger it gets and the more damage it does. Like a true mob the larger it grows the more dangerous it becomes. The unit’s attacks are broken up into pistols and Molotov cocktail throwers and it’s a ratio, the more people in the mob the more gunman and throwers there are. They can also be upgraded to carry assault rifles, making them even more dangerous. Outside of the Flash Bang grenades that the USA have access to or flame tanks by the Chinese few things are able to stop this mob. Two to three groups of them on an unprepared base and it would be gone before the army could return to defend it.
I’ll finish my thoughts on the unit the same way I did with the Nuke Cannon, often impractical and easy to counter by most veteran players, the Angry Mob is one of my favorite units for it’s “awesome” factor, it’s a mob of angry civilians going around blowing up military structures with small guns and homemade explosives.