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Every so often, I return to one of the RTS I played when I was a kid. Some of these are broadly popular, like StarCraft or WarCraft or Tiberian Sun. Some may be less so, like Earth 2150 or War Wind. In part, these ventures are driven by nostalgia: to recapture or relive the wide-eyed enthusiasm and untrammeled joys that I remember from childhood.
But, as a student of strategy games design, I also find it interesting to analyze the design of older games. It is fascinating and instructive to struggle through less-than-optimal user interfaces (truly a first world problem, right?) to explore mechanics that have fallen by the wayside and to examine design practices from the pre-esports era.
Recently, to satisfy both of my inclinations, I’ve picked up and begun playing copies of a variety of classic and/or remastered RTS: Earth 2150, Battlezone ’98 Redux, Homeworld Remastered, War Wind 1 and 2, Battle Realms, and Bitmap Brothers’ Z (well, the steam version, which is based on a remake of the original). I hope to find time to write analyses of all of these games, but I thought I’d begin with Z.
In the following paragraphs, I’m going to describe the game as a reminder for those who have not played it recently and as an introduction for those who might not have played it at all. Then, I’ll discuss its mechanics in more depth, along with their limitations and what I see as their potential in modern strategy games design.
Let’s get started.
Ok, so let’s get this clear right off the bat. By my definition, Z is not technically a real-time strategy game as such, and falls more into the real-time tactics subgenre. Players do build up armies over time, but there is not a direct method for harvesting or accumulating resources or any sort of economy simulation. The game, as we will see, is more about trading and manipulating physical resources – territories and their conferred advantages, as well as military hardware – than acquiring and expending stores of abstracted value. I realize a case could be made otherwise – that Z is a real-time strategy game instead of a tactics game, but feel that for my purposes viewing it as a tactics game is more instructive. That (admittedly) rather nit-picky distinction aside, let’s start looking at the actual game and talk about how it works.
Z is a real-time tactics game set in a science fiction universe populated by armies of red and blue robots. It’s, well, it’s about that simple. The game’s narrative, such as it is, follows the exploits of two slacker, alcoholic red robots named Brad and Allen. These ‘bots are tasked with driving a container ship (dropship, perhaps?) from planet to planet, and are always being harangued by their leader, Commander Zod. What relation this has with the actual gameplay, I’m not exactly sure. But it is amusing, being one of the zanier pretexts for a strategy game that I can recall.
Gameplay in Z revolves primarily around the acquisition and preservation of territories on the game’s map. Each map is divided into 12 more more territories, each with at least 1 salient feature (we’ll get to those in a bit). Capturing one of these territories and acquiring its benefits is a simple matter of getting a unit to a flag located within that territory. This isn’t like Relic, though. There’s no countdown or timer or capture rate stat. The territory just changes hands immediately once a unit gets to it. This is actually an important tactical consideration in the game, as you’ll come to see.
Territorial boundaries and interiors are often crossed or otherwise marked by various terrain features: shallow water that only infantry can cross, lava that cannot be traversed, or cliffs. These cliffs are pretty interesting: they represent the first instance I am aware of destructible terrain in a strategy game. Not being a games historian, and having played a fairly broad but incomplete cross section of games starting in the mid 1990s, I may be mistaken. Either way, I think it bears noting that features like this (we’ll get to more in a bit) which are considered hallmarks of ‘modern’ strategy games existed in some form the now far-off days of 1996.
Territories can contain a number of things of interest to players. The most prevalent and perhaps important feature of a territory is a factory. Factories produce either infantry or vehicles on a timer: each unit has a set time of production, and each factory shows the unit’s build countdown. At the end of that countdown, the produced unit is assigned to the faction of that territory’s owner. Thus, a player can capture a territory near the end of a unit’s production countdown and claim that unit even if their opponent has held it for the unit’s entire production cycle. This is important and I’m going to come back to it.
Territories can also contain defensive structures – turrets that can be captured by a player’s infantry, radar that shows your opponent’s units on the minimap, and pickups like grenades. All of which leads to me one of the best things about Z: the flexibility of its infantry units.
Infantry and vehicles are produced by separate factories. Factories will continue to produce whatever the player has selected, making it a somewhat fiddly matter of continually returning to production facilities to change up their build queue, and to issue orders to produced units (there not being a system of spawn queuing in Z). This is perhaps one of the ways in which Z most shows its age: there are no spawn queues, movement/order queues, or control groups, which can make keeping tabs on your units a little awkward. It’s quite easy to leave units overlooked and sitting uselessly in odd corners instead of out defending or attacking.
As I said, there are two types of factory: unit factories, and vehicle factories. What each factory produces should be… pretty obvious, but the differences between units and vehicles might bear some explaining. See, vehicles have to be crewed by infantry. And some infantry are pretty good at sniping a vehicle’s driver. So interactions between infantry and vehicles can be chaotic and random, though not necessarily in a bad way.
Infantry have a chance (some infantry types are better at this than others) of sniping a vehicle’s driver instead of destroying it. Sniping a driver decrews the vehicle and allows a player to steal their enemy’s materiel, something you don’t see much in RTS. War Wind had a little of this with neutral vehicles, and the Command and Conquer games had the Engineer, which could steal structures. The Company of Heroes titles allow players to equip dropped enemy weapons, stationary support guns, or de-crewed tanks, but in virtually all of these cases the theft is relatively uncommon and usually a pretty big deal.
In Z, theft of vehicles is pretty commonplace – vehicles are decrewed at roughly the same rate at which they are destroyed (depending on what you use to attack the vehicle: tanks tend to blow things up where infantry like Psychos or Snipers have a much higher rate of decrewing). This makes Z relatively unique in that regard: very few games have physical resources (e.g. weapons or infrastructure) change hands as often and readily as Z.
Z has some interesting unit statistics, including a unit’s intelligence. Smarter units tend to have better pathfinding, and are more autonomous: seeking out decrewed vehicles or turrets more readily (without explicit orders) and capturing territories more immediately upon entering them. Units also have a greater or lower chance to snipe drivers: part of this is based off of weapon, but part of this (as with Psychos) is due to their intelligence stat.
Infantry are the cornerstone of Z’s gameplay. They are necessary for capturing, well anything: territories, vehicles, turrets. They can pick up grenades (and use them against terrain features or enemy units). They can pass through more terrain features than vehicles, making them more mobile. While vehicles tend to win battles, infantry are the tools that keep the player’s war machine moving. It’s a great dichotomy, and unlike in many strategy games, both halves of this equation feel consistently useful and interesting.
One interesting thing about Z is that there is no fog of war. You can always see what your enemy is doing, where they’re moving their troops. In general, I’m a strong proponent of fog of war and battlefield uncertainty, but in this case I can’t bring myself to get really worked up about it. I’m not really sure why… Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, or perhaps it’s that unit interactions are themselves uncertain: I’ve had single soldier squads de-crew tanks they’re sent to intercept as a stalling tactic, as a for-instance. And the rush to capture factories before their production timer runs out feels pretty meaningful.
Maps in Z are typically symmetrical, with the same number of territories in the same configuration on each half of the map. Forts are usually pretty close to the edge of the map, but often have multiple approach routes to-and-from. Map terrain gets pretty interesting, as I alluded to previously: there are destructible cliffs that vehicles, some units, and grenades can take out. There’s shallow water that infantry can trudge through but vehicles cannot, lava that can’t be crossed at all, and there are roads. There are also bridges, which can be destroyed and rebuilt. If a bridge is destroyed while units are on it, the units on the bridge die as well. Roads deserve a bit of explanation, too, because I love this and too few games have features of this sort.
Vehicles prefer to drive on roads, and move faster when on them. This, however, makes their movements more predictable, allowing players to take advantage of their movement behavior to set up killzones and prepare for their arrival. Infantry’s movement is less predictable – another way in which infantry and vehicles complement each other on offense and defense.
It’s this type of overlapping, reinforcing behavior that I really enjoy playing with in games, and really enjoy seeing. Most games content themselves to play primarily with units’ damage profiles: what a unit is resistant to or vulnerable to, what they can and cannot target, et cetera.
While most strategy games have some variation in unit movement profiles (e.g. air units, or naval units) it’s still relatively uncommon for unit types to behave in fundamentally different ways: in StarCraft 2, for instance, there’s little difference between how a Siege Tank moves versus how a Banshee moves – Banshees just aren’t burdened by collision with ground-based objects, and have slightly different acceleration and deceleration profiles. Arguably, the differences in games like Z are more meaningful (and that is what I’m arguing) because they have an incremental impact on unit utility, instead of a binary one.
Unlike in most territory-capture games, winning a match in Z is not a matter of racking up victory points of any kind. Instead, you’re working to destroy your opponent’s fortress. This can be accomplished by attacking it, or by getting an infantry squad inside it (which blows it up instantly) followed by every single unit under your control giving its victory cry, one after the other.
The victory cry thing is a little amusing. Each unit in turn gets a chance to have its portrait show up in the unit selection pane, and they give one of… about 3-5 different victory exclamations, usually something like “Right on!” “Alright!” or “Yeah!” If you have 20 infantry squads, you get to hear those phrases 20 times when the match ends.
Units for the most part move slowly enough that the concept of a ‘rush’ does not exist in a traditional sense. It is possible to push hard for enemy territories, but territory layout can impact this, with important materiel staged in places that slow down the push for the center of the map, and over-extending your control of territories past what you can defend reasonably is setting yourself up to lose those short-term gains and set yourself on the back foot.
Maps are usually laid out in ways that ensure that players care about a broad cross section of the territories on their side of the map, and the early game is usually a matter of consolidating your holdings before spreading out. The game, while at times stressful (overextended or out of place armies being the most common source of tension) is more sedate than many other real-time strategy games due to the pace of movement of units, and the relatively slow production time of units – things tend to ramp up a bit and go back and forth for a while before a player gains an advantage. Z actually does have relatively high stakes though: units tend to die very quickly in engagements, and of course as common as de-crewing of vehicles tends to be, it’s quite possible to have your own tanks turned against you shortly after a bad engagement.
I’ve been gushing about Z for almost 2000 words now, so let’s stop and take a critical look at its features. What’s lacking? I’ll skim by the obvious: the game is lacking many modern niceties that players would currently demand: control groups, multiple queuing of unit actions, build queues for buildings, effective tooltips for map features. Let’s call all of that a given and move on.
The pacing in Z can also be frustrating: it takes units a comparatively long time to get anywhere. This can be a source of tension, and makes unit placement incredibly important, but can also be quite frustrating as your units seemingly move through molasses to get from point A to point B. There’s a bit too much time spent watching your units slog slowly across a map. It can drain the energy from a match.
Mileage may vary on this, but I also feel like the game might benefit from fog of war – even a shroud over enemy or neutral territories would introduce some increased elements of battlefield uncertainty and the necessity of scouting and information gathering. Even a partial system of unlocking vision in owned (or entered) territories would be really interesting, in my opinion.
I really go back and forth regarding whether some sort of factional differences would be meaningful in Z. On the one hand, it would increase the possibility for interesting and asymmetrically balanced interactions in the game. On the other hand, Z’s production model virtually insures that players aren’t going to encounter enemy forces with a similar unit composition: there’s too little production going on. Also, with vehicle theft being relatively prevalent, it might be kind of a moot point.
Lastly, I think that Z does a very poor job of conveying meaningful information to the player. The Official Guide site includes a great many strategic niceties that, even as a longtime player, I never caught on to. It made me appreciate the game’s potential depth all the more but simultaneously left me feeling disappointed. How is the player supposed to discover these behaviors other than trial and error?
The single most interesting thing about Z to me is its implementation of features that have come to be viewed as hallmarks of modern strategy game design. Destructible terrain, terrain that impacts unit use (water, roads, et cetera) and unit types with vastly different relationships to map terrain and vastly different use profiles (in this case, robots vs vehicles) are features that I think can have a huge impact on a game’s depth and interest.
There’s more to it than that though. Z is a different breed of strategy game. It is a model distinct from what’s seen in its contemporary games: no construction of bases, an increased reliance on terrain as a deciding factor in combat, the semi-permanence of physical resources (structures and vehicles). This game’s psychology is clean and direct on the surface and consistent in its implementation. It’s an example of a game that included everything it needed and nothing it didn’t.
I’d love to see more games like Z.