Starcraft 2 is probably my favourite game that I never play. I fell for the original thanks to a decent demo that captured the feel of the single player game and I loved the campaigns, despite being so unbelievably terrible at the game to never really grasp how to progress into even the later Terran missions, let alone the Zerg and Protoss campaigns.
When the long awaited sequel came out, I threw myself into the notorious multiplayer, which was something I had never had the option to do with the original thanks to my thoroughly rural internet connection that might very well have been carried on the back of cows and a friendship group that consisted of non-LAN compatible Amiga owners.
The multiplayer clicked and resonated with me, although the joke is that just because you understand something, it doesn't mean you can necessarily do anything about it. [break]I always know exactly how I die and am defeated, I'm just not fast enough to fix it. Nothing really surprises me, I'm just not mentally able to keep that many plates spinning and not being eaten by zerglings.
Understanding, check. Competence, maybe not.
I found myself instead watching a lot of pro matches and playing occasionally before sliding into watching pro matches occasionally and half-heartedly attempting to launch the game very rarely, only for my resolve to fizzle before the launcher has finished patching. While the 30 minute adrenaline high that the matches bring forth can feel amazing with my rare victories punctuated by me actually jumping out of my chair, one has to be in the right mood for that particular hit. My poor vascular system can only take so much without the reward of not being humiliatingly defeated.
However, the experience of the adrenaline high I’ve felt with multiplayer sessions of Starcraft 2 is something I have experienced once before in another real-time-strategy title, and one that was released around about the same time as the original Starcraft. This was Total Annihilation and instead of a 30 minute burst, this lasted a full four hours.
The box art featured the commander, the most amazing unit in any RTS. Unfortunately, losing him normally meant losing your match, sometimes literally depending on your settings.
Total Annihilation was marketed hard as a 3D RTS where placement of units really counted and the shape of terrain affecting strategy and tactics. In practise, it tends to be the case that you win if you out-produce your opponent and don't do anything stupid, but the terrain does indeed affect fire and at higher levels of play that sort of micro-management tactic does pay off.
At the time the visuals looked stunning and when held up alongside its lower-resolution peer Starcraft it truly shone out. I’ll freely admit however that when first playing it, I was disappointed. Having swallowed the hype and expecting the triumphant return of RTS-Jesus, who gathered resources and spent them on an army for our sins, the whole thing felt much looser, was nowhere near as well paced as its Blizzard-polished rival and something just felt off.
Of course, at this point I was comparing single player campaigns and single player campaigns were not where Total Annihilation’s strengths lay. This particular RTS instead excelled in one-shot battles against an AI, or even better, against multiple human opponents.
I used to live in a house of six where five of us had an interest in, if not the same level of competence with, Total Annihilation. This resulted in the occasional enormous battle of epic proportions that lasted for almost full days. I say occasional, because the issue with a five-player pitched battle is that ultimately, it will whittle down to only a couple of players, normally leaving the two that have been turtling up quietly, resulting in an endgame that is not really epic as it is a re-enactment of the Cold War with overly cautious robots.
You know what, you can keep your Supreme Commanders, Total Annihilation still looks great.
When all of us were in fact in the mood for spending an entire day playing a 10-year-old, slightly buggy and haphazardly modded RTS, it was clear that each of us had developed a unique play-style. One would forgo all kind of base defences and use those unspent resources to just pump out more units instead, resulting in a nomadic empire that could simply walk up to you if you weren't paying attention. One would build the most intricately designed base with layers of walls with built in killing floors for the turrets to cover. I would end up trying to mess around with cloaked units and bombing strikes and at the start of the game, one unfortunate soul of our number would see a mass of yellow appear from our fifth opponent who would reliably throw as many cheap units as he could at his closest rival within the first few minutes of play so he could go back to drinking his whiskey.
A few of us started really honing our tactics and really becoming quite effective in general. When you are invested in a match that has already taken an hour and shows no signs of slowing down, you start pouring more effort into your actions and start becoming even more engaged and absorbed in the game. Several of us reported stepping away from the computers out of breath, buzzing and generally baffled that the day had vanished. I'm not sure I liked the feeling at the time, but I have to confess that I miss it in a way.
If you can encourage a four hour adrenaline rush from a video game, I think you've found something that truly resonates with you. In my experience, it is hard to find these days. I have a propensity to mutter things along the lines of "it's not like it was in the good old days" but in this case, it really is nigh-on impossible to find a game that will allow for this level of immersion without breaking the tension into much smaller chunks or throwing you out with an ill timed tutorial prompt or required plod through menus to either equip or craft equipment of some kind.