Sunday, 26 August 2007

Ground Control: The Lost RTS

So, no sooner was I struggling to get over the disappointment of being screwed over by the Bioshock demo, (as is the rest of the internet, evidently) than I stumbled on a fantastic little bonus, thanks to a link, again, from Rock, Paper, Shotgun - this time it was Jim Rossignol informing me that classic RTS Ground Control is available as abandonware, and he mentioned it in a preview for the latest game in the series, World in Conflict.

I remember the year 2000. It was the heady dawn of a new millenium: the total and utter capitulation of The Thames turning into a literal river of fire gave way to a literal river of quality for fans of Real-Time Strategy. Joining the excellent Ground Control was Sudden Strike, Kessen - a gorgeous recreation of feudal Japan - and Desperados. Joining them was the first in a certain series that has proved quite popular since: Shogun: Total War.

But Ground Control was the one I really wanted to play. I remember reading the review in PC Gamer, back in the day, and thinking about how it just looked cool. Futuristic soldiers on distant planets fighting tooth-for-nail. It introduced concepts that I can't remember resonating too much with me back then and, as someone who played every new strategy game I could get my hands on, excited me. Friendly fire was a consideration, and terrain played a huge part. If you were up on the hill, I remember, your accuracy was improved. Attacking from below would result in, at the very least, wayward shots - if they didn't smack into the ground uselessly before reaching their intended targets. Screenshots in the magazine were full of kinetic explosions and post-apocolyptic, cyberpunk dystopia.

I really wanted it.

And yet, for a reason unknown to me now, I never got my grubby mitts on it. Perhaps, in a fit of accidental adolescent logic, I decided our computer couldn't handle such a technically advanced game - and that's definitely how it seemed at the time. Impossibly pretty and lively. And then, as it faded from my consciousness - I remember the Ground Control 2 review striking even more fear into my PC-conscious heart, wondering how our machine could possibly have coped - I slowly forgot Ground Control.

Eventually, time wore on. By the time we had a computer capable of handling such a piece of software, I'd neglected it. I was playing other strategy games. Total War, Empire Earth and Warcraft 3 came and went. Command and Conquer was discovered, but it was only yesterday - literally - that I was directed towards Ground Control, and I was compelled to download it.

It seems strange that something that inspired such awe seven years ago is now in a download less than 500 megabytes in size. It took me an hour. And there it was.

I booted up and, despite the dreary tutorial levels - 'oh look! Some more mud!' - it's just as good as I thought it would be all those years ago. It's a vibrant tactical challenge that makes you really think, really consider how best to deploy the limited troops at your disposal. Today, especially, it plays like it's incredibly minimalist. There's no resource collection to speak of - a concept that has proved central to most RTS games since the beginning of time. There's no wood, stone, rock, gold, credits or Tiberium. No buildings or base construction and, therefore, no flabby, superfluous detail: everything you'd undertake in almost any RTS you care to name is removed. You don't send out a scout to find the berry patch and send the villagers to collect the food to feed the army recruited at the barracks that was built with the wood that the villagers chopped that'll destroy the city that Caeser built. When you boil it down to pure concentrate, Ground Control is like a hyper-strong serving of my favourite genre. It's strategy, it's real-time. You don't waste any time building or collecting or scouting.

You direct your troops, and you kick ass.

This is even more obvious today, in a world where your RTS isn't really accepted until you've got several hundred troop types and several continents to play on, all mapped with GPS to the nearest centimetre so your troops can look perfect in their virtually reproduced uniforms. Each instalment of the Total War series, for example, is getting bigger and better. Booting up Ground Control, seven years after release, has been something of an education. The pure tactical challenges aren't masked by concerns about whether or not your base has been left exposed because of some superfluous hole in your ring of Tesla Coils, or if you can afford to build another barracks. You're given some troops, and you have an objective to accomplish. The beauty is in the simplicity of it, rather than the beauty being in the knowledge that you control an empire, down to how much ketchup you're going to put on the burgers you're selling.

That's not to say that they're mutually exclusive, or that the minimalistic, Ground Control approach renders every other RTS game that chooses to go into excruciating detail - take Settlers, and the micromanagement of every single part of the food chain to get bread to your miners, for example - bloated and pointless. Sometimes, I want to spend a relaxing afternoon collecting water to grow wheat to mill flour and bake bread. But, I can't honestly say that learning about granary production processes will help me overturn a revolt on a barren alien world with a handful of marines and a smoking, vulnerable APC.

I can say, however, that the tactical tips I pick up by playing through Ground Control, even seven years too late, will impact on every other strategy game I play. It's as far reaching and influential as the high-powered scope on my marine's sniper rifle. And, for that, I bow down to its very strategic, real-time battling.

No matter how many times the computer beats me.

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