I’m a long-time fan of the strategy genre. The thrill of a well-executed manoeuvre or the success of a long, arduous campaign provides me with a sense of satisfaction that can’t be found in games where the winner is the gamer with the most dexterous fingers. But as a fan of the strategy genre, I’ve frequently been frustrated by the lack of quality strategy titles for consoles. Due to the fact that strategy titles tend to require much more processing power than other games, most strategy games are made for high end gaming PC’s rather than consoles. Despite this trend, games released this generation and the increased power of next generation consoles indicates that next-gen consoles could see plenty of strategy titles.
This generation of consoles saw the release of the real time strategy game Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II, developed by EA Los Angeles and released in 2006 for the Xbox 360 (and PC). The game features tactical real time battles (as opposed to each side taking its own turn), a feature that is difficult to execute on many PC’s, it also features multiplayer modes and allows players to create their own battlefield scenarios. The intelligent AI in BFME 2 and the functionality of the core mechanics make this a masterpiece of game design. The campaigns are extremely linear, there are only a handful of factions and the limited number of unit types which aren’t very detailed, all of these limitations are likely due to the weaker processing power of consoles.
The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 (as well as the Nintendo DS) also saw the release of a game that was nearly the opposite of LOTR: BFME 2 in Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution developed by Firaxis games and released in 2008. Civilization Revolution features a long, free flowing campaign that allows players to dominate the world through technological, cultural, financial or military force. The graphics are stunning, holding up even when compared to current standards. Each map is randomly generated and players never know which rival civilizations they will face. While each civilization tends to behave predictably and in accordance with it’s own unique general guideline of behaviours, the enemy AI will seize any opportunity given and take anything that players do not rigorously and intelligently defend. The only real difference between the console version of the game and the numbered entries in the PC series is that the console version is extremely slimmed down, there are fewer technologies, world wonders, civilizations, unit types, victory conditions and diplomacy options, another instance of sacrifices being made to accommodate weaker hardware.
One of the most critically acclaimed and awarded games of this console generation was X-COM: Enemy Unknown, developed by Firaxis games and released in 2012 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. X-COM: Enemy Unknown combines a rather linear campaign with tactical, turn based, squad oriented combat where players navigated squad members through randomly generated maps (except on scripted storyline missions) using class based special abilities, items and standard attacks to defeat alien invaders. Players can expand and upgrade their home base as they see fit. Squad members can level up and unlock special abilities, they can also have their names, appearances and nicknames customised, creating a stronger bond between players and their squad, which makes the experience of losing a squad member even more bitter due to the permanent death feature. The AI is both creative and intelligent, you aren’t given any easy shots in this game and certain enemy units can and will flank your squad quickly if they’re not immediately eliminated. The graphics are not particularly exceptional, but the console version sometimes has difficulty loading them. Due to the squad based nature of the game, it’s hard to say if more advanced hardware could have supported anything other than smoother graphics loading or perhaps a less linear campaign which could mean a rise in squad based games on consoles as a sort of sub-genre.
These three games exemplify what can be done with current hardware through creative design strategies and careful management of data loads, and both X-COM: Enemy Unknown and Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution were critically acclaimed best sellers, proving that there is in fact a market for strategy games among console players (LOTR: BFME 2 did well critically and commercially, but not to the same extent as X-COM: Enemy Unknown or Civilization Revolution). The only reason why this generation did not see a wealth of high quality strategy games was an overall lack of hardware strength which puts limitations on design staff, but the next generation consoles will be much more powerful than the current generation.
The Playstation 4 and Xbox One will rival current high end gaming PC’s in terms of both power and graphical capabilities upon their release. This increase in power would allow developers to make top shelf strategy titles for consoles without worrying about hardware limitations. The increase in graphical capabilities would lead to smoother loading of graphics and more detailed units. Granted, console controllers still offer less control than a keyboard and mouse combination, but The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II proved that with effective fast mapping of units and abilities, the lack of buttons on a controller does not necessarily hinder how playable the game is compared to PC controls.
The limited hardware of the current generation of consoles still saw a few strategy games which were well made, entertaining and profitable, but with newer, more powerful hardware on the way, there’s no telling how many great strategy games next-gen consoles might see. Perhaps Civilization V or Total War: Rome II will be remade for Xbox One or Playstation 4 or perhaps more console specific strategy titles will be released, titles with gameplay elements and AI that rival PC games. Whatever the case, fans of the strategy genre who don’t have a high end gaming PC have every reason to be hopeful that their love of tactical gameplay will be satisfied on next-gen consoles.