RTS takes a sip from the arcade cup…
Quality real-time strategy action on any console platform has been something of an enigma for anyone who has dared to take it on. As a genre, RTS software has found its home on the PC, and almost every previous attempt to transfer titles over to a console has resulted in rather messy, clumsily controlled affairs. A home console just doesn’t have the control versatility offered by a mouse/keyboard combination, and until now that has been a barrier that nobody has effectively broken down. So, it’s something of a pleasant surprise that Goblin Commander: Unleash the Horde, a project lead by Ron and Chris Millar of PC RTS title fame, at long last delivers an RTS experience which not only overcomes the limitations of console gaming, but actively embraces them to deliver a fun hybrid experience.
Taking on the role of Grommel, commander of the Stonekrusher goblin clan, the single player campaign tasks the player with uniting the five goblin tribes who, having been originally spawned by the wizard Fraziel, are now heading somewhat off the rails. In essence, the ‘uniting’ part of this task is actually completed by defeating the tribes as you travel across the Ogriss world map. As stories go it’s quite well constructed, and advanced at regular intervals by in-game cut-scenes which are spoken in the native goblin language (with handy subtitles for those who have mislaid their Goblin->English phrase books). The fictional language is a nice touch, but can sometimes appear slightly comical when four or five lines of on-screen text amounts to nothing more than three grunts and a yelp from a hapless rock thrower.
The strength of Goblin Commander really does lie in its control set-up. Reading the manual before playing the game makes it appear a somewhat bewildering task, with multiple button combinations for almost anything and everything. Booting the game and playing through the enormously helpful tutorial that greets you however, is much more reassuring, and it takes only minutes to learn the basic controls. For each clan that you are in control of, a maximum of just ten units can be deployed at any one time. This may seem a little low, but as you defeat each tribe, they join your campaign. So eventually you can end up with a total of forty units in the field. It’s still not approaching the levels seen in many RTS titles, but it is certainly enough for some pretty hectic battles with plenty to keep track of. Controlling the clans couldn’t be easier, and via a simple press of the shoulder button and the assigned clan face button, each of the armies can be sent in differing directions to attack enemy troops or buildings, or even to defend you own structures from attack. The d-pad is also used for easy access to information such as context-sensitive help, mission objectives, and to warp instantly to your base when required.
Additionally, and here is where the game really shows its console leanings, you can take direct individual control of any of the units in the field. It’s a neat twist, and it actually does prove to be very useful. One of the major benefits is that, when in control of a unit, you also get full control of the camera. Quite why you don’t have full control all of the time anyway is a bit of a mystery, but being able to rotate the map is particularly useful in the heat of battle. This mode also allows you to make use of the Titans available to each clan. Titans are the heavy artillery of the goblin world, and being able to sidle into enemy territory in control of a massive Stone Ogre or Warpig ‘Pult is hugely satisfying. Even in direct control, the same range of commands is available to you as before, so you can order the rest of your army to follow your lead or hang back ready for a secondary assault.
No RTS title would be complete of course without at least some element of resource management, and Goblin Commander again strikes a happy medium here. There are, in essence, just two resources that you need to keep track of – gold and souls. Gold is gained by tearing down enemy structures, piles of boulders, log heaps, etc. Whereas souls are obtained by capturing, and then of course defending, soul wells. Souls are mainly used to buy new units, whereas gold is used to repair structures, upgrade your weapons or armour, and purchase gun turrets etc.
With the basic elements in place, it’s also refreshing to see that the maps upon which the battles unfold have also been given due care and attention. Themed according to their position on the Ogriss world map, they all offer very different challenges and, thankfully, avoid the ‘one-solution’ trap. Each mission objective can usually be reached using any number of different strategies, and heavy losses using one approach only provides an extra spur to discover a more effective route to victory via another.
Given that it does so much right, it’s a shame that a few flaws do creep in. One of the most annoying is the camera system which, when you are not in direct control of a unit, offers you no option to rotate your view of the action. Sure you can zoom in and out, but as the engine tries to make everything which would obscure your view transparent it can often inadvertently remove a boulder pile or tree that is blocking your way or that you’d like to destroy. Slow-down also rears its head at times, particularly in two-player mode…
Ahh, the two-player mode. I’ve not mentioned it so far as I’m totally divided on it. On the one hand, split-screen play can be a lot of fun. As good as the one-player missions are, there is nothing as unpredictable and challenging as taking on one of your friends. On the other, how good would a LAN mode have been? How much *more* fun could it have been with three, four, five players waging goblin war?
All things considered, Goblin Commander: Unleash the Horde is a very welcome title which successfully manages to unite console control simplicity with RTS values. It’s far and away the best of the genre available on GameCube right now. Sure it’s a little rough around the edges – it won’t win any awards for graphical or audio achievement – but it’s fun, and that’s what ultimately matters isn’t it?