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A Rundown of the Latest Crop of Strategy Games

Friday, May 12, 2006, 11:58AM EST

The taxonomy of the strategy genre demonstrates that the fire of innovation still pumps through its veins, so during E3, desktop generals will find the ability to refight (and rewrite) the major battles of history, as well as conquer alternative universes and exotic sci-fi realms. Jon Jordan examines the latest crop.

Take Control of History

With more than 3.5 million copies sold, the momentum for the next installment of PC franchise Total War is already building. And according to new publisher Sega, Medieval 2: Total War promises nothing less than the next generation of strategy gaming. Expect the excitement of tens of thousands of warriors crashing together on the battlefields of Europe to be matched only by the expansive marketing campaign.

"Medieval 2: Total War is the result of seven years' continuous development of the Total War series and has been designed to appeal to all gamers, not just hardcore strategy fans," says Mike Simpson, studio director of developer Creative Assembly.

In terms of technology, there are plenty of features to check out. The enhanced terrain model means the environments are more stunning, with detailed buildings, settlements, and castles, each of which has its own damage simulation. Siege warfare is one of the key improvements, with new weaponry and units added to buff the strategic elements of slowly piling the pressure on an enemy through to the final excitement of the victory rush.

If you're interested in earlier battles in history, check out the Warlords PC expansion pack for Sid Meier's Civilization IV from 2K Games. It offers six different scenarios, ranging from Chinese Unification in 350 B.C., the Rise of Rome, and Genghis Khan's conquest of Asia in 1206 A.D. Each scenario is built around a powerful warlord unit, and there are six new civilizations, 10 new leaders, and three new wonders to play with.

Fighting the Fantastical

Sometimes it's fun to forget about reality, however, and Stronghold Legends is one game that blurs the lines with fantasy. A continuation of 2K Games' Stronghold PC castle-building franchise, it extends the brand, combining castles with the legends of the Middle Ages. Playable heroes include King Arthur, Count Vlad Dracul, and from Norse mythology, Siegfried, and there are 24 missions that span three campaigns, in which you'll find yourself up against dragons and giants.

Of course when it comes to EA's The Lord of the Rings games, it's fantasy all the way. Although with the release of The Battle for Middle-earth II for Xbox 360, EA will be hoping its much-vaunted single-button RTS control method for consoles proves as mythically wonderful as Tolkien's story. Playable over Xbox Live, the game lets you command hundreds of units in epic battles from the combined films and books of the Middle-earth universe.

Bringing History to Life

But not all strategy games are so bloodthirsty. Sid Meier's Firaxis studio, now part of 2K Games, is branching out from its Civilization PC franchise to focus on the creation of one particular city. In CivCity: Rome, you get to shape the great capital of the Roman empire, building spectacular monuments and researching technology. Other elements from the Civ series, such as city happiness, production, and culture also come into play, while some of the historical aspects of the real Rome are made available through the in-game CityPedia.

Proving great minds think alike, Vivendi's Caesar IV is also offering a PC-based Roman town-building simulator. Taking the city-creation Caesar series into full 3D for the first time, players assume the role of an aspiring provincial governor within Caesar's empire as they grow a simple village into a cosmopolitan metropolis. But with new citizen A.I. behaviors, you'll have to make sure you keep everyone healthy and safe from barbarian threats in order to prosper.

Two PC titles expanding on this theme are Aspyr's The Guild II and ANNO 1701. Both empire-building games have similar goals—rise to the top of the pile through trade, diplomacy, or military conflicts.

The sequel to Europa 1400, The Guild II places you in the center of a large dynasty during the Middle Ages. You create your game character, choosing careers such as merchant, priest, or thief, as well as attributes such as zodiac signs. Then marry, have children, and build up your empire, passing down skills to future generations, while battling competitive A.I. For the first time, there's an online mode, too.

ANNO 1701, on the other hand, expands the action to the size of a complete empire, with options including exploration of previously undiscovered islands, and the subsequent trade links that can be built up. As you prosper, though, you'll have to be aware of natural disasters such as volcanoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes; the game's feedback system also shows how citizens feel about their environment.

For those who never got over their childhood fascination with trains, Sid Meier's Railroads! pulls into the station. The PC title from 2K Games is a return to the simple Tycoon-style of gameplay, and enables you to lay tracks where you like, with bridges, tunnels, and stations sprouting automatically as they're needed. Of course, you'll need to understand capitalism too, hauling raw material to factories and carrying manufactured goods to cities to make money, but the fun is in the trains. You can even create your own locos and liveries.

Back with the Band of Brothers

It ended more than 60 years ago, but when it comes to RTS games, the battles of World War II continue to be played out, and the big PC title for 2006 is THQ's Company of Heroes. Featuring heavy-duty physics and a completely destructible environment, it starts off on the beaches of D-Day and continues into the heartland of the Third Reich. Key elements include the ability to use terrain and buildings to your advantage—your A.I. troops make use of any available cover. Equally, destroying buildings makes it easier to flush out the enemy.

Taking a twisted approach to the conflict is CDV's War Front: Turning Point. The game explores what would have happened if Hitler had been assassinated and the German war engine came under control of a new regime. Continuing this theme, the PC game introduces superweapons such as multiturreted tanks, jet-pack soldiers, and armored mechs alongside the more recognizable weapons of WWII.

And it's an alternative universe bought forward 40 years that's the subject of Vivendi's PC RTS World in Conflict. The game is set in the 1990s, as the crumbling Soviet Union attempts to invade Europe and the United States, in a plot from Red Storm Rising co-author Larry Bond. One key focus of the game will be multiplayer, with up to 16 players supported for head-to-head and team-based battles, with individual player roles including infantry, armor, and aerial specialists that need to be filled for team success.

Phasers Set to Kill

The final category to get your strategic teeth into this E3 is science-fiction-based RTSs, and there's quite a range on offer. The most recognizable, of course, is Bethesda's Star Trek: Legacy, which promises to be an epic game of Starfleet combat covering the entire Star Trek universe, from the original series to Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Taking control of a task force of warships—Federation, Klingon, Romulan, and Borg races are playable—you must lead your fleet from victory to victory, each of which earn command points that can be used to personalize your fleet, ships, and captains. Designed both for PC and Xbox 360, online multiplayer will be a big part of the game with Xbox Live, in particular, offering matchmaking, statistics tracking, and player rankings.

Also certain to be raising pulses with its E3 debut is THQ's Supreme Commander. Billed as the next-generation Total Annihilation—it's from TA creator Chris Taylor's Gas Powered Games studio—its stated aim is to put the S back in RTS. The framework is a rock-paper-scissors standoff between three races—the United Earth Federation, Aeons, and Cybrans—and will offer control over single squads through to entire armies of troops and tanks. Naval warfare will have a particularly strong emphasis.

Heading into a more contemporary sci-fi theme is Codemasters' Maelstrom. Set on a devastated future Earth where, in the wake of an apocalyptic ecological disaster, the planet is threatened by an alien invasion, water has become the most valuable of resources and divided the remaining humans into two factions. Again a three-way fight develops, in this case, between the low-tech Remnants, the robotically enhanced Ascension, and the mysterious bio-engineering aliens.

When it comes to Microsoft's Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, the standoff is merely two-way. Taking the sides of either Technology or Magic, the sequel to the critically acclaimed PC game Rise of Nations mixes huge battles with the technology research tree that's characterized games such as Alpha Centauri. Underlying improvements include simple interfaces and less micromanagement. This streamlining has also filtered through to the multiplayer options, with 20-minute games now offering as much satisfaction as longer, more-involved campaigns.

But perhaps the most radical reinterpretation of the whole strategy genre this E3 comes from U.K.-bedroom codehouse Introversion. Its Darwinia PC game, picked up for U.S. release by Cinemaware Marquee, combines fast-paced action, strategic battle planning, intuitive control, and a stylized-if-retrospective graphical look, which mixes fractal-generated landscapes with iconic arcade sprites. Like Tron, it's set within a computer where you take control of a five-man sprite squad, slowly building up until you control entire armies, as well as tanks, field guns, and air strikes. Even more interesting is the lack of a save game option. It's never possible to be completely defeated and hence unnecessary to ever have to back up your progress.

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