Finally, VR has a legitimate RTS contender in Brass Tactics

02/28/2017 by Sam Machkovech | Source: Ars Technica
SAN FRANCISCO—That real-time strategy battling is a solid fit for virtual reality seems like a foregone conclusion. RTS games like Total Annihilation and Starcraft already force players to gaze at their little fighters, armies, and fortifications from high above. So why not let us use VR systems to control all of those battles with our hands, like wartime puppeteers, with greater speed and accuracy than a mouse-and-keyboard could ever give?

The developers of Brass Tactics, the first major RTS for the Oculus Touch platform, say that there's a reason gamers haven't seen a major game in the genre in VR's early days. "Real-time strategy is already hard to make," Hidden Path Entertainment co-founder Mark Terrano says. "Virtual reality only adds more challenge."

But, by golly, Hidden Path may very well have nailed the formula with its still-in-development game Brass Tactics—and well before any other game developer has launched anything remotely as slick.

Ore and jewels

Hidden Path's pedigree comes primarily from its work on Defense Grid: The Awakening, the game that effectively ended the tower-defense phenomenon by nailing it. In the years since that 2008 game launched, the Bellevue-based company has also done contract work on Counter Strike: GO and an Age of Empires II remaster. Here, they've finally gotten an opportunity to design a pure RTS from the ground up, and, from the look of things, the studio was hungry to do so.

Brass Tactics had its world premiere at an Oculus Studios event during the 2017 Game Developers Conference, and the game's demo version on display revolved around one-on-one army combat. In the demo, each commander starts at one end of a massive virtual table. On each end stands a large castle-like base, and in front of the base you'll see slots for towers that can be used to generate military units. Players are expected to generate a mix of medieval and modern-warfare units—from archers and sword-swinging knights to silver dragons and laser tanks—then direct these units forward to overtake more slots and command points across the middle of the map.

As players take over more territory, they accumulate ore and jewels, which are spent on new army units and new technology upgrades. Resources automatically generate as players take over more territory, which leaves players free to focus on essentially a five-path map assault on their enemy. Destroy your foe's armies and control points to win.

Sounds like relatively traditional RTS stuff—indeed, Hidden Path isn't using VR to reinvent the genre's mechanical wheels. Instead, the studio has spit-shined the concept of using hands to control a giant map—and tuned the battling to make this as fun as possible.

I repeatedly shouted "wow, this is clever" as I made sense of the various control systems. Want to move around the battle table? Grab the table and slide yourself around it (or even use both hands to monkey-crawl all the way across). Want to upgrade various technologies on your base? The edge of your table is lined with various wooden blocks, and you pick these up and place them in open slots in your base to install them as permanent upgrades (and your slots expand as your base gets better over time).

Whenever you're in the middle of the map and want to create new towers, it's as simple as flicking one of your wrists sideways, which reveals a "pick a tower" interface as a disc covered in icons. (The more upgrades you've installed at your primary base, the more towers you can generate with your ore.) Use your other free hand to grab an icon, then move it to the right spot to make that tower. And directing units to move or attack is as simple as pointing at them, holding a button down, and releasing that button once a floating arrow points at the exact target you want them to run, fly, or drive towards.

You even get a zany catapult for free at the corner of your map. At any time in the battle, you can go to your catapult, pull it back, and let loose on your opponent, with the only limitation being the accuracy of your long-distance aim (like a VR version of Artillery or Scorched Earth). This doesn't cost any resources; it just takes a while to regenerate a new cannonball.

But wait, you might ask. How do you aim a catapult across a battlefield covered in the usual RTS haze and clouds?

No fog of war?

You read that correctly. Brass Tactics has tossed the usual RTS convention of fog of war out the window. At any time, players can drag their way across the map and see exactly what their opponent is plotting.

I thought this was unheard of, so I asked Hidden Path what the heck they were doing. They insist that after so much playtesting, VR RTS makes more sense without it.

"Players’ attention is the critical resource," Terrano says. "There's no fog of war in the real world, and this is more like a tabletop game. I wanted you to be able to look and see everywhere. The trick is, you can’t look everywhere at once."

I realized what he meant very quickly into my own demo session. Brass Tactics has what feels like five battling paths, split across the map with a few branching points, along with a few wide-open swaths of land. Each can be exploited by certain ranged, flying, and slow-and-deadly units to change the expected flow very suddenly. You can certainly crawl across the map using your real-life hands to spy on your opponent's side of combat at any point, but Brass Tactics makes the sheer act of generating and ordering units incredibly brisk—and the act of journeying across a map pretty slow.

As a result, moving your entire view to your opponent (which is, by default, obscured by some hills and geometry from your side of the map) disrupts the flow of offensive management—thus making any spying attempt an interesting strategic choice, especially later in an explosive map. (You can also move to your opponent's side and stick your hands in their face if you want, but it's really not worth the trouble. Seriously, I tried.)

Terrano says that the team took six months to build the game's basic interface, before even starting work on creating units and balancing armies. His team even experimented with what he called "vertical" and "cylindrical" battleground designs before settling on this giant imaginary battle-table system. All the while, his team had one operating goal: to create a fully tactile and physical interface. "Typical real-time strategy has lots and lots of interface," Terrano says. "For example, your base upgrades. Rather than have a tabbed menu with icons, they’re these buildings you pick up in your hand and snap into the board."

The company is targeting launch in October of this year, and the retail version of Brass Tactics will include a five-mission solo campaign, a cooperative campaign against AI soldiers, and a full online RTS battling experience. The team says that for now, army-building options will be identical on both sides of the battlefield, as opposed to asymmetrical—though that could change over time.

What probably won't change, at least, is a satisfying, offense-heavy approach that still feels rich with unit micromanagement, full-field strategy, resource handling, and rock-paper-scissors army juggling. Oh, and one that feels awesome to direct entirely with your hands. We'll be keeping our eyes on this one.