The best real-time strategy game available for RISC OS at the moment is probably Dune II. Dune II's one of my favourite RISC OS games, but it's old. It was originally released on the PC way back in 1992, and is considered by many to be the "big-daddy" of the real-time strategy genre. However, the genre has matured since then - Westwood Studios followed Dune II up with Command & Conquer in 1995, Command & Conquer: Red Alert in '96, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun in '98/99, Red Alert 2 last year, and now they're working on Emperor: Battle for Dune. From other companies the PC platform has had classics like Warzone 2100, the Age of Empires trilogy, Ground Control, and many more less popular titles. And what have we had in the way of RTS since Dune II? Nothing.
Enter Artex Software. Artex first hit the RISC OS gaming scene in 1997 with their turn-based space strategy game Exodus. Shortly afterwards they announced that they were working on a real-time strategy game - TEK 1608. This game was originally planned as a joint venture between Artex and Acorn, aiming for a RISC OS and NetStation release. However, Artex lost their contact at Acorn, Kevin Lingley, when the company restructured; and then Acorn themselves folded.
Since then Artex have been focusing more on Iron Dignity (which incidently is also a real-time strategy game, but will be different from TEK in many ways), but TEK development has been continuing on and off in the background. A little while ago they switched 3 of their staff members soley to TEK development, and they're now talking about release this Spring.
So that explains why TEK has been in development for so long, but will Artex be able to make the leap to bring real-time strategy on RISC OS up-to-date? The big jump in the PC titles listed above was the first - from Dune II to Command & Conquer, so the question everyone seems to be asking is "will it be better than C&C?" We put this to Artex front-man Jan Klose, who replied:
When we started programming TEK, we intended to make it better than C&C. The world has seen many more titles of this game. In my personal opinion, our graphics are better than those of C&C 1, and can still compete with the later versions of the games. [...]You'll have to make up your own mind from the details below (which is of course the most comprehensive TEK preview anywhere), but personally I think we could be in for another RISC OS classic.
In terms of gameplay I can only say that we have very different functions than C&C, and the player will have to decide which game he likes more. But TEK certainly offers some very interesting features which have not been seen in other 2D RTS so far - at least not in this combination.
TEK is set in the near future (the year 2025 according to the TEK feature in the January 2001 issue of Acorn User). The world has been devastated by wars and ecological disasters, most animals have died, and the human race can only survive by consuming a drug called "Shock". There are only two corporations who know how to produce this drug, one in Europe and one in Japan. These corporations both have private armies to defend the Shock development and transports, and to attack and sabotage the opposition.
You start the game as a young general sent to head-quarters to fight the enemy. Mission objectives will include things like patrol, search and rescue, and espionage (these are not finalised yet).
There will be one or two training missions in "training camp" style which you can play to become familiar with the interface and in-game features, practicing things like sending units around, using their special functions, creating groups etc.
The types of unit you find in real-time strategy games have always been pretty standard, and Artex have been focusing on how the units behave rather than trying to think up a new set of whacky vehicles of destruction. However, there will be a few special units such as a worm-like unit that travels underground, and huge robots.
A full list (with pictures) is available on Artex' website.
The main spin on the idea is that all these units can be equipped with different weaponry, armour, and engines; so you have to start thinking about the specific requirements of your current mission. Warzone 2100 on the PC had a similar idea to this (where you designed units from various components), and having played that quite extensively it certainly adds a welcome level of thought to the production process.
Unit AI is an area Artex are paying special attention to. I'm sure fans will agree with me that this is one area in which Dune II was quite poor. It was extremely frustrating when you found out one of your harvesters had been destroyed as it had happily carried on harvesting whilst and enemy tank sat right next to it pelting it with shells. Similarly, when you told one of your tanks to attack one of the enemy units, you didn't expect it to follow it all the way into the enemy base when it decided to retreat.
Units will have individual characteristics which affects the decisions they make. They'll become more skillful as they gain experience, so rather than sending army after army to the enemy base it'll be worth your while saving at least some of your units to aid your next battle. Units will also have differing levels of loyalty, so when in battle they'll evaluate if their enemies are stronger, and the 'brave' ones keep on fighting while the cowards may flee back to base.
In Command & Conquer, most of the AI is hard-wired, i.e. after 10 minutes the enemy units attack from the east, 5 minutes later the reinforcements arrive, and 5 minutes later another unit will enter the battlefield from the north. In TEK, the units have no such pre-defined behaviour. They have their mission objective and try to achieve it by evaluating the player's moves.
Commanding your troops
The gameplay in Dune II often required you to tell a large groups of units to attack an area, but unfortunately you couldn't command more than one unit at a time, so you had to select each unit individually and tell it where you wanted to attack (a great way to wear out your mouse mat). Westwood rectified this in Command & Conquer, and you'll be able to group units in the same way in TEK. It's basically the same idea as grouping objects in Draw - you drag a box containing the units to select them, and then when you give an order it applies to them all.
Originally the ability to 'group groups' was planned, but apparently this proved quite irritating in testing so the feature was removed. The AI has also been programmed so that the units will try and think as a group, so for example when travelling they'll wait for the slower units, and use the faster units to seek out the enemy in the surrounding areas. Grouped units will benefit from their leader's experience and increased morale.
You'll be able to set way-points to give your units routes to patrol along. These can either be looped routes (e.g. patrol around your base), or linear routes (e.g. to patrol a border which is under regular attack).
The terrain will play an important part in TEK strategy. Ground units won't be able to see behind hills, so you have the option of a hide-and-seek approach rather than just "my army's bigger than your army". Similarly, small units will be able to take cover in forests, and certain units such as the jeep will be able to jump over gorges.
Resource management vs. All-out battle
One of the problems with the RTS genre has always been getting the balance between the building-up-your-base aspect of the game and all-out combat. Consequently whilst the true RTS games have started to focus more on the combat aspect, there's been a spin-off genre with games such as the Settlers series which are 80 resource management. TEK goes down the former route, focusing on battle strategy and tactics. You'll start missions with most of your base already built - the only buildings you'll be able to add will be additional factories and defence structures such as gun placements.
The music is one of the areas not finalised yet. Rather than having full tracks played off the CD most of the time we'll probably only be hearing atmospheric sound effects with the odd short burst of dramatic music during "big battles".
The low-level network code in TEK has not been implemented yet, but the whole TEK code is written network-ready. Any computer will be able to act as a server and host a local LAN or modem/serial session. Internet games will also be possible - you'll be able to connect to a server running a TEK game. TEK supports network play with up to 8 players, but it remains to be seen whether this will be possible with the current RISC OS machines. However, the support is there.
TEK will require a RiscPC with 8MB RAM and about 5-10MB hard disc space. StrongARM computers, RiscStations or other more recent hardware will be recommended, especially for network play.
If TEK is successful on RISC OS then it's quite possible versions will be produced for other platforms. Artex are especially keen to do a Linux port, as there aren't many games available for the platform. A Mac version is also a possibility, as well as a version for Windows which would be the easiest platform to port to. If a Windows version was produced then Artex would be aiming at TEK making up part of games collections or bundle offers, which seems sensible when recent PC titles such as Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun are now available on budget for a tenner.
TEK will be supplied on CD, and priced somewhere in the region of £25-30. If all goes to plan then we should be seeing the game before this year's Wakefield show, although obviously this depends how many problems are identified during the testing phase. A level editor may be released at a later date as an add-on if the game is well received.
Below is a selection of screenshots that have been released through TEK's development.
From the film trailer:
|A selection of screenshots from the film trailer released on a recentish Acorn User CD-Rom|
Older in-game shots: