PC Strategy Roundup 2004
This feature offers an at-a-glance summary of all the major PC strategy games of 2004.
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Design by James Cheung
What are the first games that come to mind when you think about the PC games of 2004? Doom 3? Half-Life 2? Far Cry? Sure, several highly anticipated first-person shooters have been released this year for the PC, with more still on the way. With so much attention placed on the shooter genre, it's relatively easy to forget about the great strategy games that are on the way or have already come out for the PC. Games like Rise of Nations: Thrones & Patriots and Ground Control II: Operation Exodus have already received much critical acclaim, while others, like The Sims 2, Rome: Total War, and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth, promise to deliver similarly enjoyable experiences. The prevalence of strategy games on the PC platform helps set it apart from consoles, where the genre is generally not as well represented.
With so many excellent and promising PC strategy games to choose from, it can be difficult to keep them all straight. GameSpot's 2004 PC Strategy Roundup gives you an at-a-glance summary of all the top PC strategy games of this year. Use the following menu to browse the games by theme:
- High-fantasy setting
- Three distinct playable factions
- Above- and belowground gameplay
- Three-part single-player campaign with more than 30 missions
- Developed by a studio with great experience in motion pictures
Perhaps the most innovative feature in Armies of Exigo is that it takes place on two different levels. In addition to the regular surface world, there's an underground level. This adds a new dimension to the gameplay, as you can focus to build on the surface, build in the underground, or both. The single-player campaign will be spread over 36 missions, 12 per faction. Over the course of the campaign, you'll play as each of the three factions to see how each one relates to the other, and you'll also become acquainted with them for use in multiplayer play. Armies of Exigo will support up to 12 players and will have 30 to 40 multiplayer levels. Each player will be able to command up to 200 units, so it'll be possible to have gigantic battles with more than a thousand units in play.
- World War II setting
- Features board-game-like mechanics
- Streamlined strategy and resource system
- Historical battles
- Randomly generated maps
Interestingly enough, since Axis & Allies draws inspiration from the classic board game of the same name, it will have features like dice rolls and randomly generated battlegrounds based loosely on the geography of the region. In order to succeed in most operations, you'll have to use an intelligent combination of forces, like tanks, infantry, and artillery, as well as generals serving under you who, depending on their own unique skills (and history), will make special abilities available to you on the battlefield. Each of the abilities in the game will have a cost in "general points" and a timer linked to it, ensuring that you can't use them repeatedly. Simple abilities, such as additional supply drops, will cost relatively little and will be available frequently, but major abilities, like dropping an A-bomb, are unlikely to be an option more than once or twice during a typical battle. Axis & Allies promises a refreshing change of pace from the conventional real-time strategy game.
- World War II setting
- Tactical, small-scale strategy
- Role-playing-game-style experience advancement for your troops
- Play as real-world WWII military officers
- 30 missions over three campaigns
The game will include around 30 missions, which will be spread over three campaigns. The German campaign will run from the invasion of Poland to the siege at Stalingrad in 1942. From there, you'll pick up as the Soviets, until the fall of Berlin in 1945. The third and final campaign will let you play as the Americans and British during the liberation of France in 1944. All the campaign missions will be playable in cooperative multiplayer. Stormregion is still being a bit quiet about its multiplayer, but it is aiming to support up to 32 players. Additional multiplayer modes will include defend and attack, as well as the traditional capture the flag.
- From the makers of Europa Universalis
- Medieval era, historical, turn-based strategy
- Three campaigns: William the Conqueror, the Third Crusade, and the Hundred Years' War
- High-level strategic decision-making hinges on both war and diplomacy
- Poor multiplayer matchmaking
- Inadequate manual and tutorial
Longtime fans of Paradox Entertainment's Europa Universalis strategy games will find new content to explore in Crusader Kings. Paradox's newest game maintains the epic scope and attention to historical detail of previous games in the series, while taking the setting into the medieval era. The game offers three campaigns: William the Conqueror, the Third Crusade, and the Hundred Years' War. You'll take control of a monarch and attempt to steer your country to domination by combining wise economics, shrewd diplomacy, and military prowess.
Each monarch in the game has his or her own skill level in martial leadership, diplomacy, intrigue, and stewardship, along with dozens of other character traits. This gives each leader a distinct personality, which you'll need to analyze situations and take action for the benefit of your country. Aside from dealing with other national leaders, you'll also need to worry about keeping your vassals and peasants happy, which makes for a delicate balancing act that typifies this line of strategy games. Fans of high-level strategy should find plenty to like in Crusader Kings.
- Ability to control a villain
- Styled in the vein of Dungeon Keeper
- Austin Powers-like theme and sense of humor
- Design your own underground lair, with traps and torture chambers
- Thwart secret agents, spies, commandos, and other do-gooders
As your influence and infamy grow, you'll be able to carry out dastardly missions around the world to increase your own renown and technological prowess. Attack the same country too many times, and you can expect retaliation in kind, as the "heat" from that country increases. Eventually you'll have dozens of different rooms and agent types at your disposal and the ability to build a number of doomsday devices with which to threaten freedom, truth, and the American way. If you've got a hankering to be the bad guy, Evil Genius promises to provide you with plenty of entertainment.
- Modern-day, tactical urban combat simulator
- Based on a training game developed for the US Army
- PC version will have higher-resolution textures than Xbox version
- Interface has also been adapted for mouse and keyboard
- Two bonus missions added to PC version
- Actual US Army game not included in PC version
In the game, your squad is split up into two fireteams of four, alpha and bravo. Using these two fireteams, you must explore hostile territory and execute basic Army doctrine: One team uses suppressive fire, while the other outflanks the pinned opponents and eliminates them from a vulnerable side. You'll need to keep your men behind usable cover, such as the corners of buildings, piles of debris, and cars along streets. If you get caught out in the open, your chances of sustaining a casualty increase many times. You'll be able to use thrown grenades, grenade launchers, and smoke grenades to assist you on your missions. You'll also have to deal with threats such as enemy tanks and snipers.
Full Spectrum Warrior is not an especially complicated game, and many players may actually find it to be rather repetitive as the relatively short campaign wears on. Still, it is most definitely a unique experience, and the ability to play cooperatively with a friend (each of you controlling one fireteam) can add to the game's overall value. The game's presentation is also superb, particularly the graphics and the bouncing camera, which makes you feel as though you're watching a piece from an embedded reporter in the middle of a war.
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Ground Control II: Operation Exodus
- Impressive graphics engine
- Sci-fi setting
- Fast-paced, frenetic gameplay
- No base construction
- Lengthy campaign
- Tricky camera
- Only two races
There's no base construction or traditional economy in Ground Control II; instead, you'll need to worry about capturing and holding victory locations in order to earn points, which you can use to ferry in reinforcements via dropship. Just about every unit in the game has a secondary mode to add to your tactical options, and the game does a great job of modeling the effects of terrain, cover, and flanking maneuvers on the outcome of a battle. Though there are only two playable units in the game, the included campaigns are well designed and lengthy. Once you're done with those, the game's built-in online matchmaking service makes finding a multiplayer match a snap. Thus far, Ground Control II has proven itself to be one of the best PC strategy games of 2004.
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Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile
- Ancient Egyptian setting
- Economic strategy
- Developed by the creators of Caesar, Zeus, and Pharaoh
- Fully 3D engine
Children of the Nile takes the approach that if you build it, they will come. In other words, you have to convince the villagers in the game that it's in their best interest to live under your rule. However, to get to a thriving city, you have to provide the support structures and opportunities to let civilization flourish. You'll need to build temples for priests who serve certain functions, including educating the young and tending to the sick, and so on. Children of the Nile eschews the paranormal element found in the later Impressions city-building games; you won't have gods literally walking around your city, but your citizens will still be concerned about religion.
The game will cover the three major periods of ancient Egyptian history: the old kingdom, the middle kingdom, and the new kingdom. One of the concepts in the game is that your pharaoh is part of a dynastic family, and he'll eventually die. If your pharaoh has managed to amass a large amount of prestige, your dynasty will continue, so it'll be important for you to constantly look to improve your society and boost your prestige by building grander and grander buildings and monuments.
- New 3D graphics
- Streamlined yet deep gameplay
- Improved interface
- AI that doesn't cheat
- Challenging multiplayer modes
- Excellent RTS gameplay
Kohan II also features a new 3D graphics engine that looks good. But perhaps the most impressive feature of Kohan II is the smart noncheating AI. The computer will prove to be a formidable opponent if you're looking for a challenge, and it's fun to just jump into a skirmish game and fight for your life against the AI. And when you're ready for a human opponent, Kohan II will support up to eight players on multiplay in a variety of wild matches. The game is so finely balanced that the momentum can swing back and forth, and the multiplay matches we've participated in have been a lot of fun. All this makes Kohan II a real-time strategy game to look out for this autumn.
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The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth
- Based on Peter Jackson's award-winning motion pictures
- Four factions based on Tolkien's lore
- "Emotion" system causes characters to act and react to onscreen action
- Minimal interface
- Streamlined base-building with "veteran" buildings
No matter which side you play as, you'll find that Battle for Middle-earth optionally has a surprisingly streamlined interface with no icons, status bars, or numbers onscreen. You see just your units and your buildings, if you even have any--buildings will upgrade themselves over time into veteran status to produce stronger units of that type (rather than forcing you to research upgrades). This is so you can focus on the spectacular battles between ents (huge moving trees), orcs, trolls, elves, and humans, who will display distinct "emotions" in battle--cheering when victorious and cowering when routed. Battle for Middle-earth will attempt to cater to beginners who may be fans of the movies but not real-time strategy experts--but the game also clearly has more than enough depth to keep veterans happy.
- Departure from earlier Lords games
- From the makers of the Caesar, Pharoah, and Zeus city-building games
- Battles rage in real time while you make high-level strategic decisions
- Combines castle building, tactical battles, and land management
- Budget priced at $20
In the field, you'll have command over a variety of units, such as pikemen, cavalry, bowmen, and knights, and, of course, over siege machinery, like trebuchets. You'll need to manage sieges from both sides, but a castle design interface will allow you to set up your strongholds as you please. If you're looking for a budget-priced medieval strategy game, it's hard to go wrong with Lords of the Realm III.
- Roman setting
- Four races: Romans, Carthaginians, Iberians, Gauls
- Epic-sized maps, hundreds of units rendered simultaneously
- Interesting economic/logistical model
- Good skirmish mode
- Primitive production values
Though buildings and towns are not destructible in Nemesis, you'll need to capture them and establish logistical supply lines to your primary town in order to keep up a steady flow of gold and food to feed your army. You'll also have to be sure to protect these supply lines, because your army's ability to fight hinges on a steady supply of food. Aside from this interesting mechanic, Nemesis sets itself apart with great enemy AI that doesn't appear to cheat. You'll see enemy scout forces probing your borders for the best place to attack and executing advanced tactics like feints and harassing charges.
If you're interested in a classical-era strategy game that offers unique gameplay mechanics, lengthy campaigns, and a great skirmish mode, Nemesis of the Roman Empire should be right up your alley.
- Gorgeous, though taxing, graphics
- High-concept sci-fi setting
- Innovative real-time strategy
- Real-time terraforming
- Challenging gameplay
With a plot that's equal parts Sliders and Solaris, you'll explore strange new dimensions where reality can take on different shapes. Your mission is to shepherd the remnants of humanity--living in giant floating cities known as frames--safely through these different dimensions. At the same time, you must battle rival frames, but the most dire threat comes from the scourge, a strange enemy that takes a different shape in each dimension. Perimeter is touted as the first real-time terraforming game, since the primary resource in the game is not some exotic mineral or ore, but rather land. The gorgeous voxel graphics engine renders beautiful, organic landscapes, and if the game has a weakness, it's that you'll need a powerful computer to see it running at maximum detail. But if you're looking for an original RTS game, and if you have a top-of-the-line system, then Perimeter is certainly worth checking out.
- Dynamic Caribbean to sail around
- Highly interconnected economy
- Beautiful graphics
- Establish new towns
The developers have a gigantic list of improvements in Port Royale 2, including an enhanced graphics engine. Perhaps the biggest feature is that the world of Port Royale 2 will be a fully dynamic one. While you're out sailing on your own or trading in port, all your competitors will be doing the same to create the feeling of a real world. The economy, in particular, is highly interconnected. There will be 19 tradable goods, including cotton, tobacco, wood, wheat, and garments. Each town and port in the game will be capable of producing only five of these items, which means that they'll need to import the others, which is where you come in. And with approximately 60 or more towns and ports in the game covering the expanse of the Caribbean, there's no shortage of trading opportunities--plus, you can also establish new cities of your own.
If you're a fan of economic trading games, or of pirates, then you should definitely check out Port Royale 2 when it ships this autumn.
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Rise of Nations: Thrones & Patriots
- Six new distinct nations, including America
- Engage in a race for supremacy in the New World
- Conquer Europe as Napoleon
- Wage the Cold War as either the USSR or USA
- It makes a superb real-time strategy game even better
Simply put, if you own Rise of Nations but don't own Thrones & Patriots, you owe it to yourself right now to buy this expansion. And if you don't own either and you love strategy games, you should definitely pick these up now. (Microsoft is making this task easier, as a Gold Edition packaging both the original game and the expansion will ship to stores this fall.) Real-time strategy doesn't get much better than this.
- Amusement park management
- All-new 3D engine
- CoasterCam lets you ride your own rides from a first-person view
- Free-form sandbox mode
- Five different attraction themes to decorate your amusement park
RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 will be the first game in the series to feature a sandbox mode in which you can build the park of your dreams without having to worry about the usual constraints, such as money. The primary mode of play, though, will be the scenario-based career mode with no time limits. Any of the game's modes will let you use the game's powerful editing tools, which let you quickly build up or flatten land, create your own scenarios, create your own ride music using MP3 files on your hard drive, and even program the sequence of fireworks that go off above your park at night.
- Ancient Rome setting
- Humongous epic 3D battles with thousands of units
- Streamlined strategic game
- Completely optional halves: Choose to play only the battles or only the strategic game
- Accurate historical battle mode
- Improved help system and tutorial
To this end, you'll be able to use the Total War series' patented combination of a strategic turn-based mode and huge real-time battles fought between thousands of soldiers. The strategic turn-based mode will be expanded to let you move troops across territories rather than across separate nations like a board game--this lets you take better control of positioning your armies for battle. However, the strategic game will have all the depth and political intrigue of the previous games but in a more-streamlined fashion that includes an advisor that walks you through pretty much everything. And the game's real-time battles will take place in huge 3D environments among companies that have powerful commanding officers and individual units that will square off against each other. The game will also have other improvements, like a better endgame that may culminate in a bloody Roman civil war (rather than the anticlimactic mopping up of loose territories that you haven't yet conquered). Rome: Total War looks very impressive, and from what we've seen, the game will provide hours of enjoyable distraction for fans of both grand strategy and brutal battles.
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The Settlers: Heritage of Kings
- Medieval European setting
- Full military and hero units
- Branching single-player campaign with 20 dynamic scenarios
- More than 70 different villager and citizen types
- Role-playing elements.
The classic Settlers series has always had a devoted following for its particular brand of real-time strategy, simulation, and town-building in realms with fantasy flavors. With The Settlers: Heritage of Kings, Blue Byte is expanding its audience by giving its venerable franchise a 3D graphical face-lift with Criterion's RenderWare engine. Additionally, developer Blue Byte is incorporating some new gameplay features. The Settlers: Heritage of Kings will take place in a world that tends more to the medieval than to the mythological and that includes a form of "credible magic." The maps will incorporate active terrain, including changing weather and seasons as well as smaller environmental details, like forests populated with deer and ranging wolves. There will be many different kinds of buildings and characters present in the game
Heritage of Kings will include 20 dynamic scenarios, and there will be multiple paths you can take to successfully complete your missions, including engaging your enemies in battle. If you've built a barracks, you'll be able to recruit leaders who will, in turn, recruit squads of troops for you. Types of troops will include cavalry, artillery units, and men who use swords, spears, and bows. In addition, there will be hero units that possess special abilities. You'll be able to train your troops at your barracks, increasing their levels and making them more successful in combat.
- Sailing, dueling, profiteering on the high seas
- The remake of a 17-year-old classic
- Colorful graphics and lighthearted humor
- Accessible pick-up-and-play minigames
- Streamlined control scheme
Like the original game, the new Pirates! will feature high-seas sailing and trading for profit, though you'll also be able to engage in pick-up-and-play minigames like sword duels, ship battles, and even ballroom dances with the governor's daughter. (And for those who don't wish to be anchored to a single port, don't worry--Pirates! will have plenty of different governors' daughters.) These fast-paced minigames will generally be controlled using an easy-to-learn setup with your keyboard's number pad or your WASD keyboard keys. Pirates! will also feature several other minigames like land battles and stealth missions, as well as plenty of different missions you can undertake, from plundering treasure troves to finding your long-lost family.
- World War II theme
- Single-player, turn-based
- Dozens of weapons
- Characters increase in skill with experience
- Destructible buildings, impressive physics engine
- Some balance issues
While the intricate level of detail should appeal to many strategy fans, Silent Storm suffers from a few flaws, such as a campaign that seems to lose focus toward the end. Also, you'll find yourself waiting a while for the AI to take its turn. Despite these issues, Silent Storm is still easily recommendable to turn-based strategy fans, and its presentation makes for many thrilling and entertaining moments.
- Sequel to the most successful PC game of all time
- Vastly improved graphics
- Sims now have memories
- Sims now have families, grow old, and die
- Sims now have aspirations and fears
- Use SimCity 4 to design your sim suburbs
And the little computer people will have plenty of all-new abilities and features. Your sims will be able to get married and have babies, as before, but those babies will be able to grow to full adulthood, get married, have children of their own, grow old, and even die of old age. Fortunately, death is something that can be staved off using the all-new aspirations system, which gives individual sims specific life goals based on their personalities--maybe their goal in life is to get married and settle down, or maybe it's to have many, many, many girlfriends. Whatever the case, aspirations (and their opposites, personal fears) will serve as yet another way to guide you through your sims' development...if you want. Like the first game, The Sims 2 will offer a remarkable variety of things to do, like designing a new home, designing the look of your sims using the all-new editor, designing a neighborhood using SimCity 4, or just creating a sim family and letting them run amok. If what we've seen is any indication, The Sims 2 will offer plenty of weird, wacky enjoyment for hardcore fans and casual players alike.
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Soldiers: Heroes of World War II
- World War II setting
- Innovative direct and indirect control of units
- Destructible terrain and environments
- Dozens of realistic weapons and vehicles
- Extremely difficult and involving missions
- Four campaigns: American, British, German, Russian
- Poorly integrated multiplayer matchmaking
The game's other primary strength is in its intricate detail. You can enter and garrison any building in the game and even direct your troops to fire out of specific doorways or windows. You can also capture and commandeer vehicles, which are accurately modeled for number of crew and weapon strength. Try to control a tank with just one or two crew members, and its ability to fight--factors such as moving and firing at once or reload time--will be diminished. You'll even have to keep careful tabs on ammunition, fuel, and ammunition type.
The game's graphics engine is slow, but it's impressive in its level of detail. Buildings and terrain are fully destructible, while the explosions and fires you cause are spectacular to see. If not for the game's extreme level of difficulty, it would be easy to recommend Soldiers to any strategy fan, but as it is, only hardcore strategy players are likely to have the patience to muddle their way through the game's challenging missions.
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SpellForce: The Order of Dawn
- Fantasy setting
- Hybrid role-playing game elements
- Persistent hero unit that gains levels and items
- Extreme camera close-ups
- Some interface issues
- Some camera issues
In practice, SpellForce is a real-time strategy game that features traditional base-building and resource gathering, but it lets you maintain bases of operation in different areas. This means that you don't always have to start out from scratch when beginning a new level, since you can sometimes jump back to your previously built fortress for supplies. The entire world, at least in the single-player game, consists of floating "islands" connected by portals that you can use to jump to and from different locations, which you'll do to advance the story. You can also use the portals to revisit your holdings. You play the game using a persistent hero character who gains levels, picks up items, and can learn spells, depending on which profession you choose. You can also use built-up hero characters in the game's multiplayer modes.
While SpellForce wasn't perfect right out of the box at release, it does have a number of unusual features that help set it apart from other, more-conventional games.
- Global strategy
- Real-time strategy, turn-based pacing
- Multiple paths to victory
- Streamlined diplomacy, research, and military action
- Global thermonuclear war!
From what we've seen so far, there's a huge amount of depth and detail in SuperPower 2. The developer used data from the United Nations, the CIA's World Factbook, and UCG, which has supplanted Jane's as the leading provider of information to the Pentagon. There's so much data present that Couture says SuperPower 2 will have the largest amount of nonclassified military information in a game. The game will also model realistic tensions and hotspots, including the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East, the Taiwan Straight, and independence movements that threaten domestic tranquility, such as the one involving the Basques of Spain.
- Beautiful 3D graphics adhere to Warhammer 40,000 universe
- Fast-paced, detailed combat
- Four playable races, including space marines and orks
- Army painter lets you custom-paint units
- Eight-player multiplay
Though it looks like a Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game in motion, Dawn of War is a real-time strategy game that uses none of the established turn-based tabletop rules. Instead, the designers, most of them being huge Warhammer fans, have created a fast-paced and intense real-time strategy game with an incredible level of detail. Knowing that the appeal of Warhammer 40,000 is the combat, the designers have made Dawn of War a game where the action starts within the first minute and doesn't let up until one side is wiped out. The game is stunning to watch, and all the units and vehicles adhere to the look of the miniatures to the last detail. Even better, in multiplay you can "paint" your virtual units any way you want, using the army painter, and then throw your troops into online battle. Simply put, Warhammer 40,000 should very well be a Warhammer fan's dream come true.
- Management strategy
- Kid-friendly, especially good for parents to play with their small children
- All-new 3D graphics engine
- Improved zoo-building and design interfaces
- First-person view to visit your exhibits yourself
- Photo scrapbook lets you share zoo photos online
The new 3D engine allows for new features that will let you get closer to the animals than you've ever been before. You can switch to a first-person, ground-level view of the zoo and walk around, experiencing everything like one of your visitors would. As a visitor, you can snap pictures in a photo safari mode and then store those pictures in your photo albums. It's close to being a tourist at a real zoo. You can also walk around in zookeeper mode, which allows you to enter the animals' habitat and care for each animal individually. In addition to caring for animals, you'll also need to build and expand your zoo. To this end, the sequel features a new "biome brush" option, which lets you quickly and easily design and edit exhibits.