Rally ’round the flag: RTS, the gamepad problem, and Tooth And Tails’ solution

In Features by Matthias2 Comments

When I got into gaming (let’s just say it wasn’t this century), two genres were of greatest interest to me: point and click adventures and real-time strategy. What struck me the most about RTS games like Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Warcraft 2 and Starcraft was that, despite being way more complex than any LucasArts adventure, you could still play them by just using the mouse. Sure, the option to mark groups of units and creating a hotkey for them made life on the battlefield a lot easier, but leaving the keyboard untouched got you through the game nevertheless.

The thing I loved about playing a game with only two fingers was that I could fully occupy my mind with what went on in the game, on the screen. And I could drink milk and eat cookies at the same time. Being 12 years old was hard enough, so I was thankful for this approachable entry into the world of strategic games.

As time passed by, and consoles arose, it was only natural that the strategic genre would keep its homebase on the PC. This is why a year ago, owning a PS4 already, I bought myself a brand new gaming computer just for playing new strategy games like Stellaris, Hearts of Iron IV and Battle Brothers.

The only time a strategy game worked for me on a console was when I played XCOM: Enemy Unknown on the PS3. I was totally blown away by how brilliantly it could be played with the PlayStation Dualshock gamepad. Of course, I realized that this was a turn-based strategy game and porting it to a console maybe wasn’t that innovative. I mean, you basically have all the time in the world to plan your soldiers next moves. Switching between them by pressing some buttons instead of clicking directly on them wasn’t that much of a big step.

So turn-based games work pretty well on consoles. I could’ve concluded that before XCOM by simply reminding myself of all the JRPGs of the Final Fantasy and Persona series’. But that still leaves us with real-time strategy, where there’s far less time available for decision making. This is why players tend to worship Douglas C. Engelbart for inventing the mouse, which lets you move around the screen rapidly.

The genre has had its ups and downs over the course of the last two decades, and it got stuck after reaching its peak with Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. It probably would have been declared dead at some point were it not for the fast rising and still growing esports scene, which has kept Starcraft alive and at the same time reinvented RTS culture with MOBAs like Dota 2 and League Of Legends.

It’s technically possible to play Dota 2 with a controller. But let’s be honest, that is not a great idea. Keyboard and mouse are the way to go, especially if you want to compete. So that still leaves us with the problem — if you want to call it a problem — of what the hell to do about playing RTS on a console or with a PC compatible gamepad like the Steam Controller.

This year brought ports for Sudden Strike 4 and Shadow Tactics to the PS4 and both of these games don’t do the best job of winning over console players. The main issue is, how do we replace the mouse cursor in a way that works? Simply making us move it around with a gamepad is so slow and painful. It’s even feels a little bit stupid, if I might say.

Enter Tooth And Tail, released on September 12, 2017 on Steam and at the same time for the PS4. “Build a base, lead your army, eat your enemies! Tooth and Tail is a Real-Time-Strategy game featuring Single Player, Online Competitive Play, Split Screen, Replays, and more.”¬†Tooth And Tail offers all the basic elements that fans of RTS love.

This indie gem is one of my favorite strategy games of 2017, and it won me over primarily by giving console/gamepad players the solution they’ve longed for. It replaces the mouse with a main character, the leader of the faction you are playing. You control her or him. You move them around the battlefield, telling your armies where to go, what to attack and where to build bases. You can die, but just like the heroes in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, you respawn after a short while. Your character is not able to attack or defend. The only thing they hold in their hands is a huge flag. At any time you can rally your troops around you or make them follow you. After targeting enemies or enemy structures you can simply withdraw and let your army take care of the rest.

As simple as this sounds, all the deep tactics of RTS are found in Tooth And Tail. The whole experience is just, well, shorter. Battles last no longer than 5-12 minutes, making the game more casual than epic, while on the other hand suiting its multiplayer options. Short matches favor Tooth And Tails’ replayability.

I was simply stunned by how well the game’s control mechanics work. Why did no one think of this sooner? It may not overthrow the way people generally like to play RTS games, but it still is a small revolution. Tooth And Tail may just be the first strategy game where players genuinely recommend that you play with a controller rather than the traditional mouse and keyboard. And that alone is special.

What do you make of the idea? Should real-time strategy stay conservative and therefore keep its home on the PC? Do you know of other strategic games that have evolved towards gamepad controls? Let us know in the comments below!

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Matthias
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Writing out of Goettingen, Germany. Comic lover and movie enthusiast. Father of two. His life was once saved by the Nintendo Gamecube. Deeply in love with not only his wife but also the NY Islanders and the TMNT. And food. Did we mention food?


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David Hernandez Solyman
David Hernandez Solyman

I liked the article and thanks for writing it. I thought the introduction leading up to Tooth and Tails first mention was a bit long. I have been so surprised that I can play an RTS with a controller. However, I’ve been sticking with the mouse. RTS and mouse have been matched together for me since 1994 when I first played Warcraft II.