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Preview: Rogue Command

22 Feb 2022

So, confession time. I am terrible at real-time strategy games.

I know this intellectually, but I also know that every time it comes up I’m drawn to them like a moth to a flame. I can’t help it. Ever since I played Warcraft II I have a deep-seated need for these games to be shot directly into my veins, only to be very quickly and very repeatedly reminded that I am bad at these games as I watch what I thought were intelligent force compositions fall apart before rows of enemy units, at which point my strategy changes to… doing the exact same thing because I can’t figure out what I did wrong the last time, and then I lose.

Again, terrible at this.

Still, Rogue Command offers me a chance to do something different. No, it’s still a real-time strategy game in every way, shape, and form – but this time it’s a roguelike real-time strategy game! Now instead of complaining that I don’t know what to do because I am an idiot, I don’t know what to do because my random allocation of units was bad and it’s not my fault any more! Right? Right?

No, it’s still my fault. But hey, I am at least capable of evaluating if the game works as a real-time strategy game on some level. So does it do that? Is it fun? Does mashing up roguelike mechanics with RTS gameplay wind up as two great tastes that taste great together, or is it a better idea on paper than it sounds in practice? I can’t tell you for certain, but I can share my thoughts after tooling around with a preview build.

Luck of the Draw

First and foremost, I can’t comment on the game’s story because in the build I played, there wasn’t any. There were robots, there were factories, there was a team of opposing-color robots, go blow them up within the time limit. If you were looking for any narrative more ornate than that, I can’t help you. Try not to get your own units blown up.

In the most basic terms, this is… well, the most basic RTS in terms of mechanics. You have one resource, Crystals, harvested by a specific building. Rather than building a bunch of construction units that serve as harvesters as well as builders, you have one specific builder, your Engineer. This little floating robot constructs your buildings, and it has a limited number of lives. Once all of those lives are exhausted, it’s game over. By default you get access to the building harvesting crystals, the building to construct basic infantry robots, and a little summoned tower to make your units move faster. And… that’s it. Find the enemy base and blow it up.

You might think that sounds almost abstract in its simplicity, and you’d be right… except, of course, for the roguelike factor. After each successful mission, you get to choose between three cards (in the final build; this build only gave you one random card) to add a new unit or building type. You also get periodic upgrades to existing units, allowing you to add a health-draining effect to one of your units, or a shielding effect, or faster movement, or something.

The idea, then, is pretty clear. In most RTS games, units are differentiated by special powers as you gain access to new ones over time. Here, you gain new units… but not always in a way that allows you to counter or plan for what you’ll be facing next.

Therein lies what I think is the real weakness of this particular idea. In a usual RTS, you have units that enable a certain strategy and other units that exist to counter or deal with that strategy. Enemy units are too damaging in a straight-up fight? You build faster units, or ones they can’t target, and take them out that way. Enemies have longer range than you? Build stealthy units and sneak up on them to negate the range advantage, or faster units once again. Enemy harassing you with hit-and-run tactics? Use static defenses that whittle them down faster than they can whittle you. You get the idea.

Here, though, it’s very possible to get a unit that’s a “counter” to a strategy you’re not actually facing. Some of this limitation is just with this specific build, of course; once you have a wider selection of units after each skirmish you can more effectively shore up weaknesses and plan defenses. But you can still wind up screwed like any roguelike with a bad selection, and because of the pace of battles it’s possible for that revelation to only come once you’re into a long and frustrating slog of a fight.

Still, that’s also part of the idea here, and it’d be unfair to state that without noting that it’s also possible to get the perfect counter to an enemy strategy you didn’t yet know was coming. Heck, for those good-at-RTS people I’ve heard so much about, this way of doing things might actually be more fun; instead of planning ahead and knowing all the counters ahead of time, your forces and your enemies are constantly morphing, forcing you to strategize and prioritize on the fly.

Draw of the Box

The overall look of the game has a general sort of chunky low-poly aesthetic to the proceedings, rather than being ultra-detailed. It’s stylized, but I don’t know if it completely works in that context. The robots and vehicles all animate well enough, but I wouldn’t ever say that I felt like there was a particularly notable feel to the aesthetic beyond that chunky attribute, although thankfully the individual units are different enough that it’s easy to tell them apart. Not that it’s easy to get any kind of sense of the world your robots are supposed to be occupying or anything of the sort; it feels abstract by design in that regard.

Music is present but mostly forgettable, just some generic waffling to help you feel like you’re accomplishing something. It feels vaguely familiar without ever standing front-and-center as being particularly memorable.

At first I thought all the robots had just weird mechanical sounds instead of voice clips, but eventually I realized that they are playing voice clips, just so heavily distorted that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. That isn’t really germane to an evaluation of the game’s quality in any way; I just found it kind of weird when I realized my basic infantry was calling me “master” and I hadn’t been aware of it.

I sent so many robots to their doom.

Box of the Luck

So does Rogue Command work? Well… I’m going to say kind of. For someone like me, it absolutely does not work very well. I am not very good at this genre and kind of need to be handheld through each particular improvement in my military efficiency in these titles, so handing this game to me is a bit like giving an Easy-Bake oven to my cats. However fascinated they might be with the concept, they’re never going to make anything come out of it but sludge at best.

However. If you actually are at least decent at these games and like the idea of playing around with what is almost definitionally a very different sort of engine, this is going to be a heady mixture for you. Sure, you might be good at playing these games when everything has a fixed strategy and you know what you’re going up against and what to expect. How well can you manage when everything is random, though? When you don’t know exactly what you’ll have access to or what your enemy will be able to do? How will you adapt and cope?

So it’s interesting. And I have to admit, I’m personally interested, even as I deal with the fact that I am still, personally, not good at this. I’m sorry, robots; you deserved better.

Preview code provided by Feneq for purposes of evaluation. All screenshots courtesy of Feneq.