I love a good RTS.
I grew up on Command & Conquer and Age of Empires though, and I gotta tell ya: While I respect those old one-unit-at-a-time, mass onslaught titles for their place in games history and for the countless, glorious hours I spent orchestrating large-scale murders within them, my taste in RTS titles has changed over the years.
These days (post-Company of Heroes and Dawn of War), there are three things that I need from an RTS to be truly happy: squads (instead of single infantry units), a wide variety of units in general that are actually worth using, and a cover system.
Blitzkrieg 3 (B3), a WWII RTS that's on the tail end of two years in Early Access, gets two out of those three right. But, despite a 66% success rate when it comes to my Big Three, it's actually the most inventive and fun RTS I've played in a ridiculously long time.
Blitzkrieg 3 Is the Culmination of a New Way of Doing RTS
The Blitzkrieg series has a long history, longer than any major RTS out there that I can think of that's still releasing titles today (since we haven't seen a C&C title since 2012, I think we can stop saying it's a “current” series), and it's been a rebellious title in the tradition-loving RTS genre since its inception. Going back to the original Blitzkrieg of 2003, the series did something some RTS fans (including myself, to a degree) consider blasphemy: ditch resource-gathering and base-building mechanics entirely. Instead, Blitzkrieg opted for a system which uses “reserve” troops, and points earned in-battle, to bring more firepower to bear against thine enemies.
Now, there was a time when I would have been unabashedly -- irrationally, some would argue -- pissed at an RTS that didn't have base-building. I was that kid in 2005 who was actually down with Age of Empires III, because it allowed me to build the living hell out of some walls and put cannons behind them. I swear, I built a fortress in one online game, a match which must have been craptastically awful for the other guy, where I built a multilayered fort that spanned half the damn map. It was beautiful, watching my layers of cannons, constantly bolstered by new and better guns through the eminently protected resources I was farming, blast the living pixels out of every unit the enemy threw at my walls. The memory of that beauty still brings a tear to this old general's eye.
It's Okay Not to Build a Base If You Have Great Maps
With that kind of (probably worrying) love for RTS bases, you (and I) would think that a game that said, “Mmm...nope,” to my beloved mechanic would be a problem for me. But it isn't, because B3 has a secret weapon: fantastic maps and missions that are fast, to boot.
I've enjoyed every single map I've played on B3, from the story-heavy infiltrations of enemy towns, to the big fronts of tank assaults, to what was absolutely one of the most fun and frantic defensive levels I've ever played. Each one of the missions, of which there is a wide variety that spanning three separate eras of WWII, engaged me. Much more than your typical RTS map that says “Here's a generic plot of land, the enemy is on the other corner, have fun boys,” B3's maps both feel period appropriate and also are full of fun features and objectives, all with a driving narrative.
One map in particular, the Defense of Sevastopol on the Russian campaign (there are three: American, German and Russian), is already enshrined in my mental Hall of Fame for Badass RTS Maps. It involves defending your retreating army, dramatically pinned against a beach, from an absolutely endless onslaught of German tanks. I had to call in literally every reserve I had, as my tanks fell one by one to the seemingly infinite German war machine, and all that saved me from cluster after cluster of Panzers was the enormous double-barreled 305mm gun emplacement that could blast away 15-tanks-plus, per shot. I leveled that bastard at the enemy, frantically pulling my troops into ever-collapsing lines of defense, and somehow managed to make it out, with a few tanks and most of the army I was defending, intact. It was awesome.
If you know RTS maps and campaigns, you know that having remarkable maps like this is not an easy feat to accomplish. And the way the campaigns are set up breaks the mold with inventiveness too: Instead of just marching across a continent, one map after the next, with maybe a branching path or two, B3 gives you access to a handful of levels at once, each clearly coded as either a side mission or a main historical one, and you can play them in whatever order you wish. As you finish the missions, particularly the historical ones, new missions show up on your map, and you can even unlock two other “eras,” replete with missions and units from later in the war.
(Literally) Killer Unlocks
Speaking of unlocks, perhaps what B3 does best, besides having excellent maps, is its approach to units. Different types of units (of which there are over 200, with different rarity levels) drop at the end of a completed mission, and you collect them in a way that's somewhat similar to collecting cards in a CCG. You can tell some of what you'll get by completing a mission, but there's usually at least one hidden drop, and some drops you can only get by completing extracurricular side objectives. When you start a mission, you make a squad out of the units you've collected, up to a certain unit value (each unit having its own value, and also gaining experience from combat).
This allows for extreme flexibility when it comes to what you take into each battle, and with so many different units, the available combinations and resulting strategies are nearly endless. That, my friends, is a ton of fun in an RTS. No longer do you have to go through all the time-consuming resource gathering and scaling up to build toward some megatank or elite squad; you just have these from the beginning -- if you've earned the drop and make the space for them on the mission. I might love base-building, but that is one hell of a trade-off.
All of This Leads to a Frantic, Spectacular Pace
That tradeoff results in something else that’s pretty amazing. By eliminating the base-building and levels which demand your dynamic attention, B3 grabs you in a frenzied grip and doesn’t let go. These missions are fun, fast, and free-flowing. You click one, load it up, and -- seconds later -- you're full-bore in the fight. I found myself buying into it all, totally engrossed in the narrative, both affected by whether each unit lived or died and also aware that, to win this war, we were going to have to lose some soldiers.
That pacing extends to the multiplayer as well, where B3 shines brightly. Using a modern matchmaking system, you can choose to do 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, and base assault matches, all of which keep up that frantic, glorious pace and allow you to use your unit drops against those of other players.
Speaking of that base assault – lo, and behold, there did end up being a small base-building section after all in B3, if of an unconventional kind. In each era, you get to create a base, which other players can assault (you don't control the defense, you just place the structures and the enemy attacks on their own time, similar to Clash of Clans) and which you can tweak, creating a passive defensive-network that scratches the base-building itch pretty well, even if it isn't much like your standard in-mission RTS building. So, while I still don't get to have the satisfaction of watching units smash against my walls in real time, it's at least a well-done nod toward the past, for us aging strategists.
Excellent, But Not Perfect
B3 does fail me in one aspect: the lack of a full cover system. Without cover making a big, tactile difference in an RTS, I start to feel like I'm just throwing unorganized mobs of units at the enemy. I wish there were something akin to the fully-wrought systems in games like Company of Heroes, which would have endearedmejust a tad more so. But, hey, there's at least some form of functioning cover -- by way of trenches and buildings -- that can be occupied in this title. And large as they might loom in my mind outside of actually playing B3, my issues with the cover system did end up dwarfed by my overall enjoyment of the game.
There are very few negative aspects to Blitzkrieg 3, which brings unexpected, fresh ideas to one of hardcore gaming’s most recently underserved areas. Blitzkrieg 3 is an exemplary real time strategy title, and it benefits tremendously from its developer’s fourteen years of work on the series and in the genre. Whether you've been with the genre since Dune II, or whether your experience with real-time strategy is somewhere in the nil-to-MOBA range, Blitzkrieg 3 is absolutely worth your time. Get this game and go kill you some Nazis today.