You probably know the following situation. You played the right game at the right moment in your life. Of course, it doesn't have to be just a single game. The game captured your imagination, you could think about nothing else, it was the benchmark for everything you played. These might have been some mainstream games, like Morrowind, StarCraft, Age of Empires, Baldur's Gate, Need for Speed, Mass Effect or GTA. Some of these games influenced me to some extent as well, but today, we will talk about a production that completely altered my psyche, even though it wasn't wildly popular. It enjoys a certain cult following, but it didn't achieve it's well-deserved success. It's Original War. This RTS by Altar Interactive completely skewed my view of the genre, and I was never again able to play a strategy game without comparing it to this game. And it is one of my favorite genres.
I have fond memories of StarCraft, Age of Empires, Stronghold, Red Alert or Company of Heroes (though it was more about enjoying the setting and story; anyone could probably beat me in any of these), but none of these great games gave me such high, such immersion as Original War. I dipped my fingers in turn-based and was happy to finish the legendary Jagged Alliance 2, because it was probably the closest relative of my beloved game, with its charismatic mercenaries and the atmosphere of 80s' action cinema, but it's not the same. Over the years, I've been keeping up to date with the emerging and upcoming RTSs, hoping that these feelings would return, but I always ended up either unsatisfied, or reinstalling Original (at one point I found solace, more on that in a moment). It's time to explain what I loved about this game so much – me and other devoted cultists – that makes it so good and special.
A company of sisters and brothers
Original War had one particular mechanic, unique for a base-builder RTS, and it changed everything. Each troop was like an NPC in a party-based RPGs. In our unit there were only people known by their first and last names (and later recruited apes, but even they had portraits, voices and stats). Sure, units able to be promoted, or missions without reinforcements and additional infantry recruitment were nothing particularly new, but never in an RTS were they treated in such a human and engaging way. It was very difficult to sacrifice someone in the fight, and the game encouraged (and rewarded with medals at the end of missions) taking good care of our foot soldiers.
Each of them had their specialization (soldier, engineer, mechanic, medic-scientist) and a different function in the unit, although we could rearrange them quite freely. We had our favorite heroes in each of the campaigns, but unlike those from Warcraft, SpellForce or other RTS\RPG hybrids, the only thing they stood out with were slightly brighter colors to make it easier to follow them on the map, and a more fleshed-out personality – after all, these were the people from whose perspective we got to know entire campaigns. They were like the rest of the squad, but with more charisma and determination. This nicely showed – despite the fantastic setting – that there are no indestructible heroes in the war – only people who can die easily.
And we didn't want to let that happen. I, and probably many other players, made it a point of honor for the soldiers to safely go through the missions. Because we got attached to them. It was an exceptionally characterful and charismatic team for a strategy game. Arguably even more than the StarCraft brigade, despite the fact that there were more of them ladies and gentlemen shooting, patching people up; more buildings and vehicles. Each of them got promoted, was useful for at least a few tasks, many were transfered from mission to mission or returned after several scenarios, which helped to form a huge bond.
Due to these mechanics, I just couldn't find myself in other RTSs, where we managed squadrons of anonymous units, because even if they could be promoted, they were little more than cannon fodder. Sure, I tried games like Soldiers: Heroes of World War II or Men of War, but they too, despite better graphics and more technical refinement, lacked a lot of what Original War provided. I absorbed these great WW2 strategies a bit like an interactive documentary, whereas in OW, I felt genuine immersion.
Plot matters, even in RTS!
Iron Harvest was recently praised for having an excellent campaign despite some mechanical shortcomings. And it was a reminder that RTS fans need just that. And Original War provided that, and more. In this game, we got two great campaigns with a decent story.
The story was inspired by the novel The Last Day of Creation by Wolfgang Jeschke. In the game, we played the role of an American or Russian soldier and went 2 million years into the past to fight for fuel for a time machine we just used. Unfortunately for the Americans, the deposits of this mineral were located deep within enemy territory, so these green crystals had to be transferred from the times when post-Soviet animosity didn't exist yet, and the continents were more interconnected. And so we landed in prehistory. And that's where things got complicated, and the story started to become engaging.
The storyline in Original War was very personal because of the soldiers. Some tasks focused on the achievements of individual heroes, others resulted from them, and we also had to make some important decisions that changed the course of the mission and the entire campaign. And we thought about each of them very carefully, because the lives of our soldiers depended on it. This was a game in which we got attached to our unit, but also our bases (we returned to some of them several times) and even single tanks – in one of the campaigns, the main character could choose a personal combat vehicle.
And since all this was tied together with very neat mechanics – we needed people to research, build and defend the base, as well as to construct and drive vehicles – it was as engaging as it gets; it was an interesting, unusual experience that's hard to find in any other strategy. Sure, building bunkers with engineers or manning bunkers with troops was not a novelty, but it took on a different character when our people could not quickly get back to action after taking casualties. Such synergy between the mechanics and the plot just made you care about it all, and rendered the game really addictive – despite the fact that I got my ass beaten in it more than once.
A pinch of frustration
And it doesn't mean that Original War is the perfect game. There were technical issues (Altar created a very complicated engine to work with, and the mission structure and relationships between units and buildings were complex), glitches, and... the notorious missing of about the third of the content. Original War was supposed to get a third campaign with Arab-German mercenaries who would spill both American and Russian blood, and had their own agenda. Unfortunately, nothing like that happened. Releasing it was out of the question – this new faction used suicide units, and the year 2001 after 9/11 was less than ideal to introduce something like that. In addition, there were no skirmishes in single-player mode.
On top of that the game didn't sell well beyond some niche markets. Few people on the international arena even heard about it, so a sequel seems rather out of the question – even though I myself have emailed Bohemia Interactive (the current owners of the IP), saying that they had a great game on their hands, a fantastic story to continue, so they should do something about it. Obviously I got kindly dismissed. Meanwhile, all these people who still remember the game are wandering like orphans around the world and cannot find a production that combines complex mechanics and a personal approach in quite an intuitive strategy, where every unit can be cared for. Unfortunately.
A glimmer of hope
As a consolation – despite the commercial failure and the studio's dissolution – the cult of the game is quite strong. In narrow circles, but still. And fans, as pop culture has shown more than once, can take matters into their own hands. Original War players have been organizing multiplayer games for years, patching and improving the game themselves. And that's not all. Thanks to them, I played two unique mods that added the missing content based on the notes left behind by the creators of the original. I recommend the Arab campaign (as I recall, it was called Arabian Nights; a few different projects tried to tackle this subject), and the Sand of Siberia which is still being developed and updated. I tested the second mod only a week or two ago. It introduces a number of changes, improvements and additional micro-events to the campaign, which were cut from the game before the release.
What's more, Sands of Siberia also includes its version of the mercenary campaign – so far, it has five scenarios and I'm waiting for more to come out, but it's worth installing this one as soon as possible. For example, it adds a single-player skirmish mode and a dozen very different, unique maps, often shedding different light on the events of the core version. This is the fruit of the titanic work of fans and you have to admire this effort. Especially that the end result is in no way inferior to the work of professionals – it perfectly complements it.
This is unfortunately all we can get. And that's actually quite a lot. But allow yourself one last mental exercise. Since a game almost devoid of marketing managed to gather such a faithful, creative group; since it corrupted not only my perspective of RTS, but also legions of stubborn bastards who can turn their love into amazing scenarios and strategic challenges, just imagine how it could change the market if it had a little more luck, if it didn't end up with an incompetent, broke publisher. Maybe it wouldn't be an ultra-hit and a multiplayer titan as StarCrafts and Warcrafts – but we would definitely get a strategy game to behold. I dare you, I double dare you, Bohemia Interactive. And it would exemplify just how diverse the gameplay can be in this genre. And if there's one thing that the RTS genre's missing, it is the ability to appeal to people from outside the RTS bubble. And this game could achieve it with pretty much a single gimmick. Giving the units more personality.