Then from behind me come the happy words of Hidden Path’s Founder and Chief Creative Officer Mark Terrano, “Good, because I made Age of Empires II.”
Before long, Terrano verbalizes why I’ve made the comparison between this Oculus Touch RTS and a PC title I played in elementary school: “A lot of what was fun about Age of Empires was that weirdly, little kids could play it. It was built to be fun for everybody, and this game is the same.”
Accessibility, Terrano thinks, is vital to bringing the genre to the limited virtual reality community, a goal he’s achieved by scaling back complex features the former Age of Empires II Lead Designer once worked to perfect.
Brass Tactics is a series of conquest matches played against AI or human counterparts on a movable tabletop. With use of the Oculus Touch controllers, the battlefield can be dragged laterally about you, down to your waist, or upwards into your face. Its physicality complements the simple premise. I’m to build units, send them into battle, hold capture points, and destroy the enemy base before my own gets ransacked. All of this unfolds while I’m tossing the field around me, zooming in to watch my tiny archers take out an enemy tank, and hovering over the enemy base, eyeing up their defenses.
But while I’m across the map giving the enemy an up-close stink-eye, I’ve neglected to watch my back left tower. It’s being bombarded by cavalry, and my nearest archers are a mountain away. I quickly spin around, point my controller across the map, sweep together a handful of units, and direct them to a defense point. But I’m too late.
“Fog of attention,” Terrano explains. With this term he’s merged resource micro-management and fog of war, allowing human fault to replace it. “You can’t look at everything at once. You can’t be everywhere at once. That’s the real currency.”
The working list of simplified features runs long for Brass Tactics. Instead of menus, you simply need to flip your wrist over to open up a mini table of tower figures. Rather than place buildings anywhere, you’re able to pop structures onto predetermined capture points. They’re built in an instant, once their beams and bolts finish unfolding and interlocking with Game of Thrones-inspired animations.
At one point I send a squadron of freshly minted minions across the battlefield to their inevitable death. As they look back over their shoulders, surely waiting for new, more precise commands, I’m back at base, watching the screws and cogs of my new blacksmith tower whir to life. My fog of attention suddenly snaps again, and I pull myself back to the battle lines only to see a grinning red army where my blue coats once stood.
Even with all the gameplay pruning and adorable artworks, Brass Tactics is unforgiving. Terrano likens the configuration to chess: fewer units and more important decisions. The higher difficulty settings are designed to give even the development team a challenge, requiring players to master map movement, discover complementary squads, learn to kite, and harvest any other skills they manage through the multiple unit types and upgrades.
There’s also a number of ways to play through the challenge, between the multi-map campaign, skirmishes, and three unique types of AI. ‘Aggressive’ is your standard warmind; the defensive AI will stay safe, hoarding up a mass of units on a border before engaging; and the masterful mode works to counter-build you constantly.
I, for one, stuck it to the AI by turning my warriors into electro-knights. They charged across the field and slowed enemies with satisfying zaps. I’m unclear if this was the best investment, but that didn’t stop me from kneeling down for an entertaining, up-close look at my opponent’s archers crackling to death.
I didn’t get to build one personally, but Terrano also promises an end-game unit. If you’re willing to save up, stave off your attackers, and commit the resources, you can build a gigantic tower-killing mega robot affectionately known as the Titan.
The RTS genre has made plenty of platform jumps, but its best form is usually confined to the PC. The mouse-centric controls never really found purchase on consoles, and I wondered aloud to Terrano whether VR could be a better pair for the sprawling, multi-unit gameplay.
“The reason it struggles on console,” he responds, “is it’s trying to keep too many things without reinventing it. VR was an opportunity to do it with almost no text interface. Everything is physical, everything seems touchable.”
Brass Tactics is designed to feel natural, to let you feel the battleground through Touch controls. There was something endearing about being able to physically pull the board and essentially ‘swim’ across the map and its battles; however, in the expanse, I often lost sight of my ever-growing empire. Brass Tactics plays games with attention and physicality more than resources and micromanagement. It reigns in deep trees and menus in favor of more instinctive modes of engagement, making for an alluring and digestible RTS experience.