The lack of multiplayer was one of the biggest problems with these early games. Even if one supported it, such as the original Command and Conquer in 1995, relatively few of us had the equipment required to get it running: a null modem cable, a network, or a reliable enough modem to handle real-time action.
This put most of the focus onto the single-player campaigns, which were typically heavily story based, but rarely offered anything close to satisfying AI. Even absolute top-tier games like Starcraft hit the shelves with incredibly weak computer opponents, utterly reliant on cheating (for instance, unlimited money, instant unit building, performing multiple actions simultaneously) and scripted events to have a chance against a competent human player.
Even now, with multiplayer almost ubiquitous, most RTS games are forced to provide both. There are exceptions, such as Gas Powered Games' recent Demigod, which is effectively a commercial version of an amateur Warcraft III modification called Defence of the Ancients, and only offers a skirmish mode, but they're rare.
Generally speaking, the single player games are treated as a warm-up for the online mode, helping to show what all the units do and how to play, before knuckling down to real tactics against other humans. Starcraft 2, hopefully due out this year (with Blizzard, you never quite know…) takes this to a whole new level.
Instead of getting one game, we're going to get three single-player episodes on a yearly cycle – one Terran, one Protoss and one Zerg, each with a different spin on its campaign. Don't worry though, each will offer all the races in multiplayer mode.
Speaking of Starcraft, it's worth pointing out just how big it is – especially in Souh Korea. Over here, it's merely an excellent game, a perfect example of Blizzard's already borderline-perfect perfectionism, and a title that lives on in the memory of every discerning RTS player.
In Korea, it's more like a religion, with its own pro-gaming scene, tournaments, and several places in Guiness World Records, including Largest Audience For A Game Competition (120,000).
Watching an even moderate player's hands fly across the controls is like trying to catch a top-tier magician out at sleight of hand. If you're disappointed that Starcraft 2 looks to be very similar in style… this is why.
Copy and paste
As with most genres, successful elements of new games have always been shamelessly pinched by other developers. Hero units are one of the most prevalent: specific named characters in your army, rather than simply another pikeman or grenadier.
Command and Conquer had the nameless Commando, used for a couple of puzzle-missions, with Starcraft arguably the first to spin the story around their actions – the Zerg queen Kerrigan, the unstoppable Zeratul and so on.
Warcraft III brought us Thrall, Arthas (better known as the Lich King) and friends, and even a campaign where the hero characters got to cut loose in levels more reminiscent of a simple RPG than an RTS title.
Arguably the most famous hero remains Tanya, the commando from Red Alert II, not least for the constant FMVs of her talking to the player while leaning over tables in a loose T-Shirt.
Her special attacks included pistols that made short work of any infantry unit, and bombs capable of destroying buildings in a single click. As of Red Alert 3, she also sports a portable time machine on her belt and – we quote – a 'bulletproof sports bra'. Bit pointless under a cloth crop-top, but whatever…
Hero units are typically an order of magnitude more powerful than their peers, or have special abilities such as inventories and persistent levelling, but are far from indestructible. In single-player campaigns, losing one usually means losing the mission. In multiplayer action, they can usually be bought like any other unit, but only at the top of the tech tree, and only one at a time.