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Cosmetically Different Sides

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The universe is too small for the intergalactic powers of the day. Their armies, developed on different planets by several different cultures, eventually come to an epic clash.

You'd think this situation would present certain issues of ballistics and firepower. Weapons made on places millions of light-years apart must be very different from each other. At least they'll have a different caliber.

You'd think.

Instead, the enemy walkers take the same amount of damage as your tanks and dish out just as much hurt. Okay, so they're shooting laser zaps instead of artillery shells, have different names, and almost certainly will have different looks... But in the end side A's heavy tank has the exact same purpose and tactical function as side B's heavy hovertank and side C's heavy crawler. Ditto for A's scout vehicle, B's fast hovercraft and C's four-legged jumping crawler. There might be some minor race differences, and maybe one or two units that are genuinely different, but the end result is still a ridiculously improbable balance.

This trope is most often seen in Real-Time Strategy games whose designers are too lazy to think of alternate tactics for the various sides and/or ways to balance the differences; in fact, games such as StarCraft are praised for averting this trope. Having said that, the lengthy play-testing cycle of Warcraft III, and the card bannings in Magic: The Gathering, show you one benefit to having only cosmetic differences: it's way easier to create a working Competitive Balance, since no side will ever end up with uber-powerful superunits the other can't counter. The strain on Willing Suspension of Disbelief and impact on strategy is just something you have to live with.

This is a lot more common in games set in real or historical settings, as it's rare for any human military to have a technological advantage for long without someone on the other side trying to copy it, and possibly one-upping it. At least at the infantry end. Once you get into vehicles, things tend to shift: a Tiger is imbalanced vs. a Sherman (which itself outmatches say, a Renault Ft), but they're all tanks.

Where the two sides are identical besides their colour, it's a Palette Swap. If the differences aren't even cosmetic anymore, you're looking at either Civil Warcraft or an Enemy Exchange Program, depending on the context. The Trope Makers are the "Needle" and "Wedge" spaceships from Space War.

Compare Mirroring Factions.

Video Game Examples:

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    Action Adventure 
  • General Lionwhyte's forces in Brütal Legend are just reskinned versions of your own troops: Headbangers become Hairbangers, Razor Girls become Groupies, etc.. Justified in that most of your forces were liberated from him, while most of the rest of the pairings are explicitly him copying you (for instance, he arms his Groupies with the exact same weapons you just armed your Razor Girls with) to drive home the point that you don't have anything he doesn't.
    • Subverted later with the other two factions, the Drowning Doom and the Tainted Coil, which have their own unique units and strategies. Double Subversion in multiplayer, where pitting either of those factions against itself results in units mocking the other side for being fakers/ripoffs/etc., which was presumably the point of the battle. The aesthetics back it up: for instance, Drowning Doom has a zombie motif, but a second Drowning Doom faction is literally a reskin in most cases, from white/blue/grey/etc. to pink (as in normal people dressed up as zombies).


    Eastern RPG 
  • Xenoblade Chronicles 3: In-universe. One of the first hints that someone is Playing Both Sides in the Forever War is the fact that both nations are pretty much completely identical in strength, tactics, and culture. The biggest difference between the two is that Keves uses a black color scheme and Agnus white. All the actual differences are explicitly balanced out by something from the other side; Agnus has better tech in their Levnus mechs, but they require more ether to run. Individual Agnians are physically stronger than Kevesi, but Kevesi have power frames to make up the difference. Keves Castle develops the Annihilator Cannon, Agnus Castle is promptly given a copy.

  • In Celestus, most of the ships have a name, picture and description that depend on your Faction. Their specifications are exactly the same, though.
  • Republic and Imperial player characters in Star Wars: The Old Republic are about as cosmetically different as they can get, but only a handful of actual differences exist between them. The Smuggler, for instance, may use a blaster pistol (or two), a Sawed-Off Shotgun, and a plethora of black-market equipment modules, but don't expect that to play any differently than the Imperial Agent's sniper rifle, combat knife, and cutting-edge sabotage probes.
  • Final Fantasy XIV has the Grand Companies, the military branches of the three starting city-states. While distinct in lore, and with unique appearances for high-tier gear you can get from them, the only real effect they have on gameplay is determining where players go to spend company credits. Even their basic uniforms are the same, save for color.
  • World of Warcraft originally subverted this by restricting the Shaman and Paladin classes to Horde and Alliance respectively, though this was tossed out starting with the first expansion, Burning Crusade. However, each race varies slightly in base stats and racial abilities. The Paladin also had slightly different abilities on both sides, but this was was over as well by Wrath of the Lich King.
    • This trope was cited as part of why Paladins and Shamans were made available to both sides - having them be exclusive left the developers having to make them fill many of the same roles, resulting in increasing similarities between them.
    • This was originally averted for Priests, who received two mostly unique abilities based on which race they were (a couple, such as Desperate Prayer and Touch of Weakness, were given to two races). Notably, Dwarf Priests received Fear Ward, a major advantage in the then-top-tier Onyxia raid, and Forsaken Priests got Devouring Plague, which was especially useful for Shadow-specced players. Eventually, though, this aspect of the Priest class was removed, with the useful abilities being made available to priests of all races, and the relatively useless ones being dropped entirely.
    • One difference between Horde and Alliance remains with the Shaman class, though. While Alliance Shaman get the "Heroism" spell, their Horde counterparts get the "Bloodlust" spell instead. However, both do exactly the same thing, so it's still effectively this trope.

  • Sonic the Hedgehog:
    • Regardless if you choose to play the Hero Story or the Dark Story in Sonic Adventure 2, your team will be formed by a speedster who can spin dash and use Chaos Control in the end (Sonic/Shadow), a Gadgeteer Genius riding a bipedal Mini-Mecha with limited flight and various ranged weapons (Tails/Eggman) and a treasure hunter with the ability to glide, climb, and dig (Knuckles/Rouge) that plays exactly like their opposite counterpart.
    • Same goes for Sonic Heroes, where you have no less than four teams to choose. However, those three teams will be formed by a speedster (Sonic/Amy/Shadow/Espio) a Token Flyer (Tails/Cream/Rouge/Charmy) and a powerhouse (Knuckles/Big/Omega/Vector).

    Real Time Strategy 
  • Age of Empires, until the third installment, were not even cosmetically different. Each faction had one unique unit, varying restrictions on the Tech Tree as well as some general bonus, and that was it - except for the unique units, an infantry man looked identical and used the same western-European equipment if he was English, Chinese, Egyptian or Aztec. Architecture varied according to half a dozen styles, so all Middle Eastern countries used the same buildings, for example.
    • Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds is slightly better about this but still pretty bad, due to being Age of Empires in a galaxy far, far away. Cosmetically the factions are vastly varied, however in terms of gameplay, in the early game a battle droid (which in all other adaptions are laughably ineffective) is no different than a Wookiee (a more-than-two-metre tall walking carpet that is known to tear people's arms out of their sockets). Later tech levels add actual differences, such as the Wookiees getting regeneration and large berserkers with a sword in each hand.
      • The races also have different accessible tech - the Empire can't research shields for their aircraft, the Rebels can't access the heaviest mech upgrades, the Gungans have better ships than everyone else even overlooking the unique submarine frigates, and so on. In standard games, however, you can click the "All Techs" option to smooth the differences down to a few unique techs, a unique unit, and a couple of minor resource gathering quirks. Beyond that there are no differences and it's just like Age of Empires - everyone has access to the same units and upgrades, allowing shielded TIE fighters, top-tier Rebel mechs, and so forth.
      • The Trade Federation's standard trooper is the B1 battle droid, while the Confederacy's standard trooper is the B2 super battle droid. As the names suggest, in canon the B2 is an advanced droid more powerful than the B1. In-game, they're identical.
    • Averted with Age of Mythology: each of the three (or four with the expansion) factions has strongly varied approaches to Resource-Gathering and troop types.
  • RTS/vehicular action cross Battlezone has this. US and Soviet units have differ mostly in that US ones are black and Soviet ones are grey (and have unique models), though there are slight differences in handling - Soviet vehicles are slightly better armored, while American vehicles are faster. Some vehicles have a different loadout, such as the stock Soviet light tank carrying a TAG gun rather than the Hornet missile used by the ISDF light tank, but most are effectively identical.
    • Its sequel Battlezone 2 drops the trope for the most part except for the worker units and utility units on each side. Scion and ISDF have entirely different methods of building and how their base works, all the tanks have different weapon hardpoints even when they perform the same role (such as the Scion tank dropping mortars for the ability to shapeshift and mount shields). High end units differ entirely on each side; the ISDF top-end units are the Attila Walker, a long-ranged Assault Tank, and a bomber that drops a single, very powerful bomb. The Scion get the Mauler, an extremely fast, well armored and well armed walker, while their Titan tank functions like a close ranged Assault Tank that is more capable of defending itself against smaller tanks.
  • Command & Conquer
    • The first three games went so far as to allow the two factions to use many of the same buildings and units. Both factions used the same Construction Yard, the same Refinery, the same Riflemen, et cetera, while the only differences between the GDI Barracks and the Brotherhood's Hand of Nod or the Weapons Factory and Airstrip were cosmetic (the differences between the units and defensive structures that were not shared was not just cosmetic, however). Later games would eventually eliminate all shared units, but some structures, like construction yards, would never have anything more than cosmetic differences.
    • In Red Alert, the Soviet and Allied War Factory an Construction Yard use the exact same model. The only way to know if you captured one is to check the unit list, and faction units will spawn at that specific factory.
    • Red Alert introduced the concept of "countries", which would vary slightly in terms of things like vehicle speed or armor thickness, but the differences were minor and not explicitly pointed out; it wasn't until Red Alert 2 that each country got its own unique unit or specialty, like the French Grand Cannon, the Libyan Demolition Truck, or the American ability to drop paratroopers just with a regular Airforce Command HQ instead of having to capture a tech airport.
    • Completely averted in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, where the only similarity between the Allies, Soviets and Imperial armies is that their Mobile Construction Vehicle can move and the basic infantry unit can clear out buildings; by this game, even their engineers have different abilities as well as different appearances (Allied ones can set up medical tents to heal other infantry, Soviet ones carry a gun and can build bunkers for other troops to garrison, and Imperial ones can sprint to avoid danger). However, every faction can cheerfully take over another's buildings and produce its units (and are clearly encouraged to do so, with some models having alternate designs when loaded with non-faction units), which might end up causing this trope.
    • The first two games managed to do this on a meta level; GDI and the Soviets shared many of the same units, such as Grenadiers and the infamous Mammoth Tank. Likewise the Allies had many of Nod's toys like light tanks, rocket infantry and turrets. This is due to Red Alert originally being an expansion pack to Tiberian Dawn and sharing the exact same engine.
  • The old (1997) Dark Colony is the definition of this trope. The good guys are the technologically evolved humans, the bad guys are the creepy aliens who've evolved biologic modification instead. This gives units that are cosmetically very different, but functionally equivalent. The basic foot soldier's only practical difference is that the alien one shoots a ray gun. The human artillery tank does the same thing as the alien tail-launcher slug monster. The human VTOL craft meets its equal in the aliens' flying dragon. Et cetera. The melee fighter merits a separate mention as it's particularly ridiculous: the alien one is somewhat appropriate - a sort of squatting demon with blades and scythes all over its body; the human one is a walker - think Star Wars AT-ST - armed with a nasty looking cannon... that can't shoot farther than spitting distance. The only relevant race difference is that the humans look and shoot better during the day, while the aliens at night.
    • Though, to be fair, the Reaper (aforementioned melee walker) has double the range of the SyDemon, that is to say, it can fire from two tiles off. Not that it matters much, really. Also, the two commanders have different call-in abilities - humans call down reinforcements, aliens call down airstrikes.
  • In the first Crusader Kings all the playable cultures, even Muslims, were statistically more or less the same. In the second game Muslims, Pagans, Zoroastrians, Merchant Republics, etc. all play by different rules, and different cultures have different bonuses.
  • Averted in Empire at War. The Galactic Empire specializes in massed attacks and superior firepower, while the Rebel Alliance relies on maneuverability and hit-and-run tactics. This applies both to Space Battles and ground engagements. For example, the Rebels generally have better Space Fighters, but they must be built just like regular ships. On the other hand, most Imperial fighters are launched during battle from larger Imperial warships. Lost Imperial fighters are automatically renewed between battles, while lost Rebel fighters must be replenished by building new ones on Rebel-controlled planets. The difference also applies to the high-tier units. No ship can match the firepower of an Imperial Star Destroyer. However, the Mon Calamari cruisers (their Rebel counterparts) cannot have their shields brought down by destroying the shield generator and must be pounded the old-fashioned way. Ships' special abilities also play into this philosophical difference. A good number of Imperial ships can temporarily boost their firepower at the cost of speed. The Rebels have the reverse ability, allowing them to quickly exit an engagement if they are losing. The Rebels also have a lot more "hero" units. On a strategic level, the Empire can research new tech like any typical strategy game. However, the Rebels must steal (different) tech from the Empire using those same hero units.
    • The "Forces of Corruption" Expansion Pack adds a third side, the Zann Consortium. Like the Rebels, Zann steals tech, but he does it from both sides, getting unique tech from each. Additionally, the Consortium can corrupt a planet instead of taking it over, granting a flow of income without the need to protect the planet. Zann's fleet has some powerful warships, but they can suffer from Crippling Overspecialization. For example, Zann's most powerful ship is the Aggressor-class Star Destroyer, whose twin Fixed Forward Facing Weapons can cripple almost any ship with just a few well-placed shots. However, if those two weapons are knocked out, then all the Aggressor has left are two turbolasers, leaving it a sitting duck for any enemy ship.
  • Empire Earth:
    • The game tries to avert this in the campaign, usually by giving units from the next era (which is why the German troops in the last WWI mission are all carrying submachine guns against the doughboys' single-shot rifles).
    • Zigzagged in multiplayer: While the units all use the same models and the same buildings no matter the civilization (possibly justified in that civilizations are chosen according to the starting era, going from Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern when they weren't too far apart to the G8 when modern buildings look much the same anywhere in the world), in practice units have different stats, as different civilizations specialize in different units (with variables such as attack, armor, HP, cost...). In the expansion, each civilization has its own power (infantry that can move through trees and cliffs, archers with fire arrows, towers that convert enemies, stealing upgrades from enemy civilizations, etc.), separating them further.
    • The second game divides civilizations into Western, Meso-American, Middle-Eastern, East Asian, and African, with each geographical location having its own unique appearance. Unfortunately, this means the problem now applies to nations within these regions (Turkey, Egypt and Babylon can all build the Sphinx, every Western power can build the Parthenon, the Brandenburg Gate and the Pentagon, etc.), though every individual civilization has different bonuses and three unique units to differentiate them (such as Samurai, Ninja and the Zero for Japan).
  • Subverted in EndWar. All three factions have the same units within the Combat Chain (Riflemen, Engineers, Transports, Tanks, Gunships, Artillery and Command Vehicle). However there are subtle differences in their upgrade trees that give them differences in their capabilities: using riflemen as an example, American Ghosts get their sniper upgrade earlier, Russian Wolves get three HP upgrades to the others' one, and European Kommandos get the only mobility upgrade (which lets them hack and upgrade uplinks faster).
  • Both played straight and averted in the original Ground Control, since the two sides (the Crayven Corporation and the Order of the New Dawn) have, for the most part, the same types of units. However, Crayven vehicles (called terradynes) are all of the traditional type (i.e. wheeled and treaded, armed with ballistic weapons) and tend to be slower but more heavily armored. All Order vehicles hover (called hoverdynes) and are thus faster and more maneuverable but are trading that for less armor. The Order utilizes Energy Weapons, which are a bit stronger than their ballistic counterparts but not significantly. A few units for the same "type" diverge. For example, Crayven special forces called Jaegers are a four-man highly-mobile team of snipers who also act as spotters for artillery. Their Order counterparts are the Templars, a large Amazon Brigade armed with anti-armor rocket launchers. The Order also has a unique Attack Drone carrier, while Crayven has a bomber capable of dropping a tactical nuke. The fire support units on both sides also differ in that the Crayven Firecracker specializes in Macross Missile Massacres, while the Order Lacerta likes to Beam Spam (requiring a line-of-sight). All units also have special abilities that can be selected before the mission, which are unique to each faction.
    • The "Dark Conspiracy" Expansion Pack adds the Phoenix Mercenaries, which also fit the above pattern but with a lot more emphasis on Kill It with Fire.
    • The sequel an even more pronounced difference between the sides, mostly due to the fact that the Terran Empire units don't have any special abilities (they weren't meant to be playable), while pretty much all Northern Star Alliance units have a secondary mode that makes NSA units versatile (e.g. the NSA basic infantry unit can switch between an anti-infantry assault rifle to an anti-armor missile launcher). The Virons are unique in that their bio-units can merge and un-merge into completely different units.
  • Hearts of Iron IV features all the nations that participated in World War 2 (and also the ones that didn't), but despite these nations each having their own versions of military equipment in real history, such as different tank models, the game simplifies things by giving all nations the exact same tech tree. This results in, for example, the German Tiger IV being functionally identical to the Soviet T-34, only differing in name and appearance. Some nations may still differ to an extent through their unique national focus trees providing unique bonuses, but at their core all armies operate on identical equipment.
  • In Homeworld, the two playable races are an example to the point that the Taiidan campaign is the exact same as the Kushan one, except with the roles of the two sides reversed. However, each side does have some unique units, and those for the Turanic Raiders and Kadeshi are completely unique.
    • The cosmetic designs do make a very slight difference, however. Since certain guns are mounted in different places on each respective unit, it gives them different firing arcs for engaging enemy units, which in turn affects how you use them. The difference is very slight, however, and can only really be noticed for slow and/or large ships that don't have the maneuverability to simply bring their front to bear on a target.
    • Homeworld: Cataclysm partly averts this, although it's justified — the enemy you face is actually The Virus, so having it chew up your ships and spit them back at you is par for the course. For example, the Beast utilizes Ion Array Frigates it captured from the Turanic Raiders. Besides having a single powerful beam weapon, they can also cloak. Meanwhile, the Somtaaw use Multi-Beam Frigates that are also highly maneuverable, literally dancing around their enemies, while their (individually weaker) ion beam turrets track fast-moving targets.
    • Homeworld 2 averts this to a greater degree — although many units have a vague analogue on the other side, that unit will often have differences in capabilities, and sometimes even role. Additionally, each side has differences in the structure of its tech tree. The Vaygr tend to have highly-specialized ships that do poorly against any non-intended target. The Hiigarans, on the other hand, have ships that may be individually less powerful but can be used against a wider range of foes. For example, a Vaygr assault frigate is better equipped at dealing with corvettes and frigates, while the Hiigaran flak frigate can chew up fighters and, to a lesser degree, corvettes in seconds, but isn't that great against larger ships.
  • The Red and Blue races of Machines: Wired For War seem to follow the same logical paths when it comes to constructing units. At least one mission gives you an idea of why this is happening, every time one side comes up with a new idea the other side steals it, restoring the status quo.
  • Three of the four companies in the base game of Offworld Trading Company use basically the same buildings, just different life support requirements or building codes. This is explained by the New Meridians making their early designs open source, however they decided later that was a bad idea and developed their own unique structures.
  • Original War has sides with identical resource gathering, production, and basic units. They diverge with their high-tier abilities that come from researching the local Green Rocks. Unfortunately, the same Green Rocks stranded all sides in prehistory at the beginning of the game: by the time they're established well enough for high-tech research, the campaign is near its end.
  • Subverted by Rise of Nations. The various factions tend to look similar at first glance depending on the cultural grouping. On the other hand, not only do they have (at most four) unique units replacing "standard" types. But there are also subtle differences in unit design and architecture between countries even of the same grouping, such as Japanese fighter planes having red circles on their wings, American buildings looking "frontier-colonial" and German soldiers resembling their World War I and World War II counterparts.
  • Outpost 2 has some common units and research between the two factions but some significant differences, particularly as you get farther into the Tech Tree.
  • Averting this was part of the plan in the development of StarCraft—Blizzard didn't want people to think it was merely Orcs and Humans in space. And they succeeded brilliantly.
    • However, the Brood War expansion gets special mention in this department. The backstory of the game says that the Terrans we play are the remnants of a prison colony of mind-wiped mutants and deviants in cold sleep removed from Earth during an enormous ethnic cleansing campaign that was sent zillions of lightyears off-course by a computer failure. After crash-landing on several planets and pretty much building civilization anew, they formed a makeshift interstellar empire of marauders looting the Koprolu in cobbled-together spaceships. One of the main plot points of the Brood War expansion pack is the coming of an expedition from the ancient, eugenically "purified" United Earth Directorate. After suffering total amnesia and over 500 years of isolation, how much have the Terrans diverged from the UED? Very little: the UED have Medics and Valkyries. Two units. Extra units. Everything else is the same between them. It is worth noting that Blizzard originally intended to have them be an entirely separate fourth race, but also only wanted to have 3 campaigns in Broodwar.
    • Even more hilarious when you realize certain units (like the Command Center) have the same logo painted on them, no matter what faction they belong to. Guess these come standardized.
    • To a lesser extent, this applies to the Protoss Templars & Dark Templars. They have different units, but otherwise the exact same buildings. The Dark Templars don't even bother to paint theirs, well, dark. And like the Terrans, there are two units of difference between them, but the player gets access to all of them, anyway.
      • Justified better with the Protoss, because they are very tradition-bound, normally discovering old technology rather than inventing something new.
      • Also justified in that the split was relatively recent compared to the fact that Protoss are absurdly long-lived, Dark Templar Matriarch Raszagal remembers the split. Despite being the oldest living Protoss, that means that we are only a generation or two out.
    • The UED intervention is Hand Waved by saying that UED Admiral DuGalle was ordered to steal local (i.e. Terran Dominion) hardware instead of use their shiny different Earth ships. This would be more believable if it wasn't for the fact that even the flagship they arrived in was a colonial design, as confirmed in cinematics.
    • Somewhat averted in the UED's victory cinematic, which depicted a Goliath with a under-slung missile pod instead of the twin machine guns they're normally depicted with. It implies that both units shared a similar base, but diverged due to the Korpulu's isolation.
    • Later played straight in StarCraft II where the Dominion ends up with upgrades and tech that is thought up by your Omnidisciplinary Scientist.
    • In StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, the primal Zerg have the same stats as the baseline Zerg units with different models and skins (with two exceptions — the Ravasaur, an artillery unit and the Guardian, which used to be a Zerg unit in the first game). They also don't get the upgrades you can apply to your units.
      • This gets lampshaded when Kerrigan notes that the primals are fielding Zerg strains that she knows were assimilated into the Swarm after leaving Zerus. Abathur explains that the Zerg are what they eat, and frankly is annoyed that the primal Zerg already managed to consume their strains.
    • In StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, the Tal'darim split off from the other Protoss even longer ago than the Dark Templar. While a few of their units are unique, more are simply slightly altered variations and some units (and all buildings) are completely identical besides color scheme. Karax later lampshades it and hypothesizes that the various Protoss forces that have gone missing over the millennia were actually attacked by the Tal'darim and had their tech copied.
  • Total Annihilation has this as well. Core units tend to be a bit tougher, slower and more expensive than Arm units, but the differences are trivial. The only relevant difference is that Core has a superheavy tank (useful) while Arm has an immobilizing, non-damaging spider tank (useless). Justified in that each faction has units for every type of situation, ending up somewhere around the thick end of 75 units.
    • Of course, the fact that that immobilizing spider can bring that superheavy tank to a dead stop for other units to pound into scrap is far more useful than it sounds at first.
    • The Core Contingency expansion pack added a lot more units. Most are just as balanced, but there's a notable exception - Core's Krogoth, a giant lumbering monstrosity that can wipe out half a base by itself and kill an enemy commander in one shot. Ironically, the previously useless Arm spider tanks become the best weapon to use against Krogoths, since this enables the Arm commander to get near and capture them...
    • The weapons of certain units would change according to factions, sometimes severely altering balance. Core's baseline robot, the AK, has a weak laser which, while precise, takes a long time to aim and is fairly slow to fire, effectively relegating the unit to scouting and light harassment. In contrast, Arm's Peewee has energy machine guns, which fire quickly and saturate the area with bullets, actually making it an effective combatant in the early game. Needless to say, fights between equal numbers of AKs and Peewees tend to become hopelessly one-sided in a hurry. The same weapon is used by Arm in their flying gunship, by the way, though in that case it has the effect of specialization against units vs the Core equivalent that is good against buildings.
    • Total Annihilation just covers a lot more unit types then most RTS. Where one game would make a tank race and a walker race and a floaty race, TA:CC gives both factions a vehicle plant, a bot plant and hovercrafts (floaty). The difference is bigger then just the appearances. Stats, costs, buildtime,... are usually slightly different. The only units to which this trope truely applies are the builder units, a lot of the buildings and the commanders.
  • In the spiritual successor, Supreme Commander, this is only somewhat averted. While there are some differences in unit lineups, the three factions have more or less the same basic units. Fortunately the top-tier "experimental" units vary dramatically.
    • The designers said in interviews before the game was released that they did this simply because the game would be practically impossible to balance otherwise.
    • Although the game does have an agenda regarding balance, for the level of balance reached it is quite diversified in subtle details and not-so-subtle. Each faction Artillery have their unique strengths and different ballistic particularities, for instance. The UEF is generally straightforward, the Cybrans are sneaky and adaptable (most Cybran units aren't the best in their roles, but have minor specials to help them fill in for other roles), Aeon is extremely specialized (their units completely incapable of doing anything outside their function, but doing it extremely well) and the Seraphin are multipurpose resource hogs, expensive but effective in all areas.
      • For example, while the Cybran T2 destroyer can also crawl up on land and become its own artillery crawl, the Aeon have a dedicated Anti-Air boat, because their frigate has no air defense. (UEF and Cybran's both do.)
  • S.W.I.N.E.s two factions (Rabbits and Pigs, yes) are almost identical in gameplay terms, with equivalent units on both sides, but are set apart by a few subtle differences. A few Pig units are a bit more heavily armored, and their main tank packs slightly more firepower than that of the Rabbits, while Rabbit units tend to be faster and more fuel-efficient than their Pig counterparts. Also, they both have one unique unit; the Pigs have their heavy tank, while the rabbits have tank-killer buggies.
  • Thandor: the Invasion reverses this trope. Not only are units aesthetically the same, they are even called the same. And yet, for motives unknown, side A's vehicle can very well be twice as powerful as its side B visual twin...
  • In the early Warcraft games, the only major difference between Alliance units and their Horde equivalents were the individual spells their spellcasters could learn. The unit upgrades were also very slightly different, at least in Warcraft II; the lower-level ones had different resource requirements, say. The only one that made a meaningful difference, though, was the final upgrade for elves vs. the otherwise-identical trolls; elves got a useful +3 damage, while trolls got an almost useless and very slow regeneration ability instead. As of Warcraft III, though, the trope is completely averted, with each of the four factions having a very high degree of uniqueness, all the way from heroes and combat units to buildings and even workers. Naturally, the game became proportionally harder to balance...
    • Horde/Alliance equivalent units even travelled at the same speed. This made sense for the most part, but some were still rather questionable. The Gnomish Helicopter moving at a fast speed made sense, but the Goblin Zepplin didn't, especially as it moved slow enough to be destroyed by a catapult in one of the cinematics. The Human Mage also walked at the same speed as the Undead Death Knight who rode on an equally undead Horse, both of which moved slower than their Human Footman and Orc Grunt Units while the Horde's Ogre could run around at the same speed as a mounted Human Knight.
    • Beyond spells, the original Warcrafts only real unit difference were the ranged units. Human Archers fired a space farther while Orc Spear throwers did more damage. Due to the Human spells generally being better on top of that, it's surprising they lost the first war.
  • The Game Boy Color game Warlocked is similar. Each side had workers, soldiers, and archers, and they had exactly the same stats as their equivalents on the opposite side (despite the humans' archers being elves and the beasts' archers being skeletons.) Each side can also summon wizards to help, and while most wizards are mercenary, there are some who only work for one side or the other... and have an exact counterpart on the opposite side (the Necromancer turns enemies into skeletons while the Elvenwiz turns enemies into elves, the Sage and Mysticwiz both turn enemies into healing hearts, and so on).
  • World in Conflict is mostly this. The US, Soviet and NATO factions are essentially identical with only very small differences. In fact since you play the game mostly zoomed out in order to see what's going on, all you see are the unit icons denoting "heavy tank", "medium tank", "heavy attack helicopter", etc and so even the cosmetic differences aren't noticed.
  • Played straight in Earth 2140, where the United Civilized States and the Eurasian Dynasty are largely the same, with the difference being that the UCS uses robotic units and brains in a jar, while the ED uses cyborgs. Averted in the sequels: Earth 2150 and Earth 2160, especially with the addition of the Lunar Corporation. In Earth 2150, the ED tends to Zerg Rush with good old-fashioned tanks, while the UCS uses powerful (but more expensive) mechs, and the LC utilizes Hover Tanks with Improvised Weaponry.

  • Averted in the ArmA series. While the different sides may have equivalents (all have service rifles, main battle tanks, transport helicopters, trucks, etc) all their equipment, vehicles and even the individual gear of the soldiers will have different stats from one another, and some might be objectively better then others. Some sides in various games (the FIA, ChDKZ, NAPA, Syndikat and Takistani Militia) are guerrilla groups armed with outdated or improvised equipment. This is mostly because the ArmA series is a Military Simulator first and foremost, and balance is thrown out the window - real life militaries will definitely attempt to be at least on equal footing to another military, but that doesn't mean they'll always succeed.
  • In BioShock 2 there are two types of splicers, those who belong to 'the family' and 'feral' splicers. The only visually difference is a small butterfly badge/Brooch.
  • Call of Duty: Especially when the perk system was implemented. The only difference between the sides are uniforms and the accent of the announcer. But militia groups and insurgents have access to the same weaponry as professional armies... Which is especially jarring when you realize that a mere Brazilian favela gang is able to call in supply drops, gunship strikes, stealth bombers or even tactical nuclear strikes.
  • In the Halo multiplayer for 2 and 3, Elites and Spartans are exactly alike aside from the obvious cosmetic differences caused by the former being alien and the latter being human. This is especially so in 3, where Elites were changed to have the same hitbox as Spartans rather than the hitboxes they used as an enemy in singleplayer (Elite players complained that they seemed custom-designed to absorb every pellet from a shotgun blast at reasonably-close distances, Spartan players complained Elites couldn't be headshot from behind because of their more slouched position). Halo: Reach averts this, though - Elites are faster, have better shields, and complete Regenerating Health, but are bigger targets, in return for only being playable in specific Spartan vs Elite playlists.
  • Team Fortress 2:
    • TF2 picks up the ball and runs with it. One side is working for a "heroically evil" demolition company; the other for an "evilly heroic" construction company. In practice, it's just a Palette Swap: the companies are even named RED* and BLU*.
    • Slightly contradicting the names of the companies (not that they're anything more than fronts), there is one gameplay difference in that RED usually defends objectives from BLU in Attack/Defense gamemodes.
    • Mercs even look the same - the only difference is the color of their uniforms and the stuff they use. This is never remarked upon, even in supplementary material, where there only seems to be one of each class.
    • Justified: both teams are (secretly) controlled by the same person. And not-secretly, they belong to twins.
  • LawBreakers places players on the sides of the Law or as the Breakers with each game. Both sides have the same classes that play the same way, but each class is represented by a different character with their own background.
  • The original Star Wars: Battlefront and Battlefront II are classic examples. The troops, weapons and vehicles all for the most part look quite different, and they have minor differences in things such as fire rate or accuracy (like the Imperial blaster rifle firing faster, but naturally becoming less accurate over long bursts than its Rebel equivalent, or the Republic V-Wing firing a shotgun-like burst for its primary weapon rather than the more focused blasts of the CIS bomber), but ultimately the only significant differences between the sides are almost exclusive to their unique units. This is especially pronounced in the fact that, in the movies, the Republic became the Empire, so the two sides use a lot of the same equipment against the other two with only the texture differentiating them, like their sniper rifle and the IFT fighter tanks.
  • Battlefield started using this trope when it began making use of customizable loadouts similar to Call of Duty, though there have been a few holdouts, such as Battlefield 3 giving each side a specific starting weapon for each class with different attributes (e.g. USMC's Assault gets an M16 that fires faster but kicks slightly harder on the first shot than the RGF's AK-74) and making the ability to use the starting guns with either faction the last unlock, and Battlefield Hardline restricting several weapons to one side until you've killed upwards of a thousand enemies with it.
  • Zig-Zagged (though mostly averted) throughout the Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare games with the two eponymous sides:
    • Zig-Zagged with classes on different sides; while each class has an obvious counterpart, their abilities differ or are switched around. For instance, while both are healers, Scientists in GW1 lack an equivalent to the Sunflower's Heal Beam and must rely on setting Heal Stations or Mega Heal Bombs.
    • Zigzagged with the Zombot Turrets introduced in the first game. They're the Zombies' rough equivalent to the Plants' stationary potted plants, but come in less variety and are Engineer-exclusive. GW2, then adds a close Plant counterpart (exclusive to the Rose) called the Crystal Guardian.
    • Averted with team roles in the first game; the Plants have more defense-oriented abilities (Peashooter and Sunflower's stationary turret attacks, Cactus' Wall-Nuts and Potato Mines, Chomper's Spikeweed) and take the defensive in the Gardens & Graveyards and Garden Ops modes. Likewise, the zombies are ones trying to attack and take over plant territory in Gardens & Graveyards (as with Garden Ops, but the zombies are all enemy Mooks in that mode). Both of these team roles harken back to the series' Tower Defense roots.
      GW2 then plays this trope straight in that aspect, giving the Zombies their own defensive Co-Op mode (Graveyard Ops) and PvP mode (Herbal Assault, which is just Gardens and Graveyards with the roles reversed). While this makes sense, given that the Zombies have taken over Neighborville in this game and the plants are trying to reclaim it, it removes a unique gameplay aspect the Plants had in favor of giving it to both. The Engineer also receives a stationary turret ability (replacing his drone, which was given to new zombie Captain Deadbeard) highly reminiscent of those used by two of the plant characters.
    • Garden Warfare 2 continues to zig-zag this trope. While some classes have been changed to act as more of a counterpart to a class on the other side(scientists, for example, now have their own heal beam), most of the new classes are unlike anything the other team has.
      • Roses and Imps both have a powerful crowd-control ability with a wide area-of-effect that renders opponents helpless. But while Roses are surprisingly un-Squishy Wizards, Imps are Glass Cannons with the lowest health pool in the game.
      • Citrons and Superbrains are both tanky and have lasers, but while citrons are more focused on ranged attacks, superbrains are more focused on melee attacks.
      • Kernel Corns were added to fill the "Dude with a Minigun" niche that the zombies covered with and All-Stars. But while both have a poweful rapid-fire minigun attack, All-Stars can place shields and tackle their opponents, Kernel Corns have missiles and artillery support.
      • At first, Captain Dreadbeard appears similar to the cactus, being a long-ranged fighter who can summon a drone. But while Cacti have little to no close-range abilities (instead gaining the ability to place walls and explosive mines), Dreadbeard has a powerful shotgun and a powerful "barrel blast" that deals huge damage within a small area around him, at the expense of lacking any defensive abilities.
      • Played straight by the Mooks- the Weeds and variants introduced in 2 are basically equivalent to the mook zombies and their variants. The Zombies also get their own version of the potted plants; robot turrets, further decreasing the differences between each side.

  • In the MechWarrior series, there are generally two sides - the Clans and the Inner Sphere - which are for the most part completely identical. Clan equipment has marginally better stats and have unique battlemech designs, but are functionally similar. Most games allow players to freely intermix Inner Sphere and Clan equipment on their mechs and allow Clan and Inner Sphere mechs on the same team. Averted in Mechwarrior Living Legends with its wide variety of different asset types (aircraft, tanks, power armor, etc), the differences are greatly increased along with the two sides Opposing Combat Philosophies being further distanced; Inner Sphere has more unique toys to play with (i.e. Rotary Autocannons, artillery) while Clan has more straightforward but powerful assets. The "Puretech" gamemode modifier was heavily promoted, which forced the Clan team to use Clan assets and vice versa for the Inner Sphere.
  • The Eucadian Warhawk and Chernovan Nemesis aircraft handle identically in Warhawk. The teams' ground vehicles also have distinct models, but handle identically.

    Turn Based Strategy 
  • Nintendo Wars:
    • Technically, the only difference faction makes for units is their appearance. The commander characters provide varying bonuses and penalties, but while each is associated with a faction in-story, they're not tied together when under player control. There are some Black Hole-developed units in the second and third games that look especially similar or identical for all factions, since they're all made from the same stolen Black Hole blueprints.
    • Played more straight in the spinoff series Battalion Wars. Aside from slightly different machine gun mounts on Frontier and Tundran tanks, every unit functions identically no matter which army you're controlling.
  • All races in Ascendancy are played pretty much the same way, with the main non-cosmetic difference being their special ability, which can range from Game-Breaker (e.g. the Chamachies' periodic ability to finish any current research instantly) to What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway? (e.g. the Marmosians's periodic ability to make other factions slightly hate anyone who is attacking you). All techs can be researched by all races and even all buildings look the same.
  • Civilization has been gradually growing away from this. Civilization and Civilization II both featured more or less identical civilizations, with some minor variations in leader attitude. After Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds left Microprose to found Firaxis and came out with Civ II's Spiritual Successor Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, things became rather different. SMAC featured factions that were quite different: though they worked from a common tech tree, unit-design pool, and facility pool, the variations in faction priorities, faction strengths and weaknesses, and faction-based limitations on social engineering made dealing with each leader and running your own faction quite depending on what exactly you were dealing with. Much of this carried over into Civilzation III, which presented you with unique units as well as leaders with distinct personalities and advantages (termed "traits"). Civilization IV continued this, like adding the concept of unique buildings (in the Warlords expansion) and refining the variation in AI leader attitudes and priorities. Civilization V goes further by giving each leader their own unique ability.
    • This trope does apply to the religions in Civilization IV. You can found any of seven religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam),note  by discovering a particular technology before any other civilization manages to do so. However, they're all mechanically identical except for (1) which technology you need to discover first found them and (2) four of the religions (Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam) get a free missionary upon founding. In the manual, the creators admit this was done on purpose to avoid offending anyone by suggesting that any one religion was better than the other or feeding into inaccurate stereotypes; the only reason that Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam get free missionaries at founding is game balance (the technologies they require are much higher up the tech tree, and need the extra help to compete with the older three).
    • It gets averted in some Game Mods such as Fall from Heaven.
    • Civilization: Beyond Earth (the Spiritual Successor to Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri) is supposed to avert this, to an extent. The three diverging philosophies in the game (Harmony, Supremacy, Purity) determine which technologies you get to research (no tech trading/stealing in this game). While initially units are pretty much identical (having all recently come from Earth), the higher up in your chosen branch of the "tech web" you go, the more the looks and abilities of the units change. Higher-end Purity units are heavily-fortified with big guns and are the strongest in terms of raw firepower. Harmony units are designed to make best use of the environment, as well as taming the native lifeforms for hit-and-run tactics. Supremacy factions use specialized units that are supposed to work together to overcome the enemy. On the other hand, all factions following the same philosophy will look and act pretty much the same.
      • On top of that, each sponsor/faction has a specific advantage to encourage a certain playstyle - anyone playing as the Pan-Asian Cooperative will probably be pumping out Wonders like nobody's business, anyone playing as Brasilia will probably want to consider the military option, anyone playing as the People's African Union will want to take advantage of flourishing cities due to the growth bonus, anyone playing as Franco-Iberia will want to play the culture game, etc.
  • Civilization Revolution's units are mostly like this, with certain exceptions such as the English Longbow Archer having better Defense than regular Archers and the Zulu's Impi Warriors having 2 Movement per turn to other Warriors' 1.
  • In the NES game Conflict, you're an army composed of American technology against an army of Soviet technology. However, although you can build the F-15E as your attack jet, for example, it's exactly the same as the Soviet MiG-29A. The game was more about positioning and strategy than technological superiority anyway.
  • Early versions of Endless Space suffered from races being very similar; aside from a generally weak "Affinity" special ability, most races played almost exactly the same bar small bonuses to certain stats. Free micro-expansion packs and the Dishormony Expansion Pack greatly increased the variety between races, adding races with unique abilities, like the Harmony which do not have approval ratings or Dust utilization, and buffing existing races.
    • With Endless Legend, the developers went out of their way to make each race unique, as the sameness between factions was the chief criticism about Endless Space; each race has some powerful ability that makes them unique, to the point where several are Mechanically Unusual Class, such as the Roving Clan's inability to declare war or the Broken Lords building citizens from Dust.
    • Endless Space 2 splits the difference. Races marked as low-complexity look different but have minor differences, much like a classic 4X. Medium-complexity races generally follow the same rules, but have one of two quirks or mechanics that demand different gameplay priorities. High-complexity races typically play by very different rules, requiring their unique mechanics be exploited to the fullest to compensate for others that are heavily handicapped or missing entirely.
  • In most Fire Emblem games, the enemies generally use all the same classes as the player, with the only real difference being that the player's units are all unique characters instead of mostly Mooks with a handful of uniques. Though enemy units do tend to be weaker than the player's own, this isn't always true, especially when it comes to bosses.
    • Finally averted with Fire Emblem Fates. Hoshido and Nohr have entirely different class trees, and they're anything but analogous - Hoshido having the Samurai while Nohr has access to Mercenaries is just one example. Which version you play will determine which side the lion's share of your units come from, although there are some units that always join you, and certain units on each side can access classes from the other faction.
  • Played straight in Galactic Civilizations and the original GalCiv2, where races only differed by a few stat bonuses, to the point where the original game didn't even bother allowing people to play as aliens. But the second game's expansions started adding differences such as Dark Avatar's Super Abilities and largely different tech trees in Twilight of the Arnor. Lampshaded in the Twilight of the Arnor summary, which acknowledged that under normal circumstances there wasn't a great deal of value to trying a different race, so they planted a dozen different tech trees.
  • The Heroes of Might and Magic series has averted this from the start. The armies are radically different. This predictably led to a lot of balance issues. The infamous Conflux from the third game was overpowered since the developers had to quickly replace the scrapped Forge town with something else.
  • Partly played straight in Pacific Fleet, with each side having a destroyer, a light cruiser, a heavy cruiser, an escort carrier, a carrier, and a battleship. The two unique units are the submarine for the US and the Yamato battleship for Japan (in addition to the standard Kongō battleship). The US is stated to be easier to play due to having slightly better radars and tougher bombers, but American torpedoes are crap. Japan has pretty good torpedoes, and their full carriers can launch kamikaze strikes. The two different superweapons are a tactical nuke for US and the Ohka kamikaze jet for Japan.
    • Significantly more averted in Atlantic Fleet with the differences between the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine being much more pronounced and affecting gameplay to a much greater extent. True to history, Germany has significantly fewer surface ships than Brits with Battleships (and yes, they have lots of those compared to just 4 for Germany, ignoring the fictional ones). On the other hand, Germany has three types of U-boats as opposed to just one type of sub for Britain (while slow, a properly-used submarine can do some serious damage). Additionally, only the Royal Navy has carriers of any kind and battlecruisers. The Royal Navy also has the almost-useless corvettes, while Germany's counterpart are the significantly more useful torpedo boats. The new dynamic campaign mode has the two sides play significantly differently. Germany's goal is to sink as much Allied merchant and supply shipping as possible before D-Day, while the Royal Navy has to protect the shipping and either hold off until D-Day or sink a certain tonnage of the German fleet.
  • Averted by Sword of the Stars and its expansions, where each race has a different FTL drive, which leads to different strategic movements and ship designs, which leads to different turret placements, which leads to different combat advantages. Each race also has different percentage bonuses in the partially randomized tech tree. However, the actual guns are identical — a human red laser will do exactly as much damage as a hiver, zuul or liir one.
    • The expansions also add a few unique technologies for the races. Additionally, the Zuul have Boarding Pods as a standard part of almost every dreadnought hull design, while most Morrigi dreadnoughts can launch Attack Drones.
  • The Total War series mostly plays this straight, but ends up averting it in a unique fashion. There are hundreds of different types of units, but these can all be broken into a handful of very basic categories. For instance, there may be about 10 different kinds of heavy cavalry in Medieval: Total War, belonging to different factions, with only slight variations in armor or attack score. The trick, however, is that no faction has representatives from all categories. Each faction is missing some key elements that most other factions have, and at the same time possesses a few unit types that outperform those belonging to other factions. So for instance, Romans lack any serious Heavy Cavalry, but they make up for it with extremely disciplined infantry (the Legionnaires). The player's job is to learn how to use whatever troops they do have to exploit deficiencies in other factional armies. This is extremely apparent with factions that are ridiculously similar to the untrained eye, like Greeks and Macedonians, where a few key units are available to one but not the other, making a huge difference in the way they fight their wars.
    • The ironclads you can build in "The Fall of the Samurai" DLC for Total War: Shogun II differ, depending on which Western power you deal with. The British Warrior is the most powerful of all, but also the most expensive, and only one can be fielded at a time. The French L'Océan has a ram at the front and, in terms of firepower, is between the Warrior and the American Roanoke. The latter is the weakest of the three, but you can build two of them. In addition, any faction can build the Japanese (French-built) Kōtetsu ironclad (3 max), regardless of which Western power they are in business with.
  • Averted in The Unholy War on the PlayStation. While both sides have the same classes of units, they function very differently — enough that players of one side are worse at playing the other than newbies would be.
  • Ancient Empires plays this almost completely straight. Your units are blue, the enemy units are red. The sequel made commanders at least look different: your commanders (brothers Galamar and Valadorn) look distinct, and they'll never be mistaken for the enemy Demon Lords (which look like skeletons) or the Big Bad Saeth. Saeth is the sole exception to the trope, having significantly higher stats than a normal commander and the ability to fire off the powerful Heaven's Fury attack each turn.
  • Zigzagged to a varying degree in many fantasy turn-based PC games including Master of Magic, Age of Wonders and Fallen Enchantress. Usually in these games, there are troops that almost all the races have in common - these are usually the most basic infantry. Your race might have some unique troops and they might also lack an otherwise common troop type. It then may be further modified by your ruler's traits and if the type of summoning magic they may use. For example, in Age of Wonders, every faction had a swordsman unit of some kind but only the Elves can get Nature Elementals.
  • Played straight in Wargroove. While every commander and each of the 4 factions look very different, their units are completely analogous. In gameplay, that is; the codex has pages upon pages of individualized lore explaining the exact differences between a Cherrystone Swordsman, a Fellheim Dreadsword, a Floran Slasher and a Heavensong Lionblade, even if they're all identical Solider units mechanically.

Non-Video Game Examples

This is a common issue in live-action adaptations of superhero films.

  • Chess: many designer chess sets show striking differences in the appearance of the chess pieces between the the opposing sides. Their functionality, however, remains the same as for standard black/white chess pieces.
  • Non-video game example: NASCAR stock cars are identical between manufacturers, with the exception of the engines and grills, as they use the same carboy.
    • This appears to be a recent development, as prior to the 2008 season, NASCAR cars were essentially souped-up versions of production cars (the days of the famous "Race on Sunday, sell on Monday" motto).
  • A non-game example would be Star Trek (although it has plenty of games): most of the major races have similar weapons, shields and classes of ships despite some of them being very antisocial. Subverted in some cases when they come across pre-warp cultures or some ancient culture that has disappeared but had fantastic technology.
    • Lampshaded in Fleet Command 3: the photon torpedoes used by the Federation and Klingons are stated to be the exact same model due to co-development by the allied governments.
  • In Xiangqi, the functionally-equivalent pieces of the two sides are distinguished in Chinese by name as well as by color. Some red pieces' Chinese names use obviously similar characters to their black counterparts, but in other cases the characters are completely different (but still have the same pronunciation). Some of the red pieces are named after important parts of an established government, while the equivalent black pieces evoke the idea of an invading army. For example, the red "bishop" is named 相 which means minister, while the black "bishop" is named 象 which means elephant.