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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 Cosmetically Different Sides: 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, but they're both tanks.

Where the two sides are identical besides their colour, it's a Palette Swap. The Trope Makers are the "Needle" and "Wedge" spaceships from Space War.

Examples of Cosmetically Different Sides include:

  • Team Fortress Classic
    • Team Fortress 2 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.
    • Mercs even look the same. Only difference is the color. This is never remarked upon, even in supplementary material.
    • Justified: both teams are (secretly) controlled by the same person.
  • The old (1997) game 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 Sy Demon, 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.
  • 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. The core's baseline robot, the AK, has a weak laser, where as the Arm's Peewee has Energy Machine Guns, who rock. Same for the gunships, the Core Rapier's rockets didn't compare to the Arm Brawler's EMGs.
      • However, each unit was specialized in a different direction. The Rapier's rockets weren't much good against moving targets, but could rip a base down in no time flat. Brawlers would take forever to knock down buildings, but could demolish columns of ground units with relative ease.
    • 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 it's own artillery crawl, the Aeon have a dedicated Anti-Air boat, because their frigate has no air defense. (UEF and Cybran's both do.)
  • 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 Halo multiplayer, at least in 2 and 3, Elites and Spartans are exactly alike aside from the obvious differences by the former being alien and the latter being human. Reach averts this, though - Elites are faster, have better shields and fully recharging health, but are bigger targets.
  • RTS/vehicular action cross Battlezone 1998 has this. US and Soviet units have differ mostly in that US ones are black and Soviet ones are grey (and have slightly different models).
    • Its sequel Battlezone 2 adds more aesthetic changes since one of the races is not human, so the vehicles vary greatly in appearance. They are, of course, still mostly the same.
      • Except the fact the aliens vehicles transform to alter their weapons and their high end units usually function completely differently compared to the human high end units.
  • SWINEs 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.
  • The page image comes from Homeworld, for which 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.
    • 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.
  • 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...
  • World of Warcraft originally subverted this by restricting the Shaman and Paladin classes to Horde and Alliance respectively. Alas ... no more.
    • However, each race varies slightly in base stats and racial abilities. The Paladin also had slightly different abilities on both sides, but this was ultimately tossed out in the next expansion.
    • This trope was cited as part of why Paladins and Shamans were made available to both sides apparently - having them be exclusive left the developers having to make them fill many of the same roles, resulting in increasing similarities between them.
  • 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).
  • The SNES game Rampart was a classic story of the epic battle Red Castle Versus Blue Castle.
  • 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 Corrupt Hicks 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.
    • 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 Handwaved 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 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.
  • 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 Advance Wars, provided that the armies are led by the same commander character (and in Days of Ruin, have the same skill level), the only difference between units is their appearance. Then again, the game relies on the commander characters to provide varying bonuses and penalties.
  • Battlefield 1943. The rest of series generally averts it, though. The unlocks in the game may be the same, but vehicles nearby them won't be.
  • Age of Empires, until the third installment, had mostly idential factions despite spanning the entire globe. The only difference were a faction-specific unit, varying restrictions on the Tech Tree as well as some general bonus.
    • Age of Empires' factions were not even cosmetically different. 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 easten countries used the same buildings, for example.
    • A more grievous offender is Star Wars: Galactic Battlgrounds, due to being Age of Empires in a galaxy far, far away. Cosmetically the factions are vastly varied, however in terms of gameplay 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).
    • 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.
  • Averted by Sword of the Stars and its expansions, where each race has a different FTL drive, which leads to different 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.
  • In the 2-D Fire Emblem games, the only difference between your enemies and your units is the coloring and facial portraits. Everything else is identical. Averted in Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn- most of your units have their own character models. It does, however, get interesting when you start fighting different enemy armies, who all share the same models. Why do Daein, Crimea, and Begnion all employ the same ten soldiers, again?
    • This can be partially explained by the fact that the entire (human-inhabited part of the) continent was under Begnion rule until a few centuries before. (It's All There in the Manual. Or at least the wiki.)
  • 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 Spirtual 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. Nevertheless, it must be said that Civilization can never get too far from this trope: since these are real human civilizations we're talking about, too much specialization would result in Unfortunate Implications. Even with the limited aversions currently in place, Misplaced Nationalism abounds on the Civilization boards about the smallest perceived slight.
    • Cosmetically Different Sides does apply to the religions in Civilization IV. You can found one of seven religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam), but they're all mechanically identical except for what Technology you need to found them. 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.
    • It gets averted HARD in some GameMods such as Fall From Heaven.
  • The Red and Blue races of Machines 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.
  • General Lionwhyte's forces in Brutal Legend are just reskinned versions of your own troops: Headbangers become Hairbangers, Razor Girls become Groupies, etc.. Subverted later with the other two factions, the Drowning Doom and the Tainted Coil, which have their own unique units and strategies.
  • The Eucadian Warhawk (1995 video game) and Chernovan Nemesis aircraft handle identically in Warhawk (1995 video game). The teams' ground vehicles also have distinct models, but handle identically.
  • In Conflict for the NES, the American and Soviet sides have corresponding units which are exactly equal except for their names, e.g., an American A-10 has the same stats as a Soviet SU-25.
  • The Total War series plays this somewhat straight, but ends up subverting 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.
  • Averted in The Unholy War on the Play Station. 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.
  • 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.
  • Command and Conquer: Generals and onwards largely (if not totally) ignore this, but games right up from Tiberian Dawn to Red Alert 2 exhibit varying degrees of this problem. This trope's most noticeable in the earliest of those games, where opposing factions use the same unit or building for almost anything. The only exception is in high-tier infantry classes, any-tier vehicles or aircraft, and defensive buildings, where players will start to notice the difference. Incidentally, these differences are usually the focus of a Command And Conquer deathmatch—side-specific units, depending on how well they're used, often decide who wins that deathmatch.
    • The first Red Alert averted this in a strange way, as the navies are totally different. This leaves gaping holes in both fleets, like the allies not having submarine technology.
  • 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.
  • 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.