RTS Games and Realism. Squad Behaviour.

When we play an RTS game, which promises realism, we anticipate a semi-real life experience. What we usually get is a disappointment, with a lacking or very primitive AI, which you have to babysit. In this series we discuss what RTS Games call “Realism”. In this specific part, we will look at Squad Behaviour, or what I will often refer to as simply AI. In a lot of RTS games you would expect your squad to react in a sensible way to a new threat, or at least to dodge bullets. More often than not, your tanks and infantry will act on a very basic script, engaging the closest foe, not the most dangerous one. Let us look at this closer however, because the truth is not that simple.

An accurate depiction of my general thoughts on in-game A.I.

Check the list for this series here.

The importance of Squad Behaviour in RTS games.

In the past a lot of games did not have squads. You created individual units which you bunched up and sent forward in a mob. The engine limitations were clear, since you only had a 2D perspective. Often, you did not need a demanding AI, because units did not have weak-spots, and you did not have to play with flanking or rear attacks in order to win.  Today, RTS games often allow squads. World in Conflict, RUSE, and Company of Heroes are just a few wargame examples. Men of War also falls into this category, since you can organise your infantry and tanks into groups. You do not have an individual “unit”, but rather a group of soldiers. The more of these individual soldiers fall, the lower the squads effectiveness. In a lot of games vehicles began to be represented in a more tactically demanding way. You cannot defeat a tank simply by shooting at it with rifles, instead you will have to flank it with anti-tank weapons.

Tanks need brains of their own too. All too often in Men of War a tank would focus on a fast-moving vehicle, while being aware there is an enemy tank in front of it, exposing the side of its turret for an easy kill shot. In turn, you would expect a tank to move in a smart way, when forced to retreat or advance. Sometimes when you would want the tank to reverse, exposing only its solid front to the enemy, it will instead turn around and get smoked.

Penny Arcade

I thought it was Chilli... (Source: Penny Arcade)

Tanks are not the only foe infantry has to face. Artillery and different types of bombings are now a real threat. In RUSE I recall seeing mass firing of Katyushas taking out my defensive preparations, often leaving a smothering ruin where my bunkers once were. In Company of Heroes a massed artillery strike would turn an effective “Maginot Line” into a deadland. Artillery did not pose only a tactical or strategic problem to you, as a commander, but also to your infantry. When you watch any half-decent War movie infantry will often run into cover, hiding in ditches, holes, or at least lying flat on the ground.

In today’s RTS games you need smart squads in order to counter certain dangers, without having to order them to do so. In some games you simply cannot look at every single corner of the battlefield. What do we get instead?

“Oh hey, it’s raining explosives.”

In a lot of RTS games infantry will either not react at all, or behave in an unexpected manner, when faced with certain triggers. In Company of Heroes a squad in cover when engaged by a foe could sometimes spread out all over the area, losing the benefit of hard cover in order to hide in tall grass. In turn, if you do not order a squad to take cover from incoming high explosive fire, they will remain where they are. Squads will often not have an option to throw back live grenades, or to quickly take over equipment if their own is ineffective against a foe. One of my more frustrating experiences are bazookas which fire at infantry, instead of enemy tanks.

Company of Heroes

"Hey guys! What are you shooting at?"

Squads are merely puppets under your control. You have to tell them exactly what to do, and then make sure it all works as you planned. This is not completely unreasonable though. When ordering your squads about you have to make the decision where should they be heading, what upgrades should they choose, whether they should fire or not. The problem is that not everybody can micro-manage as quickly as others. In the case of Company of Heroes the Blitzkrieg Mod fixed the problem of squads moving out of cover by providing a “Stand your ground” order. Tanks with a slower turret rotation, or a fixed gun also had the optional order of not rotating their hull, if the enemy tried to flank them.

The often simplistic AI is much too easy to exploit. In Men of War during multiplayer battles your tanks might had exposed themselves without you knowing it, while you were focused on something else. An experienced player in World of Tanks plans tactically and makes rapid decisions when faced with numerous foes or a difficult situation. As a commander of a small or big force you rarely have the time to focus on individual units.

The exceptions

There have been games out there with some mildly interesting AI behaviour. Among those was a Bridge Too Far: Battle Normandy, Close Combat series and Majesty (1 & 2). The Bridge too Far and Close Combat series often shared their love for much more demanding realism than most games. You lacked base building, and often had to achieve a set of objectives with very limited resources. You, as a commander, ordered your troops to move in a specific direction, at specific speeds, focus fire on an area, spot for your artillery, etc. Charging through an empty field could stall your advance when an enemy machine gun fired off, and your squads, panicked, hid in the tall grass. A tank commander who found himself under fire could cancel your order and slowly back away a safe distance.

In games of this type, every single decision you made, good or wrong, was reflected on the success of your operations. If you sent your infantry alone, they would get pinned. If you called for an artillery barrage, and supported your infantry with tanks you would have a much better success. You had to take into account poor weather conditions, terrain and possible enemy positions. At the same time, the AI reacted in some way, if the situation improved or worsened. In Majesty you did not have squads, per se, but each Hero type had his or her own preferences and “mentality” when to fight or flee. Rogues were often money hungry, and would attempt to take on jobs way beyond their league, if they had a slim chance of success, although often fleeing at the first sign of trouble. Warriors liked Attack and Defense missions, and although more hardy and experienced in combat, were not “dumb” enough to sacrifice themselves. In turn, the Barbarians… let’s just say I had to resurrect them often.

What would we like from Realism?

When we play an RTS game, the A.I. is often the last thing that we expect to have a brain. We hand out the orders, inform every unit on their course of action and react to a changing situation. The problem is that we cannot do everything on our own. Fanatyk in his article said that with time, as we gain more and more variables to look over, we will maltreat some of them. Automatisation frees up our brain and attention capacity, allowing us to focus on things which we consider crucial. This automatisation is what I would expect from an  RTS game, at least in part. In Reality, a commander gave orders to his sub-commanders, who would act on his instructions. The commander did not have to go to every single company and make sure everything went according to plan. In our “Virtual Reality” we are often stuck with a very crude A.I. In the words of the Heavy from Team Fortress 2, “Who sent all these babies to fight?!”.

Alex “WriterX” Bielski

About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
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Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of AlterGamer.com he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

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