RTS Games and Realism. On tanks and turning plains into Swiss Cheese.
RTS games (Real-Time Strategy games) are a genre which enjoys the word “Realism”. There are numerous RTS games which try to portray their own version of realism. Realistic vehicle damage, realistic terrain destruction, realistic models, and so on. Recently, when I prowled through Steam, my eyes stopped on Wargame: European Escalation. I am a fan of different RTS games so I decided to read the description, check the info that was granted about the game and inevitably “Realism” appeared once again. After watching the intros and in-game materials I was more than sceptical whether “Realism” appears at all, or is it, as Fanatyk put it, cinematographic realism, or in other words, “Looks good on film, but it’s not what it would look like in real life.”. In this article I would wish to talk about the different elements that have appeared in certain RTS games , which are considered realistic, but which do not appear in every single “Realistic” (or so some claim) RTS game.
Check the list for this series here.
Most RTS games, in the case of Realistic Vehicles, are limited to having weaker flanks and rear on vehicles. It is often a simple way of presenting “Realistic Vehicles”. In a lot of cases vehicles will not be realistically presented in terms of plating thickness or power of their weapons, since balance begins to argue with realism. A few games went the extra mile and added elements which make vehicles much more demanding to use, rather than a horde of units which can be shifted from place to place. One of the bigger examples I can think of is Men of War. Here vehicles can suffer specific module damage (damaged gun, turret, tracks, engine) and can lose crew members, making the vehicle suffer in some way (lack of driver, loader, gunner, etc.). All vehicles also have fuel tanks, and a limited supply of ammunition, meaning that during a round or mission you might have to salvage extra fuel from other tanks/vehicles as well as find appropriate ammunition. Tanks in Men of War have stronger and weaker elements, and can be set on fire, forcing the crew to abandon the tank, or making it explode. Tanks can also be knocked out, forcing the crew to abandon it, yet allowing them to obtain repair packs to repair the tank. As such, in MoW you can be faced with situations where players fight for the heaviest tank which could be salvaged to their own cause, since buying a few crew members is much cheaper than buying a whole new tank.
However, MoW does not take into account terrain types too well, but another game which I met with, did. Original War had an intriguing idea of the player researching different types of tracks and wheels, as well as engines fueled by either electricity, petrol(diesel?) or Syberite (nuclear fuel). So, a light vehicle with diesel/electricity on a standard four-wheel drive could travel quickly on flat plains, meanwhile a heavier tank on tracks with a diesel/nuclear engine could much more steadily travel on difficult terrain, even if not be able to travel as quickly on flat plains. You had three factors. Body size (Light, Medium and Heavy), engine types (Electricity, Petrol(Diesel) and Syberite) and the “wheels”. Depending on the task of the vehicle, whether a light recon vehicle, or a heavy tank you would add the appropriate elements to make it handle itself better. The maps often also called for plenty of planning, since you could build a long column of Russian heavy tanks, but while driving through a tight valley suddenly get ambushed and lose all of the expensive vehicles (which then, could be taken over).
There were many different titles about which used some degree of “Realism” in their vehicles. Though I was never met yet with a single game which could be given the title of “Realistic Vehicles” section. There is always some part omitted, or simplified, for the sake of gameplay or balance. That is not a bad thing, but among the different games I would say that MoW is my favourite when it comes to vehicles. The fact that you can take over enemy tanks, or damage them in a specific way makes it much more interesting than most titles permit. Among other titles, which are not RTS games, I found World of Tanks as well as Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad to hold a decent degree of realism, while not making it hell for you. Let us be honest, if we wanted absolute vehicle realism, having a damaged tank would not allow you to repair it on the spot, and the round would drag on for you for countless hours.
In a lot of games, especially in FPS games, the use of cover is often the difference between virtual life and death. In more and more games Destructo-physics makes cover less and less useful, or rather, it does not allow a person to sit in place for hours, while his foes are unable to reach him. In RTS games it is almost a standard occurrence that buildings can be used as strongholds by your troops, while at the same time, destroyed by enemy artillery, or other occurrences. Sometimes terrain itself can become the cover, when flat land is bombarded by heavy fire, the craters and holes now serve your or the enemy troops as cover. In other cases, the use of explosives to destroy bridges or roads to limit enemy movement is also more and more common. Some games take advantage of this, others, fail miserably.
Among the different titles that do, once again Men of War makes an appearance. In Men of War you can put men into buildings, which can be destroyed whole (or partly) by explosive fire from your tanks or artillery. Heavy artillery fire will create small craters for infantry to hide in. Although certain bridges can be destroyed, there is always the options of moving through the water, even if it not the easiest or safest path. You have the feeling, that even though your enemy might be well dug in, you can at least shatter his defences, and force him to improvise, though just like in the case of Stalingrad, you could by mistake make it a better fortress for him, than not. Another game which uses a similar, though simplified, and thus, more friendly system is Company of Heroes. Neutral buildings can be occupied, but cannot be repaired once destroyed. Bridges once destroyed can be repaired (which takes time), and artillery strikes which create craters will provide a cover bonus for infantry.
Although the destruction of terrain is often an attractive feature it is rare for RTS games to fully exploit it , and in many cases it is simplified. I recall in the R.U.S.E. once a town was destroyed your infantry could not ambush the enemy in the rubble, when I strongly believe that should still be a possibility. Sometimes, the destruction of a key bridge should be penalizing, like in MoW for example, but there should be a method of repairing it, for the sake of gameplay. Once again, if we wanted to play around with realism, we would find that destruction in strategy games would not only greatly penalize, but also is hard to implement. The impact of destroyed terrain on movement and cover would be simple to design. However, how destroyed terrain impacts, for example, resupplying, reinforcing or transporting your troops would be difficult to add. All in all, most of the time the destruction RTS games offer is sufficient. Sometimes it is impressive, sometimes it is useful, but most importantly, it is usually finely balanced between visuals, realism and gameplay.
Stay tuned for more updates from this new series. In the next part, Squad Behaviour. A topic so wide and complex, it deserves its own section.