When it comes to tactical and strategic flexibility in video games, regardless of the platform, we’re usually given two options: play within the confines of the intended gameplay – where we often encounter a rock-paper-scissors approach or other, similar arrangements – or break the game’s intended ruleset, usually by exploiting textures or object-related bugs to conceal a position or provide temporary invulnerability. Those who frequently play Rainbow Six Siege or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds will be well-versed with the latter. But what if there was a third way? Where you’re only limited by the military assets at your disposal and your imagination.
Unfortunately, and despite the immersive, visual and aural experience on offer with this ‘third way’ it’s notorious for its ruthless application of lethality should you fall foul of the system’s own ruleset. It offers no respawns. And instead of hit-points and armour values, you have organs and the inbuilt physical characteristics of whatever armour or clothing you happen to be wearing. It’s called reality.
In reality, warfare is a complicated matter. So complicated, in fact, that most RTS fans would sob, quite possibly with joy, at its complexity. From the strategic level where you have political objectives, public opinion, diplomatic relations, and logistics (to name a few) to the more tactical considerations, such as personnel, vehicles, weapons, terrain, weather, and the capabilities of your assets, there’s a plethora of considerations that all have to be scrutinized when conducting war. But no game really does this. No game considers every ruleset. Some include variations or limited instances of it, but no title in the history of gaming provides an almost limitless supply of options. Instead, we are presented with pre-defined rules and limitations.
I’m probably being a little unfair. With reality we are constrained primarily by the laws of physics. That’s the main ruleset. In video games these rules and limitations can vary, depending on the genre. RTS titles often centre on resource management skills, while their turn-based brethren might also feature similar elements, but with some differences, such as the roll of a simulated dice to represent chance or the passage of time. Most of us know this line of games as the 4X genre, where exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination are the name of the game.
Titles that focus on tactics, however, such as the many Halo, Battlefield or Call of Duty releases tend to focus on individual methods and skill. In some respects, these are more faithful to the realistic limitations of warfare. While an RTS game, such as Command and Conquer, might allow rifle-equipped infantry squads to fire at a tank and eventually destroy it, the FPS genre offers no such consolation. In reality, I can grab a few mates, an assault rifle or two and several thousand rounds of ammunition, but we’re never going to beat the armour of a WW2 Tiger tank. And it won’t happen in Battlefield V either. Some might view this as another form of rock-paper-scissors, where you need a bazooka to kill a tank, and a rifle to kill a soldier.
But another way to look at it would be by measuring a weapons’ degree of lethality against certain targets. It doesn’t actually take a lot to kill an exposed human in terms of warfare or in video games like Battlefield V. We’re a squishy bunch. And that’s why we have tanks, bunkers, apache attack helicopters and cruise missiles – to minimise the risk to the user or operator, and to maximise the impact on the enemy. And in reality, there are elements of the rock-paper-scissors system in play, though these are not limitations. Think of them as specialisations, where an anti-aircraft system such as the Russian ZSU-234 is better used against aircraft, but that doesn’t mean infantry soldiers are impervious to its four 23mm cannons.
The same goes for your main battle tank, such as the Challenger 2 or M1 Abrams. Both vehicles specialise in covering open ground at speed and engaging enemy armour at range. But place them in built-up areas, such as a town or city, where enemy infantry can move around, almost with impunity, and those same tank commanders will express their concerns. Tanks are more vulnerable in built up areas. Not because infantry soldiers suddenly acquire adamantium claws and the durability of the Incredible Hulk, but because urban situations allow infantry soldiers to move around more easily whilst remaining in cover, with a reasonable level of protection. This means they can direct portable anti-armour weapons and engage from a variety of angles and elevations against an enemy tank and can then disappear into cover before the enemy can respond.
That being said, if we look at other situations, things can change. Though a tank doesn’t excel at shooting down aircraft, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. And that’s also replicated in several of the Battlefield games. I suppose another way of looking at this would be to utilise anything that’s available in order to defeat the enemy. If you don’t have an anti-aircraft system to shoot down an aircraft, then you should be able to use the next best thing, embodying that old military saying of ‘adapt, overcome, survive’. Those who play Battlefield 4 and have used a tank to shoot down a helicopter or a jet fighter will most likely be feeling quite smug right about now.
Give me options, lots of options.
If approaching a title with this mentality, it means you don’t really need to familiarise yourself with every element of the game, other than knowing how to play it. But it does mean that almost any tactic or strategy is available. One in-game example is when I used to play a PC game called Star Trek: Starfleet Command. The game featured numerous ships that you could pick from, such as Federation, Klingon, and Romulan, that you flew around in a three-dimensional environment, but were limited to a single plane of elevation. So you couldn’t fly up or down, but the maps were fairly large in some cases with several associated obstacles such as asteroids, and you could also create skirmish games to practice on.
I decided to replicate the episode ‘Balance of Terror’ from the Original series of Star Trek, where Kirk and Co. encounter a cloaked Romulan Bird-of-Prey. After unleashing everything I had at the vessel I only managed to cause limited damage, but I couldn’t destroy it. Similarly, the Romulan vessel in the game lacked a sufficient rate of fire to destroy my Enterprise. It was a stalemate. By the time either vessel’s weapons were ready to fire again, the opposing ship’s shield were back up to full strength. I needed something else. I set the ship to fly in a defensive arc and quickly looked around the map. There were several clouds of nebulous gas, some asteroids and a small black hole. Though the game focussed on combat, I had all the usual star ship technology at my disposal, including a tractor beam. So, I redistributed power to the shields and the tractor beam, grabbed the Romulan vessel and dragged it to the black hole, hoping it would work just like a real black hole. I avoided the singularity, but succeeded in dragging the Romulan vessel in. It was immediately destroyed, and I won the skirmish. Score one for creativity.
It’s possible that the black hole and the other obstacles and hazards within the game were designed to be just that, obstacles and hazards. Had I exploited the in-game terrain, or found an unintended use for a black hole? But a deeper question loomed: was there another way to defeat the bird-of-prey? I never found out. But I revelled in my brief moment as Kirk himself.
I’ve played plenty of RTS titles. Command and Conquer being front and centre for many years. And I’ve used various tactics to win against human opponents, such as diversionary attacks, pincer movements, and special ops. One game I played against a human opponent lasted less than 14 minutes. I sent out several individual infantry soldiers to scout out the map. One located the enemy, and another encountered a crate that gave me an instant influx of cash, or the in-game equivalent. I immediately produced an APC, a medic, some engineers, and Tanya – a demolitions expert who could destroy buildings in seconds. After several minutes of building and recruiting I sent a handful of infantry on a frontal assault as a diversion, while the APC loaded with key personnel went around the back, where it lacked any defences. The infantry subsequently ran into a wall of Tesla towers and were quickly reduced to ash. Elsewhere, the APC found another crate – a nuke! I targeted his power stations, which had the immediate effect of disabling all of his Tesla towers. My modest infantry force waded in. He redirected the few tanks that he had and some infantry to deal with the incursion while I offloaded Tanya and her squad round the back. The result was carnage. I destroyed more than half of his buildings in just 20 seconds, including his all-important Construction Yard – his primary means of building pretty much anything else. He threw in the towel, along with some expletives.
While this might come across as a resounding victory and a good demonstration of sound tactics and aggressive action, I was actually quite lucky. The crates helped a lot, especially the nuke. Luck can play an important part in warfare. Being in the right place at the right time can win battles, or it can simply keep you alive longer. And I’ve seldom encountered a better representation of it, other than a common use of in-game dice in something Warhammer related. But that usually comes across in other ways, such as failing to hit or wound the enemy. Speaking of Warhammer, one element that is rarely utilised in RTS or FPS titles is fear or morale.
Bravery is underrated
Sure, the morale or happiness of the population in a Tycoon or Civilisation-style game is commonplace, but most of your pixelated people or soldiers don’t experience fear or bravery or anger in a battle. They aren’t determined or cautious. They don’t have that in-built sense of self preservation that a human has. Games like the Total War series cater for routs when the going gets tough. But I’ve yet to encounter a game that gives you plenty of options for victory and includes something like courage and bravery. Of course, those who play the Battlefleet Gothic Armada games will be familiar with morale. It can be used as a weapon, especially by fearless assets that conduct devastating assaults, routing an entire ship in the process. On the flipside they also require sound management, to ensure your nervous troops don’t turn tail and run. The Imperial Navy has some excellent ships in the game, but if shaken too much, those very same ships become completely unreliable.
When we look at the real-world counterparts to this, you might think that the military is simply brave, well-protected or oblivious to injury or death. Or that some armies have a sense of determination, national pride or a sense of superiority. Some of that plays a part, but in most cases, a typical modern-day infantry soldier, helicopter pilot, tank or artillery gunner utilises something else: training. It might sound like a cliché when a soldier or someone from the emergency services states on the news that their training kicked in during a situation, but that’s exactly what happens. Soldiers are trained intensively on responding quickly to various situations. And they do it without thinking. Because it’s quicker. And being quick usually keeps you alive.
When training a soldier to deal with being shot at, providing first aid, or shooting at the enemy various methods are reinforced via training. It’s drilled repeatedly, which essentially means that you perform it again and again and again, until it becomes instinctive. That way you respond quicker than normal. Obviously, it has some drawbacks. While training someone to react instinctively is effective, it often doesn’t cater for the after effects of a combat situation, when a soldier or officer is sitting in a quiet environment, thinking. That’s where PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) sometimes comes in, though it varies from person to person. But the essence here is the overall effectiveness of a force in certain situations, primarily because of their training or their weapons and equipment. Like many aspects of warfare, this bridges both strategy and tactics, and can be utilised or exploited.
What does it all mean?
You might be wondering why I’m mentioning bravery, specialisations and tactics in general. It’s because they all play a part in warfare. But they are seldom used together in video games. Choice is everything in terms of combat. Should I go left or right? Should I use this weapon or that one? Should I be cautious or aggressive? But the bigger question is this: Am I restricted in the game?
One of my personal favourites at the moment is Battlefleet Gothic Armada 2. I never played the original table top version, though I do play Warhammer 40,000. And like the aforementioned Star Trek: Starfleet Command I’m limited in terms of elevation. I can group ships together into formations if I want and utilise a variety of weapons and ship types. I can take down a ship’s shields and then teleport assault troops over to wreak havoc within the enemy ship, which is adhering to the established lore. I can also opt for stealthy or more aggressive styles and adapt to the current battle situation. But both games ignore the most fundamental aspect of space combat, space itself. In space I’m free to move around in multiple directions and elevations. I can come up from underneath a ship, avoiding the vast forward guns and side batteries of a Gloriana Class Battleship. But in the game, I can’t. I’m limited. Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock, however utilises this as an option, albeit in a limited fashion.
Ship combat in BSG: Deadlock adheres more faithfully to the nature of space combat, primarily by allowing you to manoeuvre at a choice of elevations and directions. It also allows you to utilise weapons situated on the ventral section of a ship, providing additional tactical options, though you are unable to perform ship rolls above or below an enemy vessel, such as broadsiding from below. Everything keeps itself ‘the right way up’ in space. But that doesn’t mean you can’t utilise certain ships with superior dorsal weapons for underbelly attacks. More interestingly, though, is whether or not those ships are the in-game approximation of rock-paper-scissors, or simply units with specialisations. I’m more inclined to go with the latter.
But I’d like to look at a selection of titles that try their very best in order to replicate actual warfare, and the aspects involved in that attempt. One of most faithful series out there in terms of tactics, equipment choice, and even strategy is the Battlefield series, namely the FPS releases. Of the many iterations that have come out over the years each has tried to present different aspects of combat – besides the obvious shooting element – and each of these has been quite varied in its approach.
Environmental destruction. The hallmark of pretty much any Battlefield game is the ability to destroy buildings. Few other video games capture this aspect, and even then, it’s only done selectively. But Battlefield games remind players that a wall made from bricks or concrete will only protect you for so long. In truth, a single brick wall is easy for a bullet (5.56mm) to penetrate. A double wall is a little more resilient, but not by much. Throw some reinforced concrete in there and things start to last a bit longer against your regular NATO calibre of 5.56mm. Artillery and tank rounds are especially effective at reducing a standing structure to a pile of rubble. And not only does the game represent this aspect but they also factor in the rubble itself after the collapse, which provides an additional obstacle to overcome and is a viable tactical choice if you plan to dislodge a particularly dogged defence. If you want to faithfully recreate warfare in a videogame, this is a good place to start, regardless of genre.
Battle Experience. Some games include this but it’s not the must have for every RTS out there, and certainly not for FPS titles, though there are weapon accuracy considerations for some games. Anyone can fire a weapon that effectively ignores gravity, wind and movement. It’s headshots every time. But snipers and soldiers in general are trained. They hone these skills over months and even years of continuous training. Some RTS titles mitigate the aspect of accuracy by allowing you to upgrade certain units via a tech tree or abilities that temporarily improve accuracy, such as the Tactical Doctrine in the game Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War. Experience is not to be overlooked. If we look back at one example it would be the devastating Kamikaze attacks carried out by the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Second World War. Though these attacks looked brutally effective the estimated success rate was around 19%. It’s also estimated that the attacks were no more effective than the conventional attacks previously carried out by the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Some of the reasoning behind the Kamikaze attacks was the loss of experienced pilots, which hampered their ability to gain air superiority, which is again continued when pilots are almost certain to die during a Kamikaze attack. And though 7,000 naval personnel were killed by these attacks, the Imperial Japanese Navy pilots suffered around 3,800 casualties. That’s more than half. That’s a crippling loss of pilot experience. And experience is what allows a person to judge a situation, especially if they’ve been in something similar before. They can pre-empt enemy movement, and possibly have a better appreciation for the tactical situation. In short, experience can help keep you alive. Those who play FPS game utilise this all the time, probably without thinking about it. This might come down to knowing where a power weapon spawns in Halo, or where a certain vehicle is located in Battlefield. But it also involves knowing choke points on maps (where the terrain narrows or forces the players to slow or bunch up), or where advantageous high ground is for snipers, and how to avoid snipers as well. It’s reading the terrain, knowing the layout, and likely points for ambush. But we don’t always have the advantage of knowing the terrain as well as that in a game. But we can still utilise experience in-game.
Teamwork. This is something that is woefully underused in many online games of Rainbow Six: Siege, Call of Duty, Battlefield, PUBG or Halo, or pretty much anything else for that matter. And the same goes for RTS encounters. I’ve played so many games of RS: Siege where the rest of my team doesn’t even communicate let alone work together. Most players tend to go ‘Lone Wolf’ or they find a perch and stay there, waiting for targets of opportunity. In reality, teamwork and communication is vital. And don’t think that Special Forces throw teamwork out the window either. For me, the Battlefield games are some of the strongest examples of team work paying dividends. Though this isn’t always the case. But one key example stems from one of the Bad Company releases. As per usual when spawning, I tried to grab something armoured, with a big gun. But they were taken, so I jumped in a Humvee and made my way around the side of them map.
After dying several times, I tried something novel, speaking through the mic to see if anyone would answer. To my surprise, all of the players within my team responded. As it turns out, each was located in a different part of the map, using a different vehicle. One was flying an attack helicopter, another was using the only artillery gun available, and the last player was in a tank. So I asked if they would like to coordinate our efforts to shift a particularly well-defended position. They all agreed on a set of pre-defined battlefield roles. I would scout ahead to identify positions and targets. I would also jump on the .50Cal and provide suppression fire when required. The player in the tank would add to my firepower, ensuring anything bigger than my humble Humvee would be quickly dealt with. Additionally, he would be the one to jump out on foot if needed, as it turned out he was quite good at clearing positions on foot. The one in the attack helicopter would pretty much deal with everything else that was considered a threat. The final player on the artillery would respond to artillery requests, also known as ‘Fire Missions’, he would also help clear positions as we all approached, so that we didn’t get ambushed. If memory serves, the map was Oasis, from the first Bad Company game.
I set off, along with the tank and helicopter player, while the artillery guy scanned ahead to see if anything opportunistic popped up. I skirted round one of the objectives and peeked over a sand dune, identifying several enemy positions. The artillery player was on it immediately, pounding the positions with pixelated High Explosive shells, and then came the helicopter, unleashing salvos of rockets into the buildings. The tank soon followed with shell after shell from his main gun. One or two enemy players popped up with anti-armour weapons, hoping to get a lucky shot at the tank or helicopter, but as they sighted up their prospective targets, I was already hitting them with the 50Cal. Everything died or exploded before us. It was spectacular to watch. I’ve played plenty of Battlefield games before and since, and the player count has increased. But that day, the sight of just four players, coordinating their fire was something to behold. We were a roiling tide of explosive and incendiary fury. And nothing could stop us. It was the first and only time in a game that I stopped dying after the 5-minute mark. We took the position, and every one after that. I played with them for the rest of the match but once it concluded, we went our separate ways. I’ve tried coordinating like that in games since then, but it was never the same. Some players wouldn’t respond or wouldn’t agree. And I don’t blame them. It’s a game after all, and some players don’t like being told or asked to take certain vehicles and enemy positions. World or Warships, however, that game thrives on effective teamwork. Ask any sensible player who’s tier 5 or above. Lone wolf tactics are suicide, and more players are happy to follow a battle plan. Even something as simple as typing ‘EVERYONE FLANK LEFT’ in the game chat can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Capture the flag
But what am I getting at? Are games truly restrictive in their approach to tactics and strategy? Well, that’s harder to define that what I’ve laid out here. Lots of games do feature pre-defined limitations and abilities, either because they are designed for a particular genre, or because adding the level of detail I’m describing is simply unfeasible at the moment. Or in most cases it’s unnecessary. Should an infantry soldier in an RTS be able to jump like he would in Halo 5: Guardians? I would be inclined to say no, not really. It doesn’t serve any real purpose. And it would change the key characteristics of that game too much. And the same goes for any of the Gears of War titles. It’s third-person perspective, glued to the floor; cover-based style of play is what characterises it. And that’s the main difference here between gaming and reality. Individual games have to stand out from their competition. They have to be marketable.
But at the same time, a game should have a few surprises in store for players to discover. Ones that aren’t necessarily overt, either. Whether it’s a black hole that can be used as a weapon against an enemy that can’t ordinarily be defeated, or to redefine multiplayer communication. And by communication I don’t mean emotes. Video games still have some way to go in terms of replicating warfare, but we are, at least, getting there. Slowly. But if we can nail teamwork and communication in multiplayer games I think tactical and strategic titles will quite possibly prosper, followed by creative use of terrain and the application of firepower.
The next time I play a future Battlefield, Halo or Call of Duty release I don’t want to see players grabbing perks and power ups. I want to see them teaming up, calling in fire missions and trying to outsmart the enemy on every possible level in the game. I want them to not just win, I want them to outflank, ambush, assault, feint, bombard or restrict the enemy of vital ground, weapons and vehicles. In short, I want them to think. I want them to imagine. And if you truly want to gain a unique perspective of the game in which you’re playing, every once in a while take one for the team, instead of trying to maintain your K/D ratio or killstreak.
And for that player in World of Warships the other day that I took four battleship broadsides and a torpedo salvo for so as to preserve his aircraft carrier, you’re welcome!