Friday, October 17, 2003

It's game post time. Feel free to skip if this is not a side of me you're interested in. But just to be fair, this is connected to the themes of the last several posts, at least in my mind. Also, I'm posting this here (as opposed to at because I have no desire to hand Marweas another piece of "we hate Sierra" prose. That said:

Tribes: Vengeance is on its way (though admittedly it's a ways off) and I'm expecting to be disappointed. Let me clarify that. I am not concerned that Vengeance will be a bad Tribes game. I am not concerned over game balance. I am not even especially concerned that Irrational is going to screw with the fabric of the Earthsiege\\Starsiege\\Tribes universe. I am not actually consciously familiar with Irrational, but if M'lakMavet has faith in them then that's good enough for me until I actually see them screw something up. I am fully expecting them to turn out a game which nails their goals dead-on.

I just don't like those goals.

And that is the reason I am expecting to be disappointed. Call me a hidebound retroactive DOS-hugger, but I still think of the "Tribes" franchise in terms of the early 1990s. And the dominating factor of the four franchise games released during that period was that they were science fiction simulators. Granted they had some of the standard science-fiction absurditiesas their base assumptions (e.g., the bigger the autocannon, the shorter the range), but if you accepted the basic fabric of the world they took themselves seriously, and (most importantly) they invited the player to take the world seriously.

The advent of the Starsiege era in the late 1990s saw, in my opinion, a fundamental shift in this doctrine: Dynamix added more of a world, but it took it less seriously. Compared to Earthsiege 2, and adjusting for the technological capabilities of the two games' eras, Starsiege was an arcade game. It had lots of good ideas, I'm not disputing that - but it didn't feel real. There was a dissonance between what you knew the world to be (e.g., full of hulking engines of death armed with a motley assortment of weapons) and what your experience of it was (e.g., a dimensionless vehicle armed exclusively with blasters). For a variety of reasons, tactics were boiled down: instead of a serious attempt to implement the "walking tank" idea by actually making HERC pilots think like tankers, the tactical problem was dogfighting in two dimensions - that is to say, instead of "like tanks, only with more options and things to worry about" the problem was "like jets, only with less options and less things to worry about." The universe claimed to have advanced, but anybody could see that the game didn't bear that claim out. You weren't presented with a simulation of the world, you were presented with a caricature.

Then we come to the Tribes series, the flaws and virtues of which I am not interested in discussing. In many ways the Tribes games have been wonderful shooters, and no doubt the next game will be too. But I don't want a shooter. I want an infantry simulator. I want the franchise to go back to its original distinctiveness, and that is not likely to happen.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not asking that the game be paced slower (something which Marweas appears to live in perpetual opposition to). I am asking that the game present a believable representation of battle armor combat. A few things that I think an infantry simulator should have but that I don't expect Vengeance to seriously contemplate:

1). The player should have subsystems which can fail. Nobody would accept a mecha simulator in which you couldn't blow off weapons and limbs, disable key subsystems, etc. That just wouldn't feel realistic. Well, that standard doesn't change in an FPS. An infantry simulator should not be peopled with moving shooting range targets. If the player (or his victim) is hit in the arm, he should lose the use of that arm. Or that leg. Or (if we're feeling ambitious) the hand, or the foot. If that means you can't shoot as well (or can't shoot certain weapons at all), or you can't run anymore ... well, that's what you get for allowing your limb to be broken.

2). A reasonable tactical model. An illustration: Earthsiege had a real-world tactical model (late 20th-century tanks). BattleTech, much as I love it, does not. There are certain things which are common to combat at all times. One of these is the supremacy of maneuver. The first problem a soldier faces is never "can I outshoot my opponent?" and it never has been. For an infantry simulator to feel real (i.e., like a simulation of something that could actually happen, in real life) the player must be presented with viable ambush alternatives. Closely related to the supremacy of maneuver is the importance of reconaissance. Reconaissance has always been and ought to always be of paramount importance, and the game model should reflect that. The game model should not push the player towards protracted gunfights like fugitives from some sort of ahistorical Old West. Use of cover is another. Riflemen, tankers, chopper jocks - all understand the value of putting something between them and incoming fire, and the game should allow that. Which means allowing people to go prone and crawl (the fact that crouch-waddling has historically been preferred to crawling makes absolutely no sense to me. You try moving while crouched, then while prone, and see which you prefer). Of course there are times when "hitting the dirt" is inappropriate (e.g., when receiving artillery in the woods) - and that should be incorporated too. But infantry combat will not feel real if there is no cover.

3). Death. Ground combat is not about killing people; it's about making the enemy stop fighting - it's about morale. It will always be about morale, whatever you wrap around the infantryman's body. In a computer game of course this is difficult, particularly in multiplayer. But you can approach the fundamental problem of ground combat if you actually let people die, instead of letting them respawn. Force people to actually take care of themselves and they'll start to behave like soldiers.

4). Weapons that people would use. Of course soldiers will always complain about the inadequacies of their weapons, and weapons will always be, for one reason or another, at least partially inadequate. But very, very rarely have people fought with wholly inadequate weapons. If you want to construct a universe where infantry can travel at 100 m/s, that's just fine. But, given such a world, soldiers would not fight with weapons which throw their projectiles at 87m/s. Heck, I have a paintball marker which can shoot at a higher velocity than that. This is not an issue in a game where men are limited to more or less their natural mobility. If you are going to postulate that men can move as fast, or faster, than cars on a freeway, you had best start paying attention to the muzzle velocities of your weapons. As it is, it would be easier to hit a skiing light with a two thousand-year old bazooka than with a spinfusor. When the discrepancy between target velocity and bullet velocity becomes that great, you've got a big problem (or else you need to explain why the battle armor tactical problem is akin to that faced by World War II submarines).

Of course Irrational isn't setting out to make an infantry simulator, and Sierra doesn't want one. Personally I'm not at all sure that the market wouldn't like one - we've been desensitized to one-life rounds ever since Counter-Strike, and it seems to me that after Soldier of Fortune 2 the idea of disabled limbs and so forth is one whose time has come. In fact the existence of battle armor would be a huge crutch to the public. For one thing you wouldn't even have to worry about injury until your shields were depleted (and wouldn't it be nice to see shields - a staple of the franchise since day one - make a real appearance in game, instead of lurking in the realms of after-market rationalization?). For another, you could postulate some sort of Elemental-style dealing with injury - sure things would be fuzzy and your broken leg might be locked in an armored cast, but you would be able to walk. And as for muzzle velocities (my number-one pet peeve with the Tribes series), well, again, that's been with the public since Counter-Strike. And personally I don't find it very hard to imagine Joe Gamer getting a lot of satisfaction out of popping poor fools out of the air left and right (as Johnny Rico reminds us, "it's tempting to get the most out of your jump gear - but don't do it!").

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