“Realistic” unit behaviour in real-time strategies

In addition to the frustrating lack of reliability of Company of Heroes as a software product, I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with some aspects of the gameplay itself.  One aspect in particular is the behaviour of units.

When you give an order to units in that game, they ostensibly follow it.  But oftentimes they don’t, for one of two reasons:

  1. You told them to do something like attack-move to the east, and they instead attacked something to the west.
  2. You told them to do something, but they are under fire, so they ignore the order (or, do it so slowly that it is ineffectual at best).

These are really two distinct but related flaws.  In the first case, the game is not recognising the user’s intent correctly.  It’s the more minor of the two concerns, since it’s arguable how an attack-move command should be interpreted to begin with.  i.e. does it mean move while attacking, or to attack all nearby enemies and then move only when there are none?  Company of Heroes goes with the later.  I would prefer it be more intelligent, and keeping with it’s faux realism – i.e. units should view an attack-move as a command to take the indicated location, engaging enemies along the way only if it’s either trivial or necessary to that mission.  I’d even accept “necessary to save a friendly unit”, though it risks invoking the second case.

And it’s the second case which is more problematic.  I believe it’s in large part a deliberate design decision.  The game authors have tried to convey their perception of realistic behaviour – that troops under heavy fire will just cower uselessly, perhaps not even returning fire, let alone seeking cover.  There’s even the explicit notions of being suppressed or pinned.  These concepts have been all the rage in real-time strategy for several years now.

I don’t like them.  They take away from the strategy of the game.

Even when not cowering pitifully, if you tell them to sticky-bomb a tank or grenade a fortification, they’ll crawl their way towards it with glacial speed.  That really stretches any representation of reality I can think of.  If you’re in the middle of a nightmare firefight, the last thing you want to do is take ten minutes to actually attack the tank that’s blowing you to pieces.  It would be far more rationale, believable and – from a gameplay perspective – useful if they made an effort to close the distance with a sprint and lob the explosive quickly, then dive for cover.

When I compare Company of Heroes to a premier RTS like Starcraft, a stark difference is apparent.  Units in Starcraft do exactly what they’re told, when they’re told, at their maximum speed.  That might be “unrealistic”, but it makes the game much more nuanced and engaging, since the player remains in control the whole time.  In Company of Heroes, in contrast, you basically arrange your units before the fighting begins, and once it does you have very little control.  About all you can do is order a retreat, though by the time that’s the best option, it’s also generally useless as your troops will often be killed anyway.  It really detracts from the game by drastically limiting the actual gameplay.

It’s kind of like a version of Chess where you play as normal until a piece is taken, and then just whack the board with a shoe, and see which pieces are left standing.  Some people might perceive that it’s a “deeper” form of strategy, having to plan everything far in advance, but I disagree; I think it ends up being a clusterfuck and basically boils the game down to the loathed degenerate form of RTS – build the most of the most powerful unit and hope for the best.  Already this is evident in Company of Heroes where the winning strategy is almost always to just build tanks.  The only time that’s not the winning strategy is when the game artificially limits your ability to build tanks.

It should be a red flag to any game designer if they find themselves arbitrarily limiting the player’s options.  If varied scenarios don’t naturally encourage varied strategies, your gameplay is fundamentally broken.

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