When I was growing up I loved Commando comics and other similar Boy’s Own tales of military derring-do. From these, I learnt the average soldier’s day consisted of rushing around, killing Germans by the score (frequently with accompanying witticisms, often food based; “hey, sausage munchers, try these pineapples” a grenade hurling Tommy might exclaim), then home in time for tea and medals. I started to get an inkling these stories might be ever so slightly romanticised (possibly not the right word, god forbid any of our lantern jawed heroes should take time out from butchering Nazis, especially for anything so unpleasant as kissing girls, ugh) when, slightly older, I started reading real soldiers’ memoirs. The most surprising thing from my battle-hungry perspective was the tiny amount of time actually spent shooting Germans compared to training, marching around, digging holes, being shelled and the other day to day activities of the average soldier.
Now, in games, there’s a similar sort of effect. Most games give the Commando comic version of war, constant fighting, never ending waves of enemy for you to shoot, and a good thing too. Medal of Honour: Trudge Around For Several Days Then Get Blown Up By A Mortar Shell Without Even Seeing An Enemy Soldier, not really an appealing prospect. Another way you can tell that a World War II FPS isn’t the height of realism is a quick bit of arithmetic. Over the course of Call of Duty 1, 2 and expansion packs, I’ve been personally responsible for wiping out approximately two and a half Axis infantry divisions, four armoured regiments and a few squadrons of dive bombers in the bits where you get hold of an anti-aircraft gun. By these measures, the invasion and liberation of continental Europe would have required a total Allied force of twenty three people, and seven of those just to fill in when others had to go AFK for their tea.
Stepping up from FPSs to a more strategic level, you get a different sort of unreality in command and control, again obviously quite intentionally; especially in the pre-radio era, if you were commanding an army you’d draft an order based on what you could make of the battlefield from observation and sketchy reports, give it to a rider, hope he found the unit you intended to give the order to without getting lost or killed on the way, and that the commander of that unit interpreted the order the way you intended, at the right time, and wasn’t in a huff with the brother-in-law he was supposed to be supporting. Though I understand a few games for real grognards do take this into account, for the most part in something like the Total War games, you order your cavalry to charge and they do, in the direction you intended.
I am struggling towards a point other than the frankly shocking revelation that computer games designed for entertainment aren’t highly accurate simulators of the horrific nature of war, honest. It’s about the other WAR: Warhammer Online. In the way the Warhammer campaign works, PvP-centric, capturing zones in order to attack fortresses and ultimately the enemy capital, it’s slightly more reminiscent of an actual war (only very slightly, of course, I’m already trivialising things in a quite disrespectful enough way as is). You need to work together, in relatively large numbers, to capture zones. If there’s more than token opposition you need organisation, people defending keeps and objectives, responding to threats as they arise, and as a grunt that can be a little dull if you’re standing around somewhere the enemy don’t attack. I’ve just spent half an hour travelling across Dragonwake, then sitting, defending a battlefield objective (making a few notes for this very post in fact, but don’t worry, having the second screen back with the new graphics card meant I was keeping an eye on the game); when Destruction did turn up there were hundreds of the buggers, and we got steamrollered in short order (“short order” – that’ll be Dwarfs, I guess). That seems to be a fairly representative sample of open RvR recently, travelling, waiting, and if you’re lucky a fight at the end of it; something like a “proper” war. There are command and control issues as well; on the plus side, to co-ordinate your attacks, there’s instant, guaranteed communication between players with /tells and custom channels, but against that… there’s instant, guaranteed communication between all players, in the form of region wide channels. Without a hierarchical structure, dictatorial leadership styles seldom going down terribly well, so you get all the associated fun debate around that. I’m not so dedicated, or indeed masochistic, to try and get involved in organisation, though, so I’m happy enough to go where I’m told by our warband leader, and have a web browser up on the second screen so I’m not too tempted to read the regional channels during downtime.
Ultimately, this could all be a bit of an issue for me in WAR. While on the “players controlling their destiny” scale it’s not up in EVE’s “holy crap, there goes the universe” league, it does need a fairly significant investment in time to really get involved, and you’re at the mercy of the number of players online for either side and what they’re up to. This weekend, cooped up with the heating on to avoid the sub-zero wilderness outside, I’ve had plenty of spare time, but with an odd hour here and there in the course of a week the PvE side of things isn’t terribly compelling, and scenarios can only keep me interested so long. I’ll have to see how things go; maybe switching to an alt to play along with a forthcoming wave of Slayers might keep things fresh until the Land of the Dead later on, or maybe I’ll take a break. Just now there’s Murder Night to be getting on with as well, more on that later.