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From AI to HI: A Battlefield Too Far?

Junaid Alam | 13 Sep 2005 12:01
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A massive barrage of incoming artillery, a fearsome phalanx of approaching armor, screaming scores of advancing infantry, the chattering and rattling of mind-numbing machine-gun fire: in short, a whirlwind of weaponry all aiming to gun you down.

That was the visceral, surreal sensation gamers experienced in the single-player campaigns of titles like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms, where players were pitted against every last enemy soldier in epic, war-defining battles. From the bloodied shores of Omaha Beach to the stalking jungles of Guadalcanal, the entire story neatly unfolded around a singular warrior who, even when assisted by AI teammates, was almost always the only one left standing while the bodies of his buddies were strewn around him.

Though the tightly scripted AI-driven sequences that defined such titles were memorable, they left something to be desired. After all, one can only revisit a historical battleground so many times, and the surprise of scripted enemy assaults in single-player adventures wears off quicker than the surface of a Counterstrike addict's mouse pad.

The solution seemed clear: a multiplayer rendition of large-scale military combat. AI, sometimes clunky and always predictable, would be replaced by the human element, with players fighting alongside and against real human teammates instead of coded streams of complex data. It was an easy answer to the AI problem ... right? As it turns out, not quite.

Enter Battlefield 2. The latest offering by developer Dice and publisher Electronic Arts in the Battlefield series, the game promises "all-out war on the modern battlefield" with anywhere from 16 - 64 players duking it out as either invading Americans, defending "Middle East Coalition" or "People's Army" forces.

But as I quickly found out, things get very untidy when you throw humans into the mix. In fits of anger, my own teammates start killing each other in the scramble to pilot a precious plane, and players will drive off in vehicles that can carry multiple players without a second thought, even running over teammates on their road to glory.

Peter Breen, a 22 year-old Battlefield 2 regular from Seattle, Washington, runs into similar situations. He notes that on 16- and 64-player maps, teamwork is a rare commodity since, on the smaller maps, "everyone tends to 'lone wolf,'" and on the larger ones, "it tends to dissolve into mob warfare."

James Caple-Nisby, 23, of Fort Washington, Maryland, says that even when teammates have good intentions, teamwork can fall apart, recalling that players in the special ops class will blow up bridges, leaving their tank-driving counterparts frustrated. "The biggest failure of teamwork is when everyone has a different idea of how to get to that goal," he remarks.

But the general mayhem that sometimes prevails in the game is not solely the fault of players: often, it's the developer's fault. For instance, it's not too unusual for enemies to be labeled as friendlies and vice versa on a player's HUD. I also learned quickly that heat-seeking missiles magically veer off course to hit friendly aircraft not even within sight. If the game's "guidance" system existed in real life, friendlies who decided to light up a cigarette would find lung cancer to be the least of their worries.

Nisby agrees, labeling the bugs "extremely annoying." Relating his frustration with the tendency of vehicles to make road kill of friendly infantry by barely touching them, he adds, "it's also hard to provide close ground support because you're afraid that you'll [teamkill] a teammate by tapping them with your [vehicle]."

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