The Flare Path: Campaigns Pain Me

By Tim Stone on November 25th, 2011 at 1:50 pm.

To participate in Operation Clever Clogs simply name one or more of the eleven wartime operations shown here.

The Flare Path’s primary recon tool, a Staghound armoured car named ‘Galloping Gertie’, has been off the road most of this week after a high-speed collision with a Charolais bull. As a result I’ve found myself with lots of spare time on my hands. The majority of that time has been frittered away on idle pursuits like scrumping pears and playing Poohstickgrenades, but I’ve also whiled away a few hours in constructive contemplation. The subject of my musing? Mostly, wargame and simulation campaigns, specifically “Why are so many of the bally things so dashed disappointing?”.

These days I tend to reach for campaign buttons with a sense of grim fatalism. It’s rare I round-off a review without at least one pop at an “unimaginative career mode” or “moribund mission sequence”. What should be the duck-egg-sized diamonds at the centre of great strategic/simulatory diadems are too often hunks of dull scratched paste. Plodding through the majority of them is more trial than pleasure; incentives for revisits rarer than hens’ teeth.

The folk responsible for these wearisome centrepieces like to tell us that fancy campaign modes are unrealistic and costly to create. I’d accept this line of argument if the history of gaming wasn’t littered with examples of fresh, resonant campaigns fashioned by studios small enough to fit onto Kettenkrads.

Creations like Achtung Panzer: Operation Star with its simple yet absorbing strat layer are proof that splendid single-player campaigns don’t require great expense or wholesale history-ditching; what they do require from their makers is Guts (a dev brave enough to grasp unfashionable nettles like “Most of my audience will never touch multiplayer so perhaps I should pour my energies into a decent singleplayer spine instead”) Inquisitiveness (“Maybe it’s time I took a short break from obsessing over muzzle velocities/OOBs/radar sub-modes, and went for an inspirational ramble through the genre’s back-catalogue”) and Vision (“If I do something really novel with my campaign maybe grumblers like Tim Stone will finally shut-up”) Perusal of the following selection of inevitably extremely personal Flare Path Suggestions probably wouldn’t hurt either.

Down With This Sort Of Thing!

 

SEQUENCED MISSIONS. Only if your campaign chappy falls under a tank during a research trip, or is debilitated by depression after reading one-too-many accounts of the conditions inside the Stalingrad kessel, is an unembellished and doggedly linear scenario sequence acceptable in this day and age. If I wanted to slog from one scripted scenario to another I can just work my way chronologically through a Single Battles folder, thank you very much.

Not only are mission strings painfully uninspired they’re a balancing nightmare, and an invitation for history abuse. Unless you’re the German Army of 1939, real wars seldom start ‘easy’ and then get progressively harder. Rarely does a unit /squadron have to fight the exact-same engagement over and over again until some arbitrary victory threshold is crossed.

STORIES. IL-2: Cliffs of Dover and, to a lesser degree, Take On Helicopters confirm something I’ve long suspected: sims and narratives rarely get on. Sadly, it seems the sort of people interested in getting the roll rate of a Hurricane right or the glacis plate thickness on a Panther tank spot-on are not the sort of people that should be trusted with delicate matters like Plot or Characters.

LENGTHY TEXT BRIEFINGS. I’m champing at the bit – eager for the fray – and you’re making me plough through three pages of closely-typed text? For heaven’s sake, at least give me a map and a few animated arrows, or – even better – a sand table, a voiceover, and a roving bayonet point.

CORE UNITS. The idea of encouraging us to care for tiny campaigners by entrusting us with experience-gaining, upgradeable units is a sound one, but please don’t muddy the waters by mixing the band of hardy perennials with expendable supplementary forces. That sort of thing just encourages a bizarre and wholly ahistorical combination of mollycoddling and recklessness.

Up With This Sort of Thing!

 

A SENSE OF CONTINUITY AND CONSEQUENCE. As a humble Tiger commander or Typhie pilot I don’t expect to win WW2 single-handed, but it would be nice to know that my actions were causing ripples however small and localized. If I nail an absurd number of Cromwells and universal carriers in a single scrap, or spend a month mercilessly pounding French railyards, it would be gratifying to see evidence of this in the days that followed. Hmm, the Allies seem a little more tentative today, and, Oh crikey, is that a Firefly up ahead in that orchard? Blimey, the flak around Metz station seems to have got much thicker of late.

FREEDOM. When fans start baying for dynamic campaigns I suspect many an unimaginative dev pictures the famous Falcon 4.0 example and shivers. The truth is there are numerous far less elaborate ways of injecting unpredictability and freedom into a campaign. Back in 1984 Durell Software managed to squeeze a wonderfully airy concept into a mere 48K of code.

Combat Lynx might not have had cockpits or plausible physics but its sorties bustled with interesting choices and unexpected encounters. Depending on the skill level selected, player-pilots were tasked with watching over up to six forward bases. These outposts were under constant threat from enemy ground forces and needed to be regularly bolstered with reinforcements and supplies, or shielded with air-dropped minefields. Random base locations, unpredictable adversaries and imperfect intel ensured no two sessions were ever the same. Spells of (admittedly primitive) action were bookended by pleasingly rich decision-making: When I land back at homebase should I pick up up a load of squaddies for BASE 2 or rearm with TOW missiles and go hunt those tanks I glimpsed in the North-East?

CUSTOMISATION. If you’re not going to let me influence the circumstances of my next scrap then I’d appreciate it if you would at least give me a say in the force I use. Unit shopping especially when kept in check by rarity-based pricing or a plausible force pool is a good start, but how about you also let me spend combat currency on deployment squares, intel, and battle duration extensions too. If I can buy Panthers and P-51s, why can’t I buy a little flexibility at the tail-end of a tight fight?

A little customisation can go a long way in simulations too. One of my oldest and happiest sim memories is reaching that point in the Red Baron campaign where you finally got to personalise your steed. A splash of paint and suddenly I was the utterly unique Mauve Menace. Not every sim can offer the engrossing customisations options of a sim like RB or, even better, Crimson Skies, but most could work much harder at forging a bond between player and steed.

A2A Simulations amazing Accu-Sim FSX add-ons show one way in which this could be achieved. Planes like the Piper Cub and B-17 aren’t immaculate archetypes, they are individuals. You mistreat one one day – land heavily or thrash an engine – and it will remember the rough treatment. The next time you fire up the sim, you may notice the ill-effects, see and hear and feel the evidence of past misdemeanours. I long to play a sim campaign featuring similarly characterful craft. In between armour duels in Panzer Ace III I want to to be able to wander round my personally-camouflaged steel pal, and see the battle scars from earlier fights, and fret over the worn track and knackered suspension I still haven’t got round to fixing.

MEANINGFUL REWARDS. Mr Developer, if you intend to use promotions and gongs simply as cheap fillips – patronising pats-on-the-back for a job well done, then, frankly, you can keep them. I want to play wargames and sims where rising through the ranks mean taking on new responsibilities, acquiring new powers (and maybe losing others), and accepting new pressures.

Titles like the Take Commands go further than most when it comes to meaningful ranks – yet even they don’t fully explore the potential. The more scrambled egg you’ve got on your shoulders and hat, the more troops you get to boss around, the more subordinate COs you need to manage.

PERSONAL INVESTMENT. Some may regard Firefight’s and Squad Battles‘ use of vulnerable player avatars as a cheap ploy. Personally, I think it’s genius. Knowing that one of the tiny sprites or counters down there is me, and may be felled at anytime by a volley of HMG fire or a carelessly lobbed mortar bombs, sharpens the senses very effectively.

In a higher-level wargame where personal danger may be less relevant a sense of self can be communicated in other ways. Rod Humble’s experimental STAVKA-OKH is one of the only wargames I’ve played where generals are represented as political creatures as well as tacticians. You’re no longer just some incorporeal oveseer moving troops round a theatre map, you’re a civil servant dealing with a mercurial boss or a merciless party bureaucracy.

NOVELTY. Fancy forcing me to switch sides at semi-random, mid-battle points during Operation Overlord ? Do it. Want to centre your Stalingrad wargame on a single ravaged tractor factory and have its campaign span a mere 48 hrs? Be my guest. Tempted to make a single airbase rather than a single pilot the crux of your flight sim’s career mode? Try it. Please.

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47 Comments »

  1. alh_p says:

    I do so love these afternoon trivia:

    Operation Culverin
    Operation Citadel

    And a tentative (post WW2?):
    Operation Tomahawk

    • bartleby says:

      Close, but that’s a Harpoon, actually. An Operation Harpoon?

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      jimbobjunior says:

      Hmm, 11 FP points up for grabs but only 8 images; Some of the images are overloaded.

      In that case:

      - Operation Watchtower (as well as Citadel, mentioned above)

    • Tim Stone says:

      A bonus pressed-steel FP point for Op Watchtower. Not one of the intended eleven.

      One of the combi-images – Alice – has already been thoroughly IDed: Operations Croquet, Wunderland & Flamingo. The ship in the left corner remains unsolved as does one half of the boxing scene in the top-right.

  2. Alexander Norris says:

    Operation Ironclad, perhaps?

    e; Operation Knockout? But that’s not WW2, unlike the others so far.

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      D-Mon says:

      I’ve tried to identify the ship and come up with either Admiral Graf Spee, Deutschland or Admiral Scheer.
      Admiral Scheer took part in Operation Wunderland.

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    Lambchops says:

    Glyphosate? It’s a herbicide apparantly. That’s as far as my chemistry knowledge takes me, I have no military campaign knowledge whatsoever. Wikipedia says it was sold under the tradename Roundup, which sounds like the sort of name an operation could have.

  4. Inverselaw says:

    OMG V for victory! Its my first and only tile based wargame I ever played. I had the 4 game box set and the box itself is in a box in the basement (with one of those 3d zork games i never played).

    Also the manual was a beast (with really poor binding) It has descriptions of every unit in the operational theater with their history and relative effectiveness.

    • sneetch says:

      I still have V for Victory: Velikiye Luki somewhere and it was brilliant, great big manual, loads of floppies… hmmm… I just realised that I don’t even have a floppy disk drive anymore.

  5. theleif says:

    I heartily agree. Good campaigns are rare to find, witch is one of the reasons I love the sandbox approach of the Paradox games.
    I really liked the campaign design of the first Achtung Panzer, does it’s mechanics differ much from the campaign in Operation Star?

    Edit: Except for the operations already listed I name Operation Boxer and Pelican.

    • Melliflue says:

      Is “Operation Pelican” for the bottom right? It doesn’t look like a pelican to me, but it does look like Alice in Wonderland. I would guess “Operation Alice” but I have never heard of one.

    • alh_p says:

      looks like a flamingo to me.

    • theleif says:

      Ah. Well it could be the WWII Operation Wunderland of the Kriegsmarine, I guess.

    • Mavvvy says:

      Too right, it pains me that modern sims/strategy games don’t do the dynamic campaigns anymore to the quality of say falcon 4 or total air war.

      At least the dcs guys are looking at it for the future, but it ruddy better be multiplayer or else my band of misfits is staying on the tarmac.

      On a side note must pick up operation star, wish battle for Normandy had a similar meta campaign.

    • Joe Duck says:

      When someone says “We are looking into a dynamic campaign but it’s too hard and it will have to wait until the next release” I always get very depressed.
      I remember how incredibly good, dynamic and simple the campaign in AV8-B Harrier Assault by Simis/Domark (or SuperVGA Harrier, they are the same game) was and I do not understand why nobody ever copied the formula. It had everything that was needed to make an awesome modern game. It was semi scripted, customisable, had good resource management, it gave meaning to the missions and the most important, it allowed you to assess the value of a target and the risk you were taking. The sim part was good for the time, but I always hoped for a copy of AV8-B’s campaign to be pasted on top of Flanker, Flanker 2 or any DCS game.
      It was awesome to fly in your harrier and see the tiny Marines convoys moving from one village to the next following the plan while you provided CAS. It was truly a dynamic real time battlefield in a game from 1992.

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      phuzz says:

      I have to say, I did enjoy the campaigns in the original Operation Flashpoint.
      Hmm, I wonder if OpF will actually play at full speed on my new computer?

    • Mavvvy says:

      Used to love ofp/arma and their capture the island game types, that played like a large scale game of battlefield with logistics and extra realism. Unfortunately you needed one hell of a server to get it running sweet and even then you might have to dial the number of units down a bit. Nearest experience you could get to dynamic mini war asides from subscribing to ww2 online

  6. Melliflue says:

    I’ll add Operation Epsilon.

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    mrpier says:

    Operation Epsilon
    Operation Wunderland perhaps?

  8. CMaster says:

    Operation Epislon
    Operation Croquet?
    Operation Knockout

  9. Vinraith says:

    Hey look, it’s one of my pet issues, argued well and presented in a place where someone might actually pay attention to it. Thank you Tim, campaigns with no continuity or strategic context are absolute game killers for me anymore.

    You mention Achtung Panzer: Operation Star as a counterpoint. I love the campaign style of the original AP and presumably Op Star is similar, but I’ve heard some absolutely brutal things about Operation Star’s AI. How is the game at this point? Has it been patched up and improved? Was I misinformed to begin with?

    • Tim Stone says:

      In Op Star I’ve yet to see the AI do anything monstrously stupid. Maybe it’s still a little too bold with its SPGs – I’ll deliver some detailed analysis next week.

    • Vinraith says:

      Thanks for the response, Tim. I found the article I was thinking of, it was Rob Zacny’s quick impressions of the demo over on PC Gamer: http://www.pcgamer.com/2011/11/03/achtung-panzer-operation-star-finally-released-demo-available/

      The specific passage in question:

      The AI is tough to judge in this demo, but it seems much weaker than what I’m used to seeing in a game like Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy. It fails to use suppression fire, and is happy to send infantry marching into the open against a machine gun nest or two.

      It sounds like perhaps that’s either demo-specific, or has already been somewhat rectified, based on what you’re saying. I’m glad to hear that, I’m a huge fan of the original (and the Close Combat games, which are an obvious inspiration) and am hoping this one will be great too. I look forward to your analysis next week.

    • Tim Stone says:

      Interesting points. I can’t say I’ve noticed a lack of suppressive fire, but that may be because I haven’t been looking for it. (my forces regularly end up suppressed – I know that much)

      How much of the “advancing across open ground into the teeth of enemy MGs” issue is down to inept tacAI and how much is a consequence of some pretty open battlefields is hard to assess. More thoughts on that subject next week.

    • Vinraith says:

      Yeah, I suppose it’s something to look for. Thanks again!

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    Mechanicus_ says:

    Father Stone (you’re not the only one with obscure British references!) is there any chance you could start to do full blown “Wot I Thinks” on the more interesting sim games when they are released?

    You have mentioned both Operation Star and Unity of Command on the Flare Path in recent weeks, however now they have been released I have really no idea if they are actually any good.

    This is a really big problem with sims of all types – you are lucky to find any reviews of them, and those that you do find are generally just written by grognards for grognards and read as feature lists.

    This is annoying from a buyer perspective, because I end up having to just cross my fingers and click “buy” on things like Rise of Flight and Panzer Corps in the hope they are good. The lack of critical reviews for these kind of games also means A) they get off scot-free when they are a shambles on release or are have crappy campaigns etc… and B) the developers have no constructive, systematic feedback. That second point might sound odd, but think about it – as a sim developer, how on Earth do I know what to improve in my sim game?

    Without critical feedback, they are basically left to listen to the hoards of crazy people/sycophants that populate their official forums, which kind of explains why sim developers just tend to disappear down the rabbit hole of inward looking complexity escalation rather than “how can we make this more fun?”.

    I’m sure actually getting review coverage from a mainstream gaming site might also in itself encourage them to think beyond their personal forum pit of grognards.

    • Raiyan 1.0 says:

      Listen to this man, Father Stone! He speaks sense.

    • Tim Stone says:

      I’m in the process of doing a Unity of Command review for PC Gamer, so probably shouldn’t Wot I Think it here. However, Achtung Panzer: Operation Star will be getting some serious critical attention on RPS very soon. I’m still getting to know it, but so far my feelings are overwhelmingly positive. A lot of the stuff I talk about in the original Achtung Panzer WIT still applies…

      http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2010/03/07/wot-i-think-achtung-panzer/

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      Mechanicus_ says:

      Thanks for the reply Tim, looking forward to both of those.

  11. wodin says:

    The AI flanked me and took out my Arty in my first Operation Star game.

  12. Tim Stone says:

    The Flare Path points this week are made from genuine Enigma machine keys.

    They go to:
    alh_p (2) Operation Culverin and Zitadelle
    bartleby (1) Operation Harpoon
    Lambchops (1) Operation Roundup
    Alexander Norris (1) An assist on Operation Roundup and the somewhat debatable Operation Ironclad*
    D-Mon (1) Operation Wunderland
    theleif (2) Operations Boxer and Wunderland
    Melliflue (1) Operation Epsilon
    mrpier (2) Operations Epsilon, Wunderland
    CMaster (2) Operations Epsilon and Croquet

    *Strictly speaking the pictured ship (the name of which is significant) is a pre-dreadnought not an ironclad.

  13. Vinraith says:

    Is that hairy complex molecule a Neptunium Tetrahydroxide, for Operation Neptune?

  14. Kevin says:

    I think the way to go is actually semi-dynamic a la Jane’s F/A-18. For instance, you may begin the campaign enforcing a no-fly zone around your CVBG, or you could be probing the enemy’s early warning systems. After that, the campaign could have you mining the inlet to Severomorsk, or defending your carrier group from a Gorilla package. In fact, one cool set of missions has you escorting a pair of C-130s to an abandoned airbase behind enemy lines from which you launch a deep strike mission against nuclear storage bunkers. Fail that mission, and you have one last chance to take out those nukes while they’re in transit.

    It even goes beyond that: See that one Tomb Stone radar off in the distance on this one deep strike mission? Take it out with your remaining HARM and it won’t be there for a particularly difficult SEAD or escort mission later on in the campaign.

    I prefer this model since you can tell a better narrative and I prefer a very good illusion of affecting my surroundings rather than an extremely buggy simulation of it (as much as I liked Falcon 4.0, I felt like that guy in Groundhog Day playing the campaign).

  15. The Tupper says:

    Just a quick note to say how much I appreciate these columns in RPS. My simming nowadays is restricted to occasional bouts of FSX but I honestly believe that any PC gaming site should have a dedicated area for what is perhaps the oldest (certainly the noblest) of electronic pursuits.

  16. Orontes says:

    Operation Pugilist.
    Operation Majestic.

    • Tim Stone says:

      A point for Operation Pugilist, but nothing for Operation Majestic (The vessel pictured isn’t HMS Majestic but could feasibly have traded shells with her during WWI)

  17. aeonofdiscord says:

    I get no kick from campaigns.

  18. varangian says:

    Had a look at STAVKA-OKH and was impressed. Runs happily in Linux (with Wine) so no tedious OS switching for a quick bit of strategy. You can play out the war in 10 minutes or so, most of which is spent thinking about the plans on offer. Hope the developer can find new directions forward with it.

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    mrpier says:

    Oh, this is late, but the ship is presumably Kaiser Barbarossa and then it’s the famous operation Barbarossa.

    • Tim Stone says:

      You presume correctly, mrpier. Your FP point is currently winging its way to you in the hold of a specially requisitioned Me 323 Gigant.

  20. sgtrock says:

    Might I suggest BattleFront.Com as one company that strives to get campaigns right? I’m especially fond of the entire Combat Mission series.

    Another classic series that got campaigns right is Atomic Hill’s Close Combat. Matrix Games has released updated versions for both WWII (Longest Day, Wacht am Rhein, Arnhem, Cross of Iron) and Modern Tactics. And they finally solved the pathing problems that have plagued the series since the first release lo, those many years ago!

  21. Jason Moyer says:

    Someone should just make Mig Alley 2, since that would immediately be both the greatest combat flight sim and greatest campaign ever made.

  22. The Tupper says:

    Even though my simming is restricted to FSX and occasional re-installs of X-Wing, I really value these columns – sims are possibly the oldest but certainly the noblest exemplars that define PC gaming. Thanks.

  23. boka says:

    Long time lurker, first time poster.

    Thank you so much for writing these articles, this one pretty much accurately sum up most of my opinions re: war games and thus saves me from having to write anything down.

    I would personally love to see two things stressed and done well in my future games o war, and those two things are 1) a dynamic campaign 2) A realistic promotion system.

    I always imagined some sort of system in ArmA where you started off as something basic in whatever your chosen field may be, and then realistically progress say for instance from second man in a sniper team, to first, to being in charge of a squad or element and upwards from there, and have it be dynamic in terms of Falcon 4 style dynamic. That’d be pretty awesome in my opinion.

    Anyway, thanks for a great read, articles like this are the reason I come back to RPS.