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.