Building a 'soldier sim', part 1

I’m not the hardest of the hardcore when it comes to shooters, either first or third person, but I’ve played my fair share.

There are some interesting games that really change the concept of being a shooter, my current favorite being Borderlands, and I’ll be really excited to see a game like Bulletstorm when it comes out next year. These blend sci-fi imagination with a ‘pulp-ish’ attitude that embrace, for lack of a better word, their gamey-ness. Attaching modifiers to my killing style and racking up points sounds like a lot of fun, and games that nail this can really stand out.

One the other end of the spectrum we have the ‘military’ FPS genre. In many ways, you could argue that these games are increasingly blending together, despite Medal of Honor‘s “Tier 1” ad campaign. Gameplay feels similar, and while the names and visual models of the military assets involved might be realistic, there’s not much realism to be had.

I’m not going to hate on the genre. Call of Duty 4 was a fantastic game. Its successor was flawed in many respects, but the multi-player in particular provided me with more than my $60 of enjoyment. DICE’s Battlefield: Bad Company 2 sucked even more of my life away, and provided a somewhat more involved team simulation. Still, there’s a far cry between these games and actually feeling like we’re on a battlefield.

Sure, a game–even if it could capture that essence–probably shouldn’t. I’m fine with games existing to provide entertainment value and I don’t want this to be about the games as art debate–something that with every iteration approaches the asymptote of absolute futility. What I do want this to be about is a very fundamental discussion about this question: are military-themed FPS games destined to either being realistic or being fun?

A hyper-accurate sim, a veritable ‘day in the life’, would be interesting–but definitely not fun. I don’t want to try and capture the feeling of long periods of tedium punctuated by moments of sheer terror. At the same time, there are features, mechanics, and rule-sets that can be built into military games to push the genre closer to the realism it claims it wants.

The idea behind each of these parts is to examine one feature in turn that serves to add realism, making sure that each new feature also fails to kill the fun. In doing this, I’m actually inspired by a recent game that bears little resemblance to the genre: Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas. Beneath all of its sci-fi trappings, there are some hints of interest to the military genre with its ‘hardcore’ mode. It boils down to a set of extra rules that add some more realism to the game, but are totally optional. And there, I think, would be the key to any FPS game including ‘soldier sim’ elements. Allow players to play it on a more casual level (irregardless of difficulty), but have a set of features that can be toggled on/off as players desire. At least until the features become part of the genre, and serve to fulfill default player expectation.

A quick perusal of the Internet reveals that games like America’s Army and Rainbow Six have implemented the first mechanic I have in mind, but most recent games ignore it: magazines that behave realistically. This can include pre-loading, i.e., loading an extra bullet into the chamber and then slamming home a full magazine, but my main concern is what happens to ammunition in a magazine that’s only partially spent.

Here’s what I have in mind: the player can carry, say, 5 clips worth of ammunition for their current weapon on their ‘bandolier’. If the game is intended to have RPG-like leveling mechanics, that capacity could be upgraded, but let’s stick with a static number for this initial discussion.

The player fires 10 rounds out of a 30 round magazine. When a player hits the reload button (which we’re going to map to X), the magazine is ejected with 20 rounds remaining. A single tap of X assumes that the magazine is going back on the player’s bandolier. A double tap of X throws the magazine to the ground, freeing up space in inventory to pull a new clip off of an ally or enemy (though this salvaged clip could be just as spent, if not more).

I don’t want to complicate things by talking about the HUD in this discussion, so let’s assume that the magazines are now graphically represented (more than likely across the bottom of the screen). At a glance, then, the player knows how much ammo she has in inventory, and can decide whether she should simply get in the habit of spending an entire magazine or compulsively reloading.

In either case, ammunition is replenished by harvesting off fallen enemies with the, say, Y button. Every enemy drops ammunition based on a realistic simulation–once the level loads, each enemy and ally NPC has a set amount of ammunition. The longer an enemy fires, the less ammunition their corpse will have. The Halo franchise did a good job of tracking when it came to the charge level of individual plasma weapons, but most shooters seem to rely on essentially random amounts of ammo dropping (if at all).

It might sound like bullets will be plentiful, but harvesting takes time–and in an FPS it should require the camera to look down at the ground. In other words, unless you’re perfectly safe, it’s always a risky behavior. Moreover, simply grabbing a couple magazines might be easy, but those are more than likely partially spent. Rather than run around never having a full count of ammunition, the player can double tap Y to ‘strip’ the magazine and load free bullets into a pouch. The time it takes to strip the bullets should feel natural, and an FPS presents the requirement for the player to be actively looking at the magazines–and therefore not the battlefield.

Capacity of the ‘pouch’ is a variable that would need tweaking, but it serves the purpose of allowing the player (again through a camera shift) to physically push bullets back into the magazines, bringing them back up to full capacity. It would be grossly annoying to have to tap a button to push each bullet into the clip (the same goes for stripping bullets off), but the time should feel realistic. The animation could also evolve based on circumstances (i.e., increasingly dirty fingers, perhaps crusted with blood). If sub-types of ammunition are being used, this will allow them to be visually distinguished.

Compulsive reloaders will probably slow down and take the time to keep their bandolier as close to full as possible, but firefights should always give players the tension of “are my 5 magazines going to be enough to survive?” And if not, harvesting ammunition becomes a very risky proposition.

I also have this in mind mostly for a single-player experience. This would be an interesting experiment for multi-player, but here of course the feature would have to be mandatory (at least for certain playlists) in order to preserve balancing. It would perhaps slow down the usual frenetic pace of gameplay and also make killstreaks that much more impressive.

Of course, this is but one example of a toggle-able ‘soldier sim’ feature. I will expand on this in later posts.


  1. Aerothorn

    Have you played ArmA or ArmA 2? These awkwardly named games (by the team that made the original Operation Flashpoint) are not only at the forefront of FPS military sims, but are, as far as I know, the only games that even try. Even “realistic” military shoots use lots of very gamic elements. The ArmA games, for all their bugginess, simulate everything to the nitty-gritty.

    It was released for 360, but I can only guess it’s an inferior port – these sorts of sims tend to want way more buttons than a gamepad typically provides.

  2. David

    I’ve heard a lot of interesting things about Arma 2– but despite being an avid reader of sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun, my gaming is console-only for the most part. I want to get into PC gaming eventually, but I haven’t been able to save up enough (yet) for a rig I’ll be pleased with.

    I also heard similar things about Operation Flashpoint–again, there are inferior console ports, but the PC is the star.

    I’m also trying to build up extra features that would approach a full sim, but are more than doable with a console control scheme. Hopefully I’ll have time soon to get the next part up.

  3. Aerothorn

    FWIW, PC rigs are far cheaper than they used to be. Ignore the enthusiasts – you can build a pretty awesome gaming rig for $800 and a decent one for $600 that should last you quite a while. Real money, to be sure, but a lot better than the $2000 rigs of yore, and the rate of graphical advancement (held back by the increasing ties to consoles) means they last longer.

  4. David

    I’ve heard that from a number of sources–but always good to hear further confirmation 🙂

    Right now, unfortunately, my TV is starting to fail after only a few months past warranty. . . so, yeah.