Player And Commander


Playing a couple games recently got me thinking about how some video games handle the commanding and piloting of crewed vehicles. It’s an interesting subject because the task goes completely counter to a lot of what console gaming is designed for. I always thought exploring certain things further in this area could lead to new types of games.

After owning it for over a year I finally decided to install Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag — a game about captaining a pirate ship. That by itself, continuing the naval gameplay of Assassin’s Creed III, provides a very fresh element surrounded by a ton of the stuff I’ve come to expect in Ubisoft’s open-world games. I even dare to say it’s set up an interesting foundation Ubisoft could build on for a whole new franchise.

On the flipside a while ago I started a “Conquer-The-Island” campaign with bots in ArmA 3, and I recently reached a point where I could afford a tank. Tanks in ArmA aren’t like typical video game tanks though. You can’t drive and shoot at the same time. Instead, in a more realistic fashion, it takes around four characters to operate a tank, and a commander has to direct all the different functions second-hand. In a way it’s similar to how Black Flag handles boats. If you wanna make a movie comparison, Black Flag tries to make you Russel Crowe’s character in Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World while ArmA 3 tanks feel more like Brad Pitt’s character in Fury. Both are (or sometimes become) games about issuing commands.

Early in Black Flag someone asks protagonist Edward Kenway where his helmsman is, and Kenway says he takes pride in helming his own ships. Vyse does the same in Skies of Arcadia. They both hit at a central issue of how console games are kind of unsuited to letting players just command ships.

From Mario Bros. onward console controllers have gotten very good at the operation of solitary characters. Single-character movement in my opinion is a large part of the appeal of console gaming, and most certainly a big part of what Assassin’s Creed is about. You’d think captaining pirate ships would be the total antithesis to a franchise about having one guy climb all over cities. You see this conflict whenever you dock and have captain Kenway leave the boat by himself while everyone else on the ship just waits there. In fact Kenway does a startling amount of things in the game on his own. When I infiltrated a plantation and fought everybody in it I wondered why I couldn’t have my entire crew straight-up invade the place. Even previous Creed games had systems for calling on subordinate characters.

Contrast this with FTL: Faster Than Light — a PC game about captaining a ship through space. In that game you command everybody at once while pausing in a way similar to a lot of RPGs. Skies of Arcadia does something similar when locked in naval battles, casting them as turn-based affairs where the ship becomes its own character. Maybe this is why BioWare never put naval combat in Mass Effect — they couldn’t reconcile the traditional shooter combat mechanics with controlling a ship full of people in real time.

Through these conflicts, Black Flag actually does a pretty good job of taking strategic naval warfare and turning it into an action game that works on a controller. It just clips the lag between your input and your crew carrying out corresponding orders to almost nothing. I’m sure there are a ton of PC games out there I don’t know about that let you command crews and fleets through some kind of detatched mouse interface like FTL.

ArmA 3 kinda let’s you pick different control methods (when playing single player with bots). Traditionally the game wants you to play multiplayer and actually team up with three other people to operate a tank. It’s kind of like the Warthog in Halo but with double the number of duties. One guy drives, one guy operates the canon, one guy (I think) operates the machine gun, and one guy tells everybody else what to do. I’ve heard magic happens when you actually find four people who know what they’re doing.

With AI bots though the command interface tries to resemble what you usually do in video games — operate the tank as one machine. Pressing directions tells the driver what direction to go in, there’s a button to tell the gunner what to target, and hitting the fire button commands your gunner to fire. It all has a slight lag. Your other option is commanding the whole crew of each tank (you can command multiple tanks) like you would any other squad mates, even on a top-down map if you have to.

As I’ve been recently notified, there are a host of tank strategy games on PC, but I know of very few console tank action games from recent years, and when you think about it it’s a missed opportunity. All I can think of right now is World of Tanks on Xbox (and PC). For the most part console action games are probably going to stick to one-man operation for the foreseeable future.

Ubisoft on the other hand at least has a proven base for something that feels different. People openly want it to start a whole pirate franchise. I think Ubisoft could do a whole franchise about early modern era naval warfare — pretty much anything covering a roughly 400-year period of naval history, at least.


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