August 10, 2009

Nothing Artificial About It

Artificial intelligence. That which dictates the actions of the NPCs that fill our games. It makes them seem human, clever... or, more often, fails to do so. AI is almost as often called artificial stupidity for this reason, and some people venture that the only good AI is the AI that you don't notice. I disagree. I think if you were new to games, this would be true, but an experienced player's gamer sense automatically compares to both previous experiences with AI, and reasonable expectation, and thus a veteran can certainly be stunned and wowed by AI.

I might, at some later time, talk about the difficulties of AI, about how it's a bitch to code and test, and about the weird promises developers make that they can't follow through on (ask yourself how many times you've heard a developer say that their AI will "flank you"). But today, I'd rather talk about two stories of AI that really just blew me away. Two moments, from my gaming experience, where I just said "Wow."

The first of these is from FEAR, a first person shooter that was noted for its above-average AI, among other things. It quite specifically wasn't noted for its sad attempts at horror- usually the equivalent of someone jumping out and shouting "Oooga booga booga"- but I digress. The AI was surprisingly human at times- ironic, considering that they are clone soldiers who've never known anything but battle. However, they did use realistic, competent tactics on you, while also being properly baffled by yours- one time, I leapt through a window and gunned down a squad, then leapt back through the window, and came out the front door. The other squad, running toward where I had just leapt from, had a moment of chaos as they figured out what was going on, in which time I managed to kill two of their members. That's not the amazing story, though. The amazing story is the complete version of one I told in my gamer sense explanation.

I'd just blasted my way straight through a little barracade these troops had set up to stop me- a little chokepoint that would have worked, were I not A), the player, and thus hardy/skilled/crazy fast, and B) wanting to try out a trick with my shotgun. That trick is very simple- shoot them in the gut from like three feet away. If you do it right, you blow them completely in half. And I did it right quite a few times. So it was a very, very messy battlefield. I'd cleared the place out, so I was taking a moment to look around for any supplies- medkits, ammo, armor, all that jazz. So, I was searching through cubicles, when suddenly my gamer sense kinda pricks up, and I spin around. And there, stumbling backwards through the hall, is a lone soldier. He's walking backward, toward me, and he stares at each of the mangled corpses as he passes. At one of the ones I blew in half, I hear him whisper, "Oh, God...." And then, right as he's about to bump into me, he begins to turn around, and I hit slow-mo just in time to turn his terrified "Shit!" into "Shhiiiiiiiiiiiiit". And then I blow him in half. Of course.

Truly, an awesome moment for realistic AI. But what could top that? Well, in my opinion, a moment I had from Far Cry 2. The AI is Far Cry 2 is very spotty- sometimes, it's amazing, like when a man's dirty AK jams, and he swears and pounds on it frantically as you draw nearer... and sometimes it's just retarded, like when a man half a mile away spins on his heel randomly and delivers a perfectly accurate burst of lead to your face, which is hidden in a bush on a hill next to a tree. At night. I mean, come on. But one moment... one moment made me forgive all that. Far Cry 2 remains one of my favorite shooters of this generation, not in some small part due to this random, wonderous event.

I was just roaming the countryside, looking for collectables, when I spotted a car with a mounted gun parked off the side of the road, and two soldiers standing by it, chatting. This was not at all an uncommon experience, though I was pleased that they didn't immediately spot me like they sometimes do. So I aim with my bolt action sniper, and shoot one in the gut. The victim collapses to the ground, and his partner bolts for cover. I aim, and shoot the runner down... but wait, I've forgotten to cycle the bolt again, so pulling the trigger does nothing. Ah, bolt action... so stylish, so annoying. By the time I remember, and am ready to shoot again, the runner has gotten behind cover. So I wait. And, after a bit, the man cautiously steps out from behind cover, pointing in all directions with his gun. Now, I confess- I really don't know why I didn't shoot him right then. I think I was impressed by his animation, but I can't really say- I just don't remember. Anyway, I don't fire, and he determines that the coast is clear, and runs over to his friend.

Anyone that knows about gunshot wounds- or, heck, even has watched a few war movies, knows that a gut shot is lethal, but very slowly so. You have to patch it up right away... or no matter what, the individual is going to die a very slow, very painful death. And this is Africa, in the middle of nowhere. There is no way that this guy is going to get the medical treatment he needs. So after a few long moments of staring at his dying friend, he- you're going to think I made this up, I swear to god I didn't- pulls out his pistol, and finishes him off. Shoots him in the head. Then he gets in his car, and drives away.

That blew my mind, right there. It's a feature in the game that you can finish off your friends when they are wounded beyond saving, but I was pretty astonished to see the AI use it. What moments in games have you marvelled at the AI? It doesn't have to be shooters, those are just the ones that stood out for me.

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