Saturday, August 25, 2007

Company of Heroes: The Price of Complacency

Mission 13 (Mortain Counterattack) is somewhat disappointingly set on the same map as the previous mission but the objectives are different and thankfully there is no timer. Each side starts with a 400 point "life counter". Four victory locations are scattered about the map and in order to win you need to whittle the opponents life counter down to zero by holding a majority of the victory locations.

Fair enough - following my usual instincts I grabbed the nearest two victory points and built strong defenses around them. The Germans grabbed the other two and then launched furious combined assaults at my victory points. After my stalwart defenders had beaten off numerous waves of armoured assault the Germans appeared to give up and intensity of attacks tailed off. After about an hour of playing time the Germans assault had reduced to a trickle of solo infantry units charging to their deaths against my strongpoints.

Remember that at this point we still had an equal share of victory points and the Germans possessed more territory than I did. Still we had reached the mythical tipping point. Freed from the need to focus purely on defense I could start to slowly undermine the enemy. Adopting a cautious approach so as not to provoke a major backlash I sent a lone engineer unit out to scavenge for lightly guarded territories. I also sent a camouflaged sniper deep into enemy territory to wreak some sabotage havoc.

Another hour of careful play saw the lone engineer unit extend my territory to about two thirds of the map, avoiding all strategic zones and picking off lightly guarded zones. Meanwhile the lone sniper had managed to destroy several German fixed gun positions acting as spotter for my own off map artillery while picking off the gun crews with his scoped rifle. Deep behind enemy lines he discovered a heavily fortified German base and managed to direct our artillery to level the German headquarters. Although his travels also revealed a great number of German armoured vehicles the destruction of the headquarters was killer blow which would greatly hamper German ability to replenish any losses in the battle ahead.

Victory was now within my grasp. All that remained was for me to gather my own forces for a crippling assault on the weakened German heartland. It was late in the evening however and Major General MBP decided to save the game and retire for the night, confident that the remaining huns could be mopped up in the morning.

The next morning I fired up the game eager to deliver the coup de-grasse. As I contemplated my next move I was rudely awoken by a massed assault of German armour on one of my key positions. It seemed as if every German unit on the map was converging on this one spot. Too late I realised that the relative calm of the night before had lulled me into a false sense of complacency in which foolish state I had neglected to maintain my defensive shield. My footsoldier defenders armed with nothing more than a few bazookas were facing massed enemy tanks . I sat there stunned as I watched a battle I was sure was won turn against me quickly and devastatingly.

Following the utter defeat of my forces I ruefully contemplated what had happened. Where did those tanks come from. Why had I not detected the beginnings of this assault the night before? Several probing restarts later brought the sorry truth to me. These tanks were the very same my sniper had seen scattered around the map hiding in defensive positions the night before. However whereas they had been content to hide the previous night the morning light had fired them up individually and collectively for a devastating assault on my central strong point.

At one level you could imagine this was a demonstration of superb Artifical intelligence - an emergent behaviour if you like. It is easy to imagine a real life army retiring to their bases after wave upon wave of unsuccessful attacks only to regroup and re-launch a new assault the following morning. A less charitable view would be to attribute this behaviour to a bug in the save game routine. It seems clear to me that while the game saves units and positions it does not save the AI state. The previous night the AI has been intelligent enough to rememeber that repeated assaults on my strongpoints were not working so it had opted for a different more defensive tactic and there it had stuck. This state was wiped on a restart the following morning.

So now I have a dilemma - Do I try to mount a last ditch defense against tanks with my infantry knowing that if I can survive long enough the loss of the headquarters should hamper their ability to replenish any losses or do I start over?

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