One of the finer pleasures of being a journalist who spends too much time in the depths of PC gaming is the number of encounters you have with the platform's various subcultures. Over the past five years, one in particular has fixed me with a mixture of dread and amazement: It's the community that surrounds the hardcore soldier sim.
There are plenty of clubs, teams and clans dedicated to gun games, but the soldier sim community has something rather more formidable going on behind its IP addresses. While Counter-Strike teams practice their enclosed takedowns for hour after hour, and the internet squaddies of World War II Online get all regimented to bomb a virtual Germany, they nevertheless seem like mere foot soldiers in the arena of digital combat. Those who have truly graduated, those who might think of themselves as the special forces of the gun-game milieu, are those who immerse themselves in multiplayer games of Operation Flashpoint and Armed Assault.
While all the other gun games could be argued to have some semblance of sport, with their leagues, ladders and championships, the Armed Assault and Flashpoint communities aren't interested in competition. They're interested in the pursuit of virtual war. These titles are very much simulation, and the communities' attitude demonstrate that fact. "There's often a need for hierarchy," says my contact, a dedicated Flashpoint and Armed Assault player who has relayed tales of online military actions to me many times over the years. "Many of the guys in here have been in the army, or want a militaristic experience. Most gamers find it quite a dry experience."
This should come as no surprise to those people familiar with the soldier sims from Czech developer Bohemia Interactive Studio, since they've long been the most complex and unforgiving combat simulations available anywhere in gaming. Bohemia has dedicated themselves to creating games that make realistic, squad-based combat their primary goal. From the helicopters' avionics to the naturalistic behavior of the ambient wildlife found in the game world, Bohemia's attention to detail is astounding. This means they also create games that are daunting, even terrifying to the average gamer.
What's surprising is the rigor with which the communities themselves select and train recruits for their virtual wars. "Some teams will require you to beat the game environment with only bits of the GUI," says my soldier sim insider. "Applicants can use the in-game compass, read maps and have to navigate to a set destination in a certain amount of time." That, of course, is simply the initial test. "What matters to most of the team leaders is the amount of time dedicated to the clan itself. If you can't go on maneuvers, then you're probably not going to be on the team."
That's right: These electronic soldiers practice their tactics before playing out missions within the game world. They need hierarchy, but also battle discipline. Like a real army, they train up in the game world using practice runs, assault courses and wargames. "First we'll have a briefing, with a rundown of what we're going to be doing. The commander probably assigns people with their numbers at that point, so that each player knows their number and can respond to questions and commands on TeamSpeak without the commander getting confused. It's also about odd and even fire teams, classic military tactics."