Invent

The Eye In The Sky


When technology advances to the point that every move can be tracked, stealth strategies must adapt and evolve.



The Commander's perspective, at full zoom, observing a battle in real-time. From here, friendly and enemy soldiers looked like ants scurrying about the battlefield

One would think that the omniscient, bird’s-eye view of a satellite would make stealth gameplay on the ground a little hard to accomplish. But all it requires is a re-thinking of who – and what – one must hide from.

Such was the case with the 2005 Battlefield 2 mod, Project Reality. In it (as well as the vanilla game) a single player on each team assumed the position of Commander and dispensed orders to the squads operating under him. One of the extra tools available only to the Commander was a satellite view which he could position anywhere on the battlefield and observe the conflict, in real-time, from a top-down perspective.Though this function was present in vanilla Battlefield 2, it was all the more valuable in the Project Reality mod. Stripped of his automatic spotting tools like the map-wide scan and the UAV, the Commander needed to do all his spotting with his own two eyeballs.

This presented unique obstacles for players on the ground. As the satellite was in orbit, soldiers never knew whether or not they were being silently watched from the sky, as they could see no visual indication. Since the Commander’s field of view from the satellite was actually quite limited – an area of perhaps 50m by 50m, on maps that were many square kilometres – he tended to focus on areas of the map where battles were currently raging. If you wanted to execute a surprise flank – something that might involve minutes of crawling through the bush – you had to avoid giving him a reason to reposition his satellite right on top of you.

This could involve anything from holding fire and waiting patiently for an enemy troop transport to rumble past you on its way to the frontline, or co-ordinating with another squad on the opposite end of the map to create a (hopefully very loud) diversion, near a less-strategic target, at the same time as you make your advance. And when you finally initiate a precision assault on your objective that you’d taken so long to reach, the Commander would hopefully be too busy to provide crucial satellite support.

The thing is, an experienced player could tell when he wasn’t watching. You’d initiate an assault, and enemies would panic, visibly flustered, looking every which way. The complete lack of HUD can do that when under fire. But when you were being tracked, enemies would pick you off with surprising precision – even when you hadn’t engaged them yet.

But for all his divine wisdom, the Commander had no thermal imaging. As such, he couldn’t see under solid objects – buildings, awnings, charred vehicular wrecks, palm fronds. If you moved your squad within the limits of these environmental pieces, you knew you were safe.

A Rally Point appeared as a small pile of sandbags, emblazoned with the national flag of the team it belonged to.

This extended to the positioning of Rally Points – placeable spawn points that could be deployed by Squad Leaders, which allowed that whole squad to spawn closer to objectives. The acquisition and destruction of these Rally Points was a key strategy. Taking them out would prevent forward spawning by the enemy, costing them valuable minutes as they trotted back to the fight from their home base.

So it was that hiding these Rally Points became an art in and of its own. Not only did they need to be out of sight of the ground troops, but any Rally Point without solid cover overhead was sure to be spotted by any attentive enemy Commander. And it all it took was for him to issue a Demolition waypoint, and you’d have six excited PLA riflemen converging on your staging area.

Rally Points became smoking guns. If one was discovered, but no enemy troops were near it, it was assumed that they had recently spawned and were already off on their assault. Having your own Rally Point discovered in such a state was akin to tripping the alarm and alerting an entire level to your presence. And when the enemy Commander was involved, it was usually but a matter of time before the steps between you and your Rally Point were re-traced, and your position uncovered.

Such mechanics are the perfect example of the role stealth has in player-versus-player encounters, and are entirely unique thanks to the asymmetric abilities of the Commander and the enemies scurrying below him. And since there were no alarm bells when you were being watched on the ground, you essentially had to play mind games with an omniscient god.

It wasn’t until a couple of revisions later that the Commander’s satellite view was phased out of the mod entirely. But the team at Black Sand Studios is in the process of re-introducing a far more intricate – and less omniscient – version of that vision. It will be interesting to see what balance they can strike, and how it will affect the stealth gameplay that remains at the heart of the mod’s infantry movements.

Daniel Hindes

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One Response to The Eye In The Sky

  1. By John Brindle, January 24, 2012 at 11:43 am

    This is fascinating. It’s always interesting when players are required to stealth against other players, and this kind of cat-and-mouse information warfare is sadly rare outside Frozen Synapse. You might be interested in an old HL2 mod called Zombie Master, which had survivors battling to complete objectives against undead controlled by a flying RTS player whose attention could be distracted and avoided in a similar fashion (though stealth was more difficult because their camera was more versatile).

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