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Artificial Intelligence is a curious thing. Despite prophetic doomsday matrix-esque tales of the robots taking control and enslaving our race, it is still undergoing development in laboratories all over the world. As gamers, "AI" as we refer to it, is central to the solo-playing experience. We count on our virtual foes to provide a stiff challenge for our personal enjoyment. The buzz-words seems to be "adapting-on-the-fly". However, despite the best attempts of many software houses, perhaps most notably Raven, our computer created opponents tend still to have problems: standing stationary as a satchel charge falls at their feet, whistling contentedly as a thirty-ought-six round removes a substantial chunk of their friend's head, or even strolling carelessly into "solid" walls. All in the name of progress they say, yet there is a solution to this problem.



Counter-Strike in all it's glory

Two words tend to resolve this problem: "Counter-Strike". Before you become overcome with images of counter-terrorists, bombs, "n00b" bashing and aim bots, take a second to think why Counter-Strike is so popular. Is it the graphical genius? Is it the lag-free servers? Or is it the fact you play a brilliantly structured game against real people? The fact is these people can boast, yes, from the most feeble "n00b", to the most "L73t", every player on a Counter-Strike server will have, in varying degrees, common sense. This same attitude makes Firearms, Team Fortress and the surfeit of lesser Half-Life mods about so popular. These people have no blind spots, no bugs to exploit, they don't crash if you kill them a certain way. It is this common sense that makes online-gaming so popular. Even the mighty Deus Ex, the epitome of today's single-player gaming, had flaws in it's AI: This again reinforces a point to be made about the up and coming "Command and Conquer: Generals": A well structured and playable multiplayer aspect is central to the success and longevity of the game. Yes we'll all play through the single player mission, kicking ass as we go, but in 6 or 7 months after release, it will only be the common sense of human players that will satisfy us.

Take the example of Red Alert 2: Almost a year and half after it's release Westwood Online is still unbelievably popular. The numbers may not match those of Half-Life, and there are an ever-growing colony of resident (and arrogant) Germans on WOL, but in comparison of units sold relative to online players, surely the figures are most encouraging. The online community for Red Alert 2 is phenomenal, the number of mods staggering, see my "Red Alert 2's first Birthday" article for a comprehensive analysis done back in November. This rigid support network born in the veins of cyberspace tends not to focus on single-player missions, but instead have refined the art of playing Red Alert 2 down to a series of "Build Orders", "Dog scouting" and "Tank Rushing". These sites, of which CNC Series is one, would have undoubtedly not survived were it not for the addictive redemption of the multiplayer aspect. The importance of online options simply cannot be underestimated.



Jim 'Toying' with the AI in YR

The latest expansion to the C&C franchise oozes online potential from every orifice; massed battles pitched between China and the US rendered in the sweet polygonal beauty of 3 dimensions. This virgin potential must be exploited to the full degree - to cut back on this from the mere point of saving a few cents would be nothing short of criminal. As I glance down this month's chart in PC Gamer UK, nothing short of 10 titles come from Electronics Arts. Despite the horrendous losses from the failed "Majestic" (Estimated to be $5 Million), EA must have enough revenue to milk C&C: Generals for all it's worth. As fans we demand little, supposedly, but the reality is that we are the most picky people on this earth. A Multiplayer aspect has been a regular feature of Command and Conquer, from the pixilated Soviet invasion of Red Alert, to the 3D glory of Renegade. It is multi-player features that breed communities, communities that stimulate discussion and discussion that leads to more and more people becoming aware of the game.

Surely then, EA Pacific must realise that apart from keeping us happy, it actually makes good commercial sense to build in online aspects. What more incentives should glorious embraceors of capitalism need? Half-Life has sold a massive 2.5 million copies, undoubtedly many of those were purchased after Team Fortress and other multiplayer add-ons shot dramatically to fame. My words will not be read by the fat executives of Electronic Arts, but hopefully, you, as gamers, will see my point: When it comes to gaming, would you rather play against a complex but stupid set of algorithmic functions, or enjoy the sweeping pleasure of whupping the pants off a real person? I think we all know the answer.

» Jim

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