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Advanced Tactics: The Search For A Smarter Military Shooter

Military shooters have a long and venerable history in video games. Before Call of Duty and Battlefield began their war for complete market domination, smaller series like Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and SOCOM provided different takes on digital warfare. These series differentiated themselves – and the military shooter genre – from other FPS franchises like Quake and Halo by emphasizing strategy and realism. Forgoing roller-coaster spectacle and nonstop action, they presented gamers with a pseudo-authentic military experience where every shot counted and tactics played a larger role in the outcome of a mission than itchy trigger fingers.

In the last few years, the first-person shooter landscape has radically changed. Guns-blazing military shooters now take center stage, with Modern Warfare 3 selling a record-breaking 6.4 million copies on launch day. But along with the genre's newfound audience has come a redefining of what a military shooter entails. Detailed mission briefings and pre-operations planning have been replaced by convoluted storylines pasted together with all the skill and flashiness of a Michael Bay film. NPC squads of stat-differentiated team members have been reduced to exaggerated stereotypes with "follow" signs hovering over them. Dynamic, open battlefields have been streamlined into linear campaigns with action scripted down to the explosion. Online play affords gamers more opportunity for strategic thinking, but regenerating health, kill cams, super-human perks, and killstreak rewards ensure the action remains fast-paced, unrelenting, and far removed from reality.

Are strategy-oriented military shooters dead? If you're looking for a console release with the level of planning offered in the old Rainbow Six titles, the answer is yes. But that doesn't mean all military shooter fans have assimilated into the Call of Duty horde. A small but dedicated group has switched platforms, moved online, and has been enjoying a level of realism and strategy-focused gameplay that simply doesn't exist in mainstream gaming.

The following games might not offer the bombastic moments that the current crop of triple-A military shooters do, but if you're looking for an experience that makes you feel more like a soldier than a one-man army, here are some titles worth enlisting in.

Arma II

"You have to be skilled. Most people think that all you can do is get in and start doing great when you can't. You start at an airfield and have to pick your gear and move to a targeted town through airlifting, which could be on C-130s, helicopters, or air-to-air combat in jets. You have to land a distance out and move in with a squad and be aware. If people would like to experience realistic war, I would suggest getting this game because it's as real as it gets." – Austin Farley, Commander of Arma II's Virtual U.S. Military clan

Ask Internet-goers what the most realistic military shooter on the market is, and Arma II will be the overwhelmingly popular response. This large-scale tactical shooter for PC was developed by Bohemia Interactive Studios, creators of the original Operation Flashpoint. That game's proprietary Real Virtuality engine was so realistic that Bohemia created a sister studio to develop VBS1, a full-fledged military simulator licensed by the United States Marine Corps for training.

After a falling out with Operation Flashpoint publisher Codemasters (which retained the rights to the franchise), BIS began working on the Arma series. The latest release is Arma II, which uses Real Virtuality 3 to provide a level of realism its fans swear by. This includes the game's 81 real-world weapons and a comprehensive ballistics simulation that takes into account bullet drop, muzzle velocity, and realistic material penetration and ricochet depending on the angle of impact.

In addition to the arsenal, Arma II also features more than 120 accurately recreated vehicles, as well as real-world terrain constructed from topography scans, day-night cycles, and changing weather and wind conditions. Perhaps the best testament to Arma II's authenticity is the recent flub committed by the UK's Independent Television network, which aired a documentary that mistook camcorder-captured footage of the game as video from a 1988 IRA attack.

Despite Arma II's attention to detail, the game was criticized at its 2009 release for AI issues and bugs, both of which Bohemia has attempted to address with subsequent patches. In June of last year, the company released a free-to-play version of the multiplayer -component of Arma II, which allows gamers to partake in its massive 50-player matches with owners of the full game.

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad

"It's not flashy or based on Hollywood-effect warfare. The realism also is a bit humbling; you aren't blessed with perfect accuracy, and you are going to die gory, inhuman deaths frequently. It has a learning curve that rewards players who are equally concerned with keeping themselves alive as they are with killing the enemy, but perhaps most refreshingly of all it brings the player back to the core of why wars are fought: land. You're not tasked with simply annihilating the enemy, you must seize and hold key ground, ground that is for the most part very faithful to the actual battlegrounds and strategic points within the city of Stalingrad itself." – Vittorio Rinaldi, Platoon Leader in the 51st Guards realism unit

This realism-oriented WWII shooter started off as a total conversion mod for Epic Games' sci-fi multiplayer FPS Unreal Tournament 2004. The mod won Epic Games' and nVidia's Make Something Unreal contest, leading to a standalone retail release and the eventual sequel, built using Unreal Engine 3.

A lot of Red Orchestra 2's realism lies in its presentation. This PC game features a minimalist HUD to simulate a true first-person view. For example, there is no aiming reticle in Red Orchestra 2; instead players must rely solely on iron sights while compensating for gun sway and breathing. There's also no onscreen ammo indicator, so players must manually check their ammo count or mentally keep track of how many bullets they've fired. As with Arma II, Red Orchestra 2 features full ballistics modeling, including bullet drop and material penetration.

The realism extends to Red Orchestra's 2 damage system. Wounds continue bleeding until bandaged, which doesn't actually regenerate health but at least prevents any further loss. More often than not, however, your first gunshot wound is your last.

Another lauded feature is the game's realistic simulation of tanks. Unlike most first-person shooters that feature vehicles, tanks in Red Orchestra 2 have fully modeled interiors and realistic armor (meaning where you shoot a tank matters). Tanks also require multiple people to effectively operate, via either an AI crew in single-player or fellow players online.

Like Arma II, Red Orchestra 2's single-player campaign was criticized for its poor AI. Multiplayer is where the game really shines, thanks to massive open-world maps, a 64-player limit, and a military hierarchy featuring commanders and squad leaders for each team who can issue commands and call in artillery strikes.

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