Do the promised advancements in video game AI always live up to the hype?
One step closer to Judgement Day
It's tough to argue that games haven't gotten better over the years. They look better, they play better, and, most importantly, games are smarter. Early AI were simple goombas that walked into bottomless pits, but that has advanced as far as games like FEAR (which has some of the best enemy AI in a shooter). Recently, the Alien: Isolation developers started showing off their upcoming game's amazing living, breathing alien that's said to hunt and react to players' play styles. Or, at least that's what they're saying now. The thing is, sometimes developers exaggerate and inflate their tech's capabilities, ultimately leading to a disappointing AI showing in the end product.
We couldn't have gotten to this point without game developers taking chances and pushing the envelope for sure. But devs working on groundbreaking AI might occasionally jump the gun, overhype the new tech's abilities, and make crazy promises. It doesn't always turn out bad, per say, but I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the most lofty AI promises developers excited us with pre title launch.
Evolving combat through AI (Halo Combat Evolved)
You can't talk about the advancements in gaming AI without bringing up the enemy intelligence in the original Halo. It might be common now, but before Halo: Combat Evolved released, gamers weren't exactly used to enemies taking cover, dodging grenades, and generally using their brains to kick their ass. Pre-release, the developers claimed they had something special in Halo's AI. I mean, it was right in the title: Combat Evolved.
Did it live up to its promises? Oh, hell yeah. Halo changed our expectations of FPS enemy encounters. No matter how many times you played a level, something different would happen simply because the enemy AI reacted to your actions. If you killed enemy squad commanders, the cowardly grunts would run away. Friendly soldiers drove you around when you hopped in the back of a Warthog. It was almost like the characters were real people or, at least, that's what it felt like at the time.
The smartest NPC crowds ever (Assassin's Creed)
The original Assassin's Creed did some crazy stuff. You got to explore massive cities, climb any building you could see, and hide yourself within a crowd of NPCs. That's the AC we all remember anyway, but before the game actually came out, Ubisoft had some lofty AI promises. The developers even went so far as to say in early interviews that NPCs who saw Altair murder a guard with his hidden blades would remember the assassin days later if they crossed paths again. They'd even pick Altair out of the crowd yelling, "Hey, Assassin!" or something.
Did it live up to its promises? Assassin's Creed definitely made strides with crowd AI. Hiding yourself in a group of monks, distracting peasants with a handful of coins, and seeing NPCs watch in awe as you scaled a building made them feel like real people. But the developer's more extravagant promises never saw the light of day--not even in the later iterations. I guess we'll have have to wait a few more console generations before we can walk into a bazaar where everybody knows our names.
AI enemies that use combat tactics (F.E.A.R.)
Halo might have gotten us used to smarter enemies in our shooters, but the developers of FEAR decided they wanted to take their game's AI to the next level. The enemies you face in FEAR are supposed to be special forces badasses, so if they acted like idiots it wouldn't be very fun. So, developer Monolith said in interviews that the enemies would be smart--very smart. They'd take cover, work as a team, throw grenades at you, and do everything you'd think a special ops team would do to try to kill you.
Did it live up to its promises? There's a reason why FEAR is still considered to have some of the best AI in games. The enemies' coordination, tactics, and movement made each encounter feel like you were going up against trained professionals. Every time you came out of a skirmish alive was an accomplishment. So, yeah. I'd say the AI lived up to the hype.
Smarter enemies in a stealth game (Splinter Cell: Conviction)
The thing about taking on enemies in stealth games is that every bad guy you run into is blind, deaf, and dumb as a post. Seriously, sometimes you can be standing right beside them (albeit in the dark) and they would have no idea you were there. With Splinter Cell: Conviction, the developers said that wouldn't be the case. Instead, enemies would spot you, hunt you down, and kill the crap out of you if you didn't stay on your stealthy (tip?) toes.
Did it live up to its promises? The enemies in Conviction are a little smarter than the gun-toting terrorists in previous games, I'll give them that. They "hunt" you down by converging on your last known location, the immediately become confused when you aren't there anymore. But when it comes down to it, they are still the same, brain dead chokeout fodder we're all used to. Plus, the fact that every thug constantly taunts Sam, revealing their location, and practically begging players to kill them doesn't make a strong case for their intelligence.
A companion that doesn't screw everything up (Bioshock Infinite)
I wasn't all that excited when I found out Bioshock: Infinite's Booker would be followed at all times by an AI companion. Traditionally, companion AI never felt right and was a bit of a pain. But the developers said the supernaturally gifted Elizabeth would help Booker through Columbia. She'd toss him ammo, use her powers to open portals, and would never get in the way of the action. They were confident the AI would hold up to gamer's expectations, but I would be lying if I said I didn't expect Elizabeth's potentially wonkey AI to screw up the new Bioshock--at least a little.
Did it live up to its promises? Yeah, I was totally wrong. Playing the game through with Elizabeth at my side was an amazing experience. Not only did she stay out of the way when the guns were blazing, she was actually helpful. When I was in a bind, she might toss me a few rounds of ammo, pick some locks, or call in backup turrets with a tear. Turns out, the promise came through. Elizabeth actually felt like a real person, and an really helpful person at that.
Hyper-intelligent fish AI (Call of Duty Ghosts)
Because the Call of Duty franchise releases a title once a year, sometimes it seems the developers stretch it a bit to highlight the improvements from one year to the next. In building the hype for the latest entry Ghosts, Infinity Ward decided to show off the intelligence of the fish players would encounter in the very first Call of Duty deep sea diving level. Apparently the fish had super advanced, individual AI that had them scurrying away from players as the gun-toting soldiers passed by.
Did it live up to its promises? As super advanced fish AI goes, Infinity Ward totally nailed it. As soon as you get close to those fish, they swim away. Sure, we've seen those kinds of fish smarts before as we chased around a school of fish in the moat in Super Mario 64. But hey, IW didn't mislead us. The developers said those fish would move and by golly they move.
Game AI in the future (Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Alien Isolation)
And so the look to the past brings us to the now. There are a few games on the horizon toting their game's artificial intelligence prowess--one of those being Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, promising persistent enemy AI. That means, if you fail an assassination attempt, your victim remembers how much of jerk you are later on in the game. Whether that translates to your enemies being better prepared next time, hunting you down to get revenge, or simply spouting a few extra lines of dialogue about how you burnt their face off is yet to be seen. The developers have some big promises to live up to.
The other game is Alien Isolation, which will focus on deceiving and outmaneuvering an enemy AI so highly advanced, it feels like a living, breathing alien. The extra-terrestrial beast is said to hunt you. It will search your potential hiding places, corner you, and stab you through the chest with its tail if you aren't careful. At least, that's how the developers describe it. We'll just have to wait how it pans out in the final game.
Is it alive?
Were there any instances in gaming history that left you pleasantly surprised or woefully disappointed? What do you think game AI is going to be like in the future? Let me know in the comments below.
Also, be sure to check out our other articles like Alien Isolation: The first Alien game to really matter and our Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - Road to the Review