Resident Evil 4
My earliest memories of effective enemy AI in video games was shooting hordes of plagued villagers in Resident Evil 4. I remember being swarmed by vastly different looking character models wielding pitchforks, machetes, teeth and nails, and (*gasp*) chainsaws. I know these aren’t the most “realistic” enemies to appear in any video game but they exhibited behavioral quirks elevating them over the average baddie. I fought the inescapable feeling of being hunted and torn to bits by an angry mob and I was terrified. Being mobbed by enemies was nothing new but there was something about the collective, murderous intent of these guys that made me unable to advance the game for two solid weeks. I could not lift the controller in my hands for ten minutes before retreating before the advancing crowd that killed me again and again by a plethora of stabbing and strangling. I think what made these guys so scary was their ability to communicate the real world phenomenon of mob mentality. Further down the road the unpredictability of the same sort of enemy increased with the addition of nerve squids bursting from the glowing red-eyed heads of demented villagers. This is just one enemy type I prefer to go into detail about. I haven’t mentioned Jaws-esque fight sequences sprung by the hideous water creature Del Lago or the intimidating presence of the blind Wolverine clawed Garradors.
On the flip side we have the meandering presence of Ashley Graham (Leon, helllllp!). In a game full of brilliant AI the irony that your companion is as dumb as a sack of potatoes has not escaped me. She herself would get in front of the player and be hilariously carried off by cultists. I think Capcom added that heavy knight suit in just so players did not have to worry about her sorry ass while doing what you had to do with guns and knives.
One franchise I always found amusing was Dynasty Warriors mostly in part to how dumb the AI can be in any fight and I would be lying if I said killing these mongoloids wasn’t fun. I remember playing a Dynasty Warriors game on the PSP and laughing out lout whenever I’d send twenty enemies flying back that undergo the same animation frames with literally one attack and they would all cry out in exaggerated pain at the exact same time. These enemies mob you, too, but they are supposed to exhibit fully functioning brains and exercise some level of control over their functioning. Sounds like a pretty good basis for any enemy AI, doesn’t it? Dynasty Warriors ignores this and places emphasis on surrounding the player with hundreds of people that are supposed to kill you and yet can barely lift their goddamn spears to attack you when the time comes. Sometimes their spears will reach you but depending on the difficulty this can be pretty infrequent. What makes these fools so compelling to kill? Their actions don’t make them fun to fight but rather the player’s ability to hit them. Developers Koei put more effort into their death throes than any desire to keep them alive. They are simply fodder that die in hilariously entertaining ways.
The NPCs of Fallout 4 leave a bit to be desired in the brains department or really the entire store if you want to look at the issue honestly. We are talking about people who cannot fend off a damn Raider invasion despite dozens of turrets and well-placed fortifications. If it’s too late to save your precious settlement you are forced back a few steps and before you know it another one is under attack (courtesy of your needy neighborhood Preston Garvey more often than not). These people cannot even build their own facilities despite living in the post apocalyptic setting much longer than you have. This leads me to believe your settlers would not even be able to undergo the most basic of bodily functions. At times they seem to possess a weird kind of stupidity. Order them to harvest crops and it may take five or six tries before your guy actually gets it. I guess the radiation has already degraded their minds if I were to choose a semi-believable scenario.
The confusion doesn’t end there since enemies can sometimes act even weirder. While fighting Gunner squads on the elevated highways one of them might back up at running speed and topple backwards to their doom despite their obvious advantage of owning that area and living there. You’d think they’d know their own territory well enough to try to kill you and not give away free XP. Oh well. In a similar situation a certain Raider toppled to their doom (seemingly on purpose!) into a vat of lava. You can only shake your head and laugh.
Sometimes the AI’s stupidity can be downright hilarious. Bethesda’s trademark glitchiness causes all kinds of twitchy movements. Shoot someone at watch their bodies fly backwards and forwards at tremendous speed and height while somersaulting four or five times into the air, landing on the ground, and twitching like someone suffering a seizure only this time you laugh instead of instantly getting help. Raiders can say hilarious quips while being followed. One might voice an intense desire to find you and kill you while that same Raider may call off their search a few second later in seeming nonchalance. In other circumstances I may say, “Make up your damn mind already!” if it weren’t so damn funny.
One franchise in particular stands out in terms of intelligent enemy AI. Metal Gear does this consistently and it doesn’t matter if the intended targets are flesh or metal. The series blends the familiar video game trope of realistic and lifelike human intelligence and unusual robotic combatants with a myriad of attacks and defense methods.
The human element is rendered with care in part to Kojima’s desire to communicate to players that you are killing real people with real desires and behaviors that range to talking about girlfriends back home to the hearty unselfconscious ass scratch. It can be fun to observe enemy guards in their natural state just to see what they will do when they believe themselves to be in the presence of no enemy. Some may converse in a foreign tongue, trade jokes and barbs, smoke cigarettes, or whistle a patriotic tune. It is easy to imagine soldiers of any country acting like this and this speaks to the universality of combat and war. The places combatants come from may be different but they all act the same more often or not. The player may begin to wonder: are these guys the real enemy? While a violent series it is moments like these where Kojima is able to insert his well-handled theme of anti violence and war. When they actually have wind of Snake’s actions they tentatively search the area and communicate fear and reluctance or they can do it with a little more urgency. It really depends on the soldier. Some may alert nearby allies to join in the search and upon finding Snake they use group tactics to take him out. Alarms are sounded; walky-talkies are shouted into, bullhorns blast in the player’s direction. If the game’s cycle happens to be night flashlights and spotlights streak the ground in search patterns. A palatable sense of real life conflict enters the fray and it is instances like this where player mine the complexity of Metal Gear.
Ever since I joined the hunt early in on the PSP the Monster Hunter franchise has always struck me as a game with well-implemented AI. I think this feeling stems from a distinct sense that I am hunting actual beasts and not anything created by a computer. Each monster behaves radically different from the lifelike motion animations to the elaborate attack and defensive patterns. It is in these patterns where Capcom gets it right at least in my view. It can be hard to predict some of these patterns when each monster possesses a bevy of moves. In addition to offensive attacks monsters can perform evasive maneuvers such as dodging while flying and even burrowing. A few have tricks up their sleeves like high pitched roars or heavy wind pressure that knock players off balance and ruin their flow. Monsters can chain together combos to stun players as well as inflict status alignments and shoot energy blasts. The thing is any monster doesn’t have a set order to perform each maneuver sequence but they do tend to give away their next attack via a particular movement or twitch. Things get even more changed up and dicey in rage mode and that flight or fight mechanism kicks in. Players are forced to adapt to every change and this forced adaptation drives home the undeniable survival instinct. This is only in the first game introduced in the series. With every subsequent release each monster’s move pool and complexity grows. Monster Hunter is a fully inhabited world with organisms behaving in distinct ways that separate them from the rest of the pack of lizards, mammals, dragons and the like.
From Software’s mega hits have never lacked in providing challenging, intelligent, and competent AI. This is why those games are so successful. This is why those games are such critical darlings and fan favorites. The factor of unpredictability plays a role here, too. Some enemies like your basic skeleton can be easily fended off and figured out with only four or five attacks and moves. Even at the basic level, this grunt of an enemy is a far cry from the single swipe foes of Castlevania and it only gets more complex from there. At its grandest, a Souls boss like Dark Souls 3’s final boss has a transformation, blinding speed, evasive moves, different stances, and dozens (yes dozens!) of attacks. At this point any consistent pattern to AI behavior cannot be discerned with so many possibilities in one fight. Each subsequent fight against the Soul of Cinder feels radically different because the AI reacts to the player’s strategy and changes stances and attacks accordingly. It’s a weird feeling because I have the sensation of being figured out and exploited despite the fact I’m fighting a computer. This same feeling pervades any random NPC invasion. Most of these enemies have the aggressiveness of a PVP battler and it can be disarming when the Red Phantom wielding an Ultra Greatsword can pull off fast dodges and attacks. An enemy hanging back and retaliating when hit is a thing of the past and has never ever been the case with the Souls games. Add this with hundreds of varied opponents and it is easy to see why these games are so critically lauded.