Why I love smashing RTS AI


In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. This week Tom caps the computer's resource points—all of them—and laughs maniacally.

Dawn of War 3 isn't out yet so I have been addressing my need to slay Orks in Dawn of War 2: Retribution skirmishes. I set myself a mission to destroy the Ork AI on 'expert' difficulty with every faction, starting with the Space Marines and finishing with the Eldar. I enjoyed this so much I started fighting every faction in turn with the Eldar, and now my home PC is a source of unending war against Dawn of War 2: Retribution's artificial intelligence.

AI opponents are rarely designed to stand up to this sort of relentless assault. In skirmish RTS games the AI is a non-judgemental opponent that gives me space to learn different factions and better understand the flow of the game. But as I work through the difficulty levels and start to win consistently, I learn the system's foibles. I see how the AI likes to send individual units to cap resource points behind the front line. I know that in particular circumstances I can goad the AI into the embrace of my base's turrets, where I can suppress and destroy units with ease. The mask cracks, but I'm not disappointed. I feel as though I'm slowly mapping out the designer's work and solving it like a puzzle.

Having said that, the slightly wonky tutorial bot can take me right to the line in some matchups on higher difficulties. Here I appreciate the other great thing about battling the computer. When I fight the AI I don't have to think about my user profile, levels, rankings, loadouts, badges, or any of the trappings of the modern online service game format.

Multiplayer competition can feel like a rat race. Strangers enter a lobby, compete for their own statistical advancement, and then separate. No bonds are formed, there is no time to form rapport, and the banter is terrible. Fast modern internet connections can sustain multiple players in high-fidelity playgrounds, but they are increasingly designed to foster hollow transactional interactions—spend time, earn points, then head into another session full of different strangers and repeat. 

The humble RTS AI doesn't do banter. It doesn't swear and disconnect when things are going badly for it. It takes a beating in noble silence and tries its very best right up to the end. The Orks keep marching enthusiastically on my base as the victory counter ticks over believing, in a very Orkish way, that they can still win as long as they keep hitting the big thing at the other end of the map.

RTS AI can be dumb, but in reassuringly consistent way. And it's a great punching bag in co-op. Sometimes RTS AI cheats by giving bonus resources to the CPU army, particularly on harder difficulties, which creates a fun last stand scenario that isn't so high pressured that you can't chat over the game. It's a silent opponent that facilitates a good time, one that you can load up in a moment's notice. Artificial RTS opponents are great. To show my appreciation, I will continue to destroy them over and over again forever.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.