Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pyromania Potential

It doesn't matter if you call it a flamethrower, incinerator unit or Greek fire, pyrotechnic streams of burning death have never quite gotten the treatment they deserve in video games.  Thankfully there have recently been some positive strides, but before I get into current developments lets go back to the early days and the early attempts to simulate this deadly form of weaponry.

The 16-bit era is about as far back as I can remember seeing flamethrowers in video games.  Titles like Super Contra, Gouls'n'Ghosts, and Mystic Defender would all treat jets of fire like a wobbly chain made of interconnected sprites that would steadily inflict damage on anything caught in its path.  An admirable first effort, but still a long way from, the real thing.  Gain Ground is another slightly different 16-bit example.  One of the playable units was capable of using a flamethrower which would fart out short range slow moving balls of fire.  Provided you could mash the attack button like crazy, it was possible to get something resembling a steady stream of flame.  Sadly, it never really had a good in-game use.  One final 16-bit game that had yet another take was Alien 3.  While not consistent with the film of the same name, it was possible to get an incinerator unit that would spurt out pre-rendered gouts of fire considerable distances.  While an improvement over anything which had come before, it still lacked the ability to ignite other objects in the environment, nor did the xenomorphs seem at all intimidated by it.

Jumping over to PC (and Mac), Marathon had an instant kill flamethrower, which again isn't  the way the real thing works either, but at least it felt deadly under the right circumstances.  In fact it took over a decade of stagnation before we've finally started to see significant  improvements. The Thing let players catch their enemies on fire and Far Cry 2 stands out for having burnable objects allowing the player to use brush fires and other conflagrations against foes.  But for every game that took a step forward there were two games such as Dead Space and Dark Souls (gasp!) which still had the same old reductive designs you'd hardly consider adequate for lighting up a BBQ or campfire.  What pretty much everyone outside the development team behind Return to Castle Wolfenstein had a hard time figuring out was real flamethrowers are kind of like super powered squirt guns, except instead of water it's burning napalm capable of arching distances over 100 feet!  Getting into an enclosed space for protection from the heat doesn't help as much as you might think either in that the intense flames produced by these weapons will eat up all the surrounding oxygen, so even if you're able to avoid having your flesh roasted you might very well die of asphyxiation.

All in all flamethrowers are something radically more complex than firearms.  Simulating how they work in a digital world is extreme taxing even on top-of-the-line physics engines.  In film making too flamethrowers tend to be nerfed for the safety of cast and crew.  Hence, the impression Hollywood movies give tends to be pretty inaccurate compared to the real deal.  On an interesting side note, the US Military has shyed away from man-portable flamethrowers since WW2, preferring instead to rely on vehicle mounted or ballistic ordinance incendiary devices.  Fire, after all, doesn't take sides and as such is dangerous to wielder and target alike.

Of course in the world of video games safety isn't exactly a high priority.  After playing through The Last of Us, I found myself rather pleased with the way the jerry-rigged flamethrower and Molotov cocktails worked.  Granted the range for the former is a still a bit short, but at least they got the effect right.  Enemies in particular, react with horrific accuracy when burned, and best of all (or worst, depending on your perspective) ballistic armor and cover confer no benefit.  Regrettably, you still can't ignite stuff in the game environment.  I guess that's asking a bit much for current gen consoles though.  Regardless, I hope someone tries to make a realistic firefighting sim someday.  Maybe base it in pre-modern Japan with the player managing an Edo (now Tokyo) based unit of Hikeshi.  That would be I should say hot?  Well, you know what I mean.  

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