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One of the pleasures of visiting relatives over Thanksgiving is that I have heretofore unexplored bookshelves from which to choose reading material. The downside is I rarely have time to finish while I’m there, meaning I’m usually stuck adding to my own bookshelf when my flight arrives back at home.

This year I pulled, from my father’s bookshelf, the book Black Hawk Down. I’ve watched the movie based on that book now a couple of times (I may even watch it again, now having finished the book) but never read the original (source) material. The movie struck me as decent, but not exceptional. By contrast, the book is exceptional, turning the an assembly of facts into a easily read story. Naturally, one can see where the movie took its scenes from within the pages of the book, but as is almost always the case, a film rarely does justice to a well written book.

This book also presents a much more balanced view of the fight than I had expected. Americans are critical both of each other and of the plan. Somalian fighters and witnesses are included, with a description of the event from their own perspective – the “other side,” if you will.

The author writes how it surprised him, when undertaking this project, that while the battle itself was extremely well documented (due to the technologies in use at the time), nobody else attempted to condense it into a narrative. In particular, he figured there would be a military-produced discussion of the battle which he could turn into a novel-like narrative. Instead, he has found himself now an expert, even as a resource to the armed forces, on what happened in October of 1993.

War is All Hell

Some time ago, I took a look at a The Star and the Crescent as an engine for the 1956 Arab-Israeli War. I have the pair of TSatC and Air Assault Task Force, both of which can play the scenarios built for the other. As I explained then, the AATF interface suffers from a non-configurable mouse, and I find it therefore unplayable. But TSatC uses a Windows interface that a) uses the system configurations and b) plays a lot better with the modern screen sizes. Air Assault Task Force was designed for exactly the kind of mission that began the Battle of Mogadishu and, in fact, ships with four scenarios depicting various phases of the battle. I therefore felt compelled to give it a try as I was wrapping up the book.

I want to give this package a chance. I try to give this package a chance. I feel my love is unrequited. While I am trying my best to make it work, it is trying its best to make me hate it.

In my previous game, the battle at Bir Gifgafa, I had all all-armor force at my command. Therefore, interacting with the scenario was mostly about getting move orders to the units to execute and then letting them engage enemies as they find them. That was trouble enough, but I seemed to finally get it figured out. For this battle, my force is all infantry to be transported by helicopter (the ground force, the extraction convoy, is modeled as an “allied force” in the first scenario). That means that the commands I need to be entering get considerably more complex. I need to load the helicopters, transport, unload at the target, and then maneuver all the little pieces into the right positions.

Sometimes it seems like a game developer was making an honest effort to program in Windows, and then just arbitrarily said “Aw, fuck it. Let’s just get it out the door.” Of course, this can’t be it. The program that is Air Assault Task Force has been nearly 20 years in the making. And in its defense, it does do much of the job expected from a 1998-era game; The AI seems to do what it is supposed to; The game doesn’t suffer crashes; And the modeling of the battlefield is taken seriously (again, relative to games of 1998).

mogu1

Yes, it may be ugly. But it is also a real pain in the ass to use. Black Hawks insert Rangers near the target house in Mogadishu. Maybe. Or not. Who the hell can tell?

Still, to get all of that, you have to get past the user interface.

I complained before, and I’ll say it again. The manual seems to add insult to injury. As I try to load up and deliver my assault force, nothing is working. Sometimes the helicopters fly their mission without the infantry, and sometimes the infantry tries to set off on foot. As before, units simply refuse to move despite repeated attempts to command them to get going. Referring to the manual, it gives a simple set of instructions, editorially explaining how easy it all is. “The commands you give are those that a real battle commander would be issuing!” I don’t want a marketing pitch, I want to be shown why when I follow the instructions, it doesn’t do what you say its going to do.

A little aside on this, because it was so annoying. A pair of critical commands, “Halt” and “Hold Fire” are set by toggle. So if you want to “not Halt” (i.e. get moving!), you need to select “Halt.” Same with “Hold Fire.” However, if the units have any mix of “Halt” and “not Halt” status, then “Halt” will actually do what it says. Halt. Which means to “not Halt”, you’ve got to select your halted units, tell them to halt (which they do) and then select them again, and tell them to “Halt” to get them moving. Problem is, pressing the command also deselects the units, so you have to remember to repeat the entire process. It also seems possible that somewhere in the path logic, some of your units are set automatically to halt, in which case the selected units will always be mixed and therefore can be commanded only to “Halt,” never “not Halt.”

Finally, I got a combination of commands that seemed to work. Several obvious items just don’t. The “Insertion Mission,” pretty much what I want to do, I just can’t get working. Commanding at different levels in the command hierarchy seems fraught with danger. It gets me wondering if I am alone in simply not being able to get this system. I was scanning the forums and found a user trying to deliver ammo resupply, and being unable to do so. Later he posts, “Never mind, I’ve got it figured out. I had to set the helicopters to defilade.”

What? Why!?! Where in the manual does it suggest that as a solution!?

I think maybe the key here is that once you figure out enough of the quirks and have your own method to muddle through the interface, then the game can be played as it should be.

moga2

My soldiers are all delivered and the extraction force (the trucks with green circles) are nearly there. For some reason, its going to take several more hours to complete the mission. See the dead skinnies piling up all around me.

As I said, there are four scenarios. The first of the four is the mission as it was planned. You take control of the objective with Rangers and Delta Force, and then hold until the extraction force arrive. And then hold some more (the victory condition is time based). My goal was simply to try to get the little digital men to do what the mission plan called for. The remaining 3 scenarios start at various places in the mission after the helicopters have crashed.

mogu3

Black Hawk down.

I will point out that the “little men” view in my first two screenshots is just one of the modes for displaying forces. In this third screen, I’m using NATO symbols to display unit positions, and that usually makes it a little easier to see what is going on. I’m not sure it is particularly less ugly, though.

Besides the interface problems, a couple of issues stood out to me. In my last try with this game engine, I was pleased because the scenario ended early when the system calculated that the computer player could no longer accomplish any of its missions. In this scenario, I have something like an hour of time remaining and apparently nothing going on. At the maximum time-compression for game play, that’s still almost 8 minutes of staring at a screen showing nothing.

Another problem, and this is one I’ve run into in other games, concerns the helicopters. It would seem to me that the chief advantage of the helicopter as a firing platform is that it can keep moving. In use, unless you’re actively pulverizing a target, you would never want to stop (and make yourself into a target). In this game (and others), actually giving orders to helicopters to execute some kind of “racetrack” station-keeping is a whole lot of effort. Not knowing how things are modeled, I wonder whether this would even buy me much in terms of the end result. I do feel pretty stupid having all the helicopters just hovering, non-moving, over an on-going battle.

As much as I complain, I find I just can’t quit this baby. Even 20 years on, it still is one of the few games that attempts to simulate modern, asymmetrical warfare with an emphasis on realistic results. While other options exist, I don’t know that any get it right at this scale.