The fun value of realistic milsim

By Stephen Kyle 01 Jul 2020 2

When I was younger, I can recall watching videos of ArmA 2 on my laptop and being instantly hooked with the military realism the game displayed. After a brief chat with the bank of mum and dad, the game was installed on my laptop and running... at one frame per second. Several years later, with a proper gaming PC at hand, I bought ArmA 3 and from there, for about four years my free-time was characterised by that one game.

Like most boys, I grew up with a fascination with the military, and whilst any desire to actually serve is gone, it’s undeniable to me that interest persists. To scratch that itch, I turned to military simulation, better known as milsim -- an online coop group best described as a group of people emulating real military structure, ranks, billets, and more. Whilst most games that claim to be “realistic” feature magic bandages that seem to be able to undo any and all damage, with milsim getting shot is the start of a five to ten minute long effort of a medic trying their hardest to actually save your virtual life.

Ambush

I should start by saying that whilst milsim is realistic, it really depends on what group you join. Some groups are better described as tactical simulation (tacsim) rather than actual military simulation, while others may just be plain wrong about certain aspects of the military. Whilst milsim cannot simulate the minutiae of military life, it can simulate the fun parts -- and assuming you find a unit that is actually realistic, you can be in for a really fun time. And if you’re previous service, milsim can offer something that most other games can’t - a sense of order, something that only comes with having a proper chain of command. For everything that happens, there’s a drill for that, if there’s an issue, there’s a chain it should go up.

Every milsim journey starts with training. Some of it will just be going over base game functionality, such as using a map and reading coordinates correctly, and some of it will be going over mods that add required features such as a more advanced medical system or a more realistic process to unjam a weapon system. But once that’s out of the way, you start going over the actual tactics that are used in the field -- and that’s where it gets really fun. In my case, my experience lies primarily with British light dismounted infantry tactics since that’s what I’ve done most.

Dancing

The tactics that you can learn through milsim are often based on unclassified documents that are released to the public, and the best milsim units will have somebody who is ex-service able to advise and correct things that may have been changed since the document was published. Once you’ve learned all there is to learn, you will have finished your initial training, and from there on you can often choose to specialise in specific fields, such as learning the medical system or learning the intricacies of a fixed-wing aircraft). But in many milsim units, there’s a catch: lots of people want to be pilots, or special operators, or even explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), but all of those extra things can only exist if there’s a strong infantry element to back them up -- Reconnaissance is useless if there’s no infantry to do the recce for. And so whilst you might want to specialise in something you find interesting, you might not have the opportunity to do so -- this is especially true for roles such as Pilot, Tank Crew, or various roles in leadership such as Section Commander (comparable to a Squad Leader), or even Platoon Commander.

The tactics themselves can be complicated, but if done well can be a mesmerising experience. There’s nothing quite like watching a section of lads act as one in response to sudden enemy contact. And whilst games like Call of Duty may have you sprinting across the battlefield with reckless abandon (or have you camping a corner in the most recent installation of the franchise), ArmA 3 milsim demands you take things seriously.

Recce

For example, in British milsim one of the things that you’d spend the most time learning is the “6 Section Battle Drills”; these are six battle drills that can be completed by a single section of guys, and depending on who you ask, the acronym for them is either PREWAR or PRESAR. I personally prefer PRESAR, as that’s what an ex-service friend has advised is best used, and that stands for:

P - Prepare for Battle
R - Reaction to Effective Enemy Fire
E - Enemy Location
S - Suppressing the Enemy
A - Section Attack
R - Regroup

Each one of these battle drills themselves have an acronym explaining how to do them. Prepare for Battle is often done before you even leave the base, and this is just the Section Commander running through a list: making sure radios are working correctly, making sure everybody has the required equipment, and various other checks.

Unlike your more casual shooter game, during milsim you can go prolonged periods of time with nothing much happening. You can walk around outside the base for half an hour with just yourself and your friends for entertainment, but you can’t afford to actually switch off because that’s exactly when you won’t notice the grass hiding a roadside bomb, or the broken outline of a BTR broken up by camouflage, or the enemy preparing to engage your Section... and all of a sudden rounds are whizzing by your head. This is where Reaction to Effective Enemy Fire comes into play: pop a few shots in the general direction of the enemy, take hard cover, and start returning fire as appropriate -- an instinctive response to most milsimers by now.

Evac

Whilst the Second-in-Command controls the fire of the Section and suppresses the enemy, the Commander is busy planning a Section Attack where a fireteam will detach from the Section and perform a flank attack on the enemy position. This is when the job of being an infantryman is practiced at its most fundamental level -- closing in and killing the enemy. The experience is exhilarating and slightly terrifying; you’re trying to take out hostiles as shots are whizzing all over the place, and it only takes one to put you out of action for the rest of the firefight. The closer you get to the enemy position, the more risk of a round -- be it friendly or enemy -- hitting you and taking you out of the game for good. And then, finally, you’re ready to attack. Grenades get lobbed into the enemy position, and you aggressively push into the stronghold. And just maybe, you’ll have turned on the fun switch (fully automatic).

The actual fight through is intense. The enemy is alert and know you’re coming, they’re just waiting to see you. Whether it’s a small dip in natural terrain, or a more fortified structure, you need to be at the top of your reaction time game. Every time you open new sightlines you’ve got to be ready to see a human shape, determine if it's a threat, and take the corresponding action - all before the enemy decides to install rapid ventilation holes all over your body. And your teamwork needs to be on point, maintaining good communication about sightlines, as well as moving in tandem to cover your blindspots. A bad teammate results in a back full of gunshot wounds, and a nap in the realm of unconsciousness. It only takes a delayed response, or a tiny mistake, for either you, a teammate, or a civilian to end up dead.

Operators

Once the intensity of the firefight is done with, things come down to a tentative calm. The supporting fireteam can meet up with the assaulting fireteam and a regroup can begin, and whilst all three hundred and sixty degrees are covered, the 2IC is asking all the guys about ammunition counts, any injuries, and actually ensuring that nobody is missing. This information all gets given to the IC to pass onto the Platoon Command element, but you can never let your guard down during any of it as enemy reinforcements could come looking for a fight, or an enemy thought dead could awake from unconsciousness and proceed to brass up the section.

But the thing with milsim is, all of that could be wrong. The military is an ever evolving beast, and strategies change. The documents most milsim tactics are based off of are pre-2000, and as is especially the case with British milsim, things are rarely uniform even across the same branch of service. The way a Section Attack is conducted in training will massively differ from how a Section Attack is conducted by The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland, which itself will differ from how a Section Attack is conducted by 2nd Battalion, the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment. And on top of all that, certain allowances have to be made for the sake of working in a game environment.

Flank

But obviously, not all of milsim is super duper serious, and some of it can just be a laugh. With such a faux-serious environment comes the moments of hilarity, the kind only a game as wacky as ArmA 3 can manage. You can be coming down from the high of a high octane HVT capture mission, just to get in a car with weird handling and get launched into the atmosphere. Or my personal favourite, the good ole ballsack test: suspect something might be an IED? Just run and rest prone on top of it and see whether you get blown up or not.

And so, whilst milsim will never be able to entirely recreate the minutiae of being in the military, it’s accurate where it counts. And whilst tactics may be slightly outdated or changed so that they can work in the ArmA 3 game environment, milsim without a doubt offers the most authentic military experience in gaming. If you’re able to listen to other people in order to become part of an efficient machine (and all the so called realistic tactical shooters aren’t quite cutting it for you), then ArmA 3 milsim might just be up your street.

This article was kindly donated to Wargamer.com by the Author.

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