Updated: Sep 28
Escort quests, don’t you just love them? No? Me neither.
Escort quests are the bane of many gamer’s lives. It is almost universally agreed that Escort Quests are one of the worst elements in FPS and TPS gaming. We have probably all experienced the frustration these cause at least once. The reasons for this are legion, but to my mind, they boil down to the following.
1. They are often mandatory and thus unskippable.
2. Failure in the mission often results in a game over.
3. Escortee NPCs have the self-preservation instincts of a lemming.
This wouldn’t be so bad if it were not for the irritating quirks possessed by the NPC you are escorting. These quirks are generally the result of A.I., which is one element of video games that appears not to have evolved a great deal in the last two decades. Some A.I. characters today are making the same mistakes A.I. characters made back in the last millennium. These mistakes make keeping an escortee alive today just as troublesome as it did back then.
The Unlucky (for the player) Thirteen Quirks of NPC Escortees
Some of the most common - and irritating - A.I. NPC escortee quirks are;
1. Getting lost in broad daylight.
2. Being incapable of going places you can - up ladders for example. This then forces you to take alternate routes which are often longer and more dangerous.
3. Being myopic and blundering into obvious traps, stepping on landmines and falling down cliffs, etc.
4. Giving your position away when you need to be stealthy.
5. Getting stuck in doorways, behind other NPCs or object geometry.
6. Getting in the way or walking into your line of fire.
7. Being incapable of interacting with the environment, picking up objects, etc.
8. Using inappropriate weapons, thus killing you and/or them in the process.
9. Wasting powerful spells and abilities on weak enemies.
10. Running slower than you but walking faster, thus causing infuriating sprint-stop-sprint movement cycles.
11. Being extremely susceptible to damage.
12. Being completely incapable of looking after themselves in a fight…
13. ...Whilst at the same time rushing headlong into fights they can’t possibly survive. UNSC Marines in Halo CE - I’m looking at you!
How many of the above have you experienced? Probably most of them, often in the same game, in the same mission.
It appears that at least some devs are aware of these problems and make attempts to rectify them. Unfortunately, these attempts to overcome these quirks often involve introducing yet more quirks.
A common example involves making the NPC you are escorting nigh-invulnerable. Whilst this will stop the NPC from getting themselves killed, it is a fudge that breaks immersion. (If the NPC is invulnerable, shouldn’t they be escorting you?) Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2 and its episodes is a good example of this.
In stealth games, devs may code it so that enemy NPCs do not react to your escortee, instead reacting only to you. This prevents the frustration that would arise from your charge giving your location away by doing something stupid, like talking or using a flashlight. Although this works, it too is something of a fudge and can wreck immersion by feeling ‘gamey’. The Last of Us Part II has recently been criticised for this.
But do you know what I find the most frustrating thing about these quirks in escort quests? That they do not have to be like this. There are games – or more specifically mods – that already get escort quests right (for the most part.)
These games/mods are the standalone ‘Sandbox’ mods for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., namely Call of Chernobyl, Call of Misery, Dead Air, Anomaly, Road To The North, and Last Day. Since all these mods use Call of Chernobyl as a base, they all use the same system regarding companion NPCs and escort quests. Therefore, what I write next holds true for them all.
Firstly, the vast majority of these escort quests are optional. If you do not wish to engage in an escort quest then you can simply decline the offer. There are no repercussions for turning down the offer - other than the payment you are passing up of course. If after accepting the contract you think better of it - if, for example, the route is currently too dangerous - you also have the option of cancelling the contract, although this will dent your reputation a somewhat.
Sometimes this will be the lesser evil, especially in the permadeath ‘ironman’ mode. Dented reputations and a leaner bank account are survivable, a bullet to the head is not. (Nor is being burnt to death, electrocuted, irradiated, blown up, torn limb from limb or any of the other million-and-one ways to die in The Zone.)
Secondly, the missions are usually fairly generous with their time limits - a few days at least. Therefore, you do not necessarily need to drop everything and complete the mission there and then. This is useful, as it gives you the chance to obtain any extra gear you may need, see to any other outstanding business you may have and allows you to wait until morning - you do not want to be doing escort quests in the dark.
Thirdly, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Chernobyl ‘et al recognize that A.I. is often moronic and that this is unlikely to change any time soon. Their solution to this problem is to give the player considerable control over their A.I. companions. The player’s competence thus compensates for the NPC’s incompetence. Whether your charge survives or not is then largely down to your planning, navigation, command and combat skills, not theirs.
In these mods, you can form a team - if you want to. Escortees for specific missions are simply added to the team for the duration of said mission, and you have as much control over them as you do your regular teammates.
Escortees can be issued both standing orders and specific orders. Standing orders will put them into ‘states’, which in turn will dictate how they move and react. For example, they can be placed in three combat states;
1. Aggressive mode: NPC teammates will attack any hostile they see and advance towards the enemy.
2. Defensive: NPC teammates will shoot any hostile that gets too close or opens fire on them.
3. Passive: NPC teammates will not fire at anything.
Standing orders can also be given for whether or not they loot fallen NPCs. They can also be placed in ‘normal’ and ‘stealth’ movement modes. In stealth mode they put away their weapon and crouch walk, making them more difficult for hostile NPCs to spot. In addition, they can be given standing orders to follow you closely or at a distance.
Bossing NPCs Around
Escortees can also be given specific orders such as ‘stay still’ and ‘go there’ (to where your centre screen reticule is pointed). Using standing and specific orders in concert can allow you a considerable degree of control over teammates - which will help you to keep them safe.
For example, if you need to sneak past an area with your team in tow, ordering teammates to go into 'stealth mode', 'passive mode', and to 'follow you closely' will give you the best chance of doing so.
If you need to scout out an area ahead, order them to stay still and place them in defensive mode. This will keep them from following you whilst still being able to defend themselves if they are attacked whilst you are gone.
Getting them to follow you into battle or even rushing ahead to engage the enemy can also be achieved easily by simple combinations of standing and specific orders.
Ordering them to follow closely can often prevent them from walking into mines, deadly anomalies and the like. This is helped by the fact that NPCs have the same movement speeds as you do and will generally copy how you are moving; they walk when you do, jog when you do and sprint when you do. It also prevents them from getting lost. If you should become separated, they can be ordered via your PDA over a long distance to come to you. They will then sprint to your location. Their pathfinding is generally good enough for this to work.
Ordering them to follow at a distance and putting them into defensive mode will generally keep them behind you during combat, thus reducing the chance of them walking into your line of sight and getting shot in the back of the head.
Look after them, They are a Danger to Themselves
The risk of them killing themselves and/or you with their own weapons - such as using RPGs in confined spaces - remains, but this can be mitigated by taking such weapons off them. Separate addons for the mods allow the player to swap, lend and confiscate weapons and equipment between members of the team - including temporary members, such as escortees.
The ‘getting in the way’ problem persists, however. Some S.T.A.L.K.E.R. add-ons include a ‘get out of the way’ command. This will force the offending NPC to get out of the way. This is very useful if they are inadvertently blocking a doorway. Half-Life 2’s A.I. appears to be sufficient to work this out by itself and will move out of the way on its own, accompanied by an apologetic “Sorry Gordon”.
The ‘fragile escortees’ problem is fixed due to NPCs - including escortees - not being especially fragile - at least - no more fragile than the player. Their resilience is of course affected by their gear. An NPC wearing a ratty leather jacket is going to be more vulnerable than someone in a hulking great exoskeleton with Level IV body armour after all.
What’s more, injured NPCs may not die straight away. Instead, they fall into an injured and immobile state. Therefore, you may have a chance to revive them - assuming you get to them quickly enough and have a spare Medkit of course. If you can do this then you may yet complete the mission and earn your payment.
Another boon is that failure to protect the escortee will not result in an instant game over. You won’t get paid of course, and your reputation will take a hit, but both your rep and your bank balance can be rebuilt by successfully completing other quests later. These later quests needn’t be escort quests either - fetch quests, deliveries, and assassinations* will all line your purse and raise your reputation.
Cry Havoc, and Let Slip the NPCs of War!
The Warfare mode allows even greater control over a greater number of allied NPCs. This is achieved via the in-game PDAs, which allow the player to issue orders and move squads around the map from a top-down view. Perhaps such a system could be used in escort quests to set waypoint markers, define rally points to retreat to, etc.?
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. sandbox mods are by no means perfect when it comes to escort quests - NPCs appear unable to climb ladders and so can’t go everywhere you can for example. However, they handle escort quests better than most games, and the ability to control the NPCs goes a long way to overcoming their occasionally braindead A.I. With a little tweaking perhaps the escort quest as a concept can be perfected using these ideas as a base.
It is perhaps telling that a small modding community has managed to do this for free, whilst huge AAA developers with equally huge budgets sometimes do not. Perhaps if more games allowed for such granular control over escortees then escort quests wouldn’t be so universally hated. Here’s hoping this will change in the future. Fingers crossed…
What are your thoughts regarding escort quests? Do you love them, hate them, or are you merely indifferent? If you hate them, what do you find most aggravating about them? Do you have any experience with any of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. sandbox mods? If so, what are your thoughts? Can you think of any other games/mods for FPS and TPS games that got their escort quests right? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Call of Chernobyl on-screen menu from moddb.com