Tag Archives: first-person shooter

The Caged Destruction of Bad Company 2

Back when Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was in the early stages of its post-announcement period, the major feature of the sequel was “Destruction 2.0.” Which, really, is the kind of feature you’d find in a sequel to a game presumably utilizing Destruction 1.0. In an industry currently enthralled in the depths of iterative improvements on successful designs, I was expecting Bad Company 2 to just be more of what I dug about the original game, except now with its M rating I was also getting the in-world hit feedback (blood) that the Battlefield series has needed since its inception.

And, oh, how I dug Bad Company. The Battlefield franchise is one of my longest-running adorations in gaming. I, especially, sunk entirely too much time into Battlefield: Vietnam and Battlefield 2, but nothing that would compare to the amount of time I would spend playing Bad Company. I had a group of four or five friends, up to three of which would gather with me almost nightly for two-three straight months (an eternity in my attention span) and just jump online to play the same maps over and over. We developed an entire metagame out of Bad Company‘s “dog tag” feature, which awarded a player the dog tag of any victim killed with by a knife. We would hold comparisons at the end of a round based on which of us had acquired the dog tag with the most ludicrous name. And it’s Xbox Live, so the names were ever-so-reliable in their inanity.

The hook of the Bad Company ‘spinoff’ is two-fold: destruction and the “complete package” shooter (and, as it turned out, completely amazing audio). Destruction was always the selling point of Bad Company as a product. The ability to wreck the structural landscape made for a dynamic infantry combat experience that most games that claim “destruction” almost all thoroughly fail in delivering. This feature, combined with the ‘new’ (for the Battlefield franchise) Rush game mode which focused player attention on objective choke points, created a chaotic multiplayer pace filled with the kind of moments that make friends tell stories to one another the next day. If a target puts an obstacle in between you and him, the solution was almost always to switch to the grenade launcher attachment (which a number of guns had) and just blast away his safety net and kapow him in the face with a subsequent bullet. BC’s paramount feature was not the destruction, but the inevitability of vulnerability.

The quality of Bad Company‘s single-player component was not a selling point, but rather its existence in the greater whole of the game that was Battlefield: Bad Company. It was DICE’s first real attempt at making a full-on console shooter; a fleshed out single-player campaign combined with the franchise’s trademark multiplayer with a streamlined and improved approach to persistent rankings/stats and unlocks that started with Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 2142. As with any first attempt, the single-player was not on par with what the gaming public at the time wanted: the Call of Duty experience. BC treated its single-player in a way which befit the game’s design: lengthy, wide-open missions on suitably expansive maps. Players were given objectives and told to go get those objectives done, but the path and means players took to accomplish these objectives was left unspecified. If the player died, he was simply respawned at the last checkpoint while the battle waged on in his absence (there was no resetting of the game state). The narrative, too, was an appropriate level of camp in the modern war setting involving the search for gold amidst a building war between the United States and Russia. At one point in the game, one of the characters does a happy dance as he frolicks down a hill into an enemy encampment saying “There’s gold in them thar’ hills” (there actually was).

BC’s appropriately unique handling of its campaign was not as high-intensity and filled with the “holy shit” moments that the Call of Duty games have always thrived in. BC’s campaign was also filled with encounters that sometimes fizzled due to a poor player handling/approach of them as well as by a not insignificant amount of down-time between objectives. These are all qualities of the series that any Battlefield player knows well, though, and is part of the series’ charm (in my mind). The combination of intense, dynamic, unpredictable firefights with the exploration, traversal time, and the approach of a major encounter are hallmarks of the Battlefield experience. As such, BC’s single-player was not perfect, but who the hell cares.

DICE, apparently.

Bad Company 2 relishes in just how not-Modern Warfare, specifically Modern Warfare 2, it is. The characters take enjoyment in the occasional direct joke at MW2, promotional materials outside the game actively mock various parts of Infinity Ward/Activision’s promotional materials for MW2, and so on. The problem here is not that DICE is not allowed to make fun of Modern Warfare or any other shooter because, well, that’s hilarious for everyone. The problem is that the Bad Company 2 campaign is, ludically, little more than a Call of Duty knock-off.

The most notable difference between the campaigns of BC and BC2 are the absence of the open maps and the large enemy bases with variable approaches (with few exceptions). In their place, we have narrow corridors with very defined paths and easily-identifiable trigger bounds to advance the mission and spawn the enemies in the next area. When a player dies, now, he must restart the game from the last checkpoint in a game world that is similarly restarted (unlike BC’s persistent state). It’s a very faithful recreation of the style of design that overfloweth the bounds of the first-person shooter genre, and a disappointing change to the promising, if flawed, structure of the first game’s campaign.

By switching to the rail-heavy (though not rail-exclusive) single-player progression style, it is disallowing players from fully engaging in the mayhem the destruction allows for. With the player always moving forward, he never has to worry about being trapped in a building with his back to cover that can get blown away by nearby enemies. He is never trapped up in a house with enemies attacking from all directions. He rarely has the opportunity to rush into a base and end up in a situation where his limited cover transforms into no cover whatsoever, and the exhilaration of barely surviving that scenario. What BC2 doesn’t seem to realize is why Call of Duty and its ilk employ that style. The Call of Duty games are notoriously carefully scripted. Infinity Ward (and Treyarch) aim for a very defined, specific sort of experience and they have customized their toolset and game to deliver that experience. This is something they do exceedingly well — better than anyone else in the industry right now. That said, as any Call of Duty game with a somewhat large map and a vehicle or two have proved, the game systems are not well-suited to much behind the incredibly fast-paced, intense infantry combat.

Battlefield does not have this problem; its wide-open, modal gameplay has defined the series since Battlefield 1942. Bad Company, especially, should have no feelings of inadequacy or doubt. Its general gameplay systems combined with the very well-handled destruction made for memorable, incredible, and continually enjoyable gameplay experiences in multiplayer. The overall dynamism and level of quality in the single-player portion of BC wasn’t to the level of its multiplayer, but it was DICE’s first real attempt at a full campaign. Rather than iterate on the original’s promise, though, Bad Company 2 takes the route of the games it mocks and the end result is a cage which limits the kind of dynamic gameplay that comes out of the Bad Company series’ trademark destruction.

Justifying the Means

[This post contains spoilers as to the entirety of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s plot. I loved Modern Warfare 2 and will write about the brilliant core gameplay, mechanics, and level design in a later piece, but this is not that piece.]

“Two men took down an entire base. I ask much more from you now.” General Shepard says as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 loads the upcoming mission. Shepard goes on to tell the player about the danger of a Russian named Makarov who has “no rules. [And] No Boundaries.” Shepard says “You don’t want to know what it’s cost already to put you next to him,” insinuating the lengths which this special fictional task force has gone to in order to get the player in deep cover alongside a Russian terrorist. Shepard then says “It will cost you a piece of yourself,” and “It will cost nothing compared to everything you’ll save.”

The screen fades to black and the game pops up a “Disturbing Content Notice” window detailing that “disturbing or offensive” content is forthcoming. You hit “Continue.” Modern Warfare 2 asks “Are you sure?” You hit yes. The sounds of an elevator descending or ascending are heard alongside the unzipping of backpacks and the loading of magazines into weaponry. The details of the new mission slowly appear on the screen. The name of the mission: “No Russian.” Makarov’s face comes into view, alongside three other people dressed in body armor wielding large machine guns and M4 assault rifles. Makarov says “Remember – no Russian.” The five of you walk into what is revealed to be a bustling airport terminal as the objective is displayed on screen: “Follow Makarov’s lead.” Civilian men and women are standing idly in lines while security guards watch on; the audio scene is that of typical airport noises, conversations, and general foot steps all around. And then you have access to your weapon and Makarov and his henchmen open fire on the crowd. Dozens of people are mowed down, you hear screaming in the background, see some people fleeing the area.

Checkpoint reached.

You walk slowly, forced into a slow speed by the game, making you wonder if the name of the mission, “No Russian,” is some sort of bad pun. You set off a metal detector as you progress while your “teammates” continue to fire on any civilians or security guards in sight. Someone is crawling on the ground in pain in front of you and one of Makarov’s men shoots him down. Someone is stumbling and breaks into a run near you, he too is gunned down. And the mission continues like this, with the very detailed gore and civilians crawling on the ground (trailing blood), for about three or four more minutes. Dozens upon dozens of dead civilian bodies later, the typical Call of Duty gameplay kicks in against the very well-armed and bullet-resistant Russian equivalent of a SWAT team comes in with riot shields.

This is a mission that is given to players under the conceit of “the ends justify the means,” a popular theme amongst antiheroes like Jack Bauer and Vic Mackey throughout the decade. The problem with this is that Infinity-Ward tasks players with having faith that both the ends, the means, and the entire premise of the game will all come into focus at some point. “No Russian” is the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2; preceded by a training mission, a generic trek through a village in Afghanistan in a jeep with a minigun, and a trip into a heavily guarded Russian base to get an ACS module (which is…?). By the time players get to the airport scene, they know all of nothing about Modern Warfare 2’s overarching plot other than that it involves Russians and a secret task force that may or may not be part of the CIA. Yet, the game tasks them with this mission under that ever-tenuous veil of the greater good. The mission is intended to be shocking, confusing, dark, and controversial. And this mission exists in the same video game that has an entire mission which is essentially a recreation of Michael Bay’s The Rock.

As I went through the mission, without killing a single civilian until I got the point where I would die if I didn’t fight against the SWAT-like “enemies,” I thought only of one thing: why do I have to do this? Why can’t I make the rational choice to kill Makarov then and there? Maybe the greater good will suffer, but I want to make that simple, very obvious choice. Games as an interactive medium can’t get (and shouldn’t) away by providing purely shocking or horrifying content even if it’s handled expertly; there has to be a ludic reason for a mission. I applaud Infinity-Ward for keeping “No Russian” an interactive mission where I have the kind of agency the game has accustomed me to, but by not making every target on the screen someone that the fiction supports me wanting to shoot, it opens up door that it needs to have keys to.

Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t have the kind of interactions necessary for the interactions I naturally desire in “No Russian.” At no point did I want to shoot a civilian in this mission. And I actively wanted to stop the ones who were shooting them. “No Russian” is not like Grand Theft Auto IV, also a very graphically realistic game, where I’m goofing around and accidentally run into a civilian and laugh while the impressive physics send the civilian flying. In GTA4 when I kill a civilian, it’s purely an accident or just random messing around with game systems, but it’s never something the game has its fiction enforce and reinforce. There is never a mission in Grand Theft Auto 4 where I’m tasked with killing a completely innocent civilian and I cannot progress unless I do so. And, if anything, I should be more okay with that game asking me to kill a civilian as my character has a very defined personality and role in that world. Infinity-Ward asks me to act as the character I’m playing (though they do try to dissuade that feeling by having Private Allen, the character you play in “No Russian,” talk in a preceding cut scene). For “No Russian” to work, I have to buy into the premise fully. I have to know that what I’m doing is vile but necessary. I have to have Vic Mackey‘s conviction that what I’m doing is the right thing to do, as hard as it is.

Being only the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2, though, “No Russian” does not have the luxury of my trust or belief in its world. The mission comes out of nowhere with only the setup I gave at the beginning of this piece as reason to kill innocent civilians. I don’t even see a single shred of logic in what the game did offer me for reasoning. How does killing hundreds of people in cold blood somehow prevent a later atrocity? I don’t believe that doing any of this brings me closer to Makarov’s trust, but I do believe it makes me just as awful a human being as the game is telling me my enemy is.

Maybe that’s the point. I got it wrong: the ends don’t justify the means but, rather, I must become as evil as the worst men in the world in order to save the innocent. It’s a flawed concept, but I can almost see what the mission is constructing if that’s the case. I’m supposed to be revolted, I’m supposed to hate the game for giving me this task, I’m supposed to have no way out, and I’m supposed to feel that my only purpose is to have faith that the task I’m given will work out in the end. Okay. I can almost see that. It’s a flawed idea, a flawed execution, and a contrived situation which takes the fears of the modern world and preys on them… But, okay. I’ll try and buy into this. And so I do. I finish the mission. And when I get to the end of the mission and get into a van with Makarov and his men, one of Makarov’s men says “That will send a message!” Makarov says “No, this will send a message” and he shoots my character. And I’m dead.

So now I feel dirty for everything I have done and for attempting to reason my way out of the terrible position the game illogically and undeservedly put me in… And it ends with the game twirling its metaphorical mustache by pulling a plot twist lower than even 24 would ever go by having my American character get framed for the killing of all of these Russian civilians and igniting World War III. To make matters worse, the game never ends up actually justifying the actions of my character at the Russian airport. The airport terminal massacre sets the game’s overarching events in motion but no more. The game simply raises the stakes from mission to mission until I am to the logical extreme of battling in a war-torn Washington DC, popping green flares (The Rock, again) from above the West Wing. And, what’s worse, Makarov is never heard from again other than two lines of dialogue at the other end of radio chatter in a mission in the game’s final act.

The issue being raised by journalists and gamers is whether or not this kind of content has a place in games given the incredibly varied audience of a game like Modern Warfare 2. And, definitely, more games should attempt to portray controversial and mature content in interesting, relevant ways. To boil the issue down to as clear a point as possible: the problem with “No Russian” is that Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t earn the fictional right to present the content that it does. Whether this specific mission is well-executed or not, and I don’t think it is, if the reason for its existence is not contextually supported then its presence is gratuitous and its intent lost.

In “No Russian,” Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 compromised the integrity of its gameplay, its narrative, and my implicit trust solely for the sake of a macguffin.

The Loneliest Space Marine

Halo 3: ODST is about a group of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers that drop into allied territory to fend off aggressive, hostile forces and complete some secret mission under the veil of a general liberation of the city of New Mombasa. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, all of the soldiers get off course and land in varied parts of a large city, isolated from one another, and in the middle of an urban warzone. If this sounds like material borrowed from the historic exploits of the 101st Airborne when they dropped into Normandy, I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence. What this setup allows ODST is the opportunity to cast the player as “The Rookie,” the archetypal new guy.

The Rookie begins ODST alone in the African “mega-city” of New Mombasa when he wakes up in his drop pod six hours after the initial ODST drop. When the Rookie comes to — presumably in the middle of the night — the city is largely abandoned by its human civilians and, instead, Covenant forces are idly patrolling the streets. With no real objective nor any idea of the events which have transpired while he was unconscious, the Rookie begins a trek through the city to piece together the events that transpired throughout the course of the day and reconnect with the rest of his ODST squad. The Rookie’s progress through the story is determined by a series of somewhat hackneyed narrative devices“relics” which he finds scattered about the city. The Rookie, presumably, uses the placement of these relics in the environment to interpret the entirety of the event (which all involve the happenings of his fellow ODST squad-mates) that caused this relic to, uh, exist. The mild awkwardness of the narrative presentation aside, the Rookie’s lonely escapades in the largely desolate night-time streets of New Mombasa contrasted against the more standard Halo mission fare present in the relic-inspired flashbacks is actually a gameplay structure that works very well.

It’s remarkable that in a franchise as ubiquitous as Halo, Bungie chose to take ODST in a direction that actively attempted to avoid the typical “War, Fuck Yeah!” space marine ethos. Over the course of the ODST single-player campaign, players spend about 30-40% of the game simply wandering the streets of New Mombasa as he/she makes her way to the next mission segment. During the course of this gameplay there are somewhat ‘random’ enemy encounters spread throughout the city. Sometimes players can evade these encounters, sometimes they can’t, but they’re pretty trivial combat scenarios in generally-designed encounter spaces. Then again, an encounter in a Halo game is rarely dull or routine. The Rookie’s gameplay sections do nothing if not to prove how durable Halo 3’s general combat systems are. Bungie also proves how much more interesting their combat system is when they limit the abilities of the player character rather than continually add systems on top of an already powerful Master Chief. The complete removal of dual-wielding, for instance, shows how much more interesting the Halo gameplay is when players have to make hard choices. When dual-wielding, players can have an energy weapon and a ballistic weapon in the same weapon set due to one-handed variations of each type of weapon. In ODST players can only have one weapon active at a time, which makes the typical yin (plasma) and yang (ballistic) combo all the more difficult — and rewarding.

The primary dilemma with the solitary exploration of New Mombasa’s post-invasion night life is that it’s an anemic experience unfitting the Bungie pedigree. Players are given a loose objective at the beginning of every segment and that’s the extent of the guidance given. The player then chooses to go from A to B via one of a two-or-three paths through the city streets (and occasional buildings). There just is not a whole lot to do along the way other than, maybe, find one of the thirty audiovisual logs spread throughout the city. And finding these bits of side-story are interesting, but they’re not enough to build a gameplay experience on. The gist of the exploration through New Mombasa is taking in the atmosphere and fighting. While Halo 3’s combat is pretty consistently engaging and interesting, combat for the sake of combat is rarely an enjoyable endeavor for players.

Players typically need their actions in games to feel like narrative progression, character progression, or the mostly intangible personal progression. Narrative/forward progression is progression from a starting point to an ending point in a game’s directed “campaign.” This is the primary means of progression in most single-player-enabled games. Character progression is the advancement of the character a player assumes in a game. In a lot of ways, character progression happens in parallel to narrative progression, but, especially over the last few years, there are a great deal of examples of character progression independent of story progression (especially in multiplayer shooters and MMORPGs). Personal progression is the player’s mental state of feeling like their skills are obviously progressing through their endeavors; most games teach players the skills they need as they ramp up from starting a game to finishing it. Some games, like EA Blackbox’s Skate series, actually utilize personal progression as the driving force of the game and offer players targeted opportunities to improve their skills throughout a thin narrative progression. It is incredibly difficult for games to properly frame personal progression in a way which feels obvious and meaningful to players. Skate accomplishes it by having the gameplay revolve around an entirely skill-based inner loop where no modifiers are ever made to the gameplay throughout the entire game’s progression. The entire game is centered around a skill-based control mechanism that never changes, but that is always guiding a player’s advancement through the thin character and narrative progression via the in-world treatment of the player’s character as some “rising star.” In a sense, reminding the player that the he has learned skills that maybe he only recognized in his reflex/subconscious memory.

Halo 3: ODST’s New Mombasa sections fail to ever make the player feel like he is accomplishing something. In ODST’s missions, which work in the typical Halo trappings, the player encounters new enemies, characters, and constant narrative progression. The dynamism of Halo 3’s combat mechanics prevent these segments from ever really getting dull; but that stark contrast that is drawn from the jumping back-and-forth between The Rookie and the more linear, structured missions in the ODST flashbacks constantly reminds the player that his time in the dimly-lit streets of New Mombasa are filler… Which is incredibly unfortunate because the solo experience in New Mombasa is absolutely beautiful; it’s a dedicated solo experience, encourages thoughtful progression through gorgeous blown-out, ember-filled buildings all taking place amidst a fantastic Film Noir-inspired score composed by Bungie veteran Martin O’Donnell.

As a quick aside, it seems completely irresponsible to see so many reviewers ripping on the ODST price. Having played the game now I am somewhat frightened over the amount of “price versus content” discussions surrounding the game. The single-player campaign is the length of a typical Halo campaign except, this time, there are no Flood. Not even a single Flood mention. Well. There’s a flooded city, but there are no Flood. And Firefight. ODST also includes the full Halo 3 multiplayer along with every map pack ever released for the game (which, arguably, is of negligible value since Halo 3 is an Xbox 360 staple, but the map packs may not be). Plus Firefight.

Oh, Firefight. Let’s talk about Firefight for a second.

Halo 3: ODST has a mode that is essentially Geometry Wars reskinned as Space Marines versus Aliens. And it is glorious. Four players in co-op have the opportunity to fight against wave after wave of Covenant within the space of a single, confined arena. Unlike Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode, which is conceptually similar, Firefight feels like a mode that was actively treated different from standard gameplay. As four players advance through a Firefight session, ODST applies a number of the skulls from Halo 3 to the ruleset which force all involved players to rethink whatever strategy has gotten them to where they are. There are skulls which cut the amount of ammunition that the Covenant drop by about 75% (ie, ruthless), one which only allows players to regain stamina by meleeing enemies (more ruthless), and a skull which makes ballistic weapons useless against shields (not ruthless until famine is active at which point it’s evil). Basically, Firefight is Halo 3’s typically excellent combat system modified per-round and per-set to require players to think on their feet even more than normal while also providing a scoring system that is providing constant feedback and rewards to players who excel. It’s heaven.

ODST is a strange little package. It’s the best campaign the series, the glorious nature of arena shooters and intense four-player cooperative gameplay is alive and well in the game’s Firefight mode, and and the refined Halo 3 gameplay make for Bungie’s best production to-date. It somewhat saddens me to think that Halo: Reach may revert back to ever-powerful (and completely uninteresting) Master Chief, as going from the ODST marines to Master Chief in Halo 3 multiplayer was a completely deflating experience. That is, however, neither here nor there. Play ODST and experience Bungie’s least-hyped and most well-executed Halo since the series’ debut back in 2001.

Revisiting Halo 3

Bungie’s original Halo, released for the Xbox in 2001, was a landmark console game. Aside from giving Microsoft’s freshman entry into the console arena a system seller and a uniquely Xbox cultural character, Halo was the best first-person shooter to be released on a console since the days of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. It had intelligent single-player gameplay consisting of varied enemy encounters in open terrain, solid gunplay, support for 4-16 player local multiplayer, and a perfect control scheme and input response. When Halo 2 was released three years later (with an astonishing increase in visual fidelity over Halo), the campaign remained largely the same but the multiplayer took advantage of Xbox Live and quickly became the multiplayer game of the console generation.

Halo 3’s predecessors made for a pretty rough act to follow. Aside from being the first Halo game on a new generation of consoles, what could Halo offer to the series that would have the same gravity as Halo 1’s general existence and Halo 2’s standard-setting multiplayer? The non-ending, second game in a trilogy sort of ending that Halo 2 had didn’t really leave Halo 3 much room as far as story and game universe goes; Halo 3 had to continue the saga of Master Chief, the Covenant, the Flood, the Brutes, and so on. As such, the single-player campaign for Halo 3 was left to gamers’ minds as a foregone conclusion: there will be more Master Chief, the loathsome Flood would have to come back, something about Cortana, the come-uppance that the Prophet of Truth has coming, and all of those other story threads that exist within the Halo universe as established by the first two games.

And that’s exactly what happened. Halo 3 is the kind of game that everyone expects to be excellent, polished, and all-around amazingly-crafted game experience. And it is. The problem with the single-player portion of the game is just that: it’s as expected. The original Halo came out in 2001 and its core design principles are still heavily intertwined into every fiber of Halo 3’s existence. It’s a game where none of the weapons have an iron-sights aiming mode, where players can run and shoot their assault rifle without noticeably increased bullet spread over standing still or crouching, and where players have one movement speed with no spring or stamina. In some ways, Halo 3 echoes of first-person shooters of yore, which focused on action, cool weapons, and input simplicity. Halo 3’s core mechanics are focused in a completely different area than so much of its competition.

What Halo 3 does is to provide a series of wide-open and interesting encounters for players to utilize every strategy, play-style, and tactic they have in order to complete the encounter. Halo 3’s best “levels” are not the ones with the most awe-inspiring scripted events or action-packed shooter segments. Halo 3 is at its best when a level is composed of a series of discrete encounters that span wide, open outdoor environments (which is in line with Bungie’s “30 seconds of fun” mentality). It’s a game about surveillance, execution, and reaction.

When a player first enters an encounter space, the enemies are almost always unaware of his presence. If there are marine AI entities following the player, they will stand still and remain inactive until the player makes his first move. During this time, the player is free to wander around areas which are very clearly outside of the enemy’s viewing range. Players can get an idea for enemy groupings and patrols, what kind of weapons they’re rocking, any hidden snipers, and valuable mid-battle weapon caches that will be of use once the encounter starts. The caches are particularly of note because regardless of a player’s first move: the resulting battle will never end with a swift, tactical execution of actions. Halo 3 is not a game like Rainbow Six where the best room entry is one where all enemies are neutralized simultaneously; Halo 3 is a game where players have to weigh the threat level of every enemy and attempt to take out as many high-threat targets in the first phase to ease the difficulty of the ensuing chaos.

A high-value target in the game is very dependent on circumstance. In some cases, the high-value targets will be vehicles or turrets which, if a player is on foot, are almost always more deadly than any single enemy soldier. In the absence of vehicles, the high-value targets are group leaders. Halo 3’s AI is organized hierarchically so in the absence of generally dangerous vehicles roaming the battlefield, the high-value targets for players are the leaders of a group. A group of Grunts will have a Brute as a leader and while that leader is alive, the Grunts are an organized and somewhat formidable arrangement of enemies. Once the leader is dead, though, the grunts are scatter-brained, frightened, and prone to just running away and hiding. I am unsure if group AI exists within a formation of higher-level enemies like Brutes, as later in the game there is a clear “Brute Leader” in a given pack.

Once the player has his plan of attack internalized, the execution phase begins. The player’s first action will be to take out the high-threat targets that he noticed during his surveillance; if he’s lucky, he can get maybe a fraction of what he had intended (the reality of his plans will become more clear through trial and error). At that point, all of the enemies in the battlefield are actively engaged in combat and will act within their series of groups.

And everything after the initial attempt at execution is, essentially, the reaction phase. When every enemy is in battle, players have to constantly be reacting to the death of squad-mates (who are only sometimes useful), the movement of enemy groups throughout the entirety of the encounter landscape, and the player’s own shield. A player’s shield can’t take much of a beating before it sends players into what feels like a near-death state when the shield bar is flashing red and the player feels like just one more hit would kill them. This is an interesting phase since, really, even up to Heroic level diffculty, players can actually take a surprising amount of punishment in the near-death phase. Halo 3 just makes that phase feel like near death to signal that players need to find cover imminently. At this point players will move from cover to cover — as Halo 3 is a “loose cover” game unlike the “hard cover” of Gears of War or Killzone — as they attempt to eliminate enemy by enemy on the battlefield.

Also during the reaction phase is the concern of weapon type, ammunition, and vehicle usage. One of Halo 3’s most prominent and important design principles is the focus on player motivation/movement through resource scarcity. Since no single weapon ever really allows players to fully “stock up” on ammunition, every player has the constant goal of finding ammunition or new weapons to use mid-battle. This forces players to adapt a roving point of attack throughout the duration of an encounter. Aside the inherent tension and urgency this gameplay feature adds, it forces players to see an outdoor environment as more of a “level” than simply an unnecessary, although attractive, vista. And the utilization of Halo 3’s incredibly fun and well-implemented assortment of vehicles lends an entirely new layer of complexity and replayability to the encounter as a whole.

The entire surveillance, execution, reaction concept is, essentially, the idea behind Far Cry 2 design Clint Hocking’s intentionality and improvisation idea (presentations: Intentionality and Improvisation). Which is that a well-done game based on emergent gameplay design allows for players to spend time formulating a plan of attack and then have a given game turn that plan upside down and force the player into a quick improvisational phase (reaction) where he forms a new plan of attack based on his new situation. It’s an excellent way of keeping players continually immersed in their combat experience by, essentially, tossing a wrench into the innards of what they thought was a well-laid plan. For most players, the fun of combat isn’t having everything go according to plan, but rather adapting to a plan gone haywire as a result of external factors.

Halo 3, like its predecessors, breaks down when this gameplay model is violated for the sake of narrative continuity and “variety.” Unlike the complex AI that governs the Covenant forces that players fight throughout most of the Halo games — the heirarchal AI that is incredibly easy to recognize by any player due to its human-like behavior in combat — Halo has always had “The Flood” come into the game at some point. The Flood are savage, unintelligent, and incredibly aggressive enemies that follow no real recognizable AI patterns other than: see human then attack human.

This strategy would entail its own set of player strategies and reactions if handled properly, but one of the issues with the Flood in the Halo games is that their introduction into the game world is almost always coupled with terrible, confined, indoor-heavy level design. The most egregious offense of which is the “High Charity” level in Halo 3 where players enter a Flood-invested ship from Halo 2. In this level, the entirety of the aesthetic is an orange, red, and brown-heavy color scheme coupled with thick murky atmospheric effects, and a constantly feeling of claustrophobia. This level is also incredibly confusing to navigate and results in numerous points of player confusion due to a complete dearth of recognizable interior landmarks and an overly organic architectural style which is not conducive to any player-recognizable sense of flow.

The Flood’s issues run further than any given level, though. Bungie has valiantly tried three times to make this alien race more palatable to its players, but the issue each time is simple: the Flood are visibly-brainless creatures in a game which has no need for them. The foundation of one of Bungie’s most talked-about design principles is the “30 Seconds of Fun.” I can’t find a definitive reference for this, but the gist of this principle if Bungie can make an encounter or scenario as fun as possible for thirty second bursts, then they can string together those scenarios back-to-back for an enjoyable gameplay experience. If this is the company’s approach to Halo 3 — a game which has a six-to-seven hour long campaign — why is there the need to add an entirely different enemy type which provides for a completely different play experience more than half-way through the game?

Hypothetically, a game’s campaign from a ludological perspective is the slow progression of a player’s mastery of the game up through the ending, which is the culmination of all of the player’s skills in some glorious ending segment. If we take this as the case for Halo 3, then the player learns the ropes of the game in the first level, runs out of new content for his primary toolbox around the half-way point, and is then required to think about everything he was taught in new, more profound ways as he is pit against increasingly difficult combinations of enemies as he nears the end-game.

The introduction of the Flood is essentially forcing a completely different style of play on Halo 3’s players just as those players are interested in taking everything they have learned about the game up to that point into bigger, more dangerous battles. Instead, they are forced to play a simpler, more run-and-gun play style against a variety of enemy who are strong and stupid in some of the game’s most uninteresting and traditional level designs. It’s a strange, undesirable thing to force upon a player who is, at that point, feeling like they “get” the game and are looking forward to applying their mastery on an entirely new level of encounter complexity.

This is all made worse by Halo 3’s treatment of the Flood being a surprisingly complex one. While the basic operations of the Flood are to attack the players with absolutely no care for their own well-being, the Flood this time around — and I didn’t play Halo 2 as much as the first or third game — are an incredibly dynamic, ever-changing enemy force. There is one Flood enemy that, from its base form of a squirmy, crawling Spore-like creation, can turn into a turret capable of mounting on any floor, wall, or ceiling or, alternatively, can turn into a hulking beast with enormous strength that’s incredibly hard to take down. And, while all this is happening, Flood spores are roving around the level looking for new bodies to infest and breathe life into that, but if the player manages to kill all of the spores then there will be less enemies to deal with. It’s a completely different type of enemy than the human-like tactics of the Covenant that the player sees throughout the other 80% of the game.

It’s hard to definitively say whether or not a Flood-less Halo 3 would have made the ending stretches of the game a repetitive, painful endeavor to complete. At the time of writing, I have played through the entirety of the Halo 3 campaign three or four times and I have played through the gorgeous, intuitive, and and well-paced introductory handful of levels a couple more times than that, so I know my response to that scenario. The Flood levels aside, a number of Halo 3’s more wide-open levels (some from the beginning and some from the middle) have always stood out in my mind as being some of the finest examples of what an action game can be if games open up their levels and expand the capabilities of their AI a little bit.

Game Design Round Table 0: No More Health

Over the last couple of months I’ve been nurturing an idea to hold a sort of casual attempt at a game design round table where I (or another organizer) would present a topic (and some basic information and potential arguments) to a group of independent or professional game designers. Everyone involved would then be let loose to sound off on their opinions on the topic at hand, argue with each other, and so on. The goal was to provide a format and location that would encourage designers to discuss topics in game design intelligently and thoroughly throughout the duration of the seven weeks that the topic is left open. Once the seven days of discussion were finished, the person who initiated the event would both write a piece which compiled original thoughts and combined them with arguments and perspectives of everyone who contributed to the discussion. Originally, I was planning on doing this by setting up a mailing list and slowly getting more and more people involved but then I realized that the Game Design forum at GameDev.net would be a near-perfect locale for this. With this in mind, I started up the first attempt at the Game Design Round Table (it’s a metaphorical table) entitled No More Health.

Round Table Topic — Regenerative Health
Regenerative health systems are actually a pretty simple one that have radically changed the way that first-person shooters and a number of third-person action games are played. The idea behind regenerative health is that players can take a finite amount of damage in a short span of time before they are sent into a “dying state” — which is typically indicated by a pulsating red screen — and if they take more damage beyond that then they will die. If a player does not take any more damage when they are in a dying state, though, and instead seek cover and avoid enemy confrontation and fire, they will slowly return back to their normal state. The concept of player health is now entirely dynamic and up to player interpretation via some sort of interface cue, red tinge, or other full-screen indicator. The effect of this mechanic is that it abstracts the older method of requiring players to manage their health and pick-ups, something that most players inherently understand (mortality), into a very streamlined and intuitive experience.

GiantBomb has the first occurrence of regenerative health in Wolverine Adamantium Rage (Genesis, SNES; 1994). The mechanic’s first mainstream appearance, though, was in its devolved form in Halo (Xbox; 2001) which had fully rechargeable shields which absorbed most of the player’s damage. Once the shields were out of energy, though, Halo still relied on a more traditional health system which included requiring players to find health pick-ups. Halo 2 took this concept a step further with a fully regenerative health system, tasking the player with only managing the ammo and type of his/her weapons. The net result of the widespread adoption (in games like Resistance 2, Killzone 2, Call of Duty 2-4, and so on) of this mechanic into modern action games of all types is that players are no longer thinking of their health some arbitrary number or percentage in the middle of a heated combat encounter.

Does this mechanic simplify action games in a good way? Is the reduction in manageable resources a boon or detriment to players? Are the hit-and-run (to cover) tactics that regenerative health systems not only encourage but often demand beneficial to most of the games that this mechanic is employed in?

No More Health
A health bar is one of the most iconic interface features in the history of video games. Children of the 1980s to the early 1990s have that grown up with a concept of health as being integral to their gaming experiences. For those of us with that gaming history, unless a game designer attempts to trick us, we know what a red bar on user interface means or what a numerical value next to a cross or heart or similar icon represents. That interface feature tells gamers one thing: how safe they are. A low health value or a slim portion of a life bar means that a player is going to play things as carefully as he/she can; no chances taken means that a player can reach his destination, doing something brave or stupid means that a player has little to no chance of surviving a given stretch of gameplay. A full health bar gives a player the sense that they’re safe, they can screw around — maybe get a little explosion happy — and still have room to breathe.

The concept of the health bar is one that the “core gamers” — the kinds of video game players that have been around for years — all understand perfectly, but the attempt to concretely display an abstract concept isn’t a particularly elegant solution for conveying player stability and well-being. And along those lines, the necessity to replenish a health bar yields some realism-breaking gameplay conventions: floating health supplements (medicine packs, wall-mounted rejuvenation centers, etc.) that games generally have players walk over to either be added to an inventory or be instantaneously consumed for additional health. Putting aside for a moment the lack of realism inherent to this gameplay practice, such a system also tasks a player with an additional layer of resource management. This is typically an additional resource to whatever weapons, ammunition, and other items that a player has in action games, though as Aaron Miller points out this is not necessarily a bad thing:

The search for health can be a very interesting diversion in an FPS. It can flavor encounters, making some situations more desperate or requiring stealth or diversionary tactics. It can also, as it was in Doom, be a source of meta gameplay in and of itself, requiring players to risk environmental hazards or rewarding them for quirky exploration.

And as Jason Adams adds this can create for a sort of exigent mid-combat tactic on its own:

[…] a system with health pickups can lead to interesting situations where a player makes a mad, basically suicidal run into a group of enemies with the goal of reaching a health pickup just before death, or where a weakened player can be tempted into navigating difficult environmental obstacles.

While both of these points are absolutely valid reasons to adhere to the more time-tested approach of a concrete health-based method of conveying player well-being and sustainability, are any of the aforementioned points actually necessary? While the presence of in-world health gives players a reason to move about the battlefield when they are near a death state — which is an inherently tense gameplay scenario — the same behavior can be demanded of a player through weapon and ammunition scarcity and management. More than just the management of health, though, a concrete health system enforces a certain type of play style, one of which is that of a strategy of long-term survival as gxaxhx points out:

However, in a game were resource management is part of the experience, I believe regenerating health would be a detriment. Imagine if Left 4 Dead used the health generating mechanic. Most likely the zombies and special infected would have to hit much harder to be any threat to the players. So, rather than experiencing maps where the players literally limp across the finish line, pleased with the way they managed to pull through as a group, most maps would be either the players getting shredded by the infected or flying through the map with no problem.

While specifically referring to the style of gameplay that a non-regenerative health mechanic promotes or enforces, gxaxhx’s argument actually goes back to the treatment of health like an in-game resource. So long as health is a player-managed resource, the player’s actions and carefulness, based on current game events, will be directly related to the scarcity of health in the game world.

If a concrete, or non-regenerative, health system is some form of resource management, then a regenerative health mechanic is a means of enforcing certain player behaviors and game flow. As Josh Petrie says it:

[Regenerative health systems] almost necessarily cause gameplay to be sliced up into reasonably short, controlled encounters of at least some minimum intensity. A regenerative health system basically gives the player a damage threshold: get through an encounter under this threshold, you live and can move on to the next encounter. Otherwise you die. Killing the player is accomplished by overloading this threshold in a short period of time, which means you can’t build suspense in the player via prolonged needling little encounters that keep them at low health […].

KnTenshi argues the drawbacks of such a system:

You’re in the middle of a skirmish with a group of enemies. You are blasting away at them as they quickly bring your down to the ‘dying’ stage. You dive for cover and a few moments are back to full health. You now return to the blasting away part and them subsequently returning you to near death. This cycle continues until either all of the enemy are dead or a lucky shot from the enemy drops you to 0. There isn’t much suspense unless you willingly run into the midst of the enemy. […] For me, if a game designer wants to implement a regenerating health bar, it should a a [sic] large chunk of time to fully recharge. Using a slow health regen, enemies are more likely to start hunting you down rather than just using suppression fire, which would increase the pressure for the player to do more than just pop in and out of a hiding place.

And Luke Parkes-Haskell writes a superb post that begins with praise about regenerative health systems while bringing up what he feels are complications when the system is carried over into the competitive arena:

Personally, I feel that the system has it’s merits. In a game that warrants quick encounters with equally matched opponents (e.g Call of Duty 4 multiplayer), wherein the player has the potential to be eliminated reasonably quickly, giving the player the ability to regain their health prevents them from suffering immediate game-impacting permanent health loss if they are glanced early after spawning – and thus they are also not immediately forced to predictably move to locate health pickups. It serves in some respect to assist in leveling the playing area in an often sprawling, maze like arena, and prevents lucky or random shots from killing outright, but with a lower player health, a misjudgment or tactical error can easily lead to death.

[…] However, such a system certainly has no place in some competitive arenas. Consider Unreal Tournament 2004, and the common one-on-one death match. Ultimately, a regenerative health system could only detract from the nature of the game. Experienced and veteran players are very much familiar with the strategic and tactical nature of determining one’s path through the chosen environment, denoting that damage and health critical pickups are only available at certain intervals. Failure to adopt an appropriate means to control these power-up points and deny them to the opponent is a very prominent emphasis in what would otherwise be a much more bland and imbalanced game; since otherwise the player could not be encouraged to move; since they can find a suitably strong position to sit in, and remain within it, given that they are able to always regenerate their health. Without the ability, they can occupy this position, but will be forced to abandon it should they take damage – and in the case of many a good level design, health pickups are in the more vulnerable and frequently passed through areas of the map.

My favorite contribution to the thread comes from Drew Marlowe (a designer on Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers, Mercenaries 2, among others):

I think that regenerative health systems are definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to simulating firefights in action games. This is because in many circumstances those systems are fantastic at simulating the real life feeling of being fired AT but not being hit which makes up the majority of 20th and 21st century combat. […] In a real firefight (disclaimer – I’ve never been in a real firefight) many more bullets are fired into walls, the ground, the air than actually hit a target. The oft quoted statistic is that in the current US wars the US is firing a quarter of a million bullets for every insurgent they kill. All these bullets are getting fired in order to scare the shit out of the targets, and get them to not move or fire back while the US figures out how to safely kill them. It usually works because getting shot at is FUCKING SCARY. They also fire so many bullets because it is really REALLY hard to shoot someone. If you’ve ever shot a gun, you know that it’s a little bit harder in real life than it is in games to get an accurate head shot at 50 yards.

However, getting shot at (not hit) in a game is a non-issue. It doesn’t really phase most gamers because it’s just a game. With their music up, they may not even know that a bullet just zipped over their head. It doesn’t feel scary because you’re not punished for almost getting hit. So how can a game properly simulate the feeling of getting shot at, of needing to be behind cover, that makes first and third person shooters look and feel realistic? You can do it by make it a lot easier for the bad guys to hit the player, but allowing the player to respond to getting shot without a long term punishment. Against 5 or 6 enemies the player will stick his head out of cover but quickly be overwhelmed at the volume of fire and duck back down – not because he was afraid of the amount of bullets being shot at him, but because his health was getting low due to being hit.

The concept of a player experiencing and understanding the distinction between the danger of shot at compared to the consequences of being shot is fascinating. The influence that a game’s health system can have on such an experience is arguable, but the benefits of allowing players to experience a sort of “warning shot” that does enough damage to cause some visual/interface/post-processor effect but doesn’t incur any long-term damage (that would be almost inherent to a more concrete health system) seem worth looking into (in theory, if not practice). Drew goes on to illuminate one of the most notable difficulties of simulating such a experience by saying:

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it is extremely difficult to communicate to the player exactly what circumstances will cause him to be shot. If I stick my head up will I have 3 seconds to fire, or will I be shot immediately? If I am shot immediately, does that mean I am never allowed to poke my head up at that spot, or is it just the randomness of the AI’s fire that caused the shot to land so quickly? The player has no idea, and because he needs to find a health pack every time he makes a mistake he is discouraged from experimenting in order to find out more about the combat systems.

Stroppy Katamari went back to the days of Action Quake to illustrate the benefits of a sort of hybrid health system that merges some aspects of a concrete health system with those of a regenerative one:

Action Quake, an older NRH game which everyone interested in FPS game design should check out, has a bleeding/crippling/bandage system which could easily be adapted to a RH game. When you are shot (anywhere but on armor), even a very minor hit like 5hp from grenade shrapnel, you start continuously bleeding health – slow or fast depending on how serious the initial wound was. To stop the bleed, you must bandage yourself. This takes several seconds, cannot be cancelled and leaves you defenseless. So there is an awesome trade-off and mindgame that follows from one player being wounded; they have to bandage, eventually, and if you catch them at that moment you win. But they know this, so they can wait (and bleed) long enough to ambush the other player following their blood spatter tracks, and then bandage. There is also a leg damage mechanic which cuts the runspeed to half or so when you recieve a hit to the legs, also curable by bandaging. This makes for viable tactics like taking one fast shot at the enemy at long range, inflicting the bleed and leg damage, and then stalk the slow, bleeding enemy while staying out of sight. You can even use a shotgun for this as the initial shot only needs to hit the legs, not do real damage. […] You could do regenerating health the same way, requiring the player to go defenseless for a while, etc.

As a number of the people who contributed to this first attempt at this kind of project and discussion noted, the usefulness and enjoyment that can be derived from a given system are entirely dependent on the specific game which employs it. This is, of course, an incredibly valid point, but one I’d like to encourage further round tables to worry less about. The goal of these discussions is to attempt to get developers and designers to communicate with each other about certain issues in game design; this requires a knowledge of gaming trends, for one, but more importantly it requires designers to make intelligent arguments with one another. Making an argument isn’t as simple as posting a quote from a famous designer or citing an excellent game which had a certain design but, rather, making an argument and supporting it with a combinational of practical examples/experiences and general theory. A discussion about games is generally impossible to boil down to pure empirical data and concrete facts, so I would encourage contributions to think a bit about their own arguments and, if necessary, feel free to generalize into theory rather than relying on an obvious fact like “this all depends on implementation” or “this only works in this specific game.” There are lessons that can be extracted from specific examples and that’s, ideally, what I’d like to have people take from their discussions with one another in the future.

There is no correct way of handling the concept of a player’s life and longevity in a video game; there is no genre in which this is more true than in the fast-paced action of a typical first-person shooter (or a similarly-designed third-person action game like Gears of War). The varying means by which shooters achieve intensity and encourage players to adopt certain play styles is, in a lot of ways, entirely dependent on the way it handles its health system. As a number of the discussions and points made throughout the round table discussion illustrate, there are benefits to both an abstract health system where a player’s life is largely up to his interpretation of interface/screen cues (regenerative health) and that of a more traditional, concrete health system that relies on life bars, numerical values, and in-world health replenishment. There were some absolutely great contributions to this sort of test run of the Game Design Round Table — a name which I admit sounds incredibly pompous and pretentious but I think reflects the goals of the discussion pretty well. Before I wrap up, though, I want to point to a post made by Nick Halme which I couldn’t figure out a way to integrate into this article but, also, made a number of very poignant design points through Halme’s own past design project.

The next Game Design Round Table will be posted to the GameDev.net Round Table, with some revised guidelines, on Tuesday, April 21st. If anyone has comments regarding my first attempt at handling this whole thing that they want to direct personally to me, feel free to e-mail me trentp@gmail.com. I plan on doing this every two weeks (this may turn to three, as preparing this took a decent chunk of time) with the first week being a discussion of the posted topic and the second week being the eventual posting and discussion of the aggregate/argumentative article written by whoever organized the current topic. I’ll probably keep doing this for a few more times and refine the guidelines and eventual article format as I go along, but if anyone would be potentially interested in spearheading a later iteration of this feel free to e-mail me.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this, the discussion was great, and I’m sorry if I couldn’t work every post into this piece.

For anyone that wants to contribute to further discussion for this piece (casual comments can be kept here), I recommend visiting this post’s entry at GameDev.net.

Mechanics 5: Vault-Tech Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.)

With the development of Fallout 3, Bethesda Softworks faced a dilemma: they had to make a first-person RPG engine that was typically used for high-fantasy RPG/adventure games handle the intensity, gore, and statistical probability of the gunplay in Black Isle’s cult-legend Fallout and Fallout 2 in such a way as to not annoy either first-person shooter gamers, fans of the Fallout games, and long-time patrons of the games in The Elder Scrolls series.

The problem with mixing a first-person shooter with a role-playing game is that they are, basically, as diametrically opposed as two genres can get. The cornerstone of an FPS is in the feel of its gunplay and player movement; the questions players subconsciously ask themselves while playing are: how does shooting feel? How accurate are the weapons and are the bullet spray, recoil, and weapon damage consistent with what a player would expect from the weapon? Is weapon behavior relatively reliable? Are the player’s skills in targeting his own or is the game modifying them to an unexpected degree? A first-person shooter places the gamer at the helm of the game; the more a player feels like he/she is in charge of his in-game avatar, the better. With this preconception at the forefront of the game experience, players enter into a game world with expected grounded in their reality and expect somewhat realistic or reliable behavior. Shooters that have unrealistically-behaving real-world weapons will seem immediately “off” to any gamer whether he has real-life weapon experience or not; a shotgun which behaves like a sniper rifle will seem strange to anyone while a sniper rifle that has a large box of possible inaccuracy around a gamer’s targeting reticule will be a source of future gamer rage-quitting.

At the other end of the gaming spectrum are the more measured and cerebral gaming experiences found in role-playing games. The genre is practically defined by its prolific character building design that has a player’s character(s) advance in level through experience points achieved in various battles. With every level, a character’s stats increase and this, in turn, makes him more powerful. The original Black Isle-developed Fallout games are no exception to this as all of the combat encounters in the games were handled as turn-based affairs steeped in a player’s allocation of action points.

These are, as can be expected, game designs that are inherently at odds with each other.

Bethesda managed it, though. Much to the chagrin of the world’s mutants, the death of super-mutants in Fallout 3 is handled in a way that is not only consistent with the original duo of games but manages to be a fun setpiece of Fallout 3 throughout the entirety of the game. The mechanic is introduced to denizens of Vault 101 as the Vault-Tech Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) and served as a time-independent targeting system to aid a player in blowing off specific enemy limbs (screenshots below). When the player is ready to shoot something a mere button is pressed and the game enters its targeting mode and the player can queue up body parts to shoot and once the sleection is finished the game goes into a stylized camera that depicts the macabre explosion of blood, organs, and limbs in slow-motion. Once the process is done the player is, most likely, out of action points to spend on V.A.T.S. targeting and is forced to rely on his skills as an FPS gamer to finish off remaining enemies or find cover until his action points have recharged enough to allow for more V.A.T.S. shots.

V.A.T.S. at times seems like little more than a compromise made for RPG-minded gamers to eliminate traditional skill-based first-person shooter mechanics (which would make Fallout 3 more shooter than RPG). It does give the player a seemingly unfair advantage in the game world; when I had the opportunity to use VATS on any enemy in the game, save for one boss-like encounter, I always had the upper hand and, what’s more, rarely took more than a shot or two while my character performed my V.A.T.S.-dictated actions. This mode of combat appears to give players a very high likelihood of both critical hits and, in some instances, a separate timeline than the one enemies were acting on when V.A.T.S. was used in combat as opposed to an entirely real-time encounter. It’s also a greatly more effective form of combat than choosing to avoid the use of V.A.T.S. throughout the entire game and rely on the game’s somewhat flawed implementation of traditional first-person shooter mechanics. Bethesda avoids the pitfalls of past hybrid games in that, for the most part, what a player points and shoots at with any decent gun in the game is reliably hit but the feedback the player receives for a successful hit is vastly inferior to the kind of feedback that V.A.T.S. provides with its slow-motion gory cinema of death.

The faults of the real-time combat in Fallout 3 really don’t matter. The blend of V.A.T.S and real-time shooting is what Fallout 3 seems made for and, when that path of play is chosen the game’s combat shines in a way that I never thought would be possible. In fact, the game positively revels in its existence as both a real-time shooter and pseudo-turn-based RPG game because, when played the way that Bethesda seems to encourage, Fallout 3 manages to feel like a Fallout game.