Old Skool

In my continuing efforts to reclaim hard drive space and knock out some more of my Steam backlog, I booted up MINERVA: Metastasis. For some reason I thought this was the user mod for Bioshock I remember hearing about back in the day, so I was quite surprised to find it was a Half-Life 2 mod. Still, at 5+ gigs, I figured it was about time to see what’s what.

And that what seems to be old fucking school.

More than anything, the sound FX is what took me back.

More than anything, the sound FX is what took me back.

As I turned the first corner into some Combine while armed with the machine gun, the first thing I did was hold the right mouse button and prepare to aim for the head. Instead, I shot an under-barrel grenade which damn near instantly killed me. “Oh. Oh my.” The machine gun clearly has a holographic targeting reticule, but in this circumstantial trip down nostalgia lane, aiming-down-sights hasn’t been invented yet. “Am I supposed to be hip-firing like some kind of animal?!” Yes. The answer is yes.

Also, your bullet spread pattern will always random, no matter whether you squeeze one round off or empty the clip. That is some Bronze-Age shit right there.

Game design evolution is a funny thing – very rarely is there ever any going back. For example, remember when you just had 100 HP, maybe 100 shields, and neither regenerated at all no matter how long you cowered in the corner with 17 HP remaining? It seems like just yesterday to me, because it literally was. I pooh-poohed Bioshock Infinite for having CoD- (and now Battlefield-) style regeneration, but now I’m not entirely sure what to think. I mean, is regeneration worse than spamming QuickSave every 30 seconds? Going to a CheckPoint system sounds even worse, as designers rarely hit the sweet-spot between The Last of Us’s one-enemy-filled room or Far Cry 1′s “hope you brought a sandwich, because the CheckPoint is on another island.”

I think that the first two Bioshocks got it right, insofar as there was no regeneration but you could stockpile medkits and the like up to a certain point. I felt no reason to explore in MINERVA when I was at full health, as there was literally no reason to; without hidden upgrades or things to stockpile, frequently there existed many rooms completely void of any reason to exist (beyond verisimilitude, I suppose).

In any case, the mod was worthwhile for the nostalgia and game design lesson alone. I just talked about having arrows over quest objectives the other day, but there were probably half a dozen spots in MINERVA where I had no idea where to go, or what the game expected me to be doing. And as is usually the case, the answer was staring me in the face. Then again, I did have to look up how to get past the room with the shield generators because, for some ungodly reason, we were just supposed to know that two grenades were necessary to destroy them. I tossed a grenade into each of the four generators, alarms went off, and once they recovered I went “Aha! They must need to be disabled in a specific pattern!” Nope. Just a dev’s modder’s Gotcha! moment.

Or maybe we were just all smarter in the olden days.

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Posted on January 13, 2014, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Also, your bullet spread pattern will always random

    Oh man I hated that. You had to use the pistol in HL2 to do any precision shooting.

    Regenning health on the other hand is a step backwards. It really trivializes the endurance aspect of games.

    The objective arrows I’m kind of split on. On the one hand, yes they make it more gamey and easy. On the other, they can compensate for the distance between player and character. For example, if I’m supposed to be a rocket scientist in a game, and some objective is to go to the rocket console and abort the launch, well I in real life would only have the fuzziest of ideas where that might be located, whereas my character really should know.

    • Having to switch guns to shoot more precisely… that’s the beauty of weapon choice. In the older shooters (of which Half-Life 2 is not entirely representative), each weapon has characteristics that lend it to specific applications. Compare this to the typical modern implementation of two weapon slots and a choice of realistic military weapons. What’s the practical difference between an M4 and an AK-47? Other than minor differences in accuracy and stopping power, they fill pretty much the exact same role. Beyond that, your choices are what? Shotgun, SMG, or sniper rifle? Weapon choices in these games tend to be pretty arbitrary, depending mostly on what the level gives you, what supports your play style the most, or even just what looks good to you. But then again, the enemies aren’t all that varied either… neither are the levels, and cover systems excuse sluggish movement and shooting mechanics. As a result, the hardcore action games of the past have now largely been boiled down to clicking on bad guys and watching cutscenes. That’s not necessarily a bad genre premise in itself – clicking and cutscenes have long been staples of the adventure genre, which has exemplary titles of its own – but it’s laughable to see these games presented as the same breed of experience as something like DOOM.

      Naturally, the people making these design decisions are business people who understand nothing about and care little for the gaming culture that came before. Games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft (which were contemporaries of Half-Life 2) have, based solely on their financial success, been endlessly copied with little to no revision or extrapolation, so that the concepts they carried have simply become the norm. Why wouldn’t you have iron sights, two weapon slots, cover shooting mechanics, or heavily scripted action sequences? Judging by revenue, those are the things gamers want, and the people who control the money have the final say on the products they’re funding. There’s a pervasive ignorance about how those designs worked for the player and contributed to the overall experience in their original context.

      The real issue here is not whether older concepts were categorically better by any measure. Those formative games were rougher and made many missteps, such as (evidenced here) a lack of intuitive level design when those levels were expanded to carry the story instead of simply acting as monster mazes. The real issue is how the older philosophy of experimentation and improvement has largely been thrown out in favor of thoughtlessly rehashing a handful of the breakout successes of the early 2000s, as a result of the ever-present spirit of profiteering that, while demonstrably existent in gaming before, has much more thoroughly infected the industry over this last decade. And now, in this future age, we’re left to debate the merits of two formerly contemporary designs (e.g.: static vs. regenerating health) that have been dragged into opposing positions (old vs. new) by people who have absolutely no creative logic to put into the argument. Neither design necessarily precludes the other, and both have appropriate contexts; the only thing that makes the older design “old school” is that it has been left to gather dust for stupid reasons.

      • That’s a thoughtful response, but I’m not entirely sure how much iteration/refinement/experimentation is even possible at this point, when it comes to FPS titles. It’s absolutely true that the FPS genre has largely stuck with humanoid enemies and console-ification (2 weapons only, etc) design, but… can you imagine going back to not being able to aim up/down (DOOM) or having the random-spread bullet patterns I mentioned earlier? Having points of articulation when it comes to aiming is absolutely more demanding skill-wise than anything we had before. And when it comes to frequent waist-high obstructions rewarding sluggish movement, I agree, but it’s not too terribly different than peek-a-boo corner humping that seemed to work randomly and/or arbitrarily. Borderlands 2 was rather surprising in that regard (e.g. no snap-to cover), but all that seemed to encourage was kamikaze shootouts while leaning heavily on regeneration and Second Wind cheese.

        In other words, I don’t feel like the implicit criticisms you are laying out here are necessarily a result of the designers being lazy or just following the leader. I feel like being able to actually aim your gun is unequivocally better for a FPS than any other mechanic that came before; it is more engaging in just about every way.

  2. I actually play through the old DOOM and Build engine shooters pretty often, horizontal aim and all. Lack of vertical aim was really due to technological and design limitations of the time. Honestly, it doesn’t really hurt the games very much, aside from curbing verticality in level design. However, that was improved upon as the true 3D shooters started cropping up, like the original Half-Life.

    Random bullet spread is only an issue if you’re not provided with the tools to achieve necessary precision – in Half-Life 2′s example, the SMG is terrible for hitting targets even at medium range, but at the same time you have the option to switch to something like the magnum, whose maximum angle of deviance is still within your target’s head as long as you’re aiming right – it’s more an issue of forcing the player to learn to use the game’s tools, rather than being given the equivalent of a swiss army knife in the form of a modern assault rifle (high range, high rate of fire, high accuracy). It’s practical, which is why assault rifles are designed that way, but it doesn’t make for much of an interesting challenge in a game. I disagree that iron sights are unequivocally better; while that design does give you a feeling of increased precision, it also greatly limits your visibility and mobility without any real payoff other than an increased sense of realism. Really, it’s just the same as hip-shooting, except you have a giant gun model and pretty depth of field effects taking up most of your screen, and all non-sighted accuracy is greatly decreased to compensate for the precision advantage.

    As an example of a genuine try at improvement on the old formulas, I would point to the recently released remake of Shadow Warrior. Flying Wild Hog actually did a pretty bang-up job of putting some spin on the classic shooting mechanics: melee combat that’s just as important and fun as ranged, special situational abilities that can be used at will (including limited self-healing, bridging the gap between static and regenerating health by giving you the ability to keep yourself somewhat alive, but only if you can pull it off when you need to). In the melee vein, I suppose you could also mention Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, which put a lot of effort into (and largely succeeded in) communicating the weight of first-person melee combat. Or, going back a bit further, DOOM 3, which threw a bit of a left hook by turning light into a limited resource and forcing you to navigate thoughtfully and pay careful attention instead of just sprinting around corners and blasting. Or Painkiller, which combined weapon designs in an interesting way and wrapped everything up with pretty excellent levels. There’s plenty of room for innovation left in environment design, enemy design, weapon design, and mechanics design, but the people who would normally be bringing that to the table have been chased off to other genres, because it’s impossible to compete with the giant, stagnant, unholy beasts that are Call of Duty and Battlefield. Barring the rare exceptions, of course.

    While I have your attention, I have to commend your criticism of BioShock Infinite, which is horribly symptomatic of a lot of the stagnation being discussed here. Your voice was pretty much the only sane one to me during that ridiculous hypegasm.

  3. Oh, man, MINERVA, that brings back memories. Awesome mod for an awesome game.

    And yes, Half Life (2) uses mechanics like N64 Perfect Dark where some weapons have more than one functionality (well, technically ALL Perfect Dark weapons had two functionality).

    I’m not really broken up about the random bullet spread either — like others have said, it’s a way to distinguish weapons for different uses rather than just using an Assault Rifle that does everything.

    • I’m not really broken up about the random bullet spread either — like others have said, it’s a way to distinguish weapons for different uses rather than just using an Assault Rifle that does everything.

      I still have a tough time buying that argument. I mean, I agree that if you could control bullet spread by squeezing off a few rounds, there would be a lot more overlap in the guns, e.g. the AK-47 vs M16 “problem.” But what exactly are we saying is the use of such a weapon? “Take 60 damage and a full clip to kill one Combine when you run out of Magnum bullets” gun? What the hell kind of niche is that? When you have to aim center mass to even land bullets on target, it feels like removing all skill/compelling gameplay from the equation.

      Aim for head + land bullet = reward for skill.
      Aim for head + bullets go wherever = waste of time/bullets.

      I’m not saying it didn’t work for Half-Life 2 and other such games. I just see absolutely zero appeal whatsoever in such a design today.

      • The point is that with some weapons you DON’T aim for the head. You aim for the chest with a less accurate weapon. And you actually have to AIM for the chest because if you aim for the arm then you’ll still miss with a ton of shots.

        In other words, the damage of the weapon is balanced assuming you AREN’T getting headshots with it. It’s a shorter ranged weapon which has much less effectiveness at ranged.

        I mean, it basically seems like you’re wanting to be able to save ammo by squeezing off individual shots aimed perfectly at the head instead of emptying a clip into the chest region, no? But the developers didn’t want it to be used as a “sniper” weapon and you have more ammo available because you’re expected to use it.

        If you make it more accurate for the first few shots, then the ammo available gets reduced and it basically becomes another Magnum that you try to be precise with!

        Isn’t it okay to have some weapons where you AREN’T expected to snipe headshots with? I mean, hell, in Team Fortress 2 the only class that can even GET headshots is the Sniper (and the Spy with specific weapons that do LESS damage on normal hits in exchange for being able to land headshots). If you’re an engineer with a pistol and aim perfectly for someone’s head…it’s still just a normal hit.

        Which also makes more sense, because in real life you DON’T go for headshots in most cases, you aim for the chest. Something you might find interesting:

        http://kotaku.com/5625054/the-history-of-headshots-gamings-favorite-act-of-unreal-violence

        Also going to post the sidebar quote here:

        “Headshots were positively thrilling when they first hit the shooter scene in games like GoldenEye 007 and Soldier of Fortune. They’re like a fun little metagame, where if you get good enough you can bypass the act of fighting an enemy with a single bullet.

        But these days, I’m not so sure.

        What happens when you get so good that you’re racking up those one-hit kills? You start bypassing the majority of the game. Most of a shooter’s weapons—the ones that don’t let you shoot foes in the face—quickly become useless. I’ve played through entire games relying primarily on accurate pistols instead of splashy rocket launchers or unreliable shotguns. It’s not much fun, and I’d certainly prefer a balanced, well-considered arsenal, but hey, war is hell, man.
        —Jeff Gerstmann”

      • The SMG fills the role of a close-quarters automatic weapon. It’s good for clearing a room of weaker enemies (supported by its alt-fire grenades). It’s also very easy to find ammunition for, so it’s reliable.

        The problem you’re pointing at is one of the core challenges of the older model. Since all guns fill specific roles, if you run out of ammunition for those guns, you lose the ability to perform optimally in certain situations (e.g.: if you run out of magnum and crossbow rounds, you’re forced to either close distance or sit back with a less accurate weapon and pray for a hit). In order to avoid that, you have to manage your ammunition supply carefully – both by being attentive enough to explore and notice hidden corners and caches, and by being skilled enough to avoid wasting it (using the right tool for the job, knowing the target and terrain, ensuring as many of your shots hit as possible). It’s a lot more than just being accurate, which is what the modern design has been almost entirely reduced to.

        I’m not saying it’s a perfect system (even in their heyday shooters were regarded as entertainment for knuckle-draggers), but the average modern shooter doesn’t even have this limited amount of depth. Plentiful derivative guns, linear levels with invisible walls, and regenerating health remove all impetus to play thoughtfully and conserve. Additionally, many of the various mechanics appropriated by these games even act as a hindrance to the action: the near-universal use of hitscan weapons (one of the reasons Half-Life 2 isn’t entirely representative of the older model) renders dodging mostly impossible, forcing you to either hide and wait for your health to magically come back, or glue yourself to cover where you sit and wait for a bad guy to pop up so you can click on him (god help you if the game has neither); the use of iron sights removes vision in combat, making it arbitrarily difficult to track targets and maintain situational awareness; and, as mentioned in the reply above me, the ease of which you can use headshots to bypass combat at all ranges means that, when combined with guns that easily fill almost any role, there’s no essential challenge to a lot of the game play aside from emphasis on twitch accuracy in close-quarters fights. Apart from that, generally the only threats to your survival are grenades (which the game helpfully points out for you, and sometimes even lets you use as a free weapon to throw back at the enemy) or scripted sequences. Call of Duty originally used all these systems to better communicate the feeling of war and deliver an experience of interactive cinema, but after all the blind appropriation and endless rehashing, that design is pretty much unrecognizable now, and what’s left is a shallow, confused experience.

        Halo at least still makes a good attempt at trying to straddle the line.