Is It Too Much To Ask For That Guy’s Shin To Explode?

It was as I shot a cowboy through his bushy black moustache into his brain for the third time in a row without him dying that I started to get a little bored of Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer. Each time his head twitched back with my shots, like he had a violent repetitive tic, or was listening to The Prodigy, my heart sank further. Like John Marston in a lake.

Incidents like that have peppered my online experience with Rockstar’s latest sandbox game. I’ll pop one or more headshots into some other wannabe cowboy from some other part of the world but often they’ll carry on regardless because, in multiplayer at least, a headshot isn’t always a kill in Red Dead Redemption.

It’s something that I’ve found consistently frustrating in many games over the years, but it’s perhaps becoming even more galling in these heady days of advanced physics engines and photo-realism. It isn’t a question of craving heightened violence or gore, or even of feeling more at home in a one-hit kill scenario. Instead, I think that what I essentially get frustrated with is a lack of tactile feedback. Not in the literal sense, where rumble packs and motion-based controllers mince steadily into view, but rather in the sense of how a game world’s reactions to our interactions are fed back to us, through a combination of visuals, audio and our own perception. It’s a question of minute-to-minute satisfaction, and providing the answer is, for me, a big part of successful design.

Take a fighting game, for example. Even without rumble functionality, it’s generally important for a developer to convey a proportionate sense of power with each attack. When it lands on an opponent, a light punch from Chun-Li needs to look, sound and, in a purely aesthetic sense, feel different to a heavy kick from Zangief. As with a Ricky Gervais sitcom, we want to be made to wince constantly. In the best racing games, there should be a healthy tactile relationship between the player and their car, even though the player can’t literally touch the steering wheel in their hands. Instead this feedback comes from what the player can see on the screen and hear through the speakers. This concept is especially important in contemporary sports titles, or at least those beyond limited ambition, and five minutes spent with the acclaimed recent entries in EA’s NHL and FIFA series confirm as much. Shots must have a sense of physical energy, collisions need appreciable weight and movement should appear convincing. It needs to feel like Ryan Giggs has just been unceremoniously booted up in the air by your ferocious tackle. The people behind Sensible Soccer understood it then, as the people behind FIFA understand it now.

Not pictured: Ryan Giggs' limp body soaring majestically through the air.

Shooters, even some very popular ones, to my mind, can sometimes neglect this notion. Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, released towards the end of last year, was clearly developed with ambitions of realism in mind, which is all well and good until you shoot someone in the chest and they don’t even flinch. Just Cause 2, although not a pure shooter, has a similar problem, albeit with less emphasis on the realism. I was genuinely disappointed to find that the beautiful, vibrant world of Panau was populated by soldiers that would happily stand and take bullets without thinking to move, like an entire civilization of particularly unassertive sloths. It rips so much of the satisfaction out of proceedings for me. In the same way that I don’t really want to be playing a racing game with brick-like handling, I don’t really want to be playing a game with shooting where the weapons don’t feel powerful and the enemies don’t react accordingly.

For me, Resident Evil 4 and 5 both do particularly well at lending a proportionate and gratifying sense of firepower to weaponry.

Bioshock is another example of combat that left me cold. Skirmishes rarely felt like anything beyond sapping hit points miserably in the damp crevices of Rapture, with Splicers in particular seemingly barely ever noticing you were causing them mortal harm. Gears of War battles can appear to take the form of sieges, with the victor being the first to pump more than 60 bullets into their opponent’s head, presumably causing sudden death through lead poisoning rather than the apparently utterly inconsequential projectile impact.

This concept can be subjective. Halo multiplayer in particular has failed to engage me over the years and I think maybe part of it is the lack of decisive power I seem to be able to coax from the standard weapons. In Halo especially that lack seems to conflict with whatever limited tactical instincts I possess. On some occasions I’ll have got the drop on another player and emptied an entire assault rifle clip into their back, only for them to turn around, fire a couple of shots and then use the melee attack to instantly kill me. The tactile feedback that Halo clearly does have, for it to provide such an enduringly rewarding experience for so many, appears to be lost on me. I’m hoping it won’t be so with the tweaked experience Halo: Reach promises.

But I shot you! A million times! No fairs! That's me. Every stinking time.

Combat in the Halo games has been built and designed with competitive online action in mind, with the energy shields in particular giving the game engine time to catch up and players time to fight back at their assailant. The notion of tactile feedback presents a challenge when placed alongside the need for online shooters to provide a forgiving enough experience, that is processed rapidly enough to avoid frustration. So, the likes of Halo and Gears of War give players a large number of hit points and arguably leave the standard weapons feeling underpowered, while Modern Warfare places more emphasis on fast-paced carnage, with kills occasionally being awarded for shots that appeared to miss their mark. Neither approach feels ideal to me, or captures the visceral thrill of something like Soldier of Fortune, but perhaps that level of tactile satisfaction is destined to rarely be fully realised in an online shooter, due to the technical limitations of having to transmit signals around the world as quickly as possible.

Also, in fairness, the tactile hit and visceral rush of combat can be found elsewhere within some of these titles. For every 500 Lancer bullets you embed in an opponent’s body to no particular effect, you get a glorious chainsaw execution, and for every million Battle Rifle bullets that bounce off an enemy’s shield ineffectually you get to send half a dozen grunts flying with one swing of your mighty Gravity Hammer.

In fact, what was I talking about? Let’s go play some Halo: Reach. I want to hit something with a hammer.







5 responses to “Is It Too Much To Ask For That Guy’s Shin To Explode?”

  1. Leon avatar

    I really agree with some of these points – feedback is something that’s often poorly done. No matter how good the graphics of a game are, that feeling that puts weight behind your actions can so easily be done wrong.

  2. Mark P avatar

    The assault rifle in Reach is pathetic. I never use it outside the competitive multiplayer because of how just how pathetic it is. The assassinations are really satisfying though.

  3. Tony avatar

    You’ve rather elegantly put into words the exact reason I never liked Halo much. The guns just never seemed to have any weight or kick to them. Of course, I haven’t played Reach so I can’t comment on that.

  4. Alex avatar

    Reach’s weapons seem to have much more weight behind them than 3’s for my money…particularly a DMR which feels 1000x better than the battle rifle.

  5. rich avatar

    “… with the victor being the first to pump more than 60 bullets into their opponent’s head, presumably causing sudden death through lead poisoning rather than the apparently utterly inconsequential projectile impact”

    Simon, you’re a hoot.

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