If we define sandbox games as ones that let you make your own fun based on existing game elements, then the first sandbox I enjoyed isn't one that's usually on the list: GoldenEye. I was fascinated by the enemies' AI routines, how you could watch them swat at flies, follow them to where they stood mindlessly in the toilet, or shoot off their hats. I was dazzled by the ability to hit enemies in different parts of their body and watch them react in varying ways. Like a kid tearing the wings off a butterfly, I invented cruel ways to play with them, granting them invincibility just to see how many throwing knives I could stick in them at once.
But one thing always disappointed me about GoldenEye, and that was its (otherwise stellar) multiplayer. A greedy gamer, I always wanted the ability to shoot off other players' hats just as I had the guards', and make other players unable to aim by shooting their hands in multiplayer. I dreamed of the day when the health bar or percentage would be a thing of the past, and enemies would be able to shoot you in different places, realistically causing damage to parts of the player's body, making your aim worse if shot in the arm, or affecting your running speed if shot in the leg.
Well, I got one part of my wish - the old FPS health bar or percentage ain't been seen much 'round these parts lately.
But as for realistic damage - well, things have only become more ridiculous. Now every shooter is inhabited by near-immortal superbeings that simply will not die no matter how many times you shoot them, provided you shoot them slowly enough.
Yes, it's the Halo system, where your health regenerates if you avoid taking damage for a certain amount of time. Now as a gameplay feature, it's a perfectly fine system - fair to the player, while at the same time eliminating the need to balance the distribution of health packs versus enemies, thus making the developers' jobs that bit easier. And it worked fine in Halo - more than fine, it was great, bringing another level of strategy and thought to thinking about how to keep yourself alive.
But this system began to signs of stretching the fantasy a little too far in Gears of War, and makes absolutely no bloody sense whatsoever in games like Call of Duty 4 or Red Steel where the whole game is based on the fact that your protagonist is your perfectly average Johnny Everysolider.
Call of Duty 4's brilliance is based on how it seems to recreate the realities of combat. Sniper shots are affected by distance and wind speed, bullets of different calibers will penetrate farther through different surfaces. Having the player's health regenerate works fine as a gameplay element - indeed, it may even improve it - but then so might having the enemies sprout wings from their arse and fly at you.
The irony here is that while so many of the games that have copied this system don't understand it, the first Halo got this system correct right out of the gate. In Halo: Combat Evolved, Master Chief's health did not regenerate - because that would be ridiculous, right? Rather, his suit's shield took damage, failing if it took too much, after which he started losing health. Health, sensibly enough, could only be topped up using the standard health packs. His shield, however, would regenerate providing you gave it enough time without taking damage.