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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.

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This was perfect. The developers had clearly sat down and taken the time to think up of not only an ingenious gameplay feature, but also how to ground it perfectly in a realistic universe. Not so the developers who pickpocketed Halo‘s corpse for ideas.

This is just one example of recent pet peeve of mine in the games industry. Copying across the industry is both rife and inevitable – and although I do wish there was more originality, more companies like Nintendo or Valve, I have come to accept that this is never going to be the case and the best we can hope for is that a clever innovation from one game appears in more of them. No, it’s not copying I despise, it’s copying and not getting it right.

Consider one thing that Call of Duty 4 does get very right – one that almost every game since its inception has gotten wrong. In Call of Duty 4, you cannot run like a maniac throughout the entire game. Your character gets tired after sprinting (we will ignore the fact that this is the same character who can absorb an infinite amount of bullets so long as they are regularly spaced apart), and has to go back to walking speed to get his breath back.

Fancy that – it’s a game that forces you to use something other than “full tilt”. Since Super Mario 64 pioneered analog control, and made tiptoe, walk and run part of any character’s repertoire. However, Mario 64 also gave you reasons to use each of these patterns – from the sleeping Piranha Plants that had to be tiptoed around, to the long-jump you could only perform when running.

When was the last time you used the “tiptoe” animation in anything other than a stealth game? In almost any analog-controlled game, there is simply no point to having varying running speeds, as there is no loss to be had from simply running at full pace, all the time.

Another example is the one the critics love to hate, the Quick Time Event. Whether the QTE worked in Shenmue or not is up for debate – I enjoyed it, many others didn’t, fair enough, it takes all sorts and all that. But what it did do was make the QTE an integral part of the game experience. For better or worse, they were not tacked on – without QTEs, there would be no Shenmue. Resident Evil 4, one of the games that put the QTE back on the map of respectability, also had a good reason for including it – the whole game is based off never letting you relax, even in the cut-scenes. But look at

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Street Fighter‘s Ryu and Ken always seemed to have their special moves marked out remarkably well – observe how the down-to-forward quarter circle and punch move that make Ryu do a fireball seems to match the on-screen animation of the move. The same is true for the Shoryuken and Hurricane Kick – the inputs required by the player correspond roughly to the on-screen action. The same is largely true for the “classic” Street Fighter characters like Blanka and Guile – as one would expect from such a long-lived series, the actions just “feel” right.

Compare this with a move from Killer Instinct for the character Fulgore – forward, back, roll from back to forward, weak punch. This launches 3 projectiles. Not quite the same thing, eh? From a challenging and intuitive system for inputting special moves, fighting games became an increasingly tedious exercise in memorization and dexterity that lost its appeal to the mass market. Unless the genre shows it can innovate, this year’s fighting game revival will be nothing more than the proverbial dead cat bounce.

Or how about a genre whose day has already faded – the point and click adventure? The home of some of the greatest stories, liveliest characters and wittiest dialog in all of gaming wasted away as it became an obsession for each company not to find different ways to challenge the player, but to put in increasingly stupid and illogical puzzles, until players simply lost patience.

This is hardly something that’s unique to the games industry, of course. How many awful movies had bullet time sequences in them after The Matrix, despite having no alternate-reality plot point to fall back on? (Correct answer: nobody cares, even one was more than enough) But with so few innovations in this industry as it is these days, is it asking too much to at least use the ones that we have correctly?

Back when GoldenEye was just a twinkle in the Stamper brothers’ eyes, there was always that really annoying kid in school who would always try to sneak a look at the answers on your test paper – not the dumb kids, at least they had good reason and you could feel sorry for them. No, the ones that were always the most annoying were the ones who could have done the exam perfectly fine by themselves, but either lacked the self confidence to do so, or just couldn’t be bothered.

Developers who mindlessly copy the innovations of others will end up like that kid – they might be in possession of the right answer, but unless they understand why it’s right, they’re never going to be able to use it correctly.

Christian Ward works for a major games publisher, and wants to know why they changed the shield/health system from Halo:CE to Halo 2. That system was perfect, damn you.

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