This really came as a result of playing Borderlands (which I’ll try to do a review of soon for From The Box). I, and I think many people, have noticed a trend towards “cover-based” shooters. It started with the popularization of the recovering shield mechanic in Halo. The central idea of the cover-based shooter is that if you run out Rambo style, your shield/health will drain quite quickly, but if you hide behind cover, your shield will regenerate. This promotes careful playing and staying behind cover, only popping out to shoot. The cover could be implicit, where it’s just some object you crouch behind, or explicit, in games like Gears of War which have context-sensitive buttons to press up against cover.
Now, while I like the idea of using a mechanic to push the player into a more careful and strategic play-style, this mechanic often ends up causing a “Stop and Pop” dynamic, where both sides of a battle are hiding behind waist-high walls, waiting for the other side to pop up so that they can be shot. It ends up removing a lot of the intensity from the game. So my goal here is to analyze how a Cover-Based mechanic could work with other elements of gameplay to create a more dynamic experience.
First of all, let’s identify the problem. The problem is that in a cover-based shooter, there’s no real motivation to move away from your specific hiding place. You don’t need to get health packs if you’re shot, because you’re health is regenerating just by being behind cover. You don’t need to move, because you’re in the safest place. The dominant strategy is to stay where you are and wait for your enemy to expose themselves.
So, first things first, we need to put fire under the ass of the player. When they find their hiding place, there needs to be a distinct motivation for them to leave that hiding place. A good way to do this, first of all, would be in the AI. The AI in a cover based shooter should not just be hiding behind cover. They should be actively trying to flank the player. Small groups of them should move from cover to cover in order to get either to the side of or behind the player. Remember, in single player and co-op shooters, the enemy generally has the advantage of numbers. They can split up their forces and have some flank while other’s stay behind cover to draw the player’s fire. This will mean that the protection afforded by the cover is a temporary thing. The player will need to keep on the move, or else their defensive position will be overwhelmed.
The second important part of the AI is that they should have a idea of the last known position of the player, but not necessarily their current position. Take a page out of stealth games. The player should be able to move stealthily around during combat in the same way I proposed the enemy move in the last paragraph. If a player can move from cover to another area in such a way that the enemy wouldn’t see them, they should be able to maneuver around the enemy and take them by surprise. One of the things I liked about Batman Arkham Asylum, for example, was that you could cause a commotion in one area, move to a different area, and the armed thugs would investigate the area you were, rather than the area you are.
And, of course, design levels to promote flanking and design objectives to promote moving while under fire. The point is to avoid those moments where the player is in a repetitive cycle of hide/pop out/shoot. As it is, many cover shooters only give the illusion of careful and strategic gameplay.Stumble it!