Old games had lives. Then, we got health bars.
Then we got regenerating health! And now it seems as though health bars are making a comeback
again. Don’t get me wrong, I know this isn’t
a hard and fast rule- there have always been games that have stuck to a health system that
benefits their particular style of gameplay. But I want to talk about mainstream first
person shooters and the dramatic shift they made in the early 2000’s.
Before then you had a health bar that would go down over time as you were shot, crushed,
chewed etcetera. You could restore your said health by bumping into health kits littered
about the levels. This was typical in games like Medal of Honor, Quake, Doom and Half
Life. But then, it began to change.
It started- arguably- with Halo’s armour regeneration. Makes a hellololalot more sense
than health, I guess. But I really felt the transition was with Call of Duty 2 when it
ditched the visible health bar entirely. This was a new experience for me! Accustomed to
older ways, I was genuinely confused when I couldn’t find my health bar! It was only
through trial and error that I discovered the new system and began to watch out for
the classic big hard throbbing RED VISION warning system, that signalled to me when
it was time to hide for a while. You know how you obsess about stuff a lot
more when you were younger? Yeah, I did this with health. It was a big thing to me. I wouldn’t
be surprised if I had long discussions with friends at school about how silly the system
was! Shot in the face? Don’t worry, just squat in a dark corner for a few seconds and
you’ll be right as rain again. What were we, Wolverine?! Come to think of it, instant
health kits aren’t very realistic either, are they.
But it pays not to be too critical of such a system and instead to try and see WHY the
system is in place. And regenerating health was a solution to a problem.
You see, old games have a habit of being hard and unforgiving. Developers didn’t bother
catering for all types of gamer back then. It was the Wild West of game dev! I swear
that some levels weren’t even playtested. A death in the oldest Medal of Honors would
send you straight back to the start of the entire level. Don’t get me wrong- I beat
those games! With a controller, no less. But the most unfair deaths and freakish grenade
blasts still haunt my mind to this day. Where you’re shot down to 1 HP and have to limp
to the end of the level, where even the slightest FART from a German officer could kill you.
You see, with a standard health bar, you’re punished for your mistakes. Which is fair
enough! But what’s less fair is how long that punishment can linger. It will affect
your experience either until you find the next health kit, or until you die. Now, checkpoints,
savegames or even the tiniest bit of thought about health kit placement could help to balance
this kind of mechanic. But it was early days for that stuff as well. For all you know you
could be limping along at 1 HP with an area up ahead of you that assumes you’re at 100.
Screw you, you’re going to die. Regenerating health, on the other hand, doesn’t
have this issue. On its own, yes it does make the game easier. But I reckon they ramp up
the difficulty of each enemy encounter to balance this out a bit! Whether it’s easier
or not, it certainly changes the ‘feel’ of the game’s challenge. I stop caring about
the bigger picture and find myself free to focus solely on taking out the bunker ahead
of be with all of the resources at my disposal. And honestly, I find this more fun. And it
certainly reduces how long your past mistakes will haunt you for. Which I think benefits
game series like Call of Duty. Call of Duty Call of Duty Call of Duty. It’s
like I’m obsessed with the series right now. It makes sense to cover it, firstly because
it’s a popular, influential one, and also because I got around to playing through the
latest WW2 one- which is relevant to this topic. As many of you will know by now, this
is the first game since the original Call of Duty to not have regenerating health.
It’s interesting to see how the health system for the series has changed over time. They
didn’t just make health regenerate, end of story. They tweaked and balanced it over
the THOUSANDS of games they’ve made for the series. So after all this time, to suddenly
remove it completely is quite a statement. Now it’s not exactly like older games again-
as well as kits littering the levels and very regular checkpoints, you also have a guy who
tosses you health packs from time to time- which is what I want to talk about now, and
what difference I think it makes to the gameplay. I can see what they’re trying to do with
this new system. You’re supposed to like this guy for the sake of the story- having
him lob the most valuable item in the game is one such way to a FPS-player’s heart.
Though the reality is that they may have underestimated how jaded we gamers are. I don’t see Zussman
the kit-thrower as a guy who’s doing me a favour. I see him as a medic who gets off
on being withholding. I know you have one down your pants, mister. I know you’re waiting
until I’m gagging for it before giving it to me!
This system of dispensing health also has another purpose: it’s ties the reward of
more health directly with you making progress in the game. This is the opposite of the regenerating
health system, which rewarded you for hiding! I mean, surely you spend enough time behind
cover already. Why would you also want to take regular time-outs simply to regenerate
health? The health system is being used to manipulate player behaviour, in this case
to make them play more of the game with less downtime than earlier titles.
But wait a second. If it rewards you for being good, surely it punishes the kinds of players
who need it the most? What if you’re a noob who takes a lot of damage and who kill fewer
enemies?! Never fear. The bars do indeed recharge a lot faster if your health is lower. I would
have been more surprised had this NOT been the case. Zussman balances your experience
by dropping more if you’re struggling, and fewer if you don’t need them. He IS getting
off on being withholding! We gamers were right to be cynical. While we still occasionally
find health kits within the levels, I’m wondering if this will be FAZE-d out further
with future titles. This new approach hints at where the series
is heading. It isn’t trying to get harder or easier, but merely more CONSISTENT. To
keep it challenging, but never infuriatingly so, no matter what skill level you are. It
must be a nightmare to try and balance the same level for a million different players
with a million different playstyles. And Zussman’s health-pants are their latest attempt to cater
for this variety of players. To keep hardcore players entertained whilst stopping noob players
from getting themselves stuck in impossible situations.
Valve have done this for years. Half Life 2 didn’t have regenerating health,
but did have supply crates that would clearly drop stuff depending on what you needed. Low
on health? Here, have some health kits. Got lots of health? Have some ammo instead. These
would be found around almost every corner and I think did a great job of retaining the
best of both worlds. And what about Left 4 Dead? Once again, you
don’t have regenerating health but you do have a mysterious ‘Director’ watching
over your game, dropping health kits when you’re struggling before summoning a horde
of zombies to take it all away again. Rinse and repeat.
Regenerating health can be seen as a stopgap while developers looked for a better solution.
Health systems may have started off as a way of challenging players and to gatekeep later
stages of the game. But I think the purpose of health has changed. In a series like Call
of Duty, it’s now being used as a system to regulate the experience. In a way it can
be seen as a player’s friend! Quite apt that they make your buddy the guy who gives
you health kits, really. There’s still a place for fiendishly difficult
games, but Call of Duty isn’t trying to be that. It wants to be a quick, highly polished,
cinematic experience that any skill level can beat simply by sticking at it for long
enough. Provided you choose a suitable difficulty level, the in-built balancing should tailor
the experience to remain challenging while avoiding excessive frustration. And I think
the latest game in the series has a system as good as it’s ever been.
The more I think about it, the more difficult it is to come up with the perfect health system.
It’s strongly tied to the saving system, the difficulty of each encounter and the resources
available to the player in dealing with them. I would deem myself a quick save addict, and
yet in newer games I barely have that problem at all. Even if I were to die over and over
at points in WW2, I didn’t find myself wishing for a quicksave feature. I didn’t even know
there wasn’t one until I had beaten the game.
I know there will be people out there to dismiss it all as ‘new games getting easier’.
But I propose a controversial alternative: maybe they’re just getting better.