The last few years have given us some great action games like Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, but there are a number of features that have become standard for such titles despite some arguable drawbacks. As fun as it was to yee-haw my way through Gunslinger, I couldn’t help but notice that with regenerating health, extremely similar weapons and plentiful ammo even on the highest difficulty, there was very little in the way of resource management.
The effect of this was that one moment rarely felt more or less tense than the next, because I was never in a situation where my poor planning had left me stranded in a dangerous spot with limited items. Compare this to the original Deus Ex, where resources were often finite and a degree of caution was encouraged as a result. Now I’m not saying that a bombastic bit of popcorn entertainment like Red Faction: Armageddon would be improved by turning it into some hardcore Martian war simulator, but it might’ve given the action some more drama and unexpected twists if I’d been at all worried about my black hole gun running low on ammo.
It’s easy to guess why these features have become prevalent in games; giving the player essentially infinite health lessens the need to strategically sprinkle medkits throughout the whole game, and it avoids what I call the System Shock 2 effect, where a player ends up crippling themselves for the final act by squandering their items foolishly. Again, sometimes you don’t want a deep, strategic combat experience so much as something that lets you throw buildings at people. But even the most mindless gorefest needs a sense of progression to keep the excitement going.
While a lot of people pooh-pooh the Flood sequence in Halo, it does serve as a clear crisis moment in a game that would’ve otherwise lacked drama. In much the same way, the mechanics of a game affect how often a player might end up in a dire situation. Without the risk of running low on resources, it becomes harder for moments of tension to occur organically, which might be partly why modern action games like Dead Space 3 also rely heavily on scripted events rather than trust the core mechanics to keep things interesting.
The darkly satirical movies of Paul Verhoeven can be thought of as clever art disguising itself as dumb. Action games could benefit from that philosophy.
Featured image rights; Nordic Games (Red Faction: Guerilla)