Who will slay the cover shooter?

Fast and loose thoughts from Ed on a great mechanic gone sour

There was a time, many moons ago, when the absolute worst possible thing you could do in a game was stop moving. The left side of the screen plunged after you, whispering of oblivion. Ledges crumbled as you reached them, recommending you to the attention of their brothers and sisters further up the shaft. UFOs rained lethal blips, and obscure ghosts chased you around yellowing mazes. Shapes trundled relentlessly into formation, filling your vision unless you worked to arrange and expunge them. You were a shark, hurtling through gaming's ocean. Stopping meant suffocation.

Up, up and away.

Nowadays, we're more like limpets. Modern blockbusters invariably default to attrition as a means of progress: you simply clamp yourself to an appropriate surface and let the terrain's not-so-subtle logic guide you to victory. Cover-shooting has mushroomed from the province of Marcus Fenix to a standby mechanic in most third-person action games, and even a few first-person ones. Life is easier and, in some ways, better as a consequence, but what have we lost in the process? And how ubiquitous can an idea get before it sickens and dies?

The great strength of cover-shooting is that it gives you time to think and thus to appreciate. Gears of War was a graphical marvel partly because you were at leisure to savour the graphics (not to mention the AI and animations), tucked behind a sturdy block of rubble. Invisible algorithms operated like hydrochloric acid on incoming bullets, briefly reducing threats to scenery. "Cor," you thought, pivoting the camera. "Look at the size of that bombed-out townhouse. See how the sunlight minces and dallies across its ruptured surface. And consider the cleverness with which yon Grenadiers are flanking my position. Now, which of these four huge, friendly weapons shall I call upon next?"

As the noughties wore on, other games took Epic's formula (insert obligatory: "yes I know Kill.switch did it first but Gears did it better") and merged it with others, including the up-and-coming breed of scripted acrobatics epitomised by Assassin's Creed. Splinter Cell: Conviction proved that curling shots over chest-high obstacles could co-exist with the business of monkey-barring around ceilings. Dark Void had a stab at doing it on the vertical axis. Resident Evil 5 flirted grudgingly with the idea in the form of context-sensitive button prompts. Hunted: The Demon's Forge managed to apply it to medieval combat.

As the number of derivations increases, the mechanic's strength is slowly becoming its weakness. Locking to cover gives you breathing space, true, but in concert with recharging health, and given insufficient pressure, it's an excuse for disempowerment. You no longer win because you've cracked a level's tactical riddle or even out-shot your adversary, but because you've had the patience to sit still and whittle. Great cover-shooters are still being made, but market saturation has sent the common denominator plummeting.

We need a change of approach. Max Payne 3 (detailed in issue 82) is promising - there's no recharging health to sponge the gore off your box, and thus little incentive to wait your opponents out. Throwing yourself forward, preferably in slow motion, offers surer hope of success: your hit-box shrinks as Max gracefully belly-flops, and it's easier to pick out headshots from on high. Rockstar's no barnacle, that's for sure. Are there bigger fish in the pond?

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