Breaking Cover

It's remarkable how all the races of the Mass Effect universe exhibit the same architectural proclivity for large rooms littered with small, waist-high walls. It doesn't matter if the species is reptilian or mammalian, psychic or hive-minded. All of them want to make sure their buildings include lines of crates and huge, low-slung workstations. Across the galaxy, no room is considered complete until it can provide shelter to a squad of infantry.

As much as I enjoyed Mass Effect 2, I had trouble with the repetitive environments and nearly identical battles. There were so many times where something wondrous and alien was visible in the background, separated from me by an impassable partition that marked the limits of the map. The architecture that I could not explore suggested insect hives or graceful, nonlinear spaces. It suggested soaring cities and deep caverns. But it was just background artwork. My reality was one of rectangular platforms connected by ramps, and large, open spaces dotted with cover.

Cover is the great democratizer of shooter design. With a big room, some automatic weapons, and copious cover positions, you too can create an exciting shooter! You don't need a good engine, you don't need good controls, and you don't need good weapons. Just throw some cover down, and baby, you've got a shooter going.

Just not a good one. Cover produces bland, repetitive action and unconvincing locations. Toward the end of Mass Effect 2, Shepard and her crew are supposed to be in some the strangest, eeriest places they've ever encountered. But the level design always undercuts the art. Shepard and her crew might have journeyed to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, but in a very real sense they haven't gone anywhere. It's the same shooting gallery wearing a different skin.

It's not just Mass Effect 2. One of the things that well and truly murdered my interest in Red Dead Redemption was the way every encounter followed the same script. You and your allies would run across some bad guys. Everyone would start shooting and then run to the boulders, crates, barrels, and wagons that were conveniently arranged for just this eventuality. If your character was wounded and near death, you could spend a moment behind cover getting better, and then resume the battle as if nothing had ever happened. Enemies would stay roughly in the same places, making no effort to flank, assault, or retreat. They would just pop up every few seconds, take a poorly-aimed shot, then drop back down into cover. All you needed to do was plant the cursor above their heads and wait for the next regularly-scheduled potshot. Repeat.

Ultimately I liked Mass Effect 2 a great deal, but only because I enjoyed the characters and performances so much. Red Dead didn't offer any such compensations and so I bailed on the game after the first act. But the fact remains that cover-based design made each a lesser game. It stripped away the layers of illusion. Everyone hunkers down behind bulletproof furniture and starts trading shots with enemies a few feet away. With this kind of half-hearted combat, key elements of the plot become preposterous. Mass Effect 2 steadily builds up to a "suicide mission" that grows steadily less menacing the more you blaze through opponents. The combat is so devoid of peril that it's impossible to believe for a moment that Shepard or her crew are in danger of anything worse than combat narcolepsy.

At the heart of every shooter lies a dreary reality: you drop the cursor over a target and push a button until it dies. Good shooters never let you see this to clearly, or feel like it's that simple. They force players to concentrate on other tasks. They emphasize tactics and maneuvers, or weapon characteristics. They introduce enemies designed to counter standard tactics. They change the terrain to handicap some styles of play and promote others. They keep the player from relying exclusively on the same bag of tricks.

Too often, cover excludes these techniques and actually emphasizes the repetitive, mechanical task of point-and-click combat. By its very nature, cover roots combatants in place, so movement becomes a secondary concern. Environments tend to be similar and repetitive, because they have to make room for the large, broken spaces that cover demands. Worse, these spaces telegraph not only that a fight is about to occur, but often the way in which it will occur. Not that it's hard to predict, because cover also creates exposed dead-ground between the fighting positions where nobody can survive. So fights consistently occur at medium range. This in turn makes most weapons interchangeable. Sniper rifles and shotguns become decorative accessories on a character model. They are relegated to carefully controlled situations, like the inevitable sniper sequence.

There are cover-based games I've enjoyed tremendously. Uncharted 2 comes to mind, as do the Brothers in Arms games (although cover also helped make Hell's Highway the weakest game in the series). But too often, cover is a substitute for designing a complete shooter. Instead of unpredictability and danger, we get kill-houses packed with spring-loaded targets. Cover may not cause bad shooter design, but it certainly makes mediocrity easier to achieve.

Comments

Hm. Scathing, but very well put. I can't say I disagree with you, especially about Mass Effect 2.

Part of what thrills me about the design of Vanquish is that its mechanics break the static nature of cover-based combat. The lead character's ability to slow down time and, most importantly, to rocket-skid across the combat arena makes different ranges of conflict viable and prevents the usual start/stop momentum of cover-based games from settling in.

The problem largely isn't cover (although I'll give you the point that cover telegraphs where a fight is about to take place). It's poor implementation of cover. If enemies effectively employ suppression, flanking, and indirect fire (e.g. lobbed grenades) and, when appropriate, cover is destructible, that's already going to be a huge improvement.

What juv3nal said. That's one of the main reasons Uncharted's combat is so terrific. Uncharted 2 took this even further by giving you incredibly varied locations for cover-based combat. I'm thinking particularly the train and jeep chapters, where you had a very confined, constantly moving environment to deal with. It was very different from your typical cover scenario, not to mention pretty gorram impressive from a technical perspective.

Couldn't agree more. And again; I know I harp about this game too often, is how Max Payne did it. Yes, there's cover, but under heavy fire it disintegrates. This and the inclusion of bullet time it urges the player to move forward and out of cover since many weapons had a spread of where they actually hit (if I remember correctly). It forced the player to push forward and get in close for the kills. Also... no autoheal. I can't emphasize how much I dislike auto heal and how it has removed pretty much all tension from shooty games.

Wordy had the same objection: cover isn't the problem, poor implementation is. I don't disagree with that. But then, anything can be well-implemented or badly-implemented. What I find revealing is how often cover is badly implemented, and how the same set of problems crops up again and again.

Uncharted 2 is a great counter-example. For one thing, Naughty Dog generally did a great job of making the encounter spaces look natural as opposed to contrived. But more importantly, the AI was super aggressive with grenades and assaulting. Plus, there were the heavily-armored guys who were created specifically to drive into your half of the battlefield. Uncharted 2 also has the kind of engine and controls where the distance can really drop to within a few feet, such as when you're fighting inside those cramped apartments in the city level.

Rob Zacny wrote:

Wordy had the same objection: cover isn't the problem, poor implementation is. I don't disagree with that. But then, anything can be well-implemented or badly-implemented. What I find revealing is how often cover is badly implemented, and how the same set of problems crops up again and again.

In a way, it reminds me of the platformers of the early- to mid-'90s when seemingly every game was a platformer or at least had platforming elements. Platforming isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but it's a game system that's easy to do moderately well but difficult to master. Similarly to cover items, platforms force developers to push themselves in terms of level design in order for the environments to not seem baldly contrived and require game mechanics that make smart use of them.

(Come to think of it, if you turned a lot of platforming levels on their sides, you'd have decent layouts for cover-based shooters. It's only a matter of time until some cheeky developer builds Mario's Level 1-1 on its side out of crates and columns.)

My biggest problem with cover system combat in games is 9 out of 10 titles allow you to "pre-aim" your target while in cover. Assuming your target isn't moving much, you can get your reticule on him while you're behind a desk and just get that headshot with no effort after getting out of cover. I don't normally start a new game playthrough on Hard, but I do with games that have cover.

Excellent article. It sums up a frustration with shooters I've had lately that I couldn't quite put a finger on. Maybe it's just fatigue. But Bad Company 2 is the only shooter I play anymore. The variety of cover options and how easily destructible and temporary they are. There's no "cover" button; there's just crouch, which can give you a false sense of security while the top of your head makes an easy target for opponents behind a crate or hill crest.

Great read.

The battles that I really remember from ME2 (beyond the major boss battles) were a couple where the cover walls were set up somewhat in the open and some of the baddies were flying. They were able to flank you while other baddies were pestering you from the front. Most of the time it was just getting up and moving to another wall but there were a few battles that I had to replay a few times to figure them out.

This also made me think of Enslaved. I remember the first time I crouched behind a wall waiting for the robot to stop shooting at me. I had a huge "Oh sh*t" moment when the wall started to crumble. The crumbling walls kept me scrambling through the game. I also enjoyed the "distraction" mechanic. It changed things up just enough so it wasn't just a duck, shoot, move forward type of game.

This in turn makes most weapons interchangeable. Sniper rifles and shotguns become decorative accessories on a character model. They are relegated to carefully controlled situations, like the inevitable sniper sequence.

This is a big factor, and in addition to the samey level design you highlight, is a big reason why I am very tired of most shooters.

Designers want every character design to not only be viable options, but to flourish in their world, but instead of really zeroing in on what makes these character types/equipment unique and building their environments and missions to capture that, they pretty much just standardize all of the quests. They could have quests that are heavily weighted towards one loadout versus another. Or they could really alter the landscape to favor one tactic or another. But of course, then the player who didn't choose that loadout would bitch and moan that it was too hard, or that content was locked away from them because of choices they made.

spankyboy wrote:
Cover produces bland, repetitive action and unconvincing locations.

Cover may not cause bad shooter design, but it certainly makes mediocrity easier to achieve.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. If you choose boring and unimaginative tactics in a shooter is it any wonder that the combat seems dull and repetitive? Sure, you can grind through a game like ME2 cowering behind cover all the time moaning, “the combat is boring,” but you are doing that because you chose to do so, not because the game forced you. If anything, ME2 provides you with an amazing degree of tactical flexibility but it seems that relatively few people will explore it because they limited by their own expectations. “There is a crate. I must hide behind it!”

By its very nature, cover roots combatants in place, so movement becomes a secondary concern.

To me abundant cover makes movement a primary concern, encouraging me to be more aggressive to maximise my own protection while negating that of my opponent. That's my expectation and most cover based squad shooters I've played allow me to do so. Maybe I'll die a few times, but so what, it's only a game and I'm playing it to have fun.

The other side of the coin rings just a true as the original argument. The fighting mechanics in ME2 allow "shoot by turn" that made me reminisce of the first generation Final Fantasy series, but every once in a while I would "venture" from the lazy Duck. Wait. Shoot. Rinse. Repeat. that the game allows and try to do something similar to what spankyboy describes. More often than not, I would die. But I had fun trying to "play against the cover mechanic", knowing that if I died too many times or if I started to get frustrated, I could always fall back into the safety net of "kill by numbers" the game design allows.

If you think about it, this design is pretty good; allowing casual gamers that don't excel at shooters still progress, and also allowing more "adventurous" types to break out of the mold and try to have some fun.

In an age were design seems to be skewed towards the lowest common denominator, it's nice to find a game that will allow you to take from it what you put into it.

When it comes down to it, I kinda prefer levels designed around their game mechanics rather than aesthetics. Mass Effect tries its best to marry the two, and for the most part they've done a good job, but you're right that it doesn't always appeal to explorative pleasure center of our brains.

Epic Mickey, on the other hand, feels like they designed with aesthetics sense over platforming game mechanics and suffers in being plain ol' frustrating.

As for the cover system results in immobility and lack of tactical decisions -- I have to disagree just a tad. Undeniably it can get repititious in certain parts -- but I've felt some really great moments thanks to playing with the Vanguard class. The charge ability and the short ranged weaponry that the class is limited to emphasizes a mobile, risk-reward playstyle.

Go play Battlefield Bad Company 2. Sure, you have cover... but it doesn't make you safe when an enemy can shoot straight through it. What's that you say, "I'm in a building" well I'll just bring over my tank, RPG, grenade or c4 and boom, bye bye cover.

Cover is vital to any shooter, but developers need to adopt the BFBC2 approach and realise that a couch or a wall isn't going to protect you for very long.

Cover produces bland, repetitive action and unconvincing locations.

Cover may not cause bad shooter design, but it certainly makes mediocrity easier to achieve.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. If you choose boring and unimaginative tactics in a shooter is it any wonder that the combat seems dull and repetitive? Sure, you can grind through a game like ME2 cowering behind cover all the time moaning, “the combat is boring,” but you are doing that because you chose to do so, not because the game forced you. If anything, ME2 provides you with an amazing degree of tactical flexibility but it seems that relatively few people will explore it because they're limited by their own expectations. “There is a crate. I must hide behind it!”

By its very nature, cover roots combatants in place, so movement becomes a secondary concern.

To me abundant cover makes movement a primary concern, encouraging me to be more aggressive to maximise my own protection while negating that of my opponent. That's my expectation and most cover based squad shooters I've played allow me to do so. Maybe I'll die a few times, but so what, it's only a game and I'm playing it to have fun.

Last year I went to Clint Hocking's talk at GAMBIT and among other things, he responded to criticism people had of Far Cry 2, especially that it was repetitive. He took Spankyboy's line on this issue. He said, "My response, and this is going to sound really arrogant, but my response is that if you think Far Cry 2 is repetitive, then you're probably repetitive."

His position was that there were a lot of alternate ways to play, and if you got bored using the same weapons loadout on every mission, it was your fault for not exploring the cool stuff that was possible with the flamethrower, flare gun, mortar, remote mines, etc.

But here's the thing: if the optimal way to play isn't interesting, then there's a major problem. Because now you're asking people to make the game harder on themselves so that, maybe, something cool will happen. FC2 was a strong enough shooter that I did explore alternate tactics. They were fun.

But Hocking was still wrong, because the missions in FC2 were terrible, and they were repetitive. His team created a magnificent sandbox of destruction and a really great shooter. But there was no narrative or mission structure to make it more interesting. The missions weren't that rewarding no matter how you played them, so it made sense to fall back on optimal and, yes, repetitive tactics.

Which brings us to ME2. There is nothing about the design of those levels, the enemies, or the battles to make think, "I bet this gets a lot better if I'm a Sentinel class." It would have to be a lot, lot better to still add any value to the game. In the meantime, there are many games that don't force me to go hunt for a reason to play them, or invent new challenges for myself.

The games I experiment with are ones that I liked enough to want to find new ways to approach them and enjoy them. ME2's combat doesn't pass that test.

I liked the combat in both ME2 and RDR precisely because they were easy; I was playing for story and universe, which is really what those games are about. Seems strange to pick those games as examples of shooters being bad anymore. Now if you want to pick Gears 2 or some other cover based shooter, that is really only about shooting, well then that would be a conversation piece.

I agree with you 100% about the ME2 cover set-pieces being awkwardly placed, but I have two objections, one minor and one less minor.

1) On the insanity difficult level, enemies will use powers and tactics to force you out of cover. Biotics and heavies can push you out of cover and out into the open (often fatal if not responded to quickly) and other enemies such as vanguards, Krogans and mechs will rarely or never use cover, choosing to slowly advance on your position instead. I'm finding battles more interesting in insanity mode because you can't just sit in cover and pop in and out occasionally. I would agree that on every other difficultly level, the combat becomes less interesting and more like Time Crisis.

2) I think shooters are moving closer and closer to action films with respect to cinematic and set-pieces. I imagine one of the major reasons cover-based shooters took off the way it did has at least something to do with how cool it can look. Nothing beats seeing a hero drop into cover as bullets plink and ping inches away from his head. This is an action movie troupe that has been integrated into video games fairly well. In first person games, going into cover allows you to see the character you've been playing as, which is nice because nine times out of ten, you look pretty awesome. Third person games allow it so that you can occasionally see your face, without consciously thinking about it.

The problem arises when you start thinking about what's going on.

Example:

What the developer wants the player to think:
"Ah! Geth sniper! Drop behind cover, switch weapons, pop out, slow down time, head shot! Awesome!"

What happens from time to time:
"Ah! Geth sniper! Drop behind... Why the hell is this box in the middle of the room? Why is every warehouse in the universe so poorly organized? Who left this box here? I hope they got fired!"

When you think about it though, this video game troupe is no different from action movies or any other form of media that requires suspension of disbelief. It's like slow motion explosions or heroes holding their guns in a way to emphasize how cool they look. In reality, a cop would never hold his gun so close to his face; it's a good way to get your head blown off if a bad guy gets in too close. But to the average member of an audience? It looks awesome.

I suppose I don't disagree with Mr. Zacny, but would only emphasize the importance that suspension of disbelief and immersion in general has on any game play element. Some of the set-pieces in Mass Effect are ridiculous, but I didn't notice until the third play through.

The subjectively best game in the world might objectively have the worst gameplay mechanics; in the end, all that matters is if the player fell for it.

Rob Zacny wrote:

But here's the thing: if the optimal way to play isn't interesting, then there's a major problem. Because now you're asking people to make the game harder on themselves so that, maybe, something cool will happen.

I couldn't agree with this more. Who is the designer? The designer should make it rewarding to try new things and find that discovering new tactics and loadouts makes the game more fun.

SallyNasty wrote:

I liked the combat in both ME2 and RDR precisely because they were easy; I was playing for story and universe, which is really what those games are about. Seems strange to pick those games as examples of shooters being bad anymore. Now if you want to pick Gears 2 or some other cover based shooter, that is really only about shooting, well then that would be a conversation piece.

I don't understand how you can say that ME2 and RD2 are about story and universe when so much of the gameplay is about the shooting. We're not talking about Planescape or Fallout 1 where a valid gameplay choice was to avoid combat altogether - you had to do the shooting in ME2 and RD2, and a lot of it, in order to progress. If a game isn't "about" shooting, but you spend 50% of the time shooting, perhaps the game needs to take a long hard look at what its about.

Stream of consciousness... GO!

Platformers: I can see a cover "grid" in ME2 as an early platformer, for sure. Which set of blocks will I use to ascend to the highest point/closest point to my enemy to use my super power/maxed/favorite weapon to deliver the coup de gras? This is the same mechanic at play in Bethesda games, i.e. which is my favorite mechanic and can I max it out to play the game that I want to play? The difference between a shooter and Bethesda game is that in a Bethesda game you have more options, but in a shooter all you have is more locations. Monotony breeds contempt.

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Cover: I subscribe to the Blackwater (know your enemy) newsletter. I read up on geopolitics and listen to NPR, but at the same time I know that there's a new grenade launcher in the field that contains a laser range finder, discrete microcomputer in the round, and the ability to explode behind cover ("You get behind something when someone is shooting at you, and that sort of cover has protected people for thousands of years,"). Cover, in its various forms, is not merely the gamer's problem, it's our nation's and our warfighter's problem.

QED, is there a lurker among us who can comment here? What is cover? How is it really used as we persecute war among living men? What are we misunderstanding in the "mechanic" of practomime (i.e., the pattern of a platformer and how is it different from real war)?

I remember playing with someone, don't want to name the wrong GWJ'r, in GOW that opined "you don't shoot around cover, you shoot from cover." I never quite understood the point as it seemed obvious, but then again he always had better K/Ds than me.

-transition-

Nice hat Dysplastic.

Dysplastic wrote:
SallyNasty wrote:

I liked the combat in both ME2 and RDR precisely because they were easy; I was playing for story and universe, which is really what those games are about. Seems strange to pick those games as examples of shooters being bad anymore. Now if you want to pick Gears 2 or some other cover based shooter, that is really only about shooting, well then that would be a conversation piece.

I don't understand how you can say that ME2 and RD2 are about story and universe when so much of the gameplay is about the shooting. We're not talking about Planescape or Fallout 1 where a valid gameplay choice was to avoid combat altogether - you had to do the shooting in ME2 and RD2, and a lot of it, in order to progress. If a game isn't "about" shooting, but you spend 50% of the time shooting, perhaps the game needs to take a long hard look at what its about.

Precisely, and the Three Moves Ahead podcast two episodes ago (with Soren and Lara) touched on this point very nicely.

Rob Zacny wrote:

His position was that there were a lot of alternate ways to play, and if you got bored using the same weapons loadout on every mission, it was your fault for not exploring the cool stuff that was possible with the flamethrower, flare gun, mortar, remote mines, etc.

But here's the thing: if the optimal way to play isn't interesting, then there's a major problem. Because now you're asking people to make the game harder on themselves so that, maybe, something cool will happen. FC2 was a strong enough shooter that I did explore alternate tactics. They were fun.

...

Which brings us to ME2. There is nothing about the design of those levels, the enemies, or the battles to make think, "I bet this gets a lot better if I'm a Sentinel class." It would have to be a lot, lot better to still add any value to the game. In the meantime, there are many games that don't force me to go hunt for a reason to play them, or invent new challenges for myself.

The games I experiment with are ones that I liked enough to want to find new ways to approach them and enjoy them. ME2's combat doesn't pass that test.

Bioware released stats that showed the majority of players chose the default class, the soldier. It also happened to be, in my view, the most boring precisely because combat was the stereotypical clinging to cover that you describe. Why they probably chose the default combat experience to be so vanilla is very well described in Tiger's post above and there's nothing I would presume to add to it. His point that the developer should have done more to foster a desire to experiment is well made and it's a shame that more players weren't exposed to the variety built in to the combat system.

The problem is that people who play one game a year and really enjoyed Gears of War, my brother for example, have enough trouble pointing their weapon in the direction of the enemy, nevermind fussing with combinations of biotic powers. For him the cover based slog on easy is a fresh and fun challenge. For me after playing over twenty years of shooters it is death by ennui, so from the start I chose to play differently and was rewarded for it. In one game I was a Vanguard and I zipped about the battlefield like I was the Flash while in another I stealthed about as an Infiltrator, both very different experiences to the one you describe. Neither choice was hidden nor more difficult once I had learned how to play them, all that was needed was a desire to try something different.

Forgive my glibness, I wish to be brief.

ME2 is two games, a shooter and a talky RPG. Some people just wanna play one, so they have to make a simple way to go through the other. Is the RPG the better game? YES. Unless you're silly, you picked it up to play the great RPG and feel lucky if the shooter is passable. I think the shooter is way better than passable! Playing Insanity with an Adept was a grueling and fascinating achievement.

If you looked at a list of six options:

1 - No magic
2 - Magic
3 - Magic
4 - Magic
5 - Magic
6 - Magic

And picked #1? It's definitely your fault if it's boring.

Also, Soldier isn't the 'optimal' class, Sentinel is. Most people played Soldiers because they wanted the shooter part to be simple, rather than interesting. A lot of people prefer their games that way. Some also prefer their lives that way. I can't hate on Bioware for playing into that - I took advantage of it myself, as I found the RPG to have much greater longevity than the shooter, and played the Soldier both when learning the game at first and replaying it one last time in yet another way.

Good discussion. I am going to be douchey now and plug my own thread. We were just discussing this very topic here earlier this week: http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/1...

I don't think I should repost everything here, but check it out. Basically, I think defenders of the current cover standard do have some points. It can be a good system for offering varying levels of fighting depth to various levels of players.

However, c'mon. In the other post, we were talking about possible ways to change it up. I mean, isn't there some better way we can do this? Isn't there some way we can make the levels more organic? The fights less of a pop-up shooting gallery? The GWJers are smart. And they probably have millennia of game hours under their very stretchy belt. I'm sure we can come up with some better ideas.

I love ME and Bioware games in general, but the combat has never been the fun part of any of them. KotOR probably came closest for me.

I'm optimistic though. Someone always comes along and takes the right risk to re-excite a genre. Never know when that will happen.

I guess my question is this.

How much can game designers actually do? If they need to design the levels to support the 80% of players who play soldier rather than explore other classes, then that's where the effort needs to go. That's why the levels are the same.

But right at the beginning of the game they give the player a toy box, here they say, 'Pick your class. You can get through the game with any of them, so go for whatever seems cool.' Yet gamers like to do things 'right.' They like to min/max and have an optimal experience. So they pick the same boring sh*t all the time.

It's tougher for Farcry 2 because it's a shooter and everyone has a favourite way to play a shooter. But Mass Effect isn't a shooter. You can play it like one and have a satisfactory experience, but unless you play and experiment it's going to be pretty flat.

If you play ME2 as a Vanguard the cover that is a boon for Soldiers and Infiltrators is an active impediment. Playing at a higher difficulty forces you to play the game. Not just sit back and play whack-a-mole.

If the gamer would rather game the system for an optimal experience, rather than play the game, what can the designer do?

I don't even disagree with the meat of the article, I just think that ME2 was a poor example in many ways because it speaks of the calcified game play styles of most gamers (and I include myself here) than the failings of the cover mechanic and implementations itself.

If ME3 introduces destructible cover, which I doubt, it would make for a far more interesting game.

I think the mark of a good writer is that you can enjoy his work even if you really disagree with what is said. Which is a good job because boy do I disagree with Rob on this one.

I think my attitude to cover comes directly from my tabletop war gaming roots. With tabletop gaming you begin with a blank slate of an empty board, if nothing was added this would make for an incredibly dull game. What makes a tabletop game interesting and produces much of the tactical challenge is the way cover is deployed on the battlefield.

Obviously I understand you are not claiming all cover is bad, but I think much of Mass Effects woes are (as highlighted a few times above) due to the unintelligent behaviour of it's enemies. Think for moment about what is one of the most commonly cited examples of excellence in artificial intelligence in gaming, the soldiers in the original half life. The way these enemies used cover made the game's combat far more varied and challenging because you never knew what approach they would use.

The games I experiment with are ones that I liked enough to want to find new ways to approach them and enjoy them. ME2's combat doesn't pass that test

I have never played a Mass Effect on insanity level so I can't vouch for whether or not Grubber788 description of the enemy's use of tactics really does make the combat a lot more interesting, but what he says about the powers that the enemies use certainly makes it sound that it would add a lot more uncertainty to the tactical situation. so I am definitely going to give it a try on that difficulty level in my next play through, just to find out.

I suppose my question to you would be: Would you prefer it to have a situation where the environment fitted the story perfectly, but resulted in gameplay which basically consisted of two people standing in the open firing at each other until one drops dead?

spankyboy wrote:

Sure, you can grind through a game like ME2 cowering behind cover all the time moaning, “the combat is boring,” but you are doing that because you chose to do so, not because the game forced you. If anything, ME2 provides you with an amazing degree of tactical flexibility but it seems that relatively few people will explore it because they limited by their own expectations. “There is a crate. I must hide behind it!”

Players themselves are not entirely at fault when they are unable to broaden their play style beyond a safe (and dull) set of actions and reactions. The game itself has a duty to highlight or even teach the importance of the toolset and its nuances. It is entirely possible to slog your way through a large chunck of ME2 just by attaching to cover and blasting away. But relying on this tactic alone will leave you unprepared for the boss battle on Horizon. Without the knowledge of, and the experience using the specialized actions, you're going to get swamped by husks or have a hard time in whittling down the boss himself.

ME2 does make you aware of these available actions, what it doesn't do is impress upon a player their importance. Very early in the game there is an explicit instructtion to the gamer to use one such special attack, I even think it's mandatory in order to continue. Teaching him the existance of these commands isn't enough though. Its usage needs to be reinforced. ME2 fails to do this and it is possible for a player to just ignore it after this point. This is easily done because the beginning of the game can be played by just relying on cover based shooting. The player fails to experience the potency because shooting feels very effective.

Commonly a game developer will test a player to make sure they have learned a new skill, they will engineer a situation that is impassable unless the player uses their newfound talent. While ME2 does test the player it makes the mistake of collapsing the test along with the lesson. In the moment the lesson is taught, the exam is passed. This is no way to instill a desired behaviour. The player should really be tested multiple times in order ensure the cause and effect relationship is understood. There must also be an appreciable time between the teaching and the final testing so that the player has to remember what to do, rather than be told.

What happens without sufficient reinforcement of newly introduced skills is that the player falls into a narrow play style. It may be that the developer didn't want to present the player with conspicuous tutorial elements and failed find non-intrusive alternatives. There are further tutorials in the menus but not many players have the initiative to look there and being passive experiences they are poor behaviour enforcers.

The game introduces enemies with armour and shields gradually. To a player just using guns they are experiencing a gradual increase in difficulty that they compensate by just firing more bullets at the enemy and upgrading their guns. Eventually the enemy's resistances will increase quicker than the power of the player's weaponry and the tide of attrition will reverse. The encounter at Horizon is typically the point that this occurs. Enclosed in an arena with no one easily defencible position and a swarm of enemies from all directions, relying on guns alone just wont cut it.

Bioware failed to style balance the early game. Like class balancing that ensures whatever development path a player takes they will have the tools required to be effective so should the challenges within the game make the player rely on those tools. Insufficient challenge for a guns only style in ME2 imbues a player with a false sense of potency. Players needed to be taught much sooner that guns don't kill Collectors, special powers do.

I can't help thinking a better way to do cover is to get rid of the system where the character sticks to some wall when you press a button. As has probably been pointed out already, cover has been around as long as there's been trajectory modelling in bullets, you simply put something solid between the shooter and your target.

It seems that developers feel this doesn't give enough feedback and have to make an explicit system out of it where there's this binary state between being stuck to cover and out of cover with a drastic difference in gameplay between the two.

What I would suggest is a bit more automation in the character, a bit inspired by BRINK. At the moment your character is often a moveable turret, you either constantly hold your weapon just right ready to blast the next angry space blob to wander into your sights, or taking aim at the side of a crate your standing behind, or you're pressed up against a wall, one or the other. The automation would be that your character changes their stance based on how they're placed relative to terrain and obstacles in the environment, without the player specifically pressing a button to change state. It would seem it would give the developers more ability to have the character act believably, with a wider range of positions depending what they're doing and doing it around, than acting as an automation.

Enough work has been done in Inverse Kinematics so that game characters can walk over uneven surfaces without their legs clipping through the floor. Developers could use similar techniques and context driven animation morphing to make the avatar move differently depending on how close to cover they are and what type of cover it is. This would remove the need for both button-toggled cover and sticky cover since the player avatar will smoothly transition between being in the open and in cover.

Rather than the avatar zipping up to a wall automagically at the push of a button or hitting the wall's trigger boundary, they will gradually adopt the cover pose as they get near the object and the camera will subtly pan to give a better view around it. This isn't without it's own problems, you may want to move quickly through a level without your character reacting to every crate, boulder and pillar. Brink's free movement system is one way of solving the problem, holding a button to tell the game that the avatar is going to run past or vault everything and not cower behind them.

We've already seen these things to some degree. The excellent animation morphing in Uncharted 2 and the movement systems in the Assassin's Creed games. There needs to be more fluidity between 'stop and pop' and 'run and gun' play styles, I think we will be seeing that very soon.