Whatever Happened to the Ammo Box?

Advance warning: Wall of text follows and it’s not entirely thought out to the point where I’d normally consider it a final draft.  I may come back to this and edit it once I’ve had time to sleep on it a bit.

I usually have a couple of games going at any one time, but it’s uncommon for me to play something like Call of Duty: Ghosts and then realize that I never DID finish Black Ops 2 and should probably go back and knock that out.

Nonetheless, that’s what’s happened.

I’m still playing Idolmaster: Shiny Festa: Something Or Other on lunches, mind you.  I failed to win the Star of Festa competition on my first go so I’m taking another crack at it.

Black Ops 2 throws some interesting twists into the whole Call of Duty formula, mind you, and it’s a little nice to get shaken up by stuff like the pseudo-RTS mode and the branching story paths, but playing it so soon after another entry in the same series finally made me realize one of the things that I miss about older first-person shooters: the ammo box.

If you look at those older games – starting with Wolf3d and Doom, moving on to Quake and Half-Life and all of its sequels and so on – they present individual levels as exercises in resource management.  Your character tended to be able to carry a bizarre amount of weaponry, but you had to be careful about which particular weapon you were using at any one time because ammunition was generally scarce.  Furthermore, if you happened to be at your capacity for ammunition for a particular weapon and you happened to pass a box of bullets for that weapon, the smart thing to do was to make a mental note of where the box was, switch to that weapon until you’d fired off at least <box capacity> of bullets, and then backtrack to the box.  Similarly, health packs and Doom’s three colored key system made the player constantly keep track of where they’d been.

The flip side of player resource management was that the levels were designed around a finite number of enemies, and balancing ammo boxes to number of opponents was presumably a tricky bit of balancing for any level designer because the levels had to keep the player just a little bit ammo-starved but never so much so as to get them into a position where they were completely helpless because they’d run out of everything.  The cop-out was usually to give the player a less-powerful weapon with magic infinite ammo or to give them a melee weapon.

This lead to a problem with players who could put the game WAY out of balance by being good at conservation, particularly in games where your ammunition carried over from level to level, which made for the inevitable “reset” level where your character is stripped of all of their gear / weapons / ammunition and then given a carefully-selected set of replacement stuff to rebalance the player to the environment, generally just before a boss fight.

Playing a modern FPS, very little of this matters.  Your equipment is in a constant state of flux, because you can only carry a couple of weapons and running out of bullets for one means that you should probably pick up a different weapon.  There are usually SOME weapons placed statically throughout a level, but you’re generally picking up whatever gun the guy you just shot dropped when you shot him.  In some of these, dropped weapons vanish after a few seconds, so the decision to swap out what you’re holding for what’s just become available has to be made without too much thinking about it.  You also don’t ever need to backtrack for a health pack – if you’re wounded, a quick duck behind a nearby wall will get you back into fighting form.

This is presumably a lot easier for developers to balance.  Also, since the player is constantly pressing forward, it keeps the tension level high.

The downside, at least for me, is that the world doesn’t feel nearly as fleshed-out.  Going back to Doom, one of the technological feats it pulled off was fooling the player into believing that the world had a genuine Z axis, when the truth was that there was no way for a corridor to pass under another corridor.  Doom maps were 2D dressed up to make you think you were in a 3D world.  A shooter like Black Ops 2 needs to pull off a similar illusion; it’s a linear path through a level but if the path is wide enough you hopefully don’t notice the guardrails.

It kind of reminds me of an article I read about Firefox (not the browser, but the videogame based on the Clint Eastwood movie based on the book).  That was one of the early laserdisc games, with computer-generated targets superimposed on a video background being played back from a laserdisc player.  The video being played back was a first-person view from the front of the titular plane, and had absolutely no connection to the movements of the joystick – you only controlled the targeting reticule.

So, what the developers did was put targets near the edge of the screen where the view was about to move to.  The player would see, oh, a bridge appear on screen and they would move the crosshairs to target the bridge.  The bridge appearing was synced with the spot where the video playback would be panning in the direction of the new target, so the effect on the player was to make them believe that moving the crosshairs toward the bridge was actually flying the plane towards the bridge.

Firefox was a game that was far more immersive if the player was cooperating with the developer’s intentions, and I guess that’s a good enough way to distinguish a modern FPS from an old-style one.  If you behave, and walk forward, you’re treated to all sorts of pop-up shooting galleries and exciting set pieces and get told how awesome you are.  If you get off the path, well, stanchions.


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