Arms Race

I have a new least-favourite thing about games journalism!

You know how people going through a rough patch in their lives commonly throw themselves into their work? How they shunt the anger and self-pity and all those dark energies into their job, allowing them to spend more time each day distracted and further their career in the process?

Yeah. You can’t do that with games journalism. If you try it’s like flinging yourself onto one of those easily collapsing tables they use in wrestling. Videogames and the industry around them is an easy-going thing that does not readily support journalists desperate to make a DIFFERENCE or GET ANGRY or RALLY THE TROOPS! Everyone’s happy to get by without that acid and fire.

Turning to the games themselves is worse.  When you’re even a touch jaded it’s impossible to approach a videogame with the intention of letting it take over your life. Flaws and irritations crawl out of your television like beetles.

On that note, I present something that’s pissing me off about games.


I’m sick to the ballsack of shooters which as you progress feel the need to gradually amp up and enlarge the weaponry you and your enemies use, as if the game was locked in an arms race with itself. Recent offenders off the top of my head include Far Cry 2, Red Faction Guerilla and Resident Evil 5, but this design decision has been going on since forever. I dimly remember reading an angry reader letter in GameFan where a dude called Cunobelinus was bitching about how quickly the slingshot was introduced in Gae Armies of Cornnwal 2. I am saying this thing has been going on for a long time.

The reason I find it irritating is it surgically strips away all traces of subtlety from an action game. It’s horrible watching cinematic pistol duels and dramatic escapes in crap cars slowly morph into a kid’s fantasy involving tanks, helicopters, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns but this one guy can fight it all and win because he the strongist. Horrible because it’s less fun, horrible because it’s dumber, and horrible because you can see it coming on unavoidably like a slowly lowering ceiling. Hey developers! Here’s a tip. If your game requires bigger and more frequent explosions to keep the attention of your playtesters, you’re probably doing something wrong in the first place!

Even Max Payne and Stranglehold did this escalating arsenal thing. These are two games based on John Woo’s small-scale and deeply personal bullet ballet, and yet they both drift into military grade mass-scale death with an idiocy and inevitability not seen since the Titanic.  My hatred for this of course comes parceled with enemies which use explosive weaponry,  what with this always causing at least three incredibly irritating unforseeable deaths as you struggle towards the end credits because a rocket came flying in from off-camera.

ALTERNATIVES THEN. Make enemies quicker instead of better armed. Put down more of them. Make them smarter. SOMETIMES put down someone with a big gun for variety’s sake. As for the player, don’t just drip-feed them bigger and bigger fuck-cannons, give them variety in environments and tactics and techniques. Look at the really smart, laser-polished shooters of this generation, look at Halo 3, Gears of War 2 and Modern Warfare. Look how their combat doesn’t devolve in absurdity, look how the weaponry ebbs and flows like the sea. Look at people doing this right.



  1. It’s a similar thing with difficulty too; developers get lazy and just make you weaker and them stronger. The whole point of changing difficulty is to create an interesting challenge, not just make things more frustrating. I yearn for games to look at stuff like Swat 4 and Hitman, where different difficulties meant creating interesting restrictions on play that fostered a far more clinical and clever play style, rather than just seeing if you can see the psychic snipers a little faster than those who can only hack it on easy.

    But yeah, in general, escalating weaponry is not so fun, unless in an rpg sort of way, where it makes sense that you’re more powerful. There’s a bit hazard they can fall into though, which is to take away all your toys in an enforced way that is just frustrating. Prototype did it, and to a lesser extent HL2 actually did it, but then, they just gave you an even cooler gun to actually have fun with. It’s basically just smart thinking required, which isn’t really that common in the majority of games development. At least, in those making the design decisions.

  2. I agree with what your saying, but sometimes, SOMETIMES it makes sense, like in Zombie Shooter, where you get guns which can clear half a room and your awed by the infinate power! And the spraying of the gore and the death.

    But yeah, this is why I want to enjoy APB, which (hopefully/apparently) gives you all the weapons at the start of the game, and you can sorta work down the list you know? Start with the most giant ****-off boom stick, and as you get more skilled start using less powerful guns until you can take poeple down using stealth and a pistol, minid you that’s creating your own difficulty curve. And to be fair though, no matter what game devs do, they’re going piss off someone, so it might as well be the minority who want vaguely-realistic challenge rather than the majority who just want to explode some stuff.

    @Phil Cameron: RPG weapon upgraditude is fun, but makes little to no sense. As in the hero who is SAVING THE WORLD TO WHICH THE MERCHANT SELLS THINGS can’t even get a measly iron dagger for free? Screw you Elder Scrolls. Mind you, it’s kinda scary in games like Persona 4 where some crazy old guy is selling teenagers guns and swords and uhh… fans to fight imaginary monsters in a TV. Not as bad as the police officer who can “sense evil” in the 3rd game though. =P

  3. I’m interested that your angle was “stick to the low-level weaponry” since my main problem with weapon escalation is when I have to fuck around with inaccurate, short-range, jamming-prone junk for THREE WHOLE ZONES in Stalker until I can finally get a G36 so the game stops being a drag.

    But now that you mention it, I HAVE been wanting for a while a more subtle game that makes each bullet matter, and where a pistol is actually as scary as it is in real life (actual pistols? Really fucking scary – when it comes to assault rifles and that, you can’t even relate to it, but pistols are more… real, in a way).

    I’ve been playing some gloriously daft and exaggerated games recently, like Mercenaries 2 which wouldn’t work at all if not for its hundreds of thousands of constant explosions. They can still be a lot of fun, but you’re right that it would be nice to see something that went in the opposite direction. Seems to tie a bit into your Stranded Marine post in that respect.

  4. Jonas, you’re so right about the realistic weaponry idea. In Killzone 2 (a game I disliked generally), the pistol feels nice and weighty, but the enemies’ reactions to it were more akin to having a bee in their armour than being penetrated by a speeding lump of lead. I’ve always wanted – not IRL of course – to shoot an adversary in the leg and have them fall over for good, screaming, dropping their weapon, trying desperately to get a shot back.

    Even Far Cry 2 had bullet sponge enemies. Maybe that’s the crux of your complaint, Quintin.

    The gradient of shit-good weaponry made sense in Far Cry 2 though, or it was at least excused far less transparently. It worked a bit like the cars in Gran Turismo, but thanks to the optional arms dealer missions you could opt out if you wanted. Enemies themselves had rocket launchers from the start.

  5. …I see what you are saying, but I do not think that Serious Sam has anything to learn from Halo 3.
    But, of course, in Sam, the absurdity is part of the point, as is the scale.

    And you do not win because you are the strongest, but because you are more skilled. More Serious.

    …I guess what this boils down to is: at no point in the game should you introduce a mechanic that is less fun than the mechanics that precede it.

    The fact that you get a cannon at the end of the game does nothing to diminish the joy of going through the first level of Serious Sam on the hardest difficulty with only the knife.

  6. I see your point, and in some cases I agree with you, but I also think that there are games where escalation makes sense and shouldn’t always be attributed to lazy development. Ironically, I find that three of the games you indict for this behavior are justified in doing so (I haven’t played Stranglehold so I can’t say about that
    one). Additionally, the weapons in these games maintain a usefulness/degree of lethality throughout, especially in Far Cry 2. You can certainly make it through that entire game using only the G3 and a Makarov.

    In Red Faction Guerilla, the player begins with small, isolated acts of sabotage and ramps up to all-out war, with appropriate responses from both sides throughout. You don’t send tanks and put the army on full deployment when someone blows up a shed. In the same way, the titular Red Faction sticks to smaller targets while gathering its strength in order to not elicit a military response that it is unable to handle, such as tanks.

    In Far Cry 2, the player arrives towards the beginning of the conflict, and then participates in its escalation. The warlords in that game are greedy bastards and aren’t going to shell out for expensive equipment unless they need it to win; hence each side starting with crappy crap then ramping up towards military-grade equipment. As a player, you’re stranded in an embattled african country without your equipment, money or even medical supplies; you have to work for your guns, especially the nice ones.

    In Max Payne, you’re a cop on the lam, and so while normally you might have been able to get a hold of some premium scag like a full-auto m16 or mp5, all you have is your police issue pistol. In the same way, you start out fighting the small fries– regular thugs and small-time crime-lords, so they’re not going to be equipped much better.

    Your counter-examples, Halo 3, Gears of War 2 and Modern Warfare, all take place in military settings where escalation doesn’t make sense– all of the troops have standardized arsenals.

    The “this one guy can fight it all and win because he the strongist” element is a natural end in many video games– most aren’t about being an average joe or a cog in the machine; they’re about being the Hero, the big badass who can take on anything,
    because that’s what most people want (you can attribute that to escapism or whatever your favorite -ism is). And while they might start small, these games naturally lend themselves towards epic scale conflict; taking on a car full of thugs might be badass, but taking on a tank full of thugs? Or even multiple tanks? Eminently more badass. You praise Halo 3 for its laser-polish, which it certainly deserves, but then seem to forget that it above most others is a “kid’s fantasy involving tanks, helicopters, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns”. Yes it already begins in a relatively epic manner, but even from that point Halo escalates significantly.

    The exceptions that prove the rule, games like Swat4 and ArmA2, tailor themselves to more realistic play. The whole point is that the player *isn’t* special, just another soldier/cop who can be dropped by a single bullet. These simulative games are essentially their own genre, and while they share the trappings of games like Halo or Gears of War, the core experience is completely different.

    I’m not saying that games shouldn’t be criticized or that developers shouldn’t try to push the envelope, but I do think that your ire is somewhat misdirected.

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