Hit detection and the zoom toggle

April 16, 2010

I was going to start this post by lavishing praise on Diablo II, that old, fragrant sock we all know and love. But then I thought: we all know and love it, so why bother? It’s still a good game. Very good in fact. And, shockingly, still being supported and updated by developer Blizzard, a decade on from its original release, even with its successor, Diablo III, announced and on the way. Patch 1.13 has arrived, and includes support for widescreen resolutions (something I’ve been using a mod for so far) and a skill point reset option (which I need, having committed a schoolboy error early on in assigning points for my sorceress).

Now on to Borderlands, which was only released in 2009, is therefore not an old sock, and is far from univerally adored. It would be an insult and an error to call it a Diablo clone, but it certainly carries some of the classic hack and slasher blood in its veins. The character classes are highly distinct and don’t conform to stereotypical models, skill points can be distributed across three separate trees, and there’s almost no recognisable story. Yay!

It’s been praised for the way in which it blends classic RPG character development with an FPS model that takes notice of the player’s twitch accuracy. Indeed, it may be the most successful stab at this genre chimera since Fallout 3, but it’s far from being the holy grail.

Do headshots matter more than hitting the torso? Yes. Is there a soft aim mechanic? No. But it’s an RPG first, and an FPS second, so you’ll need fifteen headshots to bring a bandit low, as opposed to the conventional one. You can also forget about assassinating a boss five or ten levels above you with a sniper attack, because it will barely scratch his health bar.

And that’s more of a problem than you might think. In Diablo it’s ok that I need to hack away at demons for thirty seconds straight. Because my perspective is detached, I can be detached. But in Borderlands, I can see my adversary in far greater detail. I can, in many cases, see the whites of his eyes. So, when I aim down the scope of my sniper rifle I expect a bullet to have the usual impact, which means it should kill, maim or disable. It’s doesn’t feel right that it barely causes him to flinch, and the net effect is to decrease his hit points by 10 percent.

It’s interesting to think that this used to be the standard in shooters. Roll back in time to Doom, Half-Life, or indeed as recently as Half-Life 2, and you’ll find enemies absorbing a silly amount of damage. Even the riot police you face early on in HL 2 can take 5 or 6 hits from your pistol, and later on some of the better armed and armoured combine grunts can withstand grenade explosions.  That doesn’t hold up to scrutiny anymore. Not for me anyway.

The Call of Duty series is perhaps mainly to blame for this. It’s innaccurate to describe it as the birthplace of realism in shooters, but it has pushed the limit of what most of us are prepared to suffer in terms of realistic consequences in the shooter genre. In Call of Duty you can’t take too much damage yourself, but more importantly neither can the enemy. Most of the time, one shot anywhere above the waist will do the job, and that creates a sense of feedback which is addictive.

Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising and ARMA II are well known right now for crossing the line into ‘true’ realism, a domain which has traditionally been lorded over by flight simulators. Reviewers have highlighted the harshness of the gameplay, citing examples where they’ve been shot by a sniper they had no idea was in the area, or suddenly blown to pieces by a far-off tank. For me, this extreme is awkward and alienating. But the net effect over the past few years has been a shift toward mixing in more realism. Borderlands bucks that trend, and for me, partly fails as a result.

It also doesn’t handle lag very well. Granted, no game is at its best when you have a ping of 250, but it’s certainly true that some ride the rapids of an unreliable broadband connection better than others. In Borderlands, the problem is manifested by poor hit detection. Countless times I’ve aimed for a headshot, fired, and missed. Half the time this is down to crappy aiming on my part, but there’s a frustrating other half where I’m convinced I should’ve hit and haven’t.

This isn’t a criticism of the game—developers can’t be held responsible for my underperforming internet connection—but it is something to bear in mind if you’re in a rural area with minimal infastructure. There are few things more infuriating in a shooter than achieving perfect aim and not being rewarded.

Something that can be blamed on the developer of Borderlands (Gearbox) though, is the zoom function on my sniper rifle, which is not a toggle; I have to hold it down to keep looking down the scope. I feel quite strongly that this is retarded and, in our current age (if we can now refer to spaces of time in gaming culture as ages), criminal.

Basic design choices matter, and the control system is (perhaps) the area in which developers most frequently choose poorly, or fail to see that there are choices to be made at all. If I have to aim down a sight or a scope to achieve any kind of acceptable accuracy, make that action quick and easy; don’t make it painful. Understand also that applying pressure to my right-mouse button for minutes at a time, every few minutes, is painful.

To Gearbox: patch zoom toggle into Borderlands or I will inscribe a grimoire of curses on the walls of your headquarters… in strawberry jam. That is all.