Regenerating Health Kills

I’ve been gaming for the better part of twenty years and, in that time, I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go, however this one seems to be more resilient than some of the bosses from the Metroid Prime series. Recently we’ve seen a few games move away from it, but it’s still knocking around and I’m going to provide an overview as well as my opinion on the whole subject of regenerating health. As you may have already gathered, I’m not a fan of the concept and hopefully what you’ll read here are not only the reasons why, but also how I think it could be improved.

To start, with let’s look back at where this all began. Due to its commercial success, there are those who regard Halo: Combat Evolved as the first time a regenerating health system was used in a game. While it may seem that I’m being pedantic in stating this, I don’t actually believe it to be the case. Halo had a regenerating shield bar and a separate health bar that you could get health kits for. While it may have also made the concept popular, the first game to actually use this was Faceball 2000, for the Game Boy.  As the Halo series grew in size, the health system underwent many changes but I believe they all featured some sort of shield / health balance as opposed to just regenerating health.

The first Halo game was released back in 2001 and as we slowly strafe our way through 2011; we have seen an explosion in the use of regenerative health / shields in one of the cornerstones of gaming: the First Person Shooter. Attaching itself to one of the most popular forms of gaming has allowed this form of health system to spread to well known franchises such as the Call Of Duty and Gears Of War series. If it’s so popular then why do I think it’s a bad idea?

What do you mean, "Why are we shooting at that rock structure?", he's hiding behind it and we're trying to destroy it, that's why! What do you mean "This isn't Crysis, so the rock won't take any damage??".. oh yeah.. shit!

For a start, I believe it heavily impacts the fun factor of gaming. I understand that there are different types of first person shooter games today; there are your “Serious Sam” types who wade in all guns blazing, the “Thieves” who have to sneak around and not get spotted, in fact, there are possibly hundreds of ways of playing today’s games, however I believe that the fun factor is being hampered when gaming becomes a task of returning fire and then taking damage, before hiding behind a rock for five to ten seconds to heal. It just isn’t realistic.

People will, of course, say that not all games are realistic. Fine; but if I’m playing as some hulking space dude who’s circumventing Saturn’s fourth moon while riding my chocolate and swede rocket ship, I want to be able to shoot at the evil space slugs of the planet Lorn without having to worry that I need to go hide behind the nearest asteroid belt, just in case I got shot a bit too much. This impacts the fun element of this style of game, and the game is based on one thing but the gameplay suggests something else.

It also works the other way around, with games that lean towards a more realistic setting. If I’m currently playing a “real war” game that’s set in medieval England, or out in whichever the latest nameless country is that someone has invaded, I don’t count getting shot with a rocket before quickly scurrying behind the nearest car to regenerate my left arm and right kidney as being totally correct. I just don’t feel that it has a place there in the context of the situation. This impacts the fun element and, in turn, breaks immersion yet immersion is the reason these games work so well.

I believe that regenerating health also impacts the skill factor involved in gaming. Unless the game in question has particularly gifted A.I., there is nothing to stop the player from hiding behind the nearest solid object and slowly picking off the opposition one by one. I would much rather know that after I get shot a couple of times I’ve either got pull off the impossible and cap the last two guys without dying, or make a dash for that health kit. It does not enable the sort of player development that I found crucial five to eight years ago if you can literally wait each fire fight out. I find that, in order to make harder difficulty settings for today’s mainstream games, developers just propose to throw more and more bodies at you and rely on you succumbing to the fact that it merely involves too many people shooting at you at one time. If regenerating health does have a place in mainstream gaming, then perhaps it is on an easier difficulty setting and as you move through the settings the health recharges less, or not at all, and health kits have to be used.

Linked to the skill factor, is the lesser point of fairness.  Now don’t get me wrong, at this stage you’re probably thinking that this is all a rant because CptToffer sucks at games. While I am by no means as amazing as some people I know and have watched, I am also not the world’s worst gamer. I played with a successful clan for the best part of three years and enjoyed winning a lot of matches and competitions, however the use of regenerating health in multiplayer has a negative effect on the experience. If I’ve spotted you, shot you and you’ve managed to get behind cover, well done, have a cookie! I, however, have injured you with my deft shooting and, as such, you should now be at a disadvantage because you were busy… being about as self aware as a banana. What I find to be totally annoying and downright agitating, is that when said “banana” pops his head up and starts blasting away at me, he’s returned to full health, and I (the total mug in the open), having made a mad dash to get to him before his magic health bar refills, am now totally and utterly screwed. People will say that I should’ve killed him the first time, or I should have waited, and that’s fine but the fact remains that he’s still got a full health bar again despite my early advantage.

“What else? If not regenerating health CptToffer? You can’t be critical without some sort of better option.” Luckily my dear fellows, I have one. The Far Cry 2 / Resistance model represents this better option. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, it uses a mixture of regenerative health, segmented health bars and health kits. This means that the health bar will perhaps be split into four separate 25% bars and, if your health empties out of one segment, it can only be regained by a health kit. If you take a slight hit and it knocks a little bit out of the segments then, given a few seconds, it will refill. Lose the majority of your segments and first aid will have to be used, perhaps by removing a bullet or setting of a broken bone. I’m not saying that this is perfect, nor is it above criticism, and if I thought that pulling a bullet out of my leg would solve any health issues after being shot over thirty times then I would’ve picked up a real gun long ago. However, I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Yeah, you just keep shooting away.. I'll hang here a bit

While I have gone about highlighting the negative effects that regenerative health has on the genre, I cannot as a gamer ignore the positives, however minor I may feel they are. It does afford new players to the genre a better learning curve than the unforgiving nature of using medkits, which would generally require them to kill someone to earn it. Some may even argue that this increases the fun aspect for newer players as they will enjoy the early stages of the game more. Another bonus is that it avoids the “suicide” approach to multiplayer gaming, whereby someone with low health would kill themselves and return to full health, which was an annoying by-product of not having regenerative health. This was deemed as cheating in the eyes of many but isn’t an option with the current popular health model.

In closing, I leave you with this thought, and something that honestly only struck me while writing this article… I’m currently playing Call Of Duty: Black Ops, which has a regenerating health system. Grenades are regularly thrown at me because I’ve got into the habit of actually killing people. Now, with a health pack system, I would be running and diving for cover, grinning like a madman if I managed to survive with even a small piece of health. With the regeneration system I view this grenade… this rolling ball of death, as nothing more than an inconvenience. I can’t kill it; it will be gone soon and there’s a good chance it won’t kill me. I watch it roll near to me and wait. It explodes.  I take damage, wait, and move on. The grenade may as well not have even existed. This reaction, or lack thereof, is created by regenerating health. It totally removes the fight or flight response that gaming brings out in me and, for that, I find that regenerating health is slowly killing first person shooters.




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14 Comments

  1. rich says:

    I started reading this disagreeing with you but by the end I’m kind of with you on this.

    I guess this hints at a bigger issue. It should be possible to get through a game without being shot but regenerating health kind of suggests that you definitely will get shot at some point, meaning the gameplay is kind of flawed. It’s a bit like the problem I have with sandbox games. Throw in an illusion of freedom and it means you don’t have to properly design levels. Allow user content and it means you don’t have to create proper characters.

    That said, I found Far Cry 2 utterly joyless so I can see the need for regenerating health in some cases but two of my fave ever shooters (GRAW and Project IGI) didn’t have regenerating health and they were wonderful.

    Halo was bollocks anyway!

  2. Ste says:

    Interesting article Chris. I’m kinda on the fence with this. I agree that regenerating health will undoubtly take the realism out of games like CoD:BlOps etc but at the same time what is so real about running over a healthpack and being returned to full health? In your grenade example the player who had to find a health pack might have to spend ten seconds or so looking around for one, all the while he is close to death and risking being killed. The player who has regenerating health doesn’t have to move around for ten seconds or so while his health regenerates but at the same time he is not a moving target and potentially a sitting duck waiting to be finished off. I think it’s definately a case of swings and round abouts but when it comes to multiplayer I think regenerating health is better.

    Singleplayer games are, I think, a different kettle of fish. I’d like to see that hybrid system abit more I think.

    Good first article mate, I’d like to read more from you.

  3. Lorna says:

    Enjoyable piece and pretty ‘beard strokey’ in terms of the problems posed. Like Rich, my thoughts got turned around somewhat by the time I had finished reading. What I found interesting was reading about experiences that I don’t usually have i.e. FPS multiplayer gaming. While I have encountered regnerating health in single player games, I have never considered it a problem as I have never (thankfully) stepped into the multiplayer FPS arena.

    Now that I think about, many single player games have had regenerating health – even Alan Wake recently, but to be honest, it can be a relief. Overlord – a game that I especially enjoyed – made you farm hundreds of extra minions in order to sacrifice them to forge special armour, some of which had optional health regen. properties. That way I could choose whether it regenerated my health, mana, or boosted my health bar.

    Perhaps a perk system or choice in characters selection would be a good solution… yes, not all games could implement it, but it would at least give hardcore players the choice… until all those pain in the arse homophobic teens that we hate to despise on LIVE all opt for health regen. that is…

  4. FC360 says:

    I dislike regenerative health on some games that try being realistic however I have yet to encounter a game that’s so close to real life it’s impossible to see where the real world ends and the gaming world begins. I like having regenerative health on the games I play on as it allows me to fight more and have more fun in the process, I don’t want to be playing a game get shot and then that’s it I have to restart the level, that takes away the entire fun of the game and the game would be taken back the same day. There was a game I played ages ago on PS2 based in London where to recover health you had to lean on something that was the best health regeneration system I’ve seen. The only games that shouldn’t have health regeneration are RTS style games like AOE or Starcraft which don’t have regenerative health anyway.

  5. Samuel says:

    I really don’t mind regenerative health. I grew up picking up hearts and rings and mushrooms to regain health, so it’s a lot more believable to think every video game character is a Wolverine wannabe than a cannibalistic magpie on a perpetual fungus high.

    I have played some games that don’t have regen health though, or where it’s optional, and that can enhance the experience. I played New Vegas right up until the Great Corrupting of the Save on the hardcore mode, and really got off on that element of the game. I know some people who hated it too. Still though, that wouldn’t work with a lot of games. Games like Halo, to take your example… you get shot. No matter how good you are, there’s more bullets flying around than at a kindergarten in Texas, you’re going to take a hit. Stopping to hide behind a rock and perform rudimentary field surgery with your combat knife would be ridiculous, you’d do it every 3 seconds and you’d get flanked and killed mid-burn treatment. Or, if they simply turned off the regen, you’d get killed over and over and just take the disc out in disgust and play something else.

    I love a realistic game now and then, and I reckon it’s a good thing to try and innovate on, but really I don’t see any better alternatives to the present way of doing it without getting too bogged down.

  6. Tania says:

    I love health regen, but then I don’t play multiplayer FPS. I was bloody grateful for it in Alan Wake though and wish it was in Resident Evil on the Gamecube.
    Good one Cap’n, welcome aboard ;)

  7. Toffer says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone and for the warm welcome!

  8. Jase says:

    I feel like realism is something that should be tempered in games. Operation flashpoint being the logical conclusion of ultra realistic mechanics and to most folks its not much fun (or at the very least not what they’d want to play the majority of the time)

    I cant imagine adding picking bullets out of your legs in a multiplayer match being something most players would be jazzed about as a feature.

    I think regenerating health is something that’s hear to stay. If you think about the game play implications of pickups for health its easy to see why they’ve went the way of weapon spawn points, It makes the game less predictable and means that players can be competitive without learning the maps inside and out.

  9. Rook says:

    I’ve played games with and without regenerating help and never found it to be an issue; you learn to adjust to that games approach as I doubt they will ever be a unified way to address health top ups. I play single player mostly and like the regenerating health system, it’s no more realistic than expecting there to be health packs spread throughout the levels – maybe if you are fighting in a hospial but less likely when fighting through a jungle.

    Plus with single player games it’s just me against 100s/1000s of enemies so I’d prefer to regenerate health than carry numerous health packs.

    What I don’t like about multiplayer FPS is you can be shooting someone and they still have enough unflinching momentum to charge you and kill you with one swipe of a knife.

  10. Adam says:

    Strokey strokey beard strokey indeed!

    I get that it irks you, games were never like this 10 years ago and they had worked fine then, why did it have to change?

    Ultimately it boils down to rewarding the player (or in the eyes of the publisher, the consumer). We don’t want to get nine rounds taken out of us and then be forced to replay a section, it gets irritating fast and as Sam said, you don’t want that in a game. For multiplayer, the dynamic has simply changed so you spend more time playing than spectating whilst dead. I haven’t played many games where regenerating health has been a concern for me, so long as the playing field is balanced and that I’m able to do the same as my opponent then I can’t find reasonable grounds to argue with it.

    I do agree with you that Cover + Health is a problem, if a player has been wounded and otherwise bested, why is the player then granted such a generous view of the battle? If I’ve forced someone into cover, I love storming on, keeping their heads down and moving in for the kill. If they’re able to watch, wait for me to sprint and then pop up for a headshot they already lined up from cover, well then the system has failed ‘my style of play’ there.

    Great read though Toff :)

  11. Toffer says:

    Cheers all! Appreciate the feedback!

  12. Edward says:

    Great first article, Toff!
    Like Rich said, I disagreed at first, but I was with you by the end.

    It’s a weird disconnect between the two and admittedly I wanted to write something similar to this, but you beat me to it and did it a lot better than I could have, so hats off to you :D
    However, health packs weren’t a super amazing system, and too many gamers are used to regen health for now, we need something better than both systems to become the norm.
    Or just health packs, I’d kind of prefer that.

  13. MarkuzR says:

    I’ll admit to not knowing much about regenerating health. When I first read this article, I had to stop and ask a couple of people if they’d experienced this whole renegerating health issue… and they had. I hadn’t. At least, I didn’t pay much attention at the time but it turns out that I actually HAD.

    Borderlands… hell, I’ve completed this four or more times now and every single time I’ve spent ages comparing stats between shields to make sure I not only have the highest possible capacity but also the fastest health regeneration… and yet it never actually clicked that it had the potential to ruin a game. Granted, with Borderlands it’s never really going to be an issue as you’re not competing against others but it does still mean you have the option to duck and wait for the health bar to creep up (or shoot up, in the case of King Wee Wee’s Super Booster) to full health before attacking the enemies again. With Borderlands though, and I’m not sure if this is the case with other games, the enemy also has a regenerating health bar so if you leave it too long between shots, they’ll start to replenish their health.

    Most of the games I play don’t have this luxury though, which is perhaps why I didn’t notice it with Borderlands. Either way though, I totally understand what you’re saying… it can be a game breaker in certain circumstances.

    Welcome to GL my friend!

  14. [...] just get taken out… once you’ve got through their shields, oh how I hate thee regenerating health. When there are vehicles involved, it literally becomes a case of pot luck whether you manage to [...]

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