It's January 2010. The last decade has drawn to a close, and more than anything else in the past 10 years, there is one single-player gameplay mechanic that has done more to revolutionise video games. That mechanic is "cover".
1a: to guard from attack b(1): to have within the range of one's guns
Those are the first two entries in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. In gaming, "cover" is hiding behind objects, and a cover system is a game mechanic in which the gunplay is built upon the idea of not getting hit. The point with a cover system is to shoot and avoid getting shot, not sneak and avoid getting caught.
Traditionally, first-and-third-person shooting games have allowed players the ability to run around a battlefield and pop off bullets - "run-n-gun".
But run-n-gun is to a water gun fight as cover is to paintball. "It's like in summertime, having a water gun fight with SuperSoakers," explains Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski. "You don't really care about getting hit and getting wet. But with paintball, the entire point is not to get hit, because it hurts." That fear of pain translates to a fear of death in video games is the M.O. on which the cover system operates. In November 2006, the release of Gears of War did not invent the cover system - Bleszinski will be the first to admit that - but the game did spearhead a cover mechanic renaissance during the last decade.
It could be argued that the idea of cover is as old as video games are themselves. Space Invaders from 1977 featured cover - while not a "mechanic" per se, the player's laser cannon can find cover behind destructible defence bunkers. It was the 1995 first-person-shooter arcade game Time Crisis that introduced a dedicated button (here, the "action" foot pedal) that could be used to find cover behind in-game objects. Time Crisis not only had a proper cover system mechanic, but also a dedicated cover button. The mechanic not only helped Time Crisis separate itself from competing gun shooter arcade games like Virtua Cop, but also cleverly took advantage of the players hand-foot coordination and the fact that players stand to play Time Crisis to create a new arcade game experience.
While American developers churned out run-and-gun shooting game after run-and-gun shooting game, Japanese developers explored the cover mechanic in shooters. Koei, best known for the Dynasty Warrior hack-and-slash games, released third-person-shooter Winback for the Nintendo 64 in 1999. Players were Jean-Luc Cougar, a secret agent with Special Covert Action Team (SCAT), and out to take down a laser command centre. The game did not allow players to run-and-gun, instead forcing them to stop and shoot. Crates and corners provide cover for Jean-Luc to pop out from and fire his weapon. Namco, who developed Time Crisis, tried its hand at a cover-based third-person shooter with 2003's Kill Switch. The cover system was the main draw and was featured in the game's tagline: "Take Cover. Take Aim. Take Over." Both game forced players to use the camera controls to look around the environment, giving more strategy to the games than simply running around firing a weapon.
When Epic Senior gameplay designer Lee Perry saw the cover system in Kill Switch, he thought it was a "breath of fresh air." Epic was hard at work on the third-person-shooter that would become Gears of War. The game was missing something, and that was cover. Perry called Bleszinski into his office, showed him Kill Switch, and both agreed that this mechanic was exactly what their game needed. Shooters had become stale with players running around, hopping up and down like rabbits. "It drives me insane to see a character running at me in game with a gun," says Bleszinski. Cover didn't permit that. You do that, you get your head popped off.
But the idea of cover was risky. "There was still this very real fear that players didn't want to play a defensive game," says Perry. "Conventional wisdom was that they wanted to feel empowered and leap off a building into a crowd of 30 opponents." Cover wasn't about mauling your enemies en masse . It was about surgically killing them. And Kill Switch's poor reception and lacklustre sales didn't exactly inspire confidence for Epic. Bleszinski often talks about a "special sauce" that games need to become successful. The cover system was one importance ingredient in that sauce. "Had we not implemented a cover system," says Lee, "I think we would have spun our wheels in many other attempts to find our magic."
With the looming shadow of Halo, Gears of War needed something to separate itself, give itself its own identity. "Games are defined by verbs," says Bleszinski. "We wanted to give players a verb they hadn't really experienced." For a macho, loud American game, Gears of War brilliantly integrated a then underused Japanese design element that required patience and finesse. Gears of War might let players control muscle-bound bruisers, but the controls could not be more delicate and more precise - one of gaming's truly great contradictions. The game was a hit, selling over five million copies. The cover system found its way into more and more games. "That was validation," says Bleszinski, happy that the cover mechanic has become a popular feature. "It showed it worked."
Developers began pushing the cover mechanic forward, advancing game development behind simply hiding behind something. Naughty Dog, the studio behind the Uncharted series, took cover in a completely, forgive the pun, uncharted direction. The point of reference for Naughty Dog was not little known Japanese console games, but Hollywood blockbusters. "Scavenging for weapons, running from whizzing bullets, and scrambling into cover as your only chance for survival simply had the right vibe for us, and were necessities if we were going to be true to the genre," says Uncharted 2 game director Bruce Straley. "So cover-taking became the extension of an aesthetic desire first." Straley puts simply - Problem: you're being shot at. Solution: get into cover! Even though Uncharted has cover, Naughty Dog views the title as more of a run-n-game than a stop-n-pop game and uses cover and the enticement of cover to move players down the in-game map.
But what Gears of War is to the ground (it's a very earthy title, with the enemy spawning from underground), Uncharted is to the sky (the game has hero Nathan Drake jump and swing from high places). In Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog aimed to bring cover to climbing. The game allows players to engage in combat whenever they were climbing, hanging or jumping. "This expanded our idea of what cover really meant in the Uncharted world," points out Straley. "Suddenly, cover was a sign hanging off a lamp post, the ledge of building, or a window frame." Cover no longer tied Uncharted to the ground. In a similar vain, Dark Void, released this January, implements a "virtual cover system" that literally turns the in-game world on its ear, providing new and unexpected cover for players.
Even though early cover game Time Crisis was a first-person shooter, cover has felt largely bound to third-person shooter titles. The reasons for this are obvious: Putting cover in third-person games frees up the camera. It is easier to judge space when you can see your character. Time Crisis is a rail-shooter: The path is already set in stone, and there is no freedom of the in-game camera. Players are popping out from behind cover to fire their weapons. Developers Treyarch and Guerilla Games both brought cover with their respective titles Quantum of Solace, released fall 2008, and Killzone 2, released February 2009.
Guerilla Games first implemented cover in its 2006 PSP game, Killzone: Liberation, which was released a month before Gears of War hit. But the title was a third-person shooter, and for Killzone 2, the developers wanted to keep as much as possible in the first-person as not to take players out of the moment. Initial efforts at shoehorning Killzone: Liberation's third-person cover system into Killzone 2 were lukewarm at best. "Luckily one of our designers was convinced that a cover system like this was possible in first person and filmed some examples at home ducking and pop out behind his dining table," says Guerrilla game director Mathijs de Jonge. A fully functional in-house test demo soon after proved cover could be added, and the final product allows players to blind fire over cover as well as lean-n-peak to shoot.
For gaming as a medium, the wide diffusion of cover has breathed new life into the shooter. Ultimately, cover is less about shooting, and more about not getting shot. "It is a core system, a mechanic you use to survive," de Jonge says, echoing Bleszinski's sentiments about cover raising the stakes. "As the player is subtly forced by the game to utilise cover, we create a tactical experience that simulates real life gun fighting," de Jonge continues. "I mean would you ever see a soldier strafe around the battlefield to dodge bullets?" No, no you would not. Cover brings a sense of realism to unrealistic worlds and unfathomable battles, giving deeper and even richer immersion not only to gameplay, but the entire experience. Push ahead. Duck down. Fire away.