With this post I want to take a look at weapons in video games that are mechanically unusual. They can’t just look weird, they need to to do something different than they would in other, similar games. The question is, what do these unusual behaviors add to the game play experience? Let’s take a look at a few different examples to see.
Gears of War
Starting out with Gears of War because it features two types of weapon gimmicks. The most forefront one is the chainsaw bayonet. It’s a very unusual attachment for a rifle. But functionally, it isn’t very different from other one hit kill melee weapons (e.g. knives in Call of Duty.) The chainsaw is a cool visual, but doesn’t really change the base game play of a shooter.
On the other hand, Gears of War features an extremely cool weapon gimmick with Active Reloads. Most games pushing the reload button, reloads the gun. This behavior quickly becomes second nature and automatic. In GoW pressing reload causes a line to move across a bar (see above image for an example). You need to hit reload a second time to complete the maneuver. Hitting the black bars causes a jam, leaving you guy a sitting duck while he fiddles with his gun. Grey bar is a normal reload. But hit the smallest white portion and you get a “perfect” reload. This increases the damage of your next few shots, and maybe other benefits depending on the weapon.
I adore this mechanic. Real guns are not just reloaded automatically and smoothly each time, especially not in a combat situation. While the active reload meter looks and feels very “gamey”, I feel it makes the combat much more tense and realistic by forcing the player to actively think about their ammo and reload actions.
When looking for good weapon gimmicks this is what I’m looking for, novel game mechanics that improve the play experience by forcing the player to look at tools they may have taken for granted in new ways.
Final Fantasy VIII
Similarly to reloading in a shooter, attacking in a turn based RPG involves pushing a button and it happens. Final Fantasy VIII’s main character uses a special weapon, the gunblade. When he attacks you can time a press of the R1 button to “fire” the gunblade for some additional damage. This trigger pull mechanic also appears in his limit breaks, but on no other characters.
This mechanic always stuck out to me. Combat mini-games are pretty common in the Final Fantasy series, but this is the only instance of a timing mini-game attached to a character’s basic attack. Especially when the idea of timing button presses to RPG commands was explored in a more thorough manner in Square’s Super Mario RPG.
I feel like an argument could be made that this is a superfluous addition. But, I really like it. Squall’s Gunblade is an unusual weapon, and this mechanic helps emphasize that. The R1 button’s position on the PS1 controller mimics the trigger on a gun. FF8 also came out after the dual shock controller was released. Adding force feedback to the trigger pull simulated recoil making the action very satisfying. If this mechanic was removed from the game it wouldn’t hurt the overall experience but, the Gunblade would have been less memorable.
Resident Evil 4
Resident Evil 4 gives you various “classes” of weapons, each with their own niche. Pistols are for single enemies close up, shotguns for groups, rifles for distance, ect. The Punisher takes the base pistol, lowers the damage a smidge, but adds in the ability to pierce through the first enemy to hit two. Now you can use it for crowd control, specifically when enemies are coming at you single file. You can create situations like this by luring enemies and funneling them through a doorway. Shotguns are still better for groups moving in a horizontal formation, so the Punisher doesn’t replace them. The Punisher is also able to pierce through enemy shields, cool!
This gun causes the player to rethink the way they use their pistols, as well as their character’s position. Landing pierce shots effectively doubles the damage output of the weapon, making up for the minor damage decrease from the default weapon. The final upgrade of the Punisher causes it to damage up to 5 targets, a fantastic reward for players who have mastered luring enemies into single file formations.
God of War Leviathan Axe
A fairly plain looking axe, with lots of cool abilities. The primary use of the axe is as Kratos’s melee weapon. So combos, power attacks, the usual. The unusual bit is that Kratos can throw his axe as well, leaving him unarmed. Most games would make you walk over and pick that thing up. Not here, this is a magic axe. Pressing triangle causes the axe to fly back into Kratos’s hand, Thor style.
On the surface level this would appear to be just a convenience mechanic for the player but, its so much more. Throw the axe at the enemy furthest from you, then hit each baddie between you and it on the axe’s return. I should also mention its a frost axe, so if an enemy has it embedded in their skull they are frozen in place, letting you wallop his buddies with your fists. The return and freezing elements are utilized in a number of puzzles throughout the game as well.
I love the Leviathan axe because it’s returning and freezing elements seem to exist solely for convenience or lore reasons. As I played through the game I was continuously struck by how many clever uses the designers came up for those two elements. It impressed me so much I got me to think about other “gimmicks” that proved to be more than they appeared, and write this article.
Each of these stands as an example of “good” weapon gimmicks. They enrich the experience of their games through their unusual behaviors. This helps make them much more memorable as well. I think because of its creative use Kratos’s axe is a much more iconic weapon than say, Dante’s sword. I’m sure there are other games that feature some goofy gimmick that totally ruins the experience, but I can’t think of any off hand.
Overall I’d say the lesson is: small changes to a weapons typical behavior can leave lasting impressions.