I was playing Modern Warfare’s singleplayer campaign last night (yes I fucking know), and was struck by the incongruity of the health regeneration in the game. It’s basically the same damage forgiveness system as Halo’s shield regeneration, right? If you take fire, you can either tough it out or duck into cover and rebuild your strength for another go. As a game mechanic it treats the player a little more kindly than simply giving her a static pool of life points that only renews or depletes in response to interactions like getting shot or stepping on a medical kit with her boot. Sure, you got shot, but you shook it off after a second; maybe it was just a graze that stunned you, or the adrenaline kicked in. These are rationalizations, really, for a strangely gamey system that softens the difficulty of the game a bit.
On the other hand – big stupid what if question incoming – the only reason that the player needs forgiveness is that taking too much damage results in a fail state. You die, get a pithy anti-war quote from some who ought to know, and restart in ludus res at one of the game’s generously-distributed checkpoints as though the death had never actually happened. The only way to end a mission is to keep soldiering through until you complete all of the objectives given to you.
The only reason for regenerating health in Modern Warfare is that you must survive to complete a level. If you take away the binary resolution to the level – e.g., you don’t succeed or fail, but rather succeed to varying degrees based on how long you live or how many objectives you complete – regenerating health becomes a lot less important. This seems like a pretty good idea to me, mostly because regenerating health pulls me so badly out of the game. The whole mood of Modern Warfare is based so heavily on “theatrical realism”, to coin a phrase, that having a blatantly gamey mechanic rearing up all over the place is jarring.
On the other hand, for a non-binary level resolution to be anything more than base developer wankery, it needs to have some consequences, and that would involve a lot more work. With a game is as detailed as this one, adding a lot of time and money to the development budget, already considerable, is probably not going to fly with the publishers; I totally understand why linearity is preferable. You want that entire development budget to be up there on the screen all the time, not hiding off in other branches of the story or in weapons and character the player may never see.
I’m not putting Modern Warfare down by any means. It’s a beautifully realized work, and I think it has a real point to all of its carnage. Absolutely every character I’ve played is morally compromised to some degree: the SAS men who murder sailors in their sleep; the grunting Marines, so many of whom sound like they’re voices haven’t cracked yet, smashing their way into an enemy state and playing rap on the national TV station; the blasé, disengaged AC-130 gunners treating their targets as blips on a screen (hello Gamer, you are sort of like this, aren’t you?). The whole thing has a subversive streak a mile wide; you signed up for a blockbuster wartime thrill ride, but bubbling just under the whole thing is a cauldron of discontent with the world being portrayed. “This game is awesome”, Modern Warfare warns you, “but don’t mix it up with the real thing; the real thing is fucked.”