Is one shot, one kill right for videogames?

The modern FPS wouldn't be the same without the headshot. But are one-hit kills right for games, James wonders...

The release of Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 has us thinking about videogame combat mechanics. Specifically, the idea of the one-shot kill. When one bullet means the difference between success and failure, how can the potential for an instakill affect the way we play – and indeed, is it actually a good thing?

In most shooters, the easiest way to get an instant kill is to go for a headshot. Depending on how tactical a game it is, you may have to use a high-powered weapon, such as a sniper rifle, while in others a simple pistol will suffice. Sometimes it can be mitigated by a helmet, or the type of ammo used – but what usually matters isn’t the equipment you choose, but the skill and accuracy you display in hitting a relatively small area on your opponent. This is why games like Modern Warfare 2 give gamers the “One Shot, One Kill” bonus. To encourage you to get better.

It’s also common for melee weapons of some kind to offer the opportunity for an instant kill. In this case, it’s not because the target is hard to hit, but because getting close enough to use non-ranged weapons requires extra stealth and cunning. It’s as much a punishment for your enemy’s relaxed attitude to their own safety as it is a reward for your skill. Whether you’re thinking of the impact hammer in Unreal Tournament or the combat knife in Modern Warfare and others like it, the instant-kill melee weapon has been a staple of shooters for years now.

The idea behind most forms of instant-kill appears to be linked, superficially, to realism. In a world where people are concerned (rightly or wrongly) with the portrayal and use of guns and other weapons in videogames, there’s an argument that increased realism can only be a good thing. A bullet in the head should kill your opponent, just as several rounds to the chest should. 

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The problem with that line of thinking, of course, is that it’s ultimately as much a conceit as in-game “health” that allows you to shrug off multiple gunshots by finding a small medikit. Pursue the realism argument to its logical conclusion, and you end up having to acknowledge that not every headshot kills, or that under the right circumstances a bullet in the neck or shoulder can be just as deadly as one in the temple. What about angles of entry, and internal skeletal structure?

Far from representing realism, instant kills are about rewarding the player’s aim and abilities more than accurately modelling the use of a weapon.

Of course, sometimes instant kills are just fun. Many a deathmatch shooter has added an optional instant-kill mode to give games a frantic, out-of-control hilarity, but these modes tend to work precisely because the game isn’t balanced for them. When you’re playing an instakill deathmatch, the fun you get is less about skill than blind luck – what you’re actually enjoying is how level the playing field is, and how ridiculously difficult it becomes to survive for more than a matter of seconds.

So on the surface, it seems like one-hit, one-kill mechanics do potentially enhance a game – not by making it more realistic, but by giving the player a goal to aim for when trying to improve their tactics and capabilities.

But many of those arguments for the instakill mechanic can quickly collapse when it comes to multiplayer gaming.

Online lag has been the bane of Internet gaming since the first modem-owning enthusiasts dialled up their friend and argued about who would be the host in a game of Linewars. Things are better now, but the nature of online gaming means they’ll never be perfect. Someone always has the technological edge.

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It might only be five milliseconds, or 10 milliseconds, or whatever – but you only need a couple to click a mouse button or press a key. When you’re playing with instant kills, any amount of lag can mean you’re dead before you even see the opponent. The fact is, videogames are supposed to be fun. And being killed because you live slightly further away from a telecommunications hub than your opponent is no one’s idea of fun.

But then, there’s a reason the one-hit, one-kill mechanic hasn’t died out, and that’s this: it’s only unfair when you’re on the receiving end of it. 

To an extent, the same is true of instakill melee weapons (few things make less sense than a knife in leg resulting in instant death during a game of Modern Warfare). You could almost think that the reason developers introduce and continue to use such deliberately unbalanced elements is because they’re doing it on purpose – they know that a game being annoying is, in many ways, better than being dull. If you’re screaming at your opponent’s improbable success, at least you’re not thinking about something other than the game. And when the same mechanics go in your favour, you don’t feel like you’ve cheated: you feel like justice has been served.

So maybe that’s the true appeal of the one-shot kill. A collective agreement that the fun you get from making one is worth the embarrassment you suffer when you’re the target of one. That skill and accuracy are secondary to the inherent enjoyment of taking out your opponent with all the deadly precision of a master marksman.

And, let’s face it – at least being a wannabe sniper feels like a more honest way of playing soldier than being a 400-pound chunk of meat who can survive multiple gunshots to the face…

Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 is out on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC on the 15th March.

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