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The Top 7 Groundbreaking Gameplay Mechanics

What is it that makes a great game truly great? A video game can have a solid storyline and incredible graphics, but if its gameplay foundations of fundamental and intuitive mechanics are not well implemented, then it suffers tremendously. Give a player too much power and the game suffers; give a player too little power and it suffers even more so.

Many games fail in this area, but I’ve had the pleasure of being pleasantly surprised by a swathe of video games over the years whose game mechanics have struck that balance, resulting in very strong, reputable titles. Today, I present my list of the most innovative and groundbreaking gameplay mechanics in recent history:

1. Climbing Enemies (Shadow of the Colossus and Dragon’s Dogma)

While Shadow of the Colossus may have been the first game to introduce this groundbreaking mechanic, I didn’t come across it first-hand until I played Dragon’s Dogma.

“Epic beast-kill for the win!”

For me, this idea was amazing. For too long, RPGs had always been about encountering large enemies with devastating attacks while you helplessly slashed at their feet and legs. Here, actually climbing these monstrous beasts got the adrenaline pumping every time. Doing so revealed weak spots and required strict stamina management. If you were lucky, the huge foes became extremely aggravated, flailing their various body parts about like they’d won the lottery.

The game’s soundtrack would erupt as the defeated beast fell to the ground, adding to the sense of accomplishment. How it took so long for this important gameplay mechanic to be implemented I’ll never know, but credit must be given to Shadow of the Colossus for being the first to use it, and to Dragon’s Dogma for refining it.

2. Bullet Time/’Slow-mo Kill-cam’ (Max Payne and Sniper Elite)

When you’re talking about shooters, games always try to find ways to make their kills stand out. They make us yell in excitement or even squirm at something we wouldn’t wish upon any man. At times, they can be hard to watch, but they also never get old.

If you’ve ever played any of the Max Payne or Sniper Elite games you’ll know what I’m talking about. Whatever you want to call it, Bullet Time or a slow-motion kill camera, has fast become one of the best ways to enjoy today’s shooters.

“Hope this dude wasn’t religious, ’cause right now he’s looking pretty hole-y!”

In the midst of a heated exchange, whether between man or machine, you take the chance and leap from cover, triggering a Matrix-like sequence of events. Time slows down as bullets whizz past both combatants, and with defeat comes the resulting gaping spray or surgeon-like precision to vital organs, all in delicious slow motion.

My personal favourite is the Sniper Elite version of this mechanic. Not only do you witness the epic shot with the x-ray view of an enemy’s internal body structure, but the truly awesome shots also follow the flight path of the bullet from start to finish. There’s blood, severely damaged limbs and broken bone flying about like shrapnel, showing the graphic damage your eagle-eye caused in excessive detail.

3. Sliding in the ARS Suit (Vanquish)

It’s over-the-top, fast-paced and very pretty to look at. The storyline is a mess, the characters aren’t overly likeable and the voice-acting is a train-wreck – and yet, it’s still a bloody good game. Vanquish makes fun of itself to such an extent where it’s so bad that it’s good.

Good luck wiping the smile off your face.

This makes Vanquish the most, if not, one of the most, underrated games I’ve ever played. Your specially designed battle armour, the Augmented Reaction Suit, holds many high-tech features to help you when scurrying around the battlefield. Primarily though, the immense power this piece of kit exerts allows your character, Sam, to zip past enemies at mind-boggling speeds. While sliding, you also have the tenacious option of firing at the hulking robots on approach, which is a gutsy manoeuvre and is a true measure of a player’s confidence with Vanquish.

If your suit’s shields are low enough, time will slow down, giving Sam time to get to cover. It’s here the sliding feature comes into its own. Dodging armour-piercing rounds, massive chunks of debris and consecutive explosions, with an upbeat soundtrack ringing in your ears, oozes B-grade action movie and the feeling of: “Yeah… like a boss”.

4. The Bash Ability (Ori and the Blind Forest)

Even though it’s a recent title, Ori and the Blind Forest left a profound impression on me. The look of it, the tight controls, and the engaging story all made for a very well-rounded game.

Unlocking the Bash skill paves the way for greater map discovery and overall story progression. Aided with a white arrow, Bash allows Ori to bounce off enemies and their missile attacks. This game-changing ability also gives Ori the power to send incoming projectiles back at enemies by pointing the directional stick in the opposite direction. The trick is to get the right angle on the incoming shot to avoid sending Ori into a pile of thorns or other hazards.

The Bash ability offers the player more options when it comes to gameplay and allows you to uncover plenty of locations and otherwise unknown collectibles in the game.

5. The Nemesis System (Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor)

While many wrote the game off as utter fan-service before it was released, if Shadow of Mordor delivered on one thing, it’s giving players the epic task of dismantling the Uruk army through a unique gameplay system.

The Nemesis System, coined by Monolith Studios, gives every incoming and outgoing member of the hierarchy a name, rank and personality. As expected, the Orcs at the bottom are dispensable, but will ascend to greater power and influence if there’s a vacancy higher up the food chain.

“You’re mine now!”

As Talion begins to wield power within their ranks, the smell of deception spreads throughout the army like a plague. Respect and loyalty, strong foundations which keep everyone in line, start to fracture. It’s very entertaining to be a part of the events as Talion, and witness how his power is used to diminish Sauron’s command in the game.

This was truly a groundbreaking mechanic and it is bound to be utilised by many other developers in the future.

6. Active Reload (Gears of War)

Since it burst onto the scene in 2006, Gears of War has given Xbox fans so many fantastic, fist-bumping moments. It has also introduced many gameplay mechanics that we take for granted these days, such as the iconic Horde Mode.

However, underpinning these heart-pumping moments, when ammo is low and every shot counts, we say, “Thank goodness for Active Reload.”

“Damn it! Just missed!”

Active Reload gives players the chance to save their own, or each other’s, arse by reloading a magazine swiftly and with precision. There’s a black space, a slightly smaller grey area, the white ‘sweet spot’, and a very quick little slider. A badly timed reload results in your in-game character fumbling around with the gun like they’ve never used it before, as your teammates add fuel to the fire with a bit of friendly sledging.

But it is a fantastic feeling nailing consecutive perfect reloads as if you’re playing Gears blindfolded. This mechanic rewards players with reflexes and a good timing, giving them the opportunity to maintain a bit more composure on the battlefield. At the same time, it also punishes players – seeing red in that top-right corner diminishes whatever skills they had – as they stay in cover, outraged that they made a beginner’s mistake.

7. Using the Mako Vehicle (Mass Effect)

Let’s be honest: Few of us enjoyed using the Mako. It’s bulky exterior and slightly heavy steering made for an uncomfortable mode of transportation in Mass Effect.

It possessed a less-than-impressive hover ability but, funnily enough, was able to traverse any structure. Despite the fact this was extremely unrealistic, making your way up a 70° cliff face proved an easy task.

“We’re going up that?! Oh boy, it’s gonna get bumpy!”

On top of that, the physics involved in accomplishing these seemingly impossible tasks was quite amusing. If the Mako happened to roll, there was no issue: it touched the surface ever so slightly and rolled over with little to no damage taken. It’s comparable to the ragdoll effect on enemies in games like Dark Souls – lifeless pieces of amusement getting caught on your adventurer’s feet.

Instead of despising the time spent in the Mako, I grew to enjoy the quirks of a those horrendous physics and terrible realism in investigating another planet. But, it was 2007, and with such a serious and engrossing story as Mass Effect, if the Mako taught me anything it was to enjoy the little things.

Which groundbreaking gameplay mechanics would you include on your list? Were there some that we missed? Let us know in the comments below!

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  • Stubidoo

    The Power Wheel in Mass Effect should get a mention.
    Exclusive to the console versions of the game, the name says it all!
    Similar to the weapon wheel of many games like Farcry, only this gives you control of not only your own power abilities, but the abilities of the two fellow comrades fighting along side you.
    Opening the power wheel brings combat to a standstill, allowing you to analyze and unleash your best moves. This gives you the chance to use three abilities simultaneously, either combining power attacks to create a more explosive impact on a single enemy, or taking out three separate enemies by allocating which powers to be used where.
    The power wheel gives you so much more control over the battlefield and has a big influence on the allies you choose to bring with you.
    It’s definitely one of my favourite gaming mechanisms so far and hope to see more of it in the future.

  • Hayden

    Thanks for the comment, Stubidoo. Yes, there were many mechanics that deserved a mention. In hindsight, The Mako should’ve been replaced by something like the Portal Gun or the brutal melee style of the Batman: Arkham games. Still, the Weapon Wheel is definitely up there!

    • Stubidoo

      I agree with swapping mako for portal gun.