Can The Headshot Be Replaced?

Headshots are ruining games. Think about the arsenal they give you in Splinter Cell. Think about the remote camera, the sticky mines, the grenades, and EMPs, and all this other stuff, shotguns and assault rifles…and you went through the entire game using the default pistol and then the upgraded version of the default pistol, ’cause it’s silenced and you can shoot guys in the head with it really well…all of the spots where you are not being seen by anyone the right answer every single time is shoot that guy in the head…it is ruining games. – Jeff Gerstmann

Quote taken from Jon Porter’s post over at Bitmob.

I have a confession. I have a confession, and I’m not sure I can explain it, but here it is: I have an addiction to crunch. That visceral feeling, a shot of adrenaline, that rush of blood. I can’t get enough of it. The rasp of your feet when Limbo’s protagonist slides over a mound of earth, Nathan Drake jumping over an impossible abyss only to land in a perfect grapple…there’s a thousand small moments that exist so vividly in my mind, that I can feel in my bones, that I can swear last a lifetime. None of these moments, however, can match the perfection of a single moment: and that’s getting a headshot in Gears.

It’s not a crunch like any other, because it exists on every possible plane. You see it, the skull pops off in this perfect arc: gruesome, but poetic, in this macabre sort of way. You feel it, that perfect surge of rumble, of feedback. And the soundbite! It should be a requirement for any game with a headshot to implement the same soundbite: there’s nothing else out there that gives you the same satisfaction as hearing a Gears 2 headshot.

And the thing is, it’s not like popping bubblewrap or smashing a watermelon with a baseball bat: you’ve got to earn the high. You’ve got to fight for it. In all the FPS games I’ve played, Gears has to be the hardest game to land a headshot in if only because of craptastic connections, and Marcus’ pin-size head doesn’t help the fact that the hitbox for the headshot is questionable. Couple this with the competition of multiplayer and a Gears player’s penchant for masochism, and you’ve got yourself a reward of the highest order.

Of course, this can be said of any game: try searching for Modern Warfare or Battlefield footage on YouTube, and try to find a video that’s not a montage of headshots. Truth is, nearly everyone who plays FPS games are addicted to headshots. Sure, it’s an efficient way of taking an opponent out: most shots to the head do more damage than bodyshots. I’m convinced it has less to do with a player’s desire to get rid of enemies as fast as possible as it does with a semblance of the headshot high.

Think about it. Sure, you can kill a guy. You can do this in a variety of ways, pinpointing a wide array of locations on the body. But there’s a tinge of humiliation that occurs when you best your opponent via headshot. You’re not just killing them, depriving them of bodily function: you’re taking them out completely, their mind is yours to claim as well. You’re turning off the lights, laying claim to body and soul. You have absolute power over them, and all because you managed to dispatch one or two well-placed shots. Power negotiations between players of opposite teams are never more apparent than that search for the infamous BOOM HEADSHOT.

In this way, I can see Jeff’s criticisms clearly: players can become obsessed with the headshot, but it’s because it’s efficient and it feels great, a testament of prowess. No one wants to just “win” when they’re playing against other people (or enemy AI), they want to prove they’re better, they’re faster, they’re stronger. The headshot embodies all those things simply and as elegantly as designers have managed to implement so far. The fact that some games, like Battlefield, give you bonus points for achieving a headshot, isn’t helping, either.

So then the question would be, can you replace the headshot? Is there a way to one-up it, as it were?

Part of the issue, I would say, is shoddy weapon design: what use is it having a wide variety of weapons if only a couple of them are interesting, fun or effective to use? Plus, there’s no way we can stop obsessing over headshots if a good deal of weapons give us the capability of attaining headshots anyway: weapons need to start thinking about different, equally crunchy ways of disposing enemies. As fantastic as the headshot is, I’ll be the first to say that I wouldn’t mind seeing something fresh that delivers a similar experience, if not better. I doubt that the headshot is the only way to deliver that experience.

Klei Entertainment certainly knows it’s not. Shank is an ultra-violent brawler, whose purpose can probably best be described as “sandbox to kill people in lots of ridiculous ways.” Pounce onto an enemy, shank them in the face, throw a grenade in their mouth, watch them explode up into the air, and then catch them with your shotty before they hit the ground–if timed right, you might even get to throw them off the rail in one smooth combo. There’s guns in Shank, yes, but get this: there’s no such thing as headshots. And adding them would do nothing for the game, since there’s a million other better, more interesting, more visceral ways of disposing of your enemies. The idea of a headshot is, comparatively, boring.

Yes, it’s evident that many designers are attempting to address this problem: latest trends have games with achievements or trophies tied to attaining a certain number of kills with a wide variety of weapons, to. Sure, not everyone is going to care about achievements, but designers are still trying to incentivize gamers to trying out different things instead of hanging on to the headshot. Problem is, simply giving you an achievement for getting 500 kills with X weapon isn’t particularly exciting–if you want to match the amusement and high of a headshot, you’re not going to attain it with a reward like an achievement. That’s boring, in the visceral way of things, and that’s not what headshots are about.

The requirements have to be amusing and crunchy in of themselves, not mindless. Monday Night Combat, for example, has in-game emblems and endorsements tied to killing enemies in unique ways, from attaching airstrikes to enemy pros or for flattening enemies with your body. I think it goes without saying, but it both takes skill and is pretty amusing to watch a gunner pancake an enemy assassin: it’s no headshot, sure, but it comes close enough that players will go out of their way to get that endorsement. People playing Monday Night Combat don’t strive for dominance via headshot: part of this is that it doesn’t even exist for people who play classes outside of Sniper, and part of it is that even if it did, golfing your enemy outside the arena with your gun is still better.

Likewise, Bulletstorm’s killshots focus less on headshots and more on taking out enemies in style. Yes, headshots exist but they’re not the end-all-be all for taking out enemies. The game makes use of “skillshots” which reward you for taking advantage of unique weaponry, such as an electric lasso, as well as various environmental hazards, like giant cactuses, to wreak havoc on your enemies. Similarly to Shank, enemies exist solely to be taken advantage of in gruesome, but awesome ways. Bulletstorm takes this one step further and names different possible combinations, incentivizing players to figure out all the unique ways they can get rid of the poor AI smhucks.

But, this is just talk. Why not watch some footage of the action in Bulletstorm yourself?

In theory, the idea behind games like Bulletstorm and Shank is one that replaces the necessity for the headshot, but the only way they can be succesful is to have a strong grasp of “crunchy” mechanics as well as a repertoire of weapons which are all fun and effective to use (definitely not simple in practice!). Knowing this I am hesitant to believe that Splinter Cell’s problem was the ability to land headshots–surely, the real issue there was design-oriented one. A game like Bulletstorm has headshots, and I’m sure they’ll do more damage than body shots, but why would I bother taking out all enemies in the same way if I know there’s a bunch of other better, more interesting ways to do it that all promise a similar high?

Replacing the headshot as the pinnacle of crunch is definitely possible, though, this much I’m sure of.


  1. Several points:

    Totally agree about headshots in Gears–though I’ve only played campaign modes.

    Headshots are a great tool–in Halo. Here very few weapons give you an instant kill, but damage accrues faster. Those that do insta-kill will kill anywhere on the body with two hits. Also, the reticle indicates (with a little dot in the center) when you’ll get one. Which makes hitboxes and bullet arcing irrelevant. See the dot, get the shot.

    The problem with them in other games, like just about any military shooter, is that headshots give an insta-kill, but impacts anywhere else take multiple hits. Too many, in a lot of cases. Which gives gamers a really skewed incentive to go for the head.

    Headshots are logical–getting shot there in real life is bad news. Maybe other games could give rewards for other hits–like Fallout’s VATS. Being able to cripple people in multiplayer, or have to run away limping (while in FPS camera) would make for a really interesting game.

    Creative killing, like in Shank and Bulletstorm, works really well for single player. Not sure how I like it for multi-player. For instance, in the beta for Halo: Reach, I got killed several times in the middle of the assasination animation. Creative killing would require a lot of time-consuming animations, which just might get me killed from some other angle. I’ll take the quick kill, thank you very much.

    • Well, not neccesarily: Gears makes good usage of a bunch of “crunchy” creative kills with unique weapons in multiplayer mode that don’t require huge animations (save for the chainsaw), they just don’t stand out as they would in other games because of the perfect headshot. For example, the hammer of dawn turns people to ashes and is a GIANT FUCKING LASER, the torque bow is a grenade bow which explodes people into tiny bits, and now there’s going to be a weapon that goes underground which looks pretty cool. Just to name a few.

      Basically Gears is perfect. ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜› Mechanics wise.

      • Patricia– I played a bit of the first Gears, but unfortunately back when it was already quite long in the tooth. I was excited to try Gears 2’s multiplayer, but Epic lost me when they released the game with horrible net coding and backend server support. I gave the game a few chances in the first weeks after release, but every time my experience was this: sit in the “search” lobby for 10-15 minutes. Get a match. It’s a lag fest. Give up.

        I’m sure you would tell me, though, that it’s worth taking another look at?

      • Well Matchmaking is infinitely better now. There’s no huge waits and social matches have it so that you can just start a match with a bunch of bots until people join, and people join right away. Epic fixed most of everything when most of everyone isn’t playing (except for fucking host..) ๐Ÿ˜› Lag is not common, but it occurs…due to host.

        As for wether i’d suggest getting back into MP, dunno. The only people playing things outside of horde are people who’ve been playing this entire time and it sort of shows. I’d suggest going back and trying horde, but otherwise I’d suggest trying annex, submission or wingman over the other modes. IE objective based modes.