Action games with weapons in them often utilize some form of reloading mechanic, which is a wonderful built-in game design element. It adds a lot of immediate choice for the player, it makes any encounter much more interesting, and it's easily accepted as an "authentic" mechanic.
After you have expended some of your ammunition, you need to reload. You can do so at any time, but you are then vulnerable during the process. Do you do it immediately? Or do you keep what you have left so that you can defend yourself, even if that's trickier with less ammunition?
In this article, we'll take a look at how various games use this mechanic to their advantage to make an experience more engaging and fun.
Simulated in Great Detail
Seen in: Receiver
Instead of just pressing one button to do an entire reloading cycle, Receiver goes many steps further.
These are the controls:
Every step during the reload process is a different button. You need to solve this puzzle in the correct order, all while chaos is breaking out around you!
Then there is another type of weapon in the game, which uses completely different buttons!
This turns reloading a weapon into the puzzle it would actually be in similar situations, especially when under stress and with limited mental attention available.
As a result, shooting a gun in Receiver is a tense affair, and it's much more engaging than just pressing a few buttons.
No Player Input at All
Seen in: Kane & Lynch
The Kane & Lynch games sidestep the reloading issue completely and don't even give the player a choice.
When someone runs out of ammunition, they reload by themselves. When the bullet count is low and they haven't fired for a while, they do it automatically too.
This allows the players to concentrate more on what is happening in the game itself.
Losing Unspent Ammunition
Seen in: Firearms, Tactical Ops
Some games go very far in encouraging players to conserve their reloads. In Firearms and Tactical Ops (mods for Half-Life and Unreal Tournament), for example, your remaining ammunition is not counted in bullets, but in full magazines.
When you reload, your unspent bullets are not magically restocked between these magazines, but outright lost.
Sometimes these games will keep the halfway-to-empty magazines and you can restock them, but even so, it does encourage more economical use of your reload actions.
Using the Empty Magazine
Seen in: Metal Gear Solid 2, Metal Gear Solid V
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty introduced a wonderful, fun gameplay element.
Whenever you reload a weapon, your character gains an "empty mag". This cannot be used in any other reloading procedures, but rather can be thrown to make noise and distract guards, which no other item in the game can.
This effectively creates a fun gameplay idea out of the fact that there might be empty magazines around and implements it nicely into the sneaking game. Other characters in-game use the same action by accidentally "dropping" them.
This showed up again in the following Metal Gear Solid titles. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain used a different approach by having the player immediately have access to "endless" empty magazines, which was still fun and affected the gameplay, but was less tied into the actual reload mechanic.
Show Bullet Count In-Game
Seen in: Metro 2033, Call of Cthulu
Foregoing a classic "on top" GUI to show bullets in-game is a great way to help immerse the player in the world.
Understanding the ammunition status on different parts of different weapons will take the players a few moments more, which will force them to behave more carefully and not hammer the reload button at any possible moment.
Games With No Reloads Possible
Seen in: Unreal Tournament
Sometimes a game doesn't need reload mechanics! The Unreal Tournament series has done very well without them.
The fact that these games are set in a sci-fi universe helps with that, as there isn't the expectation of real weapon mechanics.
No Reload and Limited Ammunition
Seen in: Oni, Mirror's Edge
Some games don't actually allow you to reload a weapon. These are games where using a gun is actively discouraged and only a small part of the game, like in Mirror's Edge.
This incentivises the player to grab a weapon from an enemy, use it just for a moment, and then dispose of it immediately when it becomes useless.
It makes for a different kind of action game, where elements outside of shooting (like sneaking and running) are the main focus.
Throwable Empty Weapons
Seen in: Borderlands 2
Similar to some games having non-reloadable weapons, Borderlands has a similar gag.
Weapons of the in-game manufacturer Tediore cannot be reloaded. They look it too, with no replaceable parts, and a cheap, boxy design.
What instead happens when you run out of ammunition is that the character throws away the weapon, which explodes, effectively turning into a small grenade. Rocket Launchers turn into missiles themselves! Afterwards, a brand new (albeit cheap) gun is beamed into your hands, fully loaded.
According to Lead Writer Anthony Burch, this came out of the idea of throwing used magazines at enemies. Developed further, this created a unique and fun gameplay mechanic.
Seen in: Halo, Spec Ops: The Line
Overheating is an interesting element as it forces the player to think differently.
Ammunition is less of an issue, but after a few shots the weapon heats up too much, and the player has to wait for it to cool down.
This will make gameplay viable where a lot of shots can be fired, but only in short pulses, and it's a very useful way to limit the usage of stationary, usually very powerful weapons.
Really Long Reload Times
Seen in: Battlegrounds 2
The Half-Life mod Battlegrounds is set during the American Civil War, and the most used items in it are period-era muskets.
Unlike games set in more modern times (where the reload button is more easily mashed), these take eight seconds to reload, which makes shooting and reloading a tactical decision.
This also has a nice effect on gameplay, as players tend to be more careful about when to shoot and naturally form shooting rows to keep up the ability to defend against attackers.
There is a wide variety of engaging gameplay options available to facilitate gun reloading in games. These are easily accepted as "authentic", and can be much more interesting than just pressing a single button.