The reticle. That little collection of dots and lines in the middle of the screen that says “this is where your bullets go.” It’s had a place in video games for a long time now, but mostly in the periphery.
Usually, reticles are a tool meant to blend into the screen just enough that its presence seems natural. They get the job done, but it rarely feels like much thought goes into them. The first big update to reticles in years came with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare which, in addition to its RPG-infused multiplayer progression, was the shooter that introduced hit markers (that disjointed “x” that flashes around the target every time a bullet lands). Nowadays, they’re a staple in virtually every shooter.
Why is that? Because the hit marker, in conjunction with the “fwoop” sound that plays when it appears, feels damn good. It makes the reticle more than just an aiming apparatus. Now it’s also an indirect indicator for damage you’re dealing, and that added sound punch means you can feel it.
The reticle is a powerful tool that is so rarely innovated upon. But when it is, it can create an orchestra of cohesion between shooting mechanics that keep the player informed and engrossed. The past few years have seen new experimentation and evolution of the modern reticle, and the results have been some of the best-playing shooters in their genres.
One of the biggest ways these games advance reticles is by enabling them to give the player more information. A big example of this can be found in Halo 5: Guardians, Overwatch, and Titanfall 2, all of which feature hit markers, but more specifically hit markers that suddenly change to the color red when you score a critical hit.
Sure, in some shooters a headshot equals an instant demise, so it doesn’t seem too necessary, but this information is crucial in the games above. It’s an example of a small touch you might not have noticed (or might have noticed in practice, but never thought about its significance).
When you score that critical hit, you know it. In the case of Halo 5, the reticle is also built to make sure you know that last shot was the kill shot. As seen above, when the enemy’s shield is broken and head exposed, that last shot sends a blazing “X” across the center of the screen: you got ’em. The same credit goes to the sound design of Overwatch and Halo 5, as kill shots are also accompanied by telltale chimes that complement the reticle perfectly.
They’re satisfying graphics and sounds, sure, but the point is that they enhance the experience. They make shooting feel better because they tell you that your shots are significant and impactful. They don’t make you shoot straighter or faster, but they’re the cherry on top that ties the shoot-to-kill process together.
Another great way developers create reticles that do more is by shaping and tailoring them to the weapon you’re firing. Again, the likes of Overwatch and Titanfall 2 do this the best, as they allow the reticle to constantly evolve and move uniquely with the gun. These games use the reticle to communicate how a weapon fires before you’ve even given it a shot.
This idea is exemplified in Symmetra’s energy orb that grows with the reticle before being unleashed. Or even Halo 5’s basic pistol, whose outer circle represents the loss of accuracy in the inner circle when rapid firing (also above).
It’s similar to how most shooters opt to present a big fat circle on the screen when holding a shotgun. That makes perfect sense for how we understand a shotgun to spread and even helps make the gun feel more real, but these games apply that thought and care to nearly all of their arsenal.
Another game released this year that made a relatively small change to its reticle (and subsequently, a major positive impact on gameplay) was Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The series has never been the arbiter of fantastic shooting controls, but A Thief’s End marks the first time Nathan Drake has controlled like a dream. This is in part due to tighter movement and faster climbing, but the heft of the credit goes to its shooting, which owes its credit to none other than the reticle.
See that little bouncing dot? It might not look it, but that little dot is the coolest thing to happen to third-person shooting reticles in a decade. That dot represents the recoil and kickback of the gun. Instead of jerking the camera out of place to simulate recoil like most shooters, Uncharted 4’s dot bounces around in the shape it’s surrounded by.
This tells the player everything they need to know (how recoil effects the gun, where they can expect it to trail off, if their shots are landing) without the jarring camera movement. Even though recoil is still hindering your shooting, in action the gameplay is smooth as butter. You feel as if you have more control because the game is giving you back complete command of something most shooters take away: the camera. Just another small, elegant touch that goes a long way to help the surrounding mechanics feel even better.
Even if it’s not the star of the show, we spend a LOT of time staring at reticles, so it’s nice when developers put in the effort and recognize how a dot on the screen can make a great shooter feel amazing.