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The Active Reload in Returnal Should Feel Better

Posted at — May 12, 2021

I’m only a couple hours into the video game Returnal and I’ve come to a strange realization - The active reload is using the wrong stimuli for how my brain works. Specifically, the noise that comes from the controller, the specific way the controller rumbles, and the information presented on the screen is all wrong for what I find intuitive with a modern video game. Housemarque (the developer of Returnal) should have used the new fancy controller to provide this information in a better way. I want the new controller to bump me when it’s time to press the button.

When I am firing the gun in Returnal, the game already utilizes the triggers on the PS5 to add some pressure when you squeeze the trigger button. They also add a specific “bump” on the left trigger for the alternate fire of the weapon you are currently using. When I am using the primary fire, I squeeze the trigger until the gun is empty and then leave my finger squeezed until I want to fire the next round. While this is definitely not proper trigger etiquette, it’s a video game, I don’t care. This becomes a real problem with the active reload window appears.

The active reload window starts when the gun is empty. It is a meter that fills up under your aiming reticle and then a larger bar is inside of the smaller bar. You need to squeeze the right trigger during this window to successfully utilize the active reload and reduce the time you wait for your character to fire the gun again. The controller goes through multiple phases of rumble while the meter is filling. It does a light shake, shakes less during the active reload window, and then shakes a bit more when you miss it.

Pulling the trigger during the active reload window is specifically a problem for me because I still have the trigger squeezed until I want to fire the next round. To accomplish the active reload I need to:

This is a real issue as my brain does not even acknowledge the first activity until the window has already started.

What I would love to see is Housemarque utilize the new mechanics in the PS5 controller and provide more information directly into my hands with either the controller lightly yet forcibly pushing my index finger back into the firing position after every shot or just doing that for when the clip is empty. There could also be better ways to implement the specific rumble of the controller to do this than the path they’ve chosen as well. The rumble changing during this window is too subtle. The visualization is also hard to see when I am focusing on a 65 inch screen and not looking directly at the right location while I move my character away from bullets and monsters while not falling off of platforms.

I listened to Episode 685 of The Giant Bombcast where host Jeff Gerstmann specifically describes issues with his ability to see and follow the active reload. This is proof that I am not alone in my ability to follow the prompts as displayed on the screen. Housemarque missed the mark on ensuring the information was clear on exactly what to do to engage with the active reload system.

I would need to go back and play some Gears of War to remember how they communicate the active reload window as well. If my memory is correct, they used a separate reload button on the controller. This would potentially ease the mental gap in the squeeze/stop/squeeze-again as it would be a new cognitive action for the player to utilize. I don’t know if that is better or worse but, I distinctly remember hitting the active reload all the time in Gears of War and it feeling amazing.

I have to assume that there may be some regulatory issues with how much force a controller can apply to your finger as forcing back someone’s tense muscle could be a potential for injury. I also don’t know if the controller can apply force on the trigger once it’s already been pulled. Either way, there are better ways to communicate this mechanic than what they’ve selected.