A lot of the games that take my fancy these days tend to involve copious amounts of hot lead flying through the air. As in most shooters, the amount of bullets coming your way often outweighs the few that you can return before becoming a blood soaked rag doll, and so the logical decision to make is to run for cover. With the dawn of AI competitors who can shoot your testicles off from 100 metres, developers tend to feel that making the player the sole bullet sponge is a bit unfair, and so game environments now tend to be littered with convenient bits of debris, low walls and strategic corners. It has been this way for quite some time now but in recent years, these hiding places have become more than conveniences and now feature a core part of gameplay.
The first game that I remember utilising smart cover systems like this was Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. In the later incarnations of Solid Snake, he has had the useful ability to press himself up against walls. Inching up to a corner in this way allowed him to see what was awaiting him without exposing his fragile frame. From MGS2 however, if you had a gun equipped, he could also jump out from behind the corner and take a pot shot or two, before diving back in to safety. This was very handy, and something which I wanted to see in all games because it just seemed like such genius at the time. This was the start of something cool.
It was a year or two later when I noticed the concept of shooting from the safety of cover arise again whilst playing a Playststion 2 demo disc. The game itself was nothing spectacular, but it introduced two important things to me. Aiming from cover, exposing yourself (whilst still being attached, so releasing the button would hurl you back into safety) but also the concept of blind firing. Blind fire is something like a hellish lottery for your opponents. The protagonist simply sticks his gun out from cover and takes random shots hoping to hit something. Enemies advancing towards a player who is hidden in cover are often the the receiving end of panic blind fire, executed when the bad man is so close you are able to recognise his deodorant. This unfortunate soul would often end up riddled with bullets whilst the player sits there looking very smug, because he has survived an attack by using the law of averages (closer target = higher chance of punching holes in flesh). A similar system also marched along and in my opinion, saved the James Bond game, Everything or Nothing, from mediocrity.
The game that really kicked off the latest fad of cover systems, in my opinion, was Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas. The ageing hard man military writer's latest outings in Las Vegas employ a cover system that really drew me into the idea. The game was played in first person, but stand next to a surface and hold down the right mouse button, and your character would put their back to the wall, giving the player blind fire and aimed shot options from the sanctuary of cover. It was essential to use as enemies love one shooting you, still making the game very difficult.
Since Rainbow Six: Vegas, a whole lot of games have employed some form of cover systems that operate around the same principles. The idea has been stolen and manipulated so many times, it's hard to remember them all. The short list that springs to my mind includes Gears of War, Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, Army of Two, Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, and I am sure, many, many more.
The emergence of this much copied style in games seems to come with the disappearance of health metres. In most games now when the main character is low on health, the screen will go blurry, prompting the player to go and sulk in a dark corner somewhere as if the bullets in his back were a stitch needing to be stretched off.
Whilst hiding and poking out of cover to fire off a few rounds in a gun fight is a good idea, and a good step towards slightly more realistic situations in games, it would be nice to see an alternative system to come forward. A lot of the games coming out these days with this kind of system encourage a lot of retreating, and shooting sections can become a bit linear. Providing cover for places might also be crippling level design, as you will have to provide something to hide behind to make up for the AI's pinpoint accuracy. It is a very good idea, and a fun system to play with, but it is in danger of becoming very over used, and digging itself into a rut of repetitiveness.