Recently I was playing through Resistance 3, and something struck me, not only does the game take all the right elements from Half-Life 2, but it borrows several conventions from yesteryear. A lot of shooters these days focus primarily on multiplayer, and that it is fair enough, but this has meant that the single player campaigns have died a death. On top of this there have been certain trends that find their way into way too many shooters, multiplayer included – trends that I think we would be better off bucking.
Dinner for One?
It is right that we begin at the beginning, or at least you would think this would be the beginning, but load up a copy of Rainbow Six Siege or Battlefield and you will be disappointed. Yes, it may make sense for games that rely heavily on their multiplayer components to have a short campaign that will not live on in the mind. But games increasingly don’t feel the need to pack a single player experience into the box; this is a sad thing. What is perhaps worse however, is having a campaign crammed in with no heart and soul, leaving us resentful that there was one at all — and thankful that it was only four hours long.
Call of Duty has single player modes that are nothing more than adequate shooting galleries that jump from set-piece to set-piece – littering them with shell casings – and then end hopefully just before you get bored. This is never very long. There is never any heart to it, not really since the first Modern Warfare, and the combination of levels are mostly surface that speed along hoping desperately that you won’t notice the cracks and seems behind the explosions and gunfire. This being said at least Call of Duty had a campaign that you could finish; Battlefield 3 had a glitch in its campaign that actually stopped some people from getting to the end. You either do something, or you don’t do something, but if you’re going to do it then do it properly. Gone are the days of a nice eight-plus hours campaign that let you get good at the game and enjoy its world before you even went on line. Games like Killzone and Resistance and Halo need to be praised for actually having campaigns, though these too fall prey to some of the other shortfalls on our list…
Somebody Call a Medic
There was a time when the humble health pack was the norm, and the sight of one glinting at you from across the rubble and mortar was like a beacon of hope. But it was also a seducer, tempting you to run out into a hailstorm of gunfire. Health packs added risk and importance to on-the-fly decision making. How to play each level became a tactical and weighty experiment, knowing your health was finite meant realizing and valuing your mortality. This then made every single thing you do more exhilarating. Having your health regenerate as soon as you are in cover essentially takes away the necessity for thought and planning.
Far Cry has an interesting halfway house of a mechanic whereby you need to get to safety – or at least be sprinting toward it – and actually heal yourself by burying your blade into your arm in order to lever out bullets. This isn’t quite the same but it does at least mean that your health will not recover to full constantly as you avoid fire; it causes you to if not fully fear death then at least run from it whilst you crack your broken finger back into position.
Playing Resistance 3 recently really made me appreciate how shooters have changed for the worse. That game does a number of things on this list the right way; the sight of a health pack was like an old friend greeting me, and it made me think back to the way things used to be. Halo introduced the regenerating shield and this set players free and many other games took up this mechanic. Now in a post Call of Duty 4 world, shooters have turned players into immortal death machines that don’t place enough value on their lives, and more importantly aren’t punished for not doing so.
The health pack can often serve to slow play down, but this just isn’t a bad thing, and when the tension ramps up and each fire fight becomes a tactical gamble that needs to be weighed every moment and re-thought at each turn: you won’t be looking back.
Liven These Stiffs up a Bit
Every now and again I smear the dust away from my window and look out at the landscape of shooters – I play them less and less these days you see – only to find that it all looks as grey and blurry as before. I don’t know exactly when this happened and there might not have been a specific switching point, but at some point games got meaner. Killzone may have started it way back when in 2004, possibly because of its stark visual contrast with Halo – the game it was trying to kill apparently. Killzone stood out from the pack because its colour palette was bleak and washed out, it was a move made to showcase the bleakness and misery of war. We were told that Vekta was a planet comparable to Earth, and yet it had been ravaged by Helghast attacks to the point where the muddy trenches resembled WWII battlegrounds – raked with gunfire and rain. This worked well but as time went by it seemed every shooter wanted in on the action, even if they didn’t have the intention of evoking these feelings. Gears of War for example was a great game, but it didn’t need to deal exclusively in browns, greens and muddy greys, it was boring to the eyes and made the environments feel dull.
It isn’t just the visual either; it’s the tone. It seems as though no one is willing to liven things up. The shooters of the moment seem to all use templates that lazily ape the archetypes of the genre with little room for innovation: government regime? It’s probably corrupt and evil, main character? They’re probably cynical and boring (sorry that should read “badass”).
It doesn’t have to be this way; look at something like Resistance, now this is guilty of lots of cookie-cutter crime but its sense of style and art direction helped to elevate it above the standard of so many other shooters; it was just interesting. I remember vividly fighting an onslaught of enemies as they ran through a cornfield bathed in the glow of mid-afternoon sun, both a gloriously stylised piece of Americana and also an irritatingly effective bit of camouflage for my enemies. More of this please. In fact whilst we are on the subject of Resistance, it gives us an excellent array of bizarre, quirky and fun weapons to play around with, a long and interesting single-player campaign, and while it doesn’t give us the most interesting characters it does give as a unique world and an interesting alternate history premise. It ticks a lot of the boxes we’re going for here.
The World Shouldn’t Owe You a Living
Whilst we are on the topic of worlds that are interesting we should also narrow the lens and take a look at the arenas we inhabit in so many shooters. It is difficult to buy into a game world that acknowledges our presence. If we look at something like Grand Theft Auto, the reason those game worlds are so much more believable and sublime is that they don’t go out of their way to signpost for the player, or even acknowledge the player at all really. This leads to the feeling that they carry on somewhere when we turn our consoles off, a sort of magic. In a shooter, if I arrive into a courtyard to find it populated with overly convenient waist-high walls then it breaks the effect. In fact I don’t find myself stumbling across many courtyards in reality, so it is interesting just how many courtyards there are in games like Gears of War, Killzone, and Call of Duty; they are seemingly everywhere.
Cover would be more interesting if it were difficult to obtain, a car may serve as cover, but what if it was awkwardly placed? What if it was difficult to get to without being peppered with lead?
Environments that feel more organic, that feel as though they weren’t designed and built with the idea that one day they would serve as war grounds, are few and far between. Where they are utilized well is in something like Halo, open battle grounds that are huge and sprawling littered with enemies, it elevates the play to something that feels more like a battle. Tides can shift and ground can be gained, running to a part of the environment that can be used as cover in a battle which has to be broken down into stages, these felt the most exhilarating in the genre. This is something that Call of Duty has never been able to emulate, well hasn’t really tried to, its focus lies elsewhere and not on its single player, essentially making a string of corridor shooting ranges instead of anything organic or challenging.
The Pen and the Sword
Ah yes the last on our list, and sadly, the last on the lists of many developers out there. I’m not going to be unreasonable about it, there is a reason that these aspects receive as little attention as they do: people want to play shooters to shoot and they play narrative-based games for narrative. I would rather a developer play to their strengths and make sure that the gameplay is as fun as it can be. This should always be priority number one. That being said there is a degree, a distance to which we can stray where narrative and character can inform a game’s core play, to make it more exhilarating. The final mission in Halo Reach is that much more potent for carrying the emotional weight that it does, for us as an audience knowing the character as it their end, and that the mission has been in vein. In fact the entire game carried that weight.
Now Reach isn’t the best shooter that ever came out but it is an excellent example of how a good grasp on character and narrative can actually impact the actions that we carry out in the world. A good example I always go to in the world of film is that of the Bourne films. What makes them so distinctive is the idea that the action sequence — a car chase let’s say — is that much more impacting and exciting because we know and care about where Jason is running to, about who he is running from and what he is chasing.
In shooters there is often fleeting attention paid to these aspects, and from a gameplay perspective that is understandable, but as games have made efforts to become more streamlined and pure they have strayed away from several aspects that enriched them. Change is often good in shooters — and in the industry as a whole — but it isn’t always progress.