I decided to write about the current state of the first-person shooter genre's single player campaigns and where it seems to be heading, highlighting developers' current fixation on following Call of Duty's highly-scripted formula rather than creating the sense of exploration and experimentation that characterized early FPS games.
Last winter, with the latest releases of Call of Duty and Medal of Honor I hit my final straw and basically stopped playing new single-player shooters. Which is really saying something for a guy that grew up with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, Unreal, and Half-Life. Shooters were always the dominant genre on my playlist. But nowadays I play more RPG, strategy, and action games.
I don’t like what most shooters have become and it all has to do with something I like to name 'The Call of Duty Effect'. Hold on fan boys, put away those torches. I’m not saying that Call of Duty is bad. There are some great Call of Duty games out there. But you can’t deny the enormous impact the franchise has had on shooters, both positive and negative. Let’s have a look shall we?
The Golden Age
It all began with Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Scripting wasn't new in games, but the way 2015 Inc did it to create great action set pieces was. Who doesn't remember the Omaha beach landing? When most of the studio left to form Infinity Ward and to create Call of Duty they outdid themselves again. Especially the Russian campaign featured some very intense moments. As the years progressed so did the graphics, sound and set pieces. Other shooters played catch up but most of them were blown away when the first Modern Warfare was released.
For me personally, this was the highest peak in the franchise and it’s a level they haven’t achieved since. The idea of playing a Hollywood blockbuster was appealing to fans and companies alike. Shooters became more and more mainstream and the Call of Duty franchise kept breaking sales records. But somewhere along the line, the industry went overboard with this concept and it started to show in several areas.
Regenerating health has been around since the 1980s in which it was primarily used by action role-playing games. It was later adopted in the 1990s by some action games on the SNES and the Megadrive. But the recent trend is generally credited to Halo: Combat Evolved. Which is strange, since the game only had regenerating shields. You were still dependent on health packs to survive. Halo 2 however, did feature a form of regenerating health but it was Call of Duty 2 that really started the regenerating health system as we see so frequently today. Meaning the wounded player can simple take cover to avoid taking damage and wait until his or her character recovers.
The problem I have with this system is that it removes challenge, strategy and tension from shooters. You always have full health going into battle, making you an unstoppable force that doesn't care if he/she gets shot. There’s no real penalty for getting hit and with each battle you can simply go in guns blazing. Old shooters forced you to think about your situation and plan your tactics accordingly. If you were low on health, you had to be really careful. If you were low on ammo, you had to switch weapons and try different things. Often you would backtrack and explore your surroundings even more in the hope of finding health, ammo or even better, a secret area filled with both. Now you can often use the same weapons, with seemingly infinite ammo and gun down entire armies of respawning enemies.
The worlds in which you do this have become increasingly linear and dictated. However visually appealing they may look, exploration, with the exception of a few titles, is a thing of the past. It’s not that old shooters had huge worlds in which you could get lost. But at least they rewarded your inner explorer with hidden items and secret areas. Sometimes you could even find entire secrets levels to play through. At the very least, they gave you some room to move around in. Because good design guides you through the world without breaking immersion.
Bad design, like we see so often today, breaks immersion by using poorly placed invisible walls to block your way. Invisible walls should be used to keep games scenic and create the illusion of open space and not to demonstrate how little space we actually have. Most modern shooters seem to have forgotten this. Not being able to jump over something knee high is a prime example of a poorly placed invisible wall. That’s not bad design. That’s lazy design and clearly demonstrates the lack of control we have in shooters today.
Let me play the damn game!
Control, where has it gone? Everything had to be bigger and better. More action! More set pieces! This finally resulted in one scripted event after another cut scene continued with some on-rails shooting and another scripted event. Somewhere in between there’s a bit of game play hidden in which I can follow clearly marked objectives and hints towards my next cut scene or scripted event. I'm exaggerating a bit of course. But combine this with the current level design and there really isn't that much control left. Or trust for that matter.
Because modern shooters have a tendency to keep giving me hints on what to and where to go. If I choose not to listen, the environment will dictate me where to go and if I finally push on an cut scene or scripted event will eventually take over. When playing the latest Medal of Honor on the PC I could literally play with one hand even though it was on the hard difficulty setting. I was eating and just switched my left hand from keyboard to mouse and actually played quite a bit that way. How’s that for a challenge? Of course it helped that there was a ‘breach’ moment every couple of minutes in which you could only use the mouse in the first place.
The Downward Spiral
It looks like we're slowly moving towards on-rail shooters. Which is not exaggerating considering there's regenerating health, no exploration, and a cut scene/scripted event every 5 minutes or so. There is no challenge in that. With games becoming more and more mainstream, everything is dumbed down and aimed towards the casual player. I have nothing against casual players and this surely isn't their fault. It’s the target audience for companies because that’s where the money is. Tailoring games to people with little to no skill or knowledge might be smart business, but it’s bad for the fans.
A franchise like Halo, regardless whether you like it or not, clearly shows you can have a great shooter in rather open environments, with diverse game play and good AI that actually presents a challenge to the players, while still doing well in sales. Activision has enough capital to do the same but it seems to choose to milk every last drop of the current concept until we’re presented with an on-rail shooter in which you can only move the crosshair and push the trigger. The sad part is that a lot of companies are following that trend and gamers keep buying it.
Luckily, things are changing. Far Cry 3 already demonstrated that you can have open-world game play while still maintaining a linear and cinematic experience . Something the Stalker series did years before, although far less cinematic of course. Combining RPG elements with a shooter has proven to be very successful and enjoyable. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution offer a completely different experience than what a hardcore shooter used to be. Different experiences are exactly what the nearby future is going to bring us. The next generation of consoles is around the corner and we are seeing some interesting developments.
The biggest change is the fading line between single-player and multi player. Titanfall, by injecting a plot, character chatter and non-player characters into its matches, is already a rather unique experience. Bungie even tops that with Destiny, the first shared world shooter. Plus, great developers like DICE are listening to the critique on Battlefields 3's campaign and are also looking to bring multi player elements into Battlefield’s 4 campaign. They want to give players the freedom to choose and that’s exactly what most modern shooters are sorely lacking and what we need.
Let’s hope we’ll see this trend continue and perhaps people will eventually speak with their wallet to command and further power this change. What do you think about where single player first-person shooters are going? Leave your thoughts below! read