If I asked you to name a first-person shooter, the first game that might come to your mind is Call of Duty. It defines the genre in the same way that World of Warcraft defines MMOs. However, while we praise World of Warcraft as perhaps one of the greatest and most popular games ever – even if not many people really liked Mists of Pandaria – WoW has mostly been a huge critical success. But despite receiving consistently above-average reviews, it’s difficult to call Call of Duty critically acclaimed; in fact, nowadays it’s considered barely above average. Sure, it gets good reviews; but those reviews are frequently succeeded by opinion pieces or editorials criticizing how the series has stagnated.
Don’t take this as a personal attack if you’re a Call of Duty player; this isn’t even an attack on CoD; it’s more that the FPS genre as a whole is stagnating. In the early days, you couldn’t move for games doing new and wonderful things with the genre – destructible scenery, mouselook, multiplayer deathmatch – from Duke Nukem 3D to Quake, innovation seemed to come so frequently that it was hard to keep up. Hell, even Daikatana, for all its faults, had new ideas.
Now? The First-Person Shooter genre is defined by a lack of innovation. For instance, Battlefield 4 received criticism because of its obvious similarities to Battlefield 3, with many claiming it was just a re-skin and map pack, rather than a whole new experience. But why wouldn’t DICE make an iterative game? If we’re still willing to pay money for them – and we all know there’s nothing EA loves more than money (at least, that’s what we’re led to believe by their critics) – then they’ll keep getting made.
I’m not even saying that Battlefield 4 or COD: Ghosts are bad games; in fact, they’re pretty good games. The problem is that I have basically played both of them before; they’re not taking any risks or presenting any new ideas. This lack of innovation, and an unwillingness to take any risks, is driving the genre into the ground, to the point where Titanfall seems to be the best shooter we’ve had in years.
Here at Continue Play, we reviewed Titanfall very positively, saying how addictive and attractive it is, but we certainly didn’t think it was perfect. But my God, compared to everything else that’s been released in the genre, it’s a shining beacon of light, guiding us along a new path. But Titanfall doesn’t do it in the way that you think.
By now, most of us know the origin story of Respawn Entertainment, Titanfall‘s developers: they formed when a large amount of the talent at Infinity Ward packed their bags, left, and formed their own studio where they could make the game that they wanted to make. Their attitude of not accepting the status quo is what we need, and I wish we, as gamers, could make a stand in the same way.
The first thing I would eliminate are the ridiculous whack-a-mole style corridor levels of the modern military shooter. When did level design become so lazy that it’s alright to make a game where all the levels can be summed up as long corridors filled with baddies? It’s just not interesting, and in my opinion has led to the death of the single player campaign.
But seriously, how could basic corridor levels be better than open and expansive levels where you can pick your own route? What kind of player prefers fewer options to many? One of the main reasons that I love Far Cry 3 is the ability to pick my own method to take down a stronghold, and I don’t just mean deciding whether to go stealth or all guns blazing; I mean stopping and actually planning out a route to take and really thinking about what I’m going to do.
Perhaps some people don’t want to engage their brain at all: I understand that. Games like Goat Simulator come along and we’re blown away at just how fun some mindless nonsense can be – but once you reach the seventh iteration of it in a series, it loses its touch. So when an FPS actually makes me stop and think for a second, it becomes a whole new style of game that expands upon the genre and adds something that’s sorely lacking: the idea that the player might ever have to think a situation through before they approach it or else they’ll be killed.
Likewise, when levels are non-linear it means I can go back and replay them in a different style. I remember playing through Ghost Recon: Jungle Storm an uncountable number of times with a friend, because each time we played a level we could complete the objectives in a different order, moving through it in a completely different way. We could play through together as a sniper and his spotter, or go in all guns blazing with some heavy support – it didn’t matter. We got to pick our own play style, doing what we wanted to do.
While the genre has never exactly been at the forefront of excellent writing, the stories of first-person shooters have jumped the shark. These days, nearly all of them involve America fighting for capitalism, freedom, or something along those lines. Not only are the stories clichéd, stupid, and uninteresting, they often cross into being offensive, and at times racist. Medal of Honor: War Fighter is particularly bad at this, leaving the player feeling as though you’re shooting people just because of the color of their skin. It’s a delicate line to walk between story and gameplay, and it seems that the best shooters we get lean heavily on one or the other – Spec Ops: the Line and Titanfall being prime examples. Obviously, your preference of mechanics versus story will come down to you, but if someone were to marry the two, at this point it might define a generation.
The shooters of my childhood are still the best I’ve ever played; with their huge open levels and ridiculous number of choices, the campaigns could go from balls-to-the-wall action and explosions, to silent stealth, depending on the choices I made. Ghost Recon: Jungle Storm and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat would take up days of my time as me and my mates figured out all the different ways we could complete a level, and that’s what I want most at the moment, choice. If DICE could do this on the PS2 in 2005, why can’t they manage it now on next generation consoles? Why are we stuck with 5-hour long single-player campaigns that herd us through corridors like cattle?
Quite possibly, the genre is more popular than it has ever been, but creatively? It’s in the doldrums. Titanfall was a step in the right direction, but it needs to be the start of fresh creative momentum, rather than a flash in the pan. Let’s return to large, open levels with multiple routes; let’s return to the days when developers gave us options. Wow? Remember those? Options! Choice! Freedom! We’ve lost those things in recent years, but we need to get them back.
Big developers need to pick up their game, or we’re going to be stuck with another generation of iterative and unimaginative titles.
[Jay Adams is a columnist for Continue Play; his views are his own, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the publication.]