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Gaming: Modern Shooters

Full disclosure: In this post I’m critical of several games I haven’t actually played.

Follow! (Image pulled from the second YouTube video below)

The success of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare elevated the franchise into a sales phenomenon and has encouraged rival publishers to chase after that success, but starting primarily from last year a major problem is beginning to emerge. Infinity Ward’s approach with the Modern Warfare games is to make heavily scripted, linear experiences that essentially put you into an action film, which means the developer runs the risk of making the player feel irrelevant, somebody to trigger the next scripted event and little else.

By and large Infinity Ward – or at least the Infinity Ward that existed before last year’s mass exodus of staff – walk that line well, but it’s something their imitators are struggling with. The first game last year that was criticised for their approach was Danger Close’s (and Electronic Arts’) Medal of Honour. John Walker of Rock, Paper Shotgun found it particularly unsatisfying when delivering his verdict:

Medal Of Honour is going to take you on a journey. It’s going to be a very pretty trip, and it’s going to be packed with action and combat. It’s going to have lots of variety, and plenty of explosions. But this isn’t an expedition, it’s a guided tour.

Only occasionally did I feel like I was playing the game. Medal Of Honour is about chasing after one to three other soldiers who all seem to have a lot more fun than you. The game takes every opportunity to make sure you’re aware that you’re barely relevant to proceedings. The game tells you when you can run. The game tells you when you can fire. The game tells you when you can climb. The game tells you when you can jump over a log. (Literally.) And you’d best do it the way it’s expecting, or everything’s going to grind to a halt.

Call of Duty: Black Ops was next, and while in general Treyarch seemed to have a better handle on how to emulate Infinity Ward there were still problems, most notably in an early level that can be completed without firing (outside of two scripted sequences):

That level in particular is so heavily scripted that the player is little more than an extra, demonstrating this type of game at its worst. You’re not allowed to rush ahead, you can’t open doors, can’t fire when you’re not supposed to, can’t use the special tools other than when it tells you… you’re basically a cameraman or a groupie following the real stars.

Kaos Studios apparently haven’t done it so well in the newly released Homefront either:

In this level you have three minutes of scripting and following, one minute of shooting, two minutes of scripting and following, then a few minutes of shooting, then a checkpoint before a bit of scripting and dialogue that you have to sit through after every death (as you have to wait for somebody to open the door for you). “Dragon’s Lair the FPS”, as the Cynical Brit says in the video or, as RPS phrased it in their Wot I Think:

Homefront is barely a game. I’m drawing the line here. It’s an interactive cutscene with occasional shooting galleries. So far has the Call Of Duty Copying gone that it is believed the ideal game is one in which the player is barely involved. In Homefront, for the majority of the game, you feel like an unwanted irritant. It’s hard to capture quite how much this game seems to hate you for wanting to be involved, and the extent to which it goes to ensure you rarely are. But I’m going to try.

Is this really what people want from their FPS campaigns? Not wanting to be Duke Nukem or the Doom marine or Master Chief, lone badasses who can (and often do) take on everybody by themselves and advancing on their own terms, they would rather be the runt of the litter, an interchangeable grunt following their team mates and watching them do all the cool stuff while obeying a constant stream of orders, with minimal freedom or interactivity outside of clicking to shoot. Apparently it’s fine as long as there are lots of explosions and shooting on the periphery to make it seem like things are happening. As long as it feels like you’re in the middle of an action movie it doesn’t matter that you’re not doing much.

It just seems like the opposite direction to where shooters should be going. Obviously Halo is still going strong and games like Bulletstorm and Crysis 2 have something like the right idea, that combat encounters should function as a playground for your weapons and abilities, but it’s the CoDs that are breaking all the sales records and that the other publishers want to emulate.

Are people really happy with the direction these games are taking, or is it that the solo mode is just a bit of fluff that doesn’t really matter because multiplayer is the important thing in a shooter? As a solo gamer it just seems like there’s little for me in these games, not least because we’re down to campaigns of four to six hours. Length doesn’t matter so much if all those hours are good, but when all you’re doing is following the real soldiers and occasionally shooting some guys as they pop out of cover (and as long as you have permission to do so) it’s difficult to see the appeal.

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