First person shooters have been at the forefront of game development since their first incarnation over two decades ago. They combine adrenaline-soaked action with a perspective that provides a great stage for technology; first-person games feature excellent graphics, carefully crafted story events and amazing sound.
Yet the core remains the same. You shoot a thing, until its dead – then repeat. Has the genre’s innovation had any effect on gameplay, or have developers spent the last two decades slapping new paint on the same old concept?
Early shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom weren’t much for story. Most used a brief cut-scene to explain why the enemy must die and then let the player loose. There were exceptions, such as Marathon and Star Wars: Dark Forces, but even these games are primitive by today’s standards.
The turning point, in my opinion, was Half-Life; it was single-player, story driven, heavily scripted and sold like hotcakes. This game’s success seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time a single-player game was risky. Multiplayer was the new fad and some critics thought any shooter without a focus on deathmatch would fail. Valve proved that solo, story-driven experiences would never lose importance.
Today, narrative is a cornerstone of the shooter genre only regularly ignored by free-to-play shooters and nostalgic throw-backs like Serious Sam. Some might argue that latest Call Of Duty games lack a good story, and I won’t argue; but the campaign most certainly is lavish, detailed, and important to the experience. Other games, like the recently released Bioshock: Infinite, push the boundaries of what’s possible in story-driven games regardless of genre. Only single-player RPGs place greater emphasis on narrative.
You’ll Feel Better In A Moment
Halo: Combat Evolved was released as a launch title for the Xbox in November of 2001. Although far from the first game to feature regeneration health (or shields, in this case), there’s no doubt that Halo popularized the concept. Many games now use this mechanic, though some ditch the parallel shield/health system of Halo in favor of a single regenerating health pool.
Regenerative health has become controversial. The feature was introduced as a way to prevent players from fighting themselves into a corner by passing through a checkpoint with only a sliver. Checkpoints saved automatically, so a player might accidentally ruin their entire campaign. Besides, you were a super-soldier in the far future; a shield didn’t seem a stretch.
Then the idea appeared in supposedly realistic first-person shooters, both in campaign and multiplayer. This includes franchises like Call of Duty and the latest Battlefield games. Mechanically, regenerative health serves the same purpose as before, but it no longer thematically fits. Worse, this mechanic can encourage camping in multiplayer games.
Though convenient, regenerative health is not universally used, and some games are choosing to ignore it for a more traditional system. I’m interested to see if the idea goes away, but even if it does, it’ll be remembered as a defining difference between shooters released in the 90s and those released after the turn of the century.
Quake 2, released in 1997, had ten guns. That seemed like enough. You had your chain gun, rail gun, blaster, grenade launcher, and of course BFG – what more could you want?
A lot more, apparently. Rising popularity of military shooters forced developers to look more closely at real-world weapons, and when they did, they realized there are a lot of guns in the world. Developers re-made these weapons virtually, and gamers loved it, making gun porn a part of modern shooters. Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has over fifty guns, plus attachments and accessories. Halo 4 has twenty-nine.
Gun porn has pros and cons. On the positive side, players have the opportunity to customize their experience more than ever before. Gameplay can be altered by swapping from one gun for another or swapping attachments on the same gun. And since players can specialize, there’s more incentive to work together, encouraging team play.
Yet the wide variety of weapons can cause balance issues. Getting into Call Of Duty: Black Ops II now, months after release, can be difficult; everyone has earned their favorite weapons and stockpiled the attachments they’re best with.
Most role-playing games leverage progression as a way to invest players in the game. Shooters have decided that’s a good idea, and gun porn is just one way of expressing it. Though a huge catalog of weapons can be had, they’re often not all available at the start. Many shooters give players just a few guns. The rest are unlocked by leveling up.
Depending on the game, this can be expressed in other ways. Halo 3 (and subsequent titles in the franchise) let players customize the look of their Spartan with parts unlocked through leveling. Bioshock lets players upgrade weapons and find or choose plasmids. And Team Fortress 2 is a part of the action with weapon unlocks and, of course, hats. Still other games, like Far Cry 3 and Battlefield Play4Free, throughskill trees into the mix as well.
These RPG elements have added variety and longevity to shooters because long play sessions result in visible rewards and, at times, ways to enhance a player’s ability. Multiplayer is no longer a series of meaningless encounters; each skirmish is part of your progression and places you ever-closed to the next big upgrade.
Yet balance is once again an issue. Jumping into any of these titles six months after release is difficult because, even if the unlocked items are perfectly balanced (and they never are), players have had time to practice with unlocks newbies can’t use. This widens the experience gap between veterans and newcomers.
These are not the only changes to visit shooters over the last two decades, but they are the most significant. There are two strong trends throughout.
First, the shooter has transformed from a genre centered on the act of shooting itself into the gaming equivalent of a blockbuster movie. A great shooter has it all; action, intrigue, even romance. Today’s best shooters are carefully tailored experiences from beginning to end.
Second, shooters have embraced progression mechanics while down-playing raw skill. There are few shooting games, either first or third person, which don’t let players gain new weapons and cosmetics over time. Those games that have refused this trend, such as Counter-Strike: GO, no longer lead the genre.
Have these changes led to better games? That’s hard to say, of course, because enjoyment is subjective. Personally, I can’t imagine going back to campaigns like those found in Doom or Quake 2. But at the same time, I miss shooters that treated each match as an island and focused on player skill, and I can’t be bothered to play for tens of hours before I can access the weapon or item I want. Do you think I’m crazy, or overly nostalgic?