26 January 2016

Wow! It’s a new year already! Time sure flies fast. I figured I’d start this year with… well, a subject I wanted to talk about late last year but didn’t get to. Now I can. So let’s talk about single player first person shooter experiences.

A little while back, I got my hands on a copy of Wolfenstein: The New Order thanks to a huge price reduction for the Steam winter sale. I wanted to give it a try for a while, so seeing it sold really cheap was the thing I needed to make me move my sorry ass and buy it.

The New Order was kind of a surprise hit when it came out back in 2014, for Wolfenstein has had a quite a checkered history. On the one hand, it served as the basis for the entire first person shooter genre and generally offers a fairly competent take on what it started, but on the other hand, most of its later titles was a bland series of “follow the leader”-type messes. So, most people expected, either because of the series’ pedigree or its own marketing, to play a slightly generic and somewhat forgettable shooter. What nobody saw coming was a well written and strangely compelling plot.

And I agree with the critical consensus: it’s a dumb shooter, sure, but it has strong storytelling chops. The New Order is proof that you can take an incredibly silly setting such as “space nazis take over the world” and put an emotionally resonant story in it. There is this, quite misguided I think, notion that art and entertainment are incompatible, that something designed to be mass marketed cannot possibly be meaningful. And, conversely, we excuse any commercial product that makes no effort towards that.

For the most part, I don’t care. Not everything has to be deep, after all. If you output a frivolous piece, and don’t expect me to take it seriously, then I won’t. I judge works on their terms, on what they want to be rather than what I want them to be. My main gripe rises when something masquerades as meaningful and thinks I won’t notice. Call of Duty is in this category: it is an incredibly crass pile of stupidity on the level of any Michael Bay film, and yet it is always presented, marketed and sold as a complex ode to gunboat diplomacy.

A new approach

The New Order goes the other way around. Sure, it’s a game where you get to shoot nazis in the face, encounter comically evil villains, and blow up mechas and visit moon bases. But it’s also a game where you meet the colorful members of the resistance, who all act and behave like actual real people would in their situation. They are interesting characters, with a stereotypical exterior hiding a flawed and complex interior. The plot in The New Order contains genuine moments of human emotion, moments of joy, sadness and anger, moments used to show how actual people react to the horrors of war. And the game gives you ample time to know the resistance, to interact with its members, to explore the relationships between everyone. For example, there is a scene in the resistance base where two characters have sex. It isn’t done to titillate, and the story doesn’t dwell on it or show anything really explicit. No, really, it just makes sense in context: these two persons are physically attracted to each other, and even in war, people have certain needs that need to be fulfilled.

“But what about the gameplay?”, you may ask if you’re one of those people who put a firm separation between the story and the systems, as if they were disconnected and unrelated. Well, it’s alright. It’s far better than most modern shooters, that’s for sure. It seems to be stuck in between two conflicting design philosphies, as if it didn’t really know if it wanted to be an old school fast paced shooter like Doom or a newer, more careful experience like Crysis. The end result is that you can dual wield any weapon and run at a breackneck speed, but you don’t have a lot of health and enemies hit hard. It’s still great in its own way, and its difficulty always felt fair, and its challenges always felt fresh.

In fact, it made me draw several comparisons between that and the military shooter genre, which seems to be perpetually stuck in a “copy Call of Duty” rut. So let’s talk about Call of Duty. Now, this is really only about its single player segment. The multiplayer part of CoD is a tightly designed feedback loop that I have few problems with. No, what I really dislike is the story campaign. And I talk about CoD, but really this could be about any game that tries to imitate it.

But this is not about the plot. Yes, they are jingoistic americanocentric murderfests which depict the complexity of war and international politics in an incredibly oversimplified and sometimes even insultingly stupid view. Yes, they feature cardboard cutouts for characters and story structures you usually see in low-tomatometer score blockbusters. As narrative experiences, CoD games might be bad, but at least it’s possible to overlook that and still enjoy the action. Or at least it would be if the action itself was enjoyable. Because it isn’t, and that’s what I want to cover.

Call of Drudgery

Since at the end of the day, all FPS games feature a lot of shooting people in the face, the differences usually boils down to three things: what you shoot, what you shoot them with, and where you shoot them. Early titles had large open areas which emphasized rapid movement and projectile avoidance reminiscent of older 2D shmups. Later on, Half-Life’s influence led to smaller, more linear levels delineated with scripted events. Some games, such as the Crysis series, go for a more hybrid approach, where restricted corridors connect wide open zones. Interestingly, The New Order follows in the tradition of mission based level structures, like Goldeneye, where each mission is built around a common theme.

CoD does things a bit differently. First off, yes, it’s incredibly linear, but it’s not an issue in and of itself. The problem lies in how they build most of the game’s focus around one-off gimmicks. While The New Order is definitely a shooting game that sometimes pauses to give you some storybuilding mini games, CoD is a series of one shot gameplay segments unrelated to its core gameplay that begrudgingly sometimes gives you some enemies to shoot in between each. Sometimes those segments require you to shoot, but with additional restrictions or handicaps. As for the shooting itself, it is pretty bland: it’s your run-of-the-mill stop-and-pop “shoot, hide until health regenerates, shoot again” tedium. As a shooter, it is an inferior experience to any other game, and what isn’t about shooting happens once and doesn’t last very long. So, when you’re not firing a weapon, you’re playing a little mini game that forces you to develop a new set of skills that you will never have to use again. It’s a schizophrenic mess of features, with no sense of direction. Whether you’re racing a snowmobile downhill, flying a wingsuit or stalking the woods with an attack dog, it doesn’t change the fact that this has nothing to do with the core gameplay, which is shooting up persons of color in the face.

“But wait!” you counteract, “wouldn’t having just shooting feel monotonous after a while?” Well, maybe, but why is it then that every other shooter franchise on the planet manages it? What is so special about the military shooter genre that makes it positively require different gameplay to mix things up? Is it because they have to be somewhat more realistic? Actually that might be it, really.

Most weapons today behave in a similar manner: they rapidly fire bullets. This creates a lot of overlap. And since you have a two weapon limit, one of which is usually going to be a sidearm, then you’re probably just going to be firing an assault rifle for 90% of the time. As for your targets, well, they’re nearly always going to be humans with assault rifles, and there isn’t going to be a lot of variety in the kinds of environment you encounter. Ultimately, this will make every combat encounter feel like it’s the same combat encounter, with the same options available to you.

How to do a decent shooter

In the end, what makes a shooter interesting is that triad: enemies, weapons, and levels. Military shooters are fairly limited in that regard, and as such feel obligated to resort to tacked on gimmicks for change. The New Order keeps things fresh with those three things by employing different kinds of opponents that all require different strategies to defeat, weapons that change radically in behavior over time thanks to upgrades, and levels that are all built around different themes, ranging from the prisons to submarines to giant bridges and the aforementionned moon base. Similarly, Crysis 2 had dozens of wildly contrasting enemy types, suit abilities and reconfigurable arms for tactical improvisation, and a level design that put a great emphasis on ahead-of-time planning.

The more options a player has as their disposal, the less repetitive the gameplay will feel, as they will try to mess with all the possible configurations in order to defeat the enemies they face. As a designer, it is your duty to give them tools that have little to no overlap, and obstacles that require different means to defeat in order to stimulate your audience’s creativity. Also, amke sure that one of those tools isn’t clearly better than every other on in every single situation, a problem that I call the “hidden blade syndrome” after the iconic Assassin’s Creed weapon, as it means players will just spam that instead.

What I find interesting is that CoD developers deliberately paint themselves in a corner by choosing boring settings. At this point they could pick any such setting, slap Call of Duty on it and it would sell. So why settle for the same things over and over again? What is so fascinating with shooting foreigners with the same automatic weapons in the same desert or urban environments for hours on end? There is a deliberate push towards more futuristic sci-fi settings with games starting with Black Ops 2, but this seems to be more because everyone else is doing it and at this point they might as well just copy whatever ships.

So there you have it. Grab The New Order on sale if you like first person shooters, and stay away from military shooters until they fix the glaring issues they have accumulated for years. Or, better yet, play Spec Ops: The Line and you won’t be able to appreciate those games ever again.

And with that, it’s the first article of 2016! I’ll probably have a Quick shot coming up in the next few days about this year’s IGDA DemoNight offerings!

See ya!