Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Shoot 'em full of lead

I’d like to do something a little different for this post and focus on a broader spectrum than the specifics of a single game or series. This particular topic has been bugging me since about the midway point of last generation’s consoles. First-person shooters have been rising in ridiculous numbers over the past five or six years. A large part of this surge was initially due to the big three companies feeling the pressure of online gaming (or in Nintendo’s case, the lack thereof). And while games like Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark have stood the test of time, there are plenty of others in the FPS genre that will be forgotten in a sea of mediocre games.

When I take to a game, my overall impressions are based on three major factors: originality, story, and game mechanics. Obviously not every game has to be original to become popular. Perfect Dark was essentially a re-skin of Goldeneye 007 with a new story and weapons. But that didn’t stop it from becoming one of the more popular N64 games. That said, both those games were released in the late 1990s, during the heyday of 3D gaming. During that time, most FPS titles were still popular in arcades with laser-response gun controllers to boot. Getting back on track, both Perfect Dark and Goldeneye 007 had easy control schemes and almost never dropped frame rate. Perfect Dark obviously had the more creative and original story, as Goldeneye 007 was heavily based on the subsequent film, but that didn’t stop gamers from flocking to either N64 title to get their shooter fix.

During the last generation of consoles, the Gamecube was left lagging quite a ways behind in sales and critical reception. And while the Playstation 2 arguably won that generation of console wars, the Xbox gave the PS2 a run for its money with its more successful online gaming. The success of the Xbox was due in no small part to its flagship game Halo and sequel Halo 2. Halo was one of many FPS games that would shape Microsoft’s gaming market to make it more accessible to casual gamers. Is Halo a casual game itself? It’s difficult to classify. On normal difficulty, almost anyone can kick ass as the Master Chief. But turn it up to legendary difficulty and the game is almost definitely hardcore status. It’s unfortunate, however, that the three main Halo games don’t include a longer campaign. Bungie realized that they can basically sell the games on their multiplayer alone, but I feel that they could do a lot more with the story for those who haven’t read the novels.

Halo may have been the single most important game in relaunching the FPS genre. Games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor were given a new lease on life and sold like hotcakes. Today it seems like there is a new FPS being announced or released almost every week. And while the Halo franchise does deserve kudos for having a strong story and a very unique arsenal, there are few other FPS games from the two most recent console generations that can come close to comparison. Call of Duty certainly has a good variety of weapons, but with the exception of Modern Warfare, the story is always a rehash of the previous game. Multiplayer is mediocre at best, and the controls are clunky (I know they want to be realistic with the weapons, but having the sniper scope fling all about gets annoying pretty damn fast). Certainly some improvements were made with Modern Warfare, particularly with the multiplayer. But the campaign was even shorter than that of Halo 3, and the story not even half as engaging.

The worst part about all this is that Call of Duty and Halo are at the top of the FPS pyramid. Medal of Honor has since been left in the dust, regardless of the fact that its games were almost the exact same as Call of Duty’s. The Conduit had both a decent story and game mechanics, but didn't really stand out as a must-have for Wii owners. And then of course there are games like Haze which promise the greatest shooter experience ever and end up being a giant pile of crap. As creative as the weapons in Resistance: Fall of Man are, the story and characters are forgettable. Killzone has decent mechanics and an okay story, but the characters are rather one-dimensional. It seems that few companies want to put forth the effort of releasing a shooter that combines fluid controls with a good story. Do I think it’s impossible? Certainly not – it happened over a decade ago, multiple times. But considering the current state of the industry, I wouldn’t bank on seeing another truly engaging FPS for some years to come. In fact, you’re better off playing adventure-shooter crossovers like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption or Bioshock for an excellent FPS experience.

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