Modern warfare sucks – the crisis in first-person shooter games

Earlier this week, Activision announced the latest title in its multi-gazillion-selling Call of Duty series. Subtitled Infinite Warfare – a level of titular hyperbole only previously explored by Marvel films and pay-per-view wrestling events – it takes the action into the far future, and more importantly, into space. The teaser trailer is a bewildering opera of explosions, zero-G dogfights and sociopathic astronaut melee combat – so it should have dominated online discussion among shooter fans for at least a few hours.

But Activision did something unexpected. It announced that an intricately remastered version of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare would be shipping with special editions of the game. While all subsequent Call of Duty titles have longingly harked back to this absolutely seminal FPS title, none so far have more-or-less relied on it for a publicity push. The problem is, Modern Warfare seemed to attract more excitement and discussion than Infinite Warfare. In that moment, it’s arguable the first-person shooter, as a big budget, mainstream concern, crossed over into the nostalgia industry.

In music, this happens all the time with bands. At some point, touring becomes not a way to test and celebrate new material, but to appease long-running fans who just want to hear the hits. Sure, they’ll still grudgingly buy the latest release and may concede there are one or two good tracks, but what they really want is that 180g vinyl reissue of the group’s classic album, complete with unreleased tracks and limited edition art card inserts. Eventually, fans of legacy rock acts don’t really want the music anymore, they just want to be young again.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare remaster Photograph: Activision

We see this too in Doom, Bethesda’s faithful yet graphically hyper-upgraded version of the id Software classic. It is not Doom 4 for a reason. It is not continuation of the evolutionary path that Doom 3 set out on – it is a reimagining. A reboot. A re-Doom. When the game was shown off at Bethesda’s pre-E3 show last year, it was described on stage with the promise of, ‘badass demons, big effing guns, and moving really fast’. The choice of words is so telling in a number of ways, but mostly, it’s this: by adopting the language of a teenage boy (even self-censoring the f word), the company was directly speaking to the audience members as they were 20 years ago. It was taking them back to the early nineties. To Wrestlemania and death metal and straight-to-video horror flicks. The Doom of 2016 is not a radical blood-splattered thrill ride, it’s a museum of gore; it’s a National Trust stately home curated by doddering cyber-demons in chunky knit cardigans.

A much truer tribute to the aesthetics and mechanics of the original Doom can perhaps be found in Devil Daggers, a stripped down, ridiculously uncompromising blaster that thrusts players into the pit of hell to face eternal waves of monstrous demons. Created by unknown Australian developer Sorath it’s a shameless repackaging of 90s shooter dynamics: no weapon pick-ups, no items, no character customisation, just wave upon wave of enemy forces and nothing to save the player but quick reflexes. Released in February, it’s become a cult hit, especially on YouTube where gamers show off their mastery of the game’s limited arsenal of moves and weapons. Its leaderboard system and choreographed enemy attack patterns graft on the form and function of arcade shoot-’em-ups, adding extra juice to the retro adrenaline rush. This is nostalgia as masochism.

Overwatch: it’s bright, it’s fun, it’s… quite similar to Battleborn Photograph: Blizzard

Of course, the idea of grafting new mechanics onto a favourite genre to perk it up a bit is not new – to use the music comparison again, it’s equivalent to forming a supergroup. So it’s no surprise that two games – Overwatch (from Blizzard) and Battleborn (from Geabox) – should come along at roughly the same time with roughly the same idea: first-person shooter meets the multiplayer online battle arena (moba). There have been a lot of fun articles about this crazy coincidence – the fact that both games merge their team-based approach with wacky characters and oversized weapons – but there have been just as many pointing to evergreen favourite Team Fortress 2 and old-timers like Timesplitters and Battlefield: Bad Company as the progenators of this hyperreal, comic book super-team approach to FPS functionality.

There are no new ideas. OK, we’ve got that. It’s a message that we receive on a daily basis from every cynical media pundit who hasn’t yet, like, given up on social media. But there sort of are. Superhot brilliantly disengages the first-person shooter from its basis in instinctive twitchcore action and turns gunplay into a slow-mo puzzle ballet. Glitchspace is a visually beautiful first-person programming game (!) where you explore and alter a series of sci-fi environments using a visual coding language. Other titles have tried to “gamify” programming before but never in a way that uses a machine language as a weapon and an interface in such an ingenious way. Even Adrift, the weird floating-in-space simulator that divided critics on its release in March had interesting ideas about what it means to embody a character in first-person and to experience an environment that is so utterly alien and unknowable. But these are games at the fringes of the medium.

Glitchspace – a different take on the first-person shooter, channeling Portal’s approach to puzzle-based interactions over shooting Photograph: Space Budgie

The big question surrounding Modern Warfare is: do people want it back because they miss the purity of what it offered, or because they’re nostalgic for a past that involved Modern Warfare and games like it? In February, Derby-based studio Bulkhead Interactive launched a Kickstarer for its game Battalion 1944, a shamelessly retrospective WWII shooter inspired by the glory years of the Medal of Honor and early CoD titles. It pulled in over £300,000, three-times as much as the team was looking for. It looks good in a re-skinned Battlefield 1942 sort of way, but what does it say about the FPS genre and its future?

The early classics in the genre perfectly explored Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of the flow state, through minimal controls, hyper-accelerated movement, intense enemy threat and environment that invited smooth, seamless exploration. It could be argued that almost every addition after this – customisation, killstreaks, cover mechanics, etc – have served to throttle back on this sense of freedom and fluidity. Modern Warfare perhaps got the balance exactly right – offering 60 frames-per-second gun fights in super enclosed arenas, while laying on top the longevity conventions of the RPG genre. Perhaps everything after this took excited players further and further away from the spark at the centre of the shooter universe.

Or perhaps it’s that old story about true epoch-shattering innovation coming from comparatively small teams working on brand new projects. Far Cry, FEAR, Stalker, Bioshock, Thief – it’s hard to imagine a new first-person shooter really grappling with the whole meaning of the genre in the way these games did. The “walking sim” gets so much stick as a game concept, but in their use of form, space, narrative and mise-en-scene, titles like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home and Fragments of Him are challenging ideas of inhabitation, embodiment and interactivity in ways that mainstream FPS titles haven’t really done in years.

This week, EA will be revealing more about the future of the Battlefield series. Developer EA DICE has remained steadfast in its dedication to gritty, authentic, multiplayer online battle, but it too has modernised the combat as the years have gone by. Where will it go next? The team is already doing space combat with Star Wars: Battlefront, so the future seems unlikely. Can it reverse back along the timeline of warfare without become a tribute act to its own past?

Doom used to be truly anarchic. It terrified politicians and right-thinking people all over the world. How do you know when something is no longer anarchic? When it is being marketed as anarchic by a major corporation.

Maybe, you know, people don’t want to go online and fight in the same way they once did. Maybe people are sick of the respawn treadmill, sick of voice chat insults, sick of the conflicts they see on the news being turned into a pantomime of honour – of duty. Tastes change, audiences diversify, kids grow up. Sometimes you listen to those albums you once liked, that really spoke to you, and suddenly they seem full of self-pity and crass, processed emotion. Maybe this isn’t a crisis, maybe it’s just maturity.

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