Unless you’ve been living under a particularly large rock over the last console generation, you’ll know that the shooter genre has become the single most popular form of game on the market. You’ve got your Call of Duty’s, your Battlefields, your Gears of War and a veritable ocean of zappers, blasters and … exploderers? As a fan of behind-the-barrel thrill rides, this is both a blessing and a curse. The real issue is that shooters generally just aren’t that exciting anymore. One of the key reasons behind this is that getting shot doesn’t really seem to matter much.
While playing a shooter you’ll be mostly doing one of two things; shooting or getting shot. Shooting, of course, is what people put money down for, often ignoring the amount of bullets they will soak up in the duration of gameplay. The average gamer enjoys the power trip that a video game provides, as in the real world using a tactical nuke on the bugger who keeps parking in your drive way is considered slightly less of an effective means of conflict resolution. Blasting a million overstaffed and underpaid goons is a great deal of fun, but when one of the oppressed masses picks up his weapon and hesitantly shoots the player, the fun should honestly stop for a moment. But if you have sat down with a shooter recently you’ll likely find that the gun-wielding psychopath that you control eats damage like popcorn chicken; violently and insatiably. Bullets become like soft kisses on a tank’s hull, leaving a memory of the damage it could have once done. Frankly, that’s missing the point of a shooter.
Lets take a trip back in time, shall we? Grab those period-appropriate clothes and a six-shooter, it’s off to the early 2000’s! Gaze upon the wealth of well crafted video games, stare in awe of the lost mystery of the 10-hour expansion pack, and marvel as Medal Of Honor is actually the best military shooter around! Stop that, there’s no tears allowed on this trip! Anyway, with the growing popularity of the video game market, the modern shooter has had to adapt with the introduction of the ‘casual gamer’. Being an enthusiast for gaming has lost its lustre and learning a game is an unattractive prospect, so developers have created experiences that often require neither. Less time investment on behalf of the player is implemented, instead replaced by constant rewards and gratification for the gamer who plays in short bursts.
Back in the primitive years of pre-2007, shooters hated you and were disgusted that you had somewhere else to be. They were ready to hold fun in a vice until you forcibly tore it out with calloused, broken hands, surrounded by crushed foes and billions of feverish quick saves. Choices mattered, and a careless player would quickly be vaporized by highly aggressive AI. Re-generating health was a crime punishable by death, and if you wanted those precious few points of sickly sweet life back, you needed a medical pickup. Run out of ammunition? Better steal it from the enemy or look under all the sofa cushions. Most importantly, the horde of enemies between you and the finish line were genuine threats. It wasn’t uncommon for a single enemy to have the capability to turn a perfectly healthy protagonist into quivering giblets in seconds.
There was a wave of hyper realistic shooters in the early 2000’s, bookmarked by classics such as SWAT, Rainbow Six, Operation Flashpoint and more. One particularly fitting example of genre is the underground classic, Irrational Games’ SWAT 4. SWAT plays like what I expect a Groundhog Day situation would be like as an armed officer; repeating the same dangerous scenarios until you work out the most successful route without being killed. You take the role of a highly trained SWAT squad leader battling murderers, drug dealers and terrorists across America. But here’s the kicker: you aren’t really supposed to kill suspects unless they give you no choice. Pulling the trigger is an absolute last resort, only encouraged if the suspect engages you or raises a weapon to fire. Tasering, disarming and deploying a complex arsenal of non-lethal explosives is a nerve-racking experience, especially since suspects are unpredictable and prone to panicking. You often die in a single hit, so entering an unsecured room wildly will leave you wondering where the painful breeze in your chest came from.
Your squad is hugely important, but much like yourself, your team are devastatingly allergic to lead, so leading them effectively is predominately about mitigating risks. The game moves at a creeping pace, keeping you on your toes with an excellently developed audio system. Enemy placement is randomized and they enjoy wandering around the map searching for suspicious looking officers and politely requesting that they leave, with guns. It’s a terrifying experience that re-educates you on FPS etiquette and discourages aggressive reactions. Often a suspect will see he’s outnumbered and will respond cooperatively to five burly armour-clad men screaming at him to drop his weapon. Or if that fails, a high velocity paintball filled with tear gas to the knackers will usually do the job. Completing a mission with all the criminals in the slammer and your law enforcing buddies unscathed is indescribably motivating.
But it comes at the price of a great deal of learning. A player that is gripped with video game-induced PTSD is a gamer whose attention is captivated. They learn to plan ahead and read a situation with careful attention before ever pulling the trigger. The fear of death is genuine, accompanied with a unhealthy obsession with progress. But the rewards for this pain are stunning. The satisfaction for finishing a single level far exceeds the dull relief that accompany the credits rolling in a modern shooter.
Returning to the present, games such as the Battlefield series market themselves as unwaveringly faithful to realism. This illusion dies relatively quickly upon absorbing handfuls of lead and smashing a $7 million helicopter into a burger van because you couldn’t be bothered to walk. You essentially play as a robot, unafraid of petty bullets or earth-rending explosives, and in a large scale battle this leads to a lone wolf mentality. Players run from team mates as soon as a round begins, refusing to communicate. With most big-budget shooters sticking to this style of gameplay, it’s no wonder they all feel the same. While these games don’t deserve to vanish entirely, a battlefield should be tense, deadly and most importantly, deliberate.
I fell in love with Tripwire’s Red Orchestra series a few years ago; games which pride themselves on their ability to realistically re-create World War Two battles and haunt your nightmares. Every weapon is painstakingly re-created, including furious recoil, inhibiting re-fire rates, and even over-heating machine-guns. The goal of Red Orchestra is simple; win the war and try not to die. But ask any historian and they will tell you that some things are easier said than done on the eastern front. You will die, you won’t get many kills and you might just get your team mates sent home in a wooden crate. Red Orchestra is unique in that it strives to make you feel weak. A single well placed shot is going to end your career or cause you to bleed out. Your character gets out of breath easily and when caught under heavy fire your aim becomes unreliable and visual range is reduced. Also, if you are prone to shooting from the hip, Red Orchestra hates you, with no cross-hairs or fixed aiming available.
If your team is to succeed, you must play your role and lone rangers are effectively dead men. Huddling with your squad in a bomb crater waiting for a smoke grenade to provide cover while shells and bodies fall around you is a truly wonderful experience. Horrible and prone to cause nightmares, but wonderful. Actually shooting an enemy is rewarding due to the fact it happens so rarely over the 30-40 minute matches, and a cleverly-snatched victory sends that internal pride into overdrive. It’s a shining example that highlights how extreme challenge can enhance rewards and naturally encourages teamwork without the need for petty rewards or pandering.
The modern shooter has fallen into a routine of hand-holding, treating the player like a child rather than respecting their intelligence. Regenerating health was one of the first signs of this, reducing penalties for being hit in favour of non-stop action. Ignoring the obvious black magic involved in such an ability, this sucks mostly due to a removal of player agency. As there is no consequence to taking a gutful of shrapnel, the experience is reduced to shoot, move to cover, rinse and repeat. The enemy is no longer a challenge, instead diluted to a obstacle designed to impede progress. This is made worse due to imbuing players with enormous health bars, which allows a nuclear blast to the face only to singe the home-brewed five o’clock shadow most character models in shooters seem to don.
In multiplayer, shootouts are resolved by who shoots first, who shoots from behind or who has the fancier weapon instead of who is the better player. This is why many multiplayer shooters quickly lead to apocalyptic outbursts of anger; they simply don’t feel fair or rewarding. Hitting a player with half your ammo only to have them hide behind a novelty lampshade to recover their entire health bar can be frustrating. Genuine damage or penalties help to reduce this by causing a player to fear being hit, and ensures they adopt a cautious style of play that keeps them near their team mates. Developers must have more confidence in their player base, as currently it can feel like being held on a leash, while sparkly keys are jangled tantalizingly in from of our eyes. Except with more bloodshed and devastation.
With the future looking to continue the trend of invincible super-soldiers dominating the market, it’s hard to expect a return to the vulnerable protagonists of the past. But with the encouraging efforts of the Indie and modding community in creating returns to form like Project: Reality and Insurgency, there is still hope for people like me. So if you find yourself mind-numbingly bored whilst pumping bullets into other human cardboard cutouts, pull yourself over to those games that are willing to let you die for once. Your adrenaline gland will thank you.