I’m not sure what happened between 2007 and now, but for some reason, shooters just aren’t as appealing as they used to be. Ever since Call of Duty 4 revolutionized first-person shooters with its genre-bending features, other shooters have been emulating Infinity Ward’s crown jewel with varying levels of success. Unfortunately, because of this perpetual game of catch-up, the shooter genre hasn’t enjoyed a healthy dose of real innovation in years. Incremental changes and moderate adjustments aside, the gaming renaissance that Call of Duty 4 introduced ended long ago, and now we’re left with a small handful of quality FPS experiences and a whole bunch of forgettable ones. If shooting aliens, corrupt Special Ops baddies, and zombies wants to remain enjoyable and exhilarating, the genre is going to need an enormous injection of innovation once more to keep it afloat.
It’s easy to attribute this lack of change to the growing costs of development, and the hesitancy of major publishers to invest money in anything other than a sure bet. It’s tough to expect fresh triple-A experiences when people seem to only concern themselves with the latest Call of Duty, Halo, or Battlefield release every year. Sequelitis is becoming a recurring problem that plagues the industry’s most creative minds, and although it might be foolish to expect as large of a tectonic shift as the one that Call of Duty 4 induced in 2007, innovation is as simple as turning simple trappings of the genre on their head without touching a successful formula too much.
New additions make sequels bigger games, certainly, but better? Not by a longshot.
When Gears of War launched in 2006, the gaming industry didn’t exactly explode with clones of the popular third-person cover shooter. For whatever reason, Gears retained an amount of sanctity that other developers refused to tarnish. Whether this was due to the enormous amount of polish and hard work that Epic Games invested in the franchise is unknown, but the point remains that the game was so unique and original that people (other than Epic, seemingly) couldn’t think of ways to expand or change the formula in meaningful ways. However, what developers failed to see, and what Cliff Bleszinski himself noted, is that there are mechanics built into the framework of Gears of War that could easily be implemented into other shooters. Active Reload, namely, is one such mechanic. Imagine if Battlefield or Call of Duty utilized such a feature, creating a sense of panic in firefights that doesn’t currently exist in either franchise. Simple changes make big differences in these games, and although developers feel that adding new weapons or perks or whatever to a sequel makes it a better game, it simply doesn’t. Such additions make sequels bigger games, certainly, but better? Not by a Longshot (see what I did there?).
Innovation comes in all forms: taking passive game mechanics and making them active, implementing a unique recoil system for weaponry, adding vehicles to the mix; all are worthwhile and meaningful takes on the traditional trappings of the FPS genre. When you give it some thought, Call of Duty 4 and Call of Duty 2 played almost identically to each other, yet CoD 4 was vastly superior as a title. What made it that much better? The added sprint functionality? The modern setting? Or was it the simple, yet brilliant customization and RPG elements that had gamers screaming into their headsets late into the night until Modern Warfare 2 launched? Game formulas are delicate entities: change a value here, add a feature there, and suddenly the entire balance can be thrown off. On the other hand, however, these changes can pay off in spades, as evidenced by Call of Duty 4’s wild success. It is this very gamble that has developers scared to take risks and build on the foundations of their games. Well, that, and the obnoxious obsession that publishers have with annual releases.
The primary problem with sequelitis isn’t that there are new versions of existing franchises, it’s that developers aren’t given enough time to expand meaningfully on their formulas. Halo, in my opinion, is one exception to this rule, with each successive title offering up new and exciting ways to play the game. These changes can be divisive, as I know firsthand, but it’s arguable that such things need to be in order to spark innovation and avoid stagnation. Halo 2 is probably my favorite shooter of all-time, and when Halo 3 released, I simply couldn’t embrace the adjustments that Bungie had made to the franchise. Many others shared my sentiment, but despite my personal misgivings about the title, Halo 3 brought a lot of gamers many, many hours of entertainment. The point here is that no one ever plays a Halo game and says, “This is just like the last one!” because each game plays distinctly different. It may be subtle, it may be almost completely inscrutable to anyone but the most hardcore of Halo fans, but it’s there and that’s vastly important.
While this article is likely beginning to sound like a Halo lovefest, I assure you that the franchise is still short of perfection. Yet, I can’t help but feel that features such as Forge, equipment, Firefight, and everything else that’s been added to the series over the years has actually impacted the genre in awesome, yet largely ignored ways. Map-making tools are almost completely vacant from shooters (which are the most deserving of such functionality), interesting and gameplay-altering perks aren’t exactly omnipresent (uh, jetpacks? Treyarch, are you even paying attention?), and… well, okay, Zombies is pretty awesome. Overall, though, you still play a majority of shooters in almost the exact same way: circle strafe until the other guy is dead.
It is here that shooters need the most adjustment. Gears of War introduced an excellent cover system and creative ways to dismantle the opposition, but its innovations didn’t quite catch on with other developers. Halo brought verticality and an elegantly streamlined blend of tactical options for every firefight, yet the same old habits from Halo 1 tend to be the most effective. Call of Duty introduced customizable killstreaks and deeper levels of customization, but drop-shotting and corner camping are still staples of the gameplay. Why are these franchises so content with resting on their laurels and failing to take charge with their production values to lead the shooter genre into another renaissance of innovation? They have the resources, the talent, the influence, and the fanbase to do so, yet they are perfectly comfortable with releasing sorta-sequels year after year.
I love shooters, I really do, but these days, it’s hard to be excited for new installments in my favorite franchises when I know that each one won’t bring much originality to the table. Oh, sure, I’ll play and enjoy them, but that je ne sais quoi that once had me hooked has left my recent shooter experiences ringing hollow. My message to developers? Don’t be afraid to steal and modify ideas to bolster your franchise, don’t be hesitant to gamble on a new way to play, and don’t assume that good enough for the balance sheet is good enough for gamers. Maybe, just maybe, once developers begin to take changes again, I’ll be interested in shooters once more.
Are you getting bored of shooters like I am? Or can you still not get enough? Leave your thoughts below!