This week I’m doing a more general post than usual. (For reasons of current interest.) Instead of a specific (named) something, I’m singling out a whole genre of somethings. In this case, the video game genre known as First-Person Shooters.
In the Beginning…
While a lot of credit is given to the games Wolfenstein 3D (which I played extensively) and Doom (which I played a bit) for launching the genre, the truth of the matter is that these two games were not the first examples of games which used shooter mechanics from a first person perspective. Games like Maze War (on foot) and Spasim (in flight) from the 1970′s provided the foundation upon which these later 1990′s games were built. In the ensuing decade plus before Wolfenstein 3D and Doom released the mechanics associated with maze War and Spasim were used in a number of games, including combat simulators for the military. (Vehicular combat is prevalent in a number of FPS games.)
So from way back, there were people designing and playing games based around the concept of being “the person” who was in the game, and in destroying your opponents. That conceit evolved most rapidly, of course, after the introduction of the two titles in 1992 and 1993. So rapidly, in fact, that the term “Doom-clones” was very popular for a number of years, much as people use “WoW-clones” now to describe MMORPGs…and in spite of the fact that both Doom and WoW were clearly predated by other games in their respective genres.
Eventually the (oft-pejorative) “Doom-clones” brand faded in the face of many new features and general advancements in the genre. It has, of course, given way to the phrase “CoD clone”—from Call of Duty, an extensive series of games which started as a WWII shooter and has since moved on to being a more modern day version—for any kind of basic military shooter or “CoD-with-blank” to describe any game with an obvious added twist.
The Big Bang
Credit was given to Doom for further defining and propelling the genre towards the mainstream in 1993, but for my money it was Quake’s 1996 release that was perhaps the spark that truly ignited the FPS genre on PC. I can remember playing the Quake alpha on the LAN at Sierra in the fall of 1995 and thinking about how much of a leap forward the game was. Spawning a series of its own, Quake is one of the two biggest names in arena shooters (the other being the Unreal series) and even outside of that sub genre, it is clearly influential even today.
On the console side of things (there is forever a divide between PC and console shooter fans) it was a British super spy that proved to be vital to the genre. GoldenEye 007 was released in 1997, included sniping and stealth, and sold so well for so long that by the mid 2000′s it was the single biggest selling N64 title of all time in America. It’s also the one reason I wish I’d ever had an N64. (Sorry, Nintendo…you lost me after the 8-bit…when I grew up.)
The Steady March of Progress
Once established as a big genre, there was nowhere to go but forward. FPS games enjoyed regular development and refinement throughout the late 1990′s and through the first decade of the new millennium. Half-Life took Quake’s technology and showed that story could take on an even larger role in shooters (plus boasted some pretty extreme AI) and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six propelled the idea of tactical shooters to the fore.
The impressively massive battlefields of Starsiege: Tribes introduced some truly unusual movement options to get around them (previously non-standard movement had really been the province of rocket-jumps in Quake), a fact which Unreal Tournament seized on and refined within their own series of arena shooters. Half-Life’s modification Counter Strike (which would later become immensely popular in its second iteration, Counter Strike: Source) focused on no-respawn, mission-oriented gameplay—with a basic economy to boot.
With the advent of a new player in the console market came a new shooter which featured lessons clearly learned from Half-Life and Bungie’s earlier successful Macintosh shooter series, Marathon. Halo’s release as a launch title on the XBox proved to be a system-selling one, and the series of games released since has continued its popularity and helped drive shooters in general on Microsoft’s systems. Online gaming for the console shot forward with the release of Hal 2 and its ability to play on Microsoft’s new XBox Live service.
Outside of the closed ecosystems, the PC space moved forward more quickly with online play as broadband access became more and more common, and dialup penetrated almost all households. PlanetSide, released by Sony Online Entertainment in 2003, was the earliest successful games showing that huge map sizes, persistence, and massive numbers of participants could work. (World War II Online was likely the first title to grasp at this goal, but was less successful due to its technological issues, and perhaps simply because it has come out a couple of years before.) Meanwhile, 2003 also saw the release of the first Call of Duty title, which in addition to being a fine shooter in its own right has spawned a dynasty of shooters (some acclaimed, others merely insanely profitable) which has continued through to the latest iteration, Call of Duty: Ghosts. (Which has a dog.)
The list of innovative and impressive games in the genre goes on and on. From titles rich in story like the BioShock series to those whose visuals astound like the Crysis games, there have been a huge number of worthy titles throughout the years.
The Genre Today
Call of Duty remains the dominant player in the shooter market, having released a new version in the series on a yearly basis (developed by a number of different studios in order to keep up that schedule) since the second in 2005. There’s a rough divide between the CoD series and Battlefield, which is currently in its fourth “prime” iteration, but which has had a number of other games released in its series. While Battlefield doesn’t release yearly, the series is developed by a single studio, which lends a certain consistency to the game.
In 2014 the most notable new happening in the genre is that Respawn Entertainment is coming out with a new shooter called Titanfall on March 11th. The biggest reason this matters is because in 2010 the creators of Call of Duty (Infinity Ward) had a falling out from the top down with Activision (long-time backer and publisher) which resulted in the firing of the top guns and a mass exodus of developers. This new “CoD-with-mechs” (*cough*) is being closely watched for a number of reasons.
It is a Microsoft exclusive, making it available on the XBox One but not the PlayStation 4. The Call of Duty series has been in decline since 2010. Infinity Ward with the old staff developed 4 games for which the Metacritic ratings are CoD: 91; CoD 2: 86, CoD 4: 92, CoD MW2: 86 giving them a 4 game aggregate on PC of – 88.75. Since the large staff exodus to Respawn Entertainment, Infinity Ward has developed two games with PC Metacritic aggregate ratings of CoD MW 3: 78; CoD Ghosts: 68 for a 2 game aggregate of 73. (Note that these scores are higher if you take consoles into account, but I play shooters on my real computer because Glorious PC Master Race.)
The First CoD game I played was Call of Duty. I played it a lot. For months it was my online game of choice. The last one I played was Modern Warfare 3. I played for a couple of days. The difference between the two is stark, and not just for the setting. (WWII vs. Modern day combat.) The single player Call of Duty game was good. The single player Modern Warfare 3 game should never have been included, it was such an affront to good story. (Lest anyone think shooters suck at story anyway, I want to point out that Spec Ops: The Line is an absolutely excellent example of good modern combat storytelling, and that BioShock: Infinite is an amazing science fiction story. Both are worth playing through on easy difficulty settings for non-shooter fans looking for a cool story.)
I’ll be playing Call of Duty: Ghosts multiplayer a little this weekend (it’s free on Steam) just to see what the latest iteration is like. (Terrible, I suspect. There’s surely a reason for the awful Metacritic scores.) But I need something to compare Titanfall to, as I just came out of playing about 15 hours of that beta.
Because as it stands, I think Titanfall may just be the best thing to happen to shooters in a long while. But whatever the case, FPS games remain absolutely Geekssential, and if you haven’t played any, you should.
Prepare For Titanfall
I’ll leave you with the Titanfall Angel City gameplay trailer. It’s a fun (if scripted) video, and shows what happens when you mix the odd movement of Tribes with the speed of Unreal Tournament and the weapons of Call of Duty while throwing in giant robots and creep (a MOBA term for automated opponents)…
This particular video is an example of what passes for the story mode within Titanfall. There is no single player game in Titanfall, but there is a two-sided multiplayer “Campaign Mode” which serves to offer up the backstory.
March 11th, I’ll be playing (on PC!)…