A shot in the dark: What can save modern military shooters?
Innovation: it’s a funny word really. A word we in the videogame industry use as a defining factor in criticizing games, and a word that consumers weigh in on before making a purchase in this section of entertainment. Innovation was the first item questioned when Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was unveiled to the world, and it was the headlining critique with Danger Close’s latest shooter, Medal of Honor: Warfighter. So it seems that innovation is under fire in the military shooter genre, but as I write this, I can’t help but wonder why? Every week I take a look at the top Xbox LIVE titles being consumed by the online community, and each week I see titles that are blasted for “innovation” soaring high at the top. So I ask: is this successful formula broken and in need of change, or are these titles just missing the heart of what games are supposed to bring us?
As I just alluded to, games are supposed to present something to us, and I think everyone reading this would agree that gaming falls under a form of entertainment. So examine movies, music and paintings — what are their main objectives? Simply put, to execute and perfect an outstanding narrative, either verbally or nonverbally, that reaches the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. If gaming really is entertainment, shouldn’t it do the same? I believe you all would join me in shouting, “Yes!” But this aspect of entertainment is preciously the mark that military shooters keep missing; not innovation, but delivering something memorable outside of your typical Michael Bay action scene.
Don’t get me wrong, the “Michael Bay” approach to these shooters is critical, but it shouldn’t be the premise to an entire game. Helicopter chases, massive tank battles, horrendous trench warfare — they’re all brilliant, but can't make a game, well, a game. It would be like falling in love with Bane’s destruction in The Dark Knight Rises without knowing or caring why he wants to cleanse the world in the first place. You replace a story with something that’s supposed to highlight the story, and we’re seeing that in series like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Battlefield.
What these series need, and what new IPs entering the genre should aim for, is a story that’s character focused. I’m talking Mass Effect-esque focus where you learn each character’s backstory, their opinions on current events, and why they continue to fight. Just those three aspects of a character alone made heartbreak inevitable when one of your squad mates passed away in the Mass Effect series. They also make the Michael Bay sequences of a story much for meaningful, instead of just a “lets run out there and shoot bad guys” mindset. We saw a character-focused approach to a military shooter this year with Spec Ops: The Line, and though sales won’t reach nearly the amount of other notorious shooters, it acquired critical acclaim and told a heartbreaking story of war and the effects it has on those involved. But Spec Ops: The Line’s approach only touches the surface to what I’m trying to get at. If military shooters continued to push that type of narrative and gameplay, campaigns would be longer, better paced and filled with emotional events that are actually felt on the real battlefields.
Again, don’t twist my words here. The shooter genre, whether it be first- or third-person, needs change in terms of gameplay enhancements, but they shouldn’t be the focal point that they are each and every year when a new Call of Duty is announced. In reality, this genre is constrained by its “military” heading. Changes won’t be genre altering, so why continue to try and make battles bigger and brighter, while fans sit back and almost laugh at characters' deaths because they truly meant nothing to the overall story (like Halo Reach’s Noble Team)?
Titles like Spec Ops: The Line excite me, because they really are a fresh air in this cluttered genre, but even so, I still see momentous growth opportunities if developers would just sit back and stick character development at their center with everything else branching from it, rather than vice versa like we’re becoming accustomed to. Innovation doesn’t just have to take the form of physical eye-candy. Indeed, innovation can be found where it has resided all along, and it’s up to developers and publishers alike to pursue that to deliver a truly refreshing experience.
We now turn to you, the readers. Do you agree that character development is vital for military shooters’ future innovation, or do you have another aspect you see the genre should focus on? Let us know by commenting below.
Tate Steinlage’s daily ramblings that include Sporting KC tweets can be followed at @SteinlageT on Twitter.