A Renaissance of Violence
I like to put on airs of being some kind of elevated gamer with my talk of thoughtful strategy games full of historical significance and unique independent titles with fully fleshed back-stories and deeply artistic sensibilities, but when you strip away the pretentious masks and get down to where the rubber meets the road I loves me some hyper-violent gunplay. I am a child of the FPS, coming of age just as id Software decided to put a virtual array of futuristic canons in my hands for the express purpose of shooting demons from hell right the frak off this mortal coil, and from day one I bought into their first-person methodology with a devotion normally reserved for religious ceremony and Red Sox fans. Games like World of Warcraft, Guitar Hero and Civilization IV, despite the reckless hours I can invest in those titles, only compel me for so long before I require the simulated perspective of dispatching enemies with shotguns, laser canons, rocket launchers and big f***ing guns through the eyes of some ultimate bad-ass with a chip on his shoulder and arsenal enough to equip a platoon.
But, the classic FPS has seemed on the decline the past few years while its basterdized cousin, the third-person (too often stealth) action game has taken its place as the genre en vogue. Violence, even artificial and harmless, is already a touchy enough subject for developers in a politically charged atmosphere, but putting the player directly into the perspective of death dealer, even for the "good cause", seemed perhaps to be a dying fad, and its passing would have been premature and mourned. Which, makes it seem all the more rewarding that fall 2007 is offering what is, perhaps, the best all around collection of true First Person Shooters in a decade. Lock and load, my friends, for the renaissance of futuristic ordinance and health packs has come.
In celebration of the FPS rebirth I want to take a brief inventory of the gory gaming goodness to be laid before our twitchy trigger fingers as we run through the waning months of 2007. I realize the natural format for such an effort would be to talk chronologically, but I feel like I have to begin with Halo 3, if only because I've just finished its single player campaign, and the impression is the freshest in my mind.
Halo 3 – The original Halo: Combat Evolved was the first console FPS which I was able to force my clumsy and ill-trained digits to complete, and while some fair criticism is entirely justified in describing Microsoft's premiere franchise, so too is the impressive success with which the game simply compels the player. This record-breaking iteration of the franchise feels like the true successor to the original Halo, the appropriate bookend that recaptures the best of the series.
An imperfect game, despite some reviews that might best be described as irrationally enthusiastic, the plot seems at times to require a bachelor's degree in Halology, and my usually reliable manifesto of "˜if it moves and it's alien then shoot it' is far from foolproof. Further, the game only really pays off if you're already a fan of the series, and if you just pick up Halo 3 and start playing it entirely out of context I doubt seriously that it would hold up as anything particularly special. Still, who the hell hasn't played Halo before? Even my father in law took a spastic stab at the game long enough to get blown off a cliff. I suppose I should also cast some sort of traditional disparaging remark about levels with The Flood here, but I honestly felt like Bungie had finally made this a compelling enemy and a lot of the criticism was as much out of habit as anything else. Still, any complaints I can muster are half-hearted at best, and when it comes down to the fundamentals of shooting aliens until they are very dead, I have few issues.
Halo 3 brings the series full-circle, and invokes the first game at all the right beats. The well established soundtrack has a way of investing me in the moment like few other games can, and I realize now that driving a Warthog through enemy infested canyons, the slow curve of a halo dim against the horizon, as the relentless catchy theme urges me to battle has become an iconic kind of moment.
Without talking spoilers, I can only say that the last few levels of the game were entirely satisfying, and once I was embroiled in the final moments of gameplay, I realized this was the perfect way to end the series.
Bioshock – What more can really be said about Bioshock? And, yet any accounting of 2007's grand resurgence of FPS games would be remarkably negligent without mention of the game. I can say that weeks out from release I feel as impressed as the first night I plumbed the depths of Rapture. It hit all the right notes, an impressive balance of making me feel as a player both powerful and vulnerable at the same moment.
Like Halo 3, Bioshock made the good decision to give as much thought and care to its soundscape as its landscape, and the combined efforts of the two games should prove compelling evidence that the ears are nearly as important as the eyes. I wonder what Rapture might have seemed like with hastily slapped together music and an endless barrage of Splicer death-throes Wilhelm Screams. Not nearly so immersive, I'm certain.
Still a strong Game of the Year candidate, Bioshock has to be counted in the echelon of first person shooters with the likes of Half-Life and Quake.
Team Fortress 2 – You would have been forgiven a few years back for regarding TF2 as a classic piece of vaporware that was certain to never see the light of day. It was entirely reasonable to say that the moment had passed for a sequel to a popular quake mod, and that Valve would be best served by pretending they had no idea what anyone who mentioned the game was talking about. Instead, the Valve team infused a solid gameplay concept with a compelling artistic vision and overflowing personality, and in the span of one screenshot, Valve managed to make everyone forget a decade of aborted designs and believe not only that the game might finally see the light of day, but would be fun.
For those who have chosen not to participate in the beta, if one can call the rock-solid game we've been playing such a thing, Team Fortress 2 makes ten years of waiting seem almost worth it. The presentation is unique, elevating a game that could have felt stale and forgettable in the hands of lesser developers into an addicting, enjoyable and often humorous experience. Backed by Valve's equally impressive new community features, Team Fortress 2 feels like the kind of game one could imagine himself playing for years rather than weeks or months.
Metroid Prime 3 – I privately predicted that Metroid Prime 3 might expose the Wii's controls as if not flawed at least fallible, but my skepticism for the franchise proved both rare and unfounded. Despite what I may have thought prior to its release, I appear to have been proved wrong as raves both for the game and the Wii-mote's ability to control that game seem firm. Much as I may be loathe to admit it, Metroid Prime 3 appears to be a worthy successor to the franchise and among the better games released this year.
It is, increasingly, among the one or two games to remind me that, eventually, I'm going to have to get myself one of them there fancy Nintendo Wiis.
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars – This is a game that its fans, of which there will be many, will feel like doesn't get the respect it deserves, and the more I play the more I feel like they may be on to something. I've come a long way on this title since I first played its early Fileplanet beta, and as the game hit shelves earlier this week I realized, surprising even myself, that I wanted to buy it.
In the face of such a remarkable wealth of quality shooters available at every turn, you can be forgiven for not mustering enthusiasm for Quake Wars, but the mission structure of the game and the variety of play-styles available make for a better game than you might expect. As always with team based action games, the problem is not necessarily in the design but in the community that embraces it. The difference between playing with a coordinated group of experienced and reliable players versus the general white-noise flotsam of public servers is as wide and imposing as the gulf that separates entire galaxies. Expecting anything like organized teamwork outside of the safe confines of a friends list is folly at best, but even then stealing a dead enemy's identity, sneaking behind enemy lines and backstabbing a completely unsuspecting opponent is a moment worth enjoying.
Coming Soon – The titles listed above would be more than enough to make for a stellar selection of shooters for a full year, much less the latter half of a year, and yet, we're just getting started. At the risk of playing into the treacherous hands of the hype machine, let's look briefly at a few of the titles still to come in 2007.
Half Life 2: Episode 2 – Sure, it _could_ suck, but I think we'd all be pretty damn surprised. The continuing adventures of Gordon Freeman, who has, it seems, finally escaped the catastrophic events of City 17 roll on with Episode 2. Despite the questionable mantle of episodic content, there's very little not to be excited about. Packaged in the Orange Box along with TF2, which I would pay full price for (but don't tell them that!), and the intriguing Portal, Half Life 2: Episode 2 brings me back to a world I'm far from bored with. I can't wait to see what trials will meet our particle physicist badass this time.
Have gravity gun, will travel.
Unreal Tournament 3 – Does it feel to anyone else like this one is getting lost in the crowd? Another rock solid franchise with what appears to be a serious graphical upgrade and all the trappings for endless hours of multiplayer fun, not to mention it's being developed by perennial all-star Epic. I admit that I'm at something of a loss to explain why I'm excited about UT3, except to say that I've enjoyed every UT before this one and when I look at the screenshots and videos for this latest iteration I have that gut feeling that Epic and I are on the same page. There's something very old-school fast and frenetic about what the Unreal Tournament series offers, and I get sorta jazzed just thinking about it.
Crysis – Come on! Are you kidding me? I mean, honestly how can there be this many big-name shooters in such a short span of time?
Anyway, you probably don't have the system to chew on this particular hunk of meat, but if you like your gaming of the top-of-the-line variety then this will probably be right up your alley. Something like FarCry on steroids with aliens instead of mutants, Crysis looks like the sort of game that threatens to be great but could be disappointing. Call me crazy, but after three years of hype over how awesome the graphics for the game are, I hope someone over at Crytek is sequestered away in a dim room making sure the game is actually fun to play. There's simply no predicting how Crysis will turn out, but stellar visuals, fully destructible environments and a lot of good buzz will keep me interested long enough to be disappointed.
And, last but not least"…
Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat – So long Stalingrad, Normandy and Berlin, Call of Duty has finally joined the rest of the gamer nation in realizing that Omaha Beach in video games is the Hoth Battle of the twenty-first century. It was fun the first dozen times, but enough's enough! Give me laser targeting, night vision and rogue states with nuclear ambitions. Following an impressive E3 and equally impressive gameplay videos CoD 4 stands as perhaps the most surprising entry on this list. But, there are a lot of questions to be answered, not the least of which is whether Infinity Ward can take their cinematic gameplay successes from a 1940s setting and leap it half-a-century into the future with the same kind of success?
Apparently, they'll have to bring their A-game to make even a passing impression on gamers with so very much to play.