Do you remember when the World War II shooter games began to die out? For a while, they were the talk of the town, as Call Of Duty, Battlefield, and Medal Of Honor all milked that period of history pretty thoroughly. If you were given a gun in an early 2000’s shooter game, chances were you were either about to storm Normandy or get dropped in the Pacific Theatre, like a match into a firework factory.
And then Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare changed everything. Critically and commercially successful, the modern war game was an instant bestseller, which of course meant that there had to be MORE! MORE! MORE MORE MORE! Major publishers don’t do things by halves, we don’t deal in restraint, there must be MORE!
So Battlefield and Medal Of Honor followed suit, with all them treading a bizarre line –trying to make their games realistic and yet also utterly nonsensical. These games would proudly flaunt physics engines that would make a bullet curve mid-flight, which I admit is pretty impressive. But that sense of real-world impact is kind of lost when we then jump a ravine on a snowmobile, or just pull a missile strike from nowhere. You can’t have it both ways, you silly games. Copy The Expendables, or copy Hurt Locker, but don’t mash them together.
I also think that a lot of these games were feeding on some rather nasty impulses, even if they weren’t always aware of it. The first Modern Warfare was very clever, a well-written tale of human endeavour featuring grey ethics and moral complexity, so gold star for them.
But since then these shooter games have gone full Team America, but without the irony and self-awareness that would make it work. There’s almost never any proper reason for the war you’re in, just that these people are different and you should probably kill them for it. And if that doesn’t get your blood boiling, they’ll just shout the word “terrorist,” and watch the proud soldiers line up to get their guns. I wouldn’t mind if we were shooting cliché Bond villains or drooling monsters, but these enemies are meant to represent real people with ideologies. Maybe I’m just jaded to it all but I do find it quite creepy the way a violent slaughter becomes suddenly heroic at the moment the player characters throw up their hands to salute the Stars and Stripes.
But then again, that whole element seems to be vanishing now. The modern military shooter is giving way to more fantastical versions of the genre, or at least looking for a new angle on it all. Call Of Duty became a science-fiction shooter game, with robots and jetpacks everywhere it could fit them, and Battlefield turned to cop dramas for inspiration. And what are the big FPS releases this year? Overwatch, Doom, and Battleborn. All absurd, larger-than-life concepts that have no tie to reality whatsoever.
Good. I like the fact that these games aren’t going to be grey and monotone, that they aren’t going to invoke complex ideas without bothering to understand them, and that they’re willing to drop realism to let the player just have fun.
The modern military shooter won’t ever die, but it is stepping out of the spotlight, and I couldn’t be happier about it because it hasn’t exactly been a parade of beloved FPS classics. For every Spec Ops: The Line, we had three entries like Warfighter. For every Call Of Duty 4, we had Call Of Duty: Ghosts. And for every Bad Company, we had a Bad Company 2 to follow it like a very stupid stalker. Too often, these games were boring to play and unpleasant to watch.
So yes, I’m glad they’re slinking away. But what about World War II games? Honestly, I don’t think we’ll be seeing them for a while either. The lustre has vanished for the most part, and you can’t feed a power fantasy easily with antiquated weapons. People have come to expect more from gameplay than rattling machine guns and wheezing old tanks. Don’t get me wrong, I like them myself, but I don’t think there’s a demand for them now. That’s why we moved onto the modern warfare games of today, where the guns are bigger, badder, and everyone apparently has a device in their pocket that summons a drone strike. And when all that lost impact, we had to get more extreme, hence the new wave of cyborg soldiers and supporting superpowers. At this point, it’s becoming bad form to just kick someone into a battleground with only a gun to defend themselves. No hookshot? No telekinesis? No time manipulation, teleportation or invisibility? I feel almost naked without them.
Publishers and developers, please step away from the modern shooter games. Its time has come, been and gone. It won’t ever vanish – no genre does – but it’s been stagnating for a while now. And if the choice is playing as grizzled meatheads trundling around with racist overtones, or playing as warbling demons and robotic ape heroes, then I’ll always be on the side with bananas and hellfire. It just makes more sense that way.