I actually came to a realization while playing the campaign of DICE’s hard-hitting military shooter opus Battlefield 3 the other day. While that campaign certainly had its fair share of enjoyable set-pieces and moments, I can’t help to feel like we’ve reached the absolute limit when it comes to how restrictive shooter campaigns are nowadays. Now, feel free to stop me if this sounds familiar: you’re running around in extremely linear environments that can’t be explored with impunity, and you’re being funneled down a pre-determined path by your AI squad mates, who’s only purpose is to guide you from one scripted sequence to the next and being entirely useless during firefights. This was a design trend pioneered by the absolutely masterful Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare --which I highly regard as one of my favorite shooters of all time-- and when that game came out, the term “set-piece moment” was coined. Remember that incredibly atmospheric trek through the grassy knolls in Chernobyl where you donned a ghillie suit and had to take a treacherous path through run-down hallways, apartment buildings and across open fields with a tank battalion rolling past you? Yeah, that was a set-piece. The game was definitely linear, but through exhilarating scripted moments and meticulous pacing, Call of Duty 4 was an unforgettable, if fleeting, campaign experience. After that, the desire to create short, linear, yet well-paced single-player campaigns piqued for developers everywhere, and nearly four years following Modern Warfare’s rise to stardom, I can safely say I’m burned out.
This linear approach to game design in modern shooters felt dated a few years ago, and it feels practically ancient now in 2011. I’m often left with the impression that I’m playing an “on-rails” shooter when I turn on last year’s Medal of Honor or Modern Warfare 2 and give their campaigns a spin: no latitude, no freedom of choice, just a series of claustrophobic environments and “Press X to win game” moments.
This raises an interesting question: why are shooters getting so simplified and mindless? Because doing something innovative is too ballsy, well that or because it’s for the sake of entertaining the non-intellectual masses. I honestly don’t understand people when they say how “hardcore” Call of Duty is -- since when is having the controller wrestled away from you so you can ogle at heavily scripted cut scenes considered hardcore?
At the same time, I will have to give shutouts to the few games that mercilessly broke this trend; mainly Crysis 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The former is one of the best PC shooters I’ve played this decade, offering sprawling urban environments where you’re free to attack scenarios and objectives using whatever combination of weapons, attachments and abilities you have at your disposal. Deus Ex also allowed for a similar amount of flexibility, and through great writing and storytelling, the consequences of your actions could be game changing. Plus, it’s one of the only games this year that I’ve played that allows for subterfuge. This is the kind of stuff we need more of in this industry; choices.
Hopefully after the impending release of Modern Warfare 3 (for when I’m writing this article, that is), developers might be willing to try something wholly original, because to be honest, Modern Warfare 3 will be the last Call of Duty game I’ll ever gobble up -- Modern Warfare 2 wasn’t exactly a pretty post-release story, and Black Ops didn’t reinvent the wheel in any shape or form. This series and its formula are starting to stagnate and grow tiresome fast, and it would be nice to see a title breaking record-sales that hasn’t the name “Call of Duty” imprinted on the cover.
What do you think? Should shooters stay as linear and predictable as they have over the years, or are you clamoring for a change?