First person shooters have been popular ever since Wolfenstein and Doom. They’ve been a dominant force in gaming since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare took multiplayer shooters from big to monolithic. In the time since, shooters just haven’t been that interesting. They’ve been fun, they’ve sold well, but they haven’t been that interesting.
2016 saw first person games revisiting their roots, finding gravitas, and pulling in new audiences. The first person action games of 2016 are some of the most interesting to join the genre in recent memory.
Red and White
Superhot was the first of this year’s bevy of memorable shooters. Most of the shooters this year were from big studios and had the appropriate production values in tow. Superhot was from a small, independent studio, though, and it shows in all the right ways.
Instead of going for spectacle, the team honed in on a single mechanic, a spartan story, and two colors.
In Superhot, time only moves when you do. When you stand still, time slows to a crawl. You’re surrounded by multiple enemies at all times, each one of them a human-shaped grouping of red polygons. All you have to do is survive, and you have all the time in the world. Sounds easy, right?
Management of your time, your position, and of your surroundings all come into play as you take down one enemy after another, and a lack of awareness can put a bullet in your back before you know it.
I talked about this a bit in my “Best Games of 2016” piece, but what makes Superhot stand out from all the other shooters is that it offers, in its narrow space, a feeling of improvisation that we rarely see in games. Your goal, of course, is to Kill The Dudes. We’re talking about shooters, after all. But getting there is all the fun. You’re surrounded by simple objects like cups and keyboards, and by firearms and swords. You can take over the bodies of your enemies Mass Effect 2 Overseer-style. Whether you’re firing a gun, punching a guy, throwing a sword, or hotswitching between bodies, how you complete a level is up to you.
Once you’re done, you get to see this dance you’ve choreographed all put together in one fluid series of actions. Suddenly, you’re graceful and lightning fast. You’re The Flash. You’re a badass.
A Brutal Masterpiece
Then, Doom roared to life a couple months later, in the first half of May. When I think of the development of and the attitude behind Doom, I can’t help but think of Mad Max: Fury Road. That movie spent many years in development hell before finally moving ahead. With a new actor on the poster and a director who was not only getting old but had been directing children’s movies in this years since his last Mad Max movie, there was no reason Fury Road should’ve been good.
Likewise, Doom was a long-developed game that had been scrapped at least once over and existed across publisher Bethesda’s acquisition of id Software and founder John Carmack’s departure to work for Oculus. The changes in leadership and troubled development were – and for many games, still are – signs of a bad game coming along. For a recent example, check out Homefront: The Revolution. Deep Silver’s game survived through multiple studio closures, publisher changes, and other drama, but the game we ended up with was merely a complete game, not a good, interesting, or fun game. Doom should not have been good.
But just as Fury Road roared out of the gate with an energy that belied the age of the series and its creator, the creators of Doom were hiding something primal behind the old name. Rather than following the herd of modern shooters, Doom went back to its roots and built off them. Doom is perfectly paced in every respect. It’s brutal but not gratuitous. It’s fast and frenetic, but never loses composure. Its challenging but never unfair. The story is reverent and irreverent in equal measure. Everything in Doom feels intentional and meaningful. It’s a masterpiece.
Something for everyone
And then, just a couple weeks later, Blizzard happened. Overwatch happened.
I don’t like Blizzard games. I don’t like online shooters. I talked about this at great length earlier this year, so I won’t go into too much depth.
In short, Blizzard took elements from all the things I tend to avoid and found a perfect mix. A broad cast of characters ensures that not only can I find styles of play I like, but I can vary the play style as well. I can play as characters that look, sound, and feel wildly different from each other. Because it’s a Blizzard game, it’s absurdly popular and I can play with totally disparate groups of friends.
I play Overwatch until my hands hurt. I think about playing it when I’m doing other stuff. Until Overwatch, I didn’t believe in the Blizzard Magic that seemed to be invisible to me and only me, but now, I get it.
Before we finish out the year with some giant robots, though, we have to talk about something that wouldn’t normally pop up on a list like this: a straight-up, plain-jane military shooter.
For years, Call of Duty and Battlefield have felt like thoughtless, rote releases. Just more of the same, with the releases only coming because investors demanded them.
With Battlefield 1, though, it seems like DICE was making the game for themselves.
Modern warfare has been milked dry the same way World War II was by shooters in the late 90s and early 2000s. While competitors have been taking to the future for some time, Battlefield went back to the very origin of modern warfare, the first World War. I was a bit worried at the unveil for reasons I’ll get into shortly, but it turns out to have been largely for naught.
Military shooters tend to be very gung-ho about war. It’s this noble thing that we do because we’re patriots, but it’s also cool because we have guns, and guns are cool, war is cool. Battlefield 1 though, seems to be aware that, well, war is kind of gross.
Instead of putting us in the shoes of secret agents who stop nuclear bombs and shut down megacorporations, the first character we play as comes with the warning that he’s going to die. That most people who went to war during The Great War died. Many of the characters you play are simply surviving. Making it back out of enemy lines intact or keeping a barely-functional tank running while everyone around you dies. You’re a cog in a machine that you have no control over.
While it is, indeed, a game and thusly cannot be fully historically accurate, some care has been taken to give the game a historical perspective. The single-player campaign is filled with bits and pieces of the history of the “war to end all wars.” DICE imbued the game with gravitas and respect for the war, instead of a jingoistic adoration of patriotic combat.
On top of all that – it made it out and into players hands on time and it worked out of the box. That’s been a huge problem for Battlefield for some time, and that in itself is notable. A successful launch alongside a much more interesting campaign helped to bring a troubled series back from the brink.
If Nintendo made games about mechs
I’ve heard a lot of hyperbole thrown at the level design in Titanfall 2. Eurogamer called it almost Nintendo-like, while GamesBeat and Rolling Stone compared the game favorably to Half-Life. I think we need a bit more time out from the game’s release before we start calling it the Citizen Kane of First Person Platformers or the Dark Souls of mech piloting games, but what they’re getting at is right on the money.
While Titanfall 2 has plenty of shootyman time, it’s really about movement and discovery. Rather than having setpiece moments in levels, entire levels are huge setpieces. Each level takes the solid basic controls and concepts that powered the original, and then pairs them with a single idea, exploring that to the fullest. One level has you exploring a gigantic factory that literally builds colonies and, as you explore it, you see every stage of that creation. Everything moves around you, floors become walls, and it’s disorienting as can be. And it’s really cool. And the whole game is like this. One new concept after another. The game constantly feels fresh and exciting.
On Master difficulty, the focus on movement becomes even more crucial. Enemies are one-shot-one-kill monsters, professional snipers pulled in from every elite squad you can imagine. Trying to kill every one of them means peeking from cover and sitting still. Instead, making full use of your abilities, such as your invisibility, means you can stay mobile. While I initially thought the Master difficulty pushed against the core ideas of Titanfall 2, it works in concert with them – I just had to figure it out.
A high bar for next year
Lots of stuff in 2016 just was terrible. But video games were pretty great overall, and shooters especially were a high point. I don’t think we’ll see so many unique games in this genre packed so closely together again for a while. Maybe next year will see open-world games, platformers, or something else altogether revitalized the same way shooters were.