A large gun, and an area full of people in front of me. In any other genre, there may be some hope of conversation, perhaps a spot of exploring, even. But no, this is a first-person-shooter and all must die. Hesitate, and you either die, riddled with bullets and with a screen full of jam, or the game simply shouts at you and forces a restart regardless.
This isn’t a problem, financially, for many developers and publishers. This is the norm; this is what people expect from a modern FPS and if it wasn’t full-on, balls-to-the-wall bullet-action, fans would be disappointed. Provided it has a pedigree – Call of Duty, Halo, or any number of yearly spin-offs – it will make oodles of cash one way or another, so what’s the problem?
It’s all getting very boring indeed.
I’ve just finished ploughing through the latest Halo game with sparkles in my eyes, but sadness in my heart. It is unbelievably beautiful, action-packed and with all the traditional Halo-charm that keeps fans so enthralled, but I would be lying if I said with any conviction that I was actually having fun. As a fan of the Halo games since the very beginning (I spent the original Xbox’s launch night playing through the first), I expected I would take to the fourth game with the same enthusiasm as the rest.
I was right, for around an hour. Then, a thousand bullets later, that old gremlin of repetition settled on my bunched shoulders, and boredom started eating at my concentration.
It is arguably one of the best looking games available on the ageing Xbox 360, with almost every graphical trick imaginable pulled to deflect you from the fact that it’s running on decade-old hardware. It feels punchy, weighty, and has flair for the dramatic that very few games have ever come close to emulating – with the exception of the Call of Duty games, of course. But like its CoD-bretheren, the fabulous events unfolding on the screen are almost always out of your control. It’s your character on the screen, but it’s no longer you doing all the cool stuff.
Now, this has always irritated me. Half-Life proved many years ago that taking control away from the player is a “bad thing”, and yet its legacy is almost completely ignored by the generations of FPS games that have come since. A few cut-scenes are fine, occasionally great for story or expositional reasons. Halo 4, however, seems to revel in taking control away from me for everything not related to shooting or running. Even during a conversation with someone, the camera pulls away and lights up dramatically, full of lens-flare and nonsense.
This may sound like old news for Halo-fans. There has always been huge numbers of cut-scenes in the various games. So why have I waited till this one to vent my annoyance? Simple – the once amazingly fun and liberating combat of the original Halo has become stagnant, dull and boring. Suddenly everything else is thrown into stark relief without the combat to hold it all up.
The original Halo was an amazing beast. Flawed certainly, but it introduced some of the most interesting FPS combat I had ever experienced at the time. Now, after all those silly Call of Duties, Far Cry’s, and Crysis’s, my first encounter with a pair of Hunters in Halo 4 evoked nothing more than a roll of my eyes and a number of pointlessly random deaths as my attention wavers. The combat areas are as varied as ever, but after six Halo iterations, I barely even notice the scenery as I run, jump, shoot and die. The vistas are occasionally amazing, but then again – Halo has always had loads of amazing vistas. Just for once, I would love to just explore them.
Maybe I’m being too critical. Maybe I’m just getting old. The combat that seems to feel all-important has suddenly become a crack in the pavement. Something to avoid if possible… If I wanted to be brutally honest – maybe it’s just a bit too hard at times. Hell, I could take down a quartet of Hunters in the old Halo games with nothing more than a few well-placed melee hits. Now, for some reason they just won’t die. And suddenly, the very thing that made these games special has become something that isn’t fun, a chore even. And I’m not having fun.
So, boring samey combat, un-interactive cut-scenes by the boat-load, and a plot that seems to drag its heels like a spoilt toddler (why am I shooting robot-dogs again?). Sounds like I don’t like Halo 4 much, right? Well, no. I still finished it, but the drive to complete it was almost purely for the Cortana-going-nuts conclusion, and I’m glad I did. I just wish there would have been more enjoyment of the actual game. And it’s the same across the entire genre these days, with very few exceptions. I mean, Black Ops 2 could have been an expansion pack and nobody would have even noticed.
First-person-shooters are in desperate need of some thought, some innovation, something to step away from this run-shoot-reload-run rut that even the best have become mired in. Even the daft madness of the Call of Duty franchise – never the most visionary of games to begin with – has started to tire even the most die-hard of fans. Oh, they will still buy them, if only out of habit, but the sparkle of the venerable Modern Warfare has dropped off, and it’s only going to get worse.
After some thought, I feel I may have come up with a possible move towards brighter pastures – lets drop the word “shooter” from the equation altogether.
Imagine if the next Halo game had us exploring a Forerunner complex on a distant Halo-ring, piecing together data, and interacting with characters without filling them with bullets. Oh, there will be combat of some sort when the Covenant eventually show their ugly mugs, but it won’t be the driving force behind the game. Doesn’t that sound nice? Er, probably not, on reflection. But you know what I’m driving at.
Ditching the big franchises, what about a First-Person-Exploration game? A place where a fully-realized city is open to you to explore, talking to citizens and just… observing. Imagine a game with the characterful nature of Skyrim, except set during the now or the near-future. I’m not talking about the flawed Minecraft-esque procedural world-generation thing; a world of shattered ideas and no narrative framework. I’m talking about a hand-crafted world of places and people and events to actually get lost in. A place where words and actions are the bullets of a brand new generation.
Take a step back from the guns, and the endless combat of the current crop of boring, samey and uninspiring FPS games of the present. Look to inspired creations such as Mirror’s Edge, Zeno Clash, or the wonderful Dear Esther for a glimpse into the future of one of the oldest gaming genres. The first-person-shooter has barely changed in decades, and Halo 4 clings to the same fundamentals as its forebears of yesteryear, and it bores me to tears.
It’s well past time for a change.