I have always liked first person shooters. For a long time they were all I played. Every couple of years I’d pick up a new one and play it for a while and then go dormant again. Being slow and uncoordinated, I have never been particularly good at shooters. In online games I am particularly useless, and my main goal is usually to not be shut out.
After the last flood of major releases in 2004, the last few years have been off years for shooters. Most of the releases have been second string franchises or remakes of second string franchises, or ports of other second and third string franchises from the PC world. This year, however, has been different.
Beginning in August, with the release of Bioshock and moving right along into November, our gaming conciousness has been under almost constant assault by shooters and action games. For all the talk of this being the year of the widened demographic, the majority of new releases and new franchises this year have been in the shooter or action genres. Let’s list them, shall we:
- Halo 3
- The Orange Box (really five shooting games in one)
- Call of Duty 4
- Quake Wars
- Unreal Tournament 3
- Mass Effect (action RPG)
- Ratchet and Clank (platforming and shooting)
Having had my Xbox melt at the height of this madness, I found myself in the middle of November trying to deal with three multiplayer shooters at the same time on the 360. I never did get back to Halo after the machine came back. Our Halo crew has long since broken up and I tend to only play it when I feel like a bit of mindless deathmatch abuse.
I picked up The Orange Box, but ended up only enjoying Portal. I tried to enjoy the two Half-Life episodes but found them to be full of the same boring physics puzzles combined with the same soulless drone-like combat sequences. In addition, I realize that Alyx is supposed to be a bold new experiment in the development of first person shooter narratives, but at this point she is mostly just creepy and gets in my way when I’m trying to navigate the mine shaft. I have long since stopped caring whether she actually lives or dies, and as a final insult I can’t shoot her in the head like I could with the marines in Halo. I finally gave up after a couple of hours of episode 2 while I was lost in the Flood mothership… no wait, I was in a mine that looked just like the Flood mothership. Whatever.
I was hoping that TF2 would save the day, but it does not. First, it’s obvious that this game’s first love and main development target is Steam and the PC platform. There is nothing wrong with this, but the result is that the Xbox Live multiplayer is tragically crappy.
In larger matches, the lag is nearly intolerable. To make up for it, large matches with your friends are almost impossible to create because instead of stealing the lobby system from Halo, which by the way, every single multiplayer shooter should be required by law to do, the TF2 lobby is just the same crappy code from the original Xbox Counterstrike done up in cartoon colors. But it’s a bit worse. Only the host of the game can invite others to the game. And, it is difficult to make any changes to the configuration of the match without just kicking everyone out and re-inviting them. The result is that whenever I decide I want to play TF2 I spend half of my time either waiting for an invite from a friend or half of my time joining and getting kicked from servers. Then, when I get in game, it’s almost always so laggy I have to quit in five minutes and do the whole dance again. It’s a pathetic mess.
The second issue I have with TF2 is that I suck at it, and I can’t tell if it’s my fault. None of the classes really work for me, and no matter how hard I try, the controls just feel a little bit “disconnected.” Every weapon seems to have a little bit of a delay before it fires, or range limitations, or power limitations, or some combination of all of these issues. The whole thing strikes me as too complicated to make second nature. Even after several hours of play, I can’t shake the feeling that everything is happening by accident. I cannot remember one time feeling like I actually managed to manipulate the game world to my advantage through explicit action on my part. It’s always more like there is someone behind the curtain rolling dice and then shooting me in the head.
One thing I do know is the game’s fault is the tedious and boring way it always respawns you in your base. On the larger maps, this means you spend more than half your time running from the base to the action, and then dying, then running from the base to the action, then dying. This makes it hard to get better because you don’t get much time to practice playing the game while you are playing the game.
This is a general problem with all of the current crop of shooters. You can’t practice. I would kill for these people to implement bots to practice against so I could learn the maps and get used to the controls and the feel of the weapons. In retrospect, I think this is what I liked most about the old Xbox Counterstrike. TF2 has a dire need for a deeper tutorial than the little movies that play before the maps start. The learning curve on this game seems steep and full of many humiliating deaths.
By last Friday I was ready to send the Orange Box to eBay, since it had failed to provide me with any more enjoyment after Portal. But, I might give the GWJ TF2 group one more try and see if I can find some kind of connection with this game before I give up for good.
This situation left me in a funk. Here I was, reunited with my Xbox and without a shooter to play in the middle of the biggest glut of online shooters the world has ever seen. Rescue came from an unexpected source. In a moment of weakness, I bought Call of Duty 4. You will recall that Call of Duty 2 was one of the few Xbox 360 launch titles that didn’t suck. I didn’t make it all the way through that game before getting tired of the setting and the general mechanics, so I was not planning to get the new game. But, people told me that multiplayer was excellent. I didn’t believe them. Then I read somewhere that the lobby system was copied from Halo, which, as you know, should be required by law for every online shooter. So I bought it, and I have been saved.
At a game design level, Call of Duty 4 is not as innovative, or interesting, or distinctive as TF2. Your little drone soldiers run around maps that are mostly gray and blue and green and you target and shoot other tiny little drone soldiers from very far way lest they shoot you in the head first. On the surface, there does not seem to be much going on here that is interesting. Where Call of Duty 4 wins is execution. The lobby and matchmaking system is indeed copied from Halo, which, as you know, should be required by law. Games are quick and respawns are nicely balanced in that they let you get back into the game quickly while never putting you right next to a deadly enemy. When you die, the game shows you your death from the perspective of the player who shot you. I’m not sure if this really helps me to get better, but it does show me in a concrete way what I know I’m doing wrong in the abstract (I run in straight lines with my head up). In any case, the result is that I do have the feeling that I’ve been able to slowly improve.
But here is the game’s most brilliant move: In every match you can collect experience points, even if you are completely useless. These eventually accumulate to the point where you unlock weapons upgrades, more interesting game types, extra abilities and all sorts of other RPG-like rewards. I think this is a stroke of minor genius. It gives the game a feeling of connectedness and progression that I’ve never had in a shooter. Most impressively, even though you start out as a gimped cripple, the game is carefully balanced to allow you to still make progress and obtain all the cool gear the other kids already have. I think in less capable hands, this leveling system could easily have left me at a permanent level zero, but instead I’ve been able to slowly make progress towards some of the shinier rewards, and I’ve only played a few hours during the last week.
I probably still suck, but at least now I can suck with a more powerful weapon that has an uber-auto-aiming laser sight on it. I really like it. I like it enough that I haven’t even started the single player mode in this game yet. It’s also the first game in a while that has taken up permanent residency in my Xbox the way Halo used to.
So, in the spirit of the retail season, I’m here to give thanks to Infinity Ward for giving me the game that has allowed me to not totally give up on the online shooter. At least not this year. I wonder if I will manage to survive until three years from now when the next flood hits.