In Praise of the Games that Ruined Shooters

It is, at times, hard to find a temperate voice in gaming. The gaming press has a reputation for being adulatory and terrified of actively criticizing the industry that buys their adds and gives them their stories– best embodied by the infamous Kane and Lynch scandal — whereas  there’s a pretty strong feeling among a lot of gamers outside the absolute mainstream that the medium is dying and nothing will ever be good again (We’d give you a link for that one, but just Google “modern gaming sucks” for a wall of identical complaints).

And, especially in the field of shooters, there are two games in particular that this second camp likes to hold up as the harbingers of the apocalypse, games that took the sacred medium of gaming away from us true gamers and delivered it to the corporate-run, fratboy masses of people who could never beat a Mega Man title and are strangling the lifeblood from this industry. Modern Warfare and Halo. These are the games that turned every shooter into either over-testosteroned space marines or a faceless goon shooting a parade of foreigners through his iron-sights in a brown/gray world.

And we’re going to tell you why those games are fantastic.

Halo

The fact that Halo inspired the Gears of War series alone is reason enough to be wary of it, but the impact it had on shooters can’t be denied– it made Space Marines a go-to template beyond even what Doom had been able to do, turned multiplayer into a standard requirement for shooters, firmly cemented the console as the home of popular shooters, and put a stake through the heart of the old Half-Life style FPS (except Valve’s own games and the decidedly retro BioShock).

Halo also made a lot of its own elements a part of the standard shooter through its success: limited weapon space, a dedicated grenade button, semi-regenerating health, a melee attack button instead of a melee weapon, vehicle sections. These had all been in other games, but it’s pretty rare to find a post-Halo shooter that does incorporate at least half of them, and usually all of them.

Halo’s strong sense of design communicates to the player that these enemies are the worst and should be hated.

But, taken as it was and not as the Game to Rule All Games, the first Halo was pretty damn good. It was bright and colorful with vivid and energetic art design (a trend the series kept up even in its later, weaker installments), and that alone sets it above the brown-green-gray sea of a lot of modern shooters. The enemy design in particular is fantastic: all of the enemies pop out from the landscape, and it’s easy to tell at a glance what kind of threat they pose, how scared you should be, and what tactics are best against them. They all utilize very different tactics when fighting the player, which helps to vary the gameplay greatly. Each type of enemy feels as if they occupy their own distinct role in the Covenant Military. Halo also had absolutely gorgeous level and world design: the environments you fought in felt ancient and awesome, and the game puts the player in a diverse array of natural environments and interesting settings. Playing the game today, one of the biggest surprises is how well it’s aged visually compared to so many other games from 2001: put it alongside Grand Theft Auto III or Black and White and Halo doesn’t simply look graphically better: it looks more alive, more vivid, and still has a real sense of originality and excitement to its worlds.

Halo also did some things very, very right as far as gameplay is concerned. The biggest one of these was a sense of balance: whereas the basic norm in shooters was to give the player increasingly more powerful guns as they go along (best shown in the genius Doom Comic), Halo was one of the shooters to push towards making all weapons relatively equal. Sure, the pistol was infamously overpowered and the rocket launcher was still a rocket launcher, but the player’s choice of weapons essentially boiled down to what they’d be facing and how they played (this is one of the things that made its multiplayer so popular– it did away with the situation where one player gets the Golden Gun and is able to dominate the entire game). And since the grenades and the melee attack each have their own buttons, they become a valuable part of combat scenarios and expand the options given to the player. This balanced set of weapons extended to the enemy encounters: fighting a stronger enemy (a cloaked Elite, an Elite with a sword, a Hunter) didn’t require the player to grab a bigger better gun, it required them to act quickly and use a different strategy. These ideas may not sound too impressive, but considering that before Halo the biggest and most influential shooter was the original Half-Life (which, for all its greatness, was guilty of perpetuating a lot of these problems) they represent some pretty major steps forward for the genre.

There is no surer sign of a good time than “Captain Keyes is here.”

And now we do what most critics (who don’t work for the industry) wouldn’t be caught dead doing: praising Halo‘s story.  Whereas the later Halo games seemed to labor under the pretensions that a) they were telling a sweeping sci-fi epic and b) the player actually cared about the aliens’ motivations and politics, the first game’s story is a masterpiece of economy. The writing in it is fairly sharp and does a good job of  putting the player in the world, but it never overreaches. It doesn’t need to explain why aliens hate humans or what their culture is (and does a pretty good job through incidental dialogue, the environment, and its sense of design of giving you that information anyway), nor does it burden you with millenia of galactic history. What plot developments it has, it handles very well, like the introduction of the Flood. Whereas the later games veered closer and closer to space opera, the first Halo feels like a simple space adventure from the soldier’s point of view, consistently likeable characters, and hints at a bigger picture.  Although we’ll be the first to admit that Halo 3‘s plot is stupid and self-involved, we need more games who take the first Halo‘s approach to storytelling: enough story to give a sense of tension, but never, ever expecting us to be amazed by it or letting it get in the way of the actual game.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Modern Warfare’s cultural presence is essentially a bigger version of Halo‘s: even more successful, even more reviled (to the point that, while researching this article, we found Halo fans worrying that Halo 4 would be a bad game by imitating Modern Warfare). It came out the same year as  the “trilogy” part of the “five-game trilogy, followed by another trilogy” of Halo ended, and basically transformed the world of shooters. Even we’re guilty of complaining about this in our last article, and it’s a valid complaint– Modern Warfare’s astronomical success, paired with Activision’s… let’s just say “evil”, basically led to half the shooters of the past five years resembling it.

But, even more than Halo, the game deserved success (and Infinity Ward didn’t deserve their infamous treatment by Activision). It was

This is one of many, many levels that will make you feel guilty for playing it.

one of the best games of 2007  (and it had to compete with Bioshock, Portal, Mass Effect, and Super Mario Galaxy), and stands as one of the only successful anti-war video games ever made. Whereas the MW series since then has gotten ever more jingoistic, foreigner-hating, and morally questionable, the first game is absolutely full of moments that encapsulate how unsettling and wrong war and our modern approach to it is. There’s the famous “Aftermath” level, where a character you’ve been controlling half the game dies of radiation poisoning and the game only briefly highlights his name on a scrolling list of the thousands of casualties, there’s “Death From Above,” where you control an American aircraft gunner and the main characters (a British SAS division) and their conflict are reduced to tiny blips that your character is audibly bored with as you blanket an entire village with fire, and even the game’s opening credits are a chilling and evocative look at geopolitics. Whereas Modern Warfare 3 feels like an unironic Team America game, the series’ first installment is one of the only games about war that manages to be fun to play, but make war and the nationalism that accompanies it look pretty awful.

Captain Price: candidate for most badass moustache in video games

And, like Halo, we have to judge it by the era it came out in rather than by its sequels and imitators. When it came out, the idea of a war game grounded in modern, realistic conflict was still fairly new, and the gameplay elements we’ve come to hate were part of that. Playing the game when it first came out, we weren’t yet sick of fighting in bleak Middle-Eastern cities and gray Russian bases. The very fact that a good game was talking about American action in the Middle East and making the player feel like a real, on-the-ground soldier was refreshing and felt like a bold step forward (instead of just being yet another Nazi shooting gallery). And, without those objections, the intense chaos of the combat and the fact that it always feels as though you’re getting through just by the skin of your teeth is something truly praiseworthy. The game also does a great job of immersing you in its military setting. The first few missions feel like they’re teaching you how to move and fight as a squad (though some of the later missions throw these tactics out the window), and the game gives you Captain Price, a commanding officer who’s a great character and someone actually worth following. The game can feel exhausting at times, but its frantic and confusing combat is both thrilling and an important aspect of its story and themes. It accomplishes a rare thing: it’s an incredibly fun game that also feels like a relief when you finally turn it off, and it does a fantastic job of always, always making the player feel like they’re seconds from death.

In the end, we have to judge these games by their own standards. If they hadn’t been behemoths of the industry, if we hadn’t had to live with their legacy, would it be so easy to hate them? And if every shooter nowadays looks like Halo or Modern Warfare, is it really fair to blame them?

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1 Comment

  1. Emma

     /  August 18, 2012

    At last! I thought I was sad and alone in liking the original Halo’s storytelling and gameplay! I guess I have so little ire for it because, really, it’s one of the only shooters in my household game library. I don’t have to live with the Halo-clones because I never really bought them, so all I know is “Hey, Halo is a pretty neat game and the aliens bleed orange and blue and that’s pretty great, and holy shit these Flood scare the pants off me, and I can’t get to Keyes before he dies, and that makes me feel sad.” Also, if you count Foehammer as a major, named female character, the first game passes the Bechdel test, which isn’t the most important thing but it’s something.

    Reply

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