Zombie Goasts: Switching it Up on the Realism Railroad

In Video Games on April 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Military shooters show a dedication to realism that I find hard to appreciate (to say nothing of the rah rah patriotism inherent in the genre). Too often does death come swiftly and frequently from numerous unseen foes due to the game disproportionately rewarding sniping and camping without offering any real recourse against it — just like in real life! It suffices to say then that the theatrics of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier convincingly mimicking real life special forces holds less appeal than the little floaty numbers hovering around their weapons with the game’s augmented-reality HUD, and it’s with this that I find that there’s just enough wiggle room at the top to make realism appealing.

Traditionally, I’ve been a fan of what you might call “classic” first-person shooters. I’ll regale my friends of the days of deathmatch yore when big features were not the number of samey assault rifles, but the variety of blasters, cannons and other weaponry that has to make a long distance phone call to even reach “non-standard.” Weapons used to have alternate fire modes instead of a fine aiming mode. It was hard to camp, because double, triple jumps, jets and teleportation made it impossible to really truly fortify an area.

So yeah, the last ten years have been kind of hard on me. Even Halo which by all rights should have all kinds of neat futuristic stuff for some reason sticks closer to realism than it does science-fiction. I even feel like it disdains its own setting: the Covenant has a number of silly enemies that make funny sounds when you shoot and chase them, and their alien weaponry wouldn’t be out of place in the Nerf section of a toy store. The game feels and plays best with the UNSC weaponry with the scoped designated marksmen rifle placed neatly at the top.

Then you’ve got Battlefield and Call of Duty, two franchises duking it out for multiplayer supremacy like Quake and Unreal Tournament used to do back in the day, and the changes they’ve made to gaming are manifold, providing, among other things, XP mechanics for unlocking new features to weapon customization becoming more standard. These are fun features to dangle in front of gamers like a carrot on a stick, but there should be a point when you realize you’ve been upgrading the same assault rifles and progressing through the same faux military ranks every year (at least, in Call of Duty‘s case with its aggressive yearly release schedule). I know that, personally, I’ve played Battlefield 3 less because I was largely done with Battlefield Bad Company 2. All the same, I’ll never go back to Bad Company 2 because Battlefield 3 is a superior game …just not a different enough one.

A game that I would go back to, however, is Battlefield 2142. Even at the time it was rough around the edges and its six years are really showing off its three engine separation from current technology.

But it’s got hover tanks, shotguns that fire C4, optic camouflage and NUCLEAR EQUIPPED WALKING BATTLE TANKS. Instead of the same control point gameplay, you were capturing missile launchers that eventually took down the shields of the enemy’s flying battlecruiser, which you could then land on (or launch up to, firing yourself up in a pod) and assault their base directly high above the terrestrial battlefield. These same ships weren’t stationary or just scenery; they could move and fire ridiculous cannons at the battlefield.

It took all of the same gameplay tenants  you might expect out of a realistic military shooter — area control gameplay, base assault, infantry combat, vehicle battles and so on — and gave it context through a slightly futuristic setting. Because of the same setting, the developers weren’t afraid of giving you some unique tools to deal with difficult situations, instead of the low balance employed by more contemporary settings.

So while I’ve kind of ignored the Ghost Recon franchise until now, it’s because Future Soldier tweaks that part of my brain that loves this sort of thing. It uses a futuristic setting to give you fun tools that alleviate standard gameplay problems inherent in the genre.

For example, in these sorts of multiplayer matches, where enemies area always behind cover, crouched in bushes or just irritatingly hard to find, they give you a class with sensor grenades that reveals any enemy in a generous but limited radius. Enemies are notified of this (via a scary DETECTED popup) but the game doesn’t give them any more information than that. This might cause them to panic and run out of cover, or they might do nothing while you perfectly ambush them. And yet this ability doesn’t grant omniscience and has limited uses before needing to be resupplied, meaning it doesn’t make up for a lack of insight into map design, enemy tactics and psychology.

A major feature of the single-player (limited to one class in multiplayer) is an automatic optic camouflage that blends you in with the scenery. It’s a neat effect that, again, allows you to set up perfect ambushes but is limited in that it turns off during movement or firing your weapon. On the receiving end, you also seem to get some manner of notification when a sniper levels their sights on you, giving you just enough of a chance to make your death seem less unfair than other sniper deaths in games.

The augmented reality HUD plays very nicely as well, with indicators bobbing and moving with the object they’re attached to. Running has your soldier hold the weapon off to the site, obscuring its info but also conveying that running isn’t compatible with gunning. You’ve also got the option of drawing a line in the game world to one of your squad members, making meeting up in a hectic map something you can do without pausing to look at a menu.

It helps that there’s a solid underlying game here as well. It basically plays like Gears of War shfited to the whole future spec ops theme. It’s a third-person shooter with a cover system like Gears (you need to press a button to get into cover). Nicely, when you look at other pieces of cover, you have the option to “switch covers” by holding a button down, letting your character loose into a sprint and slide directly to the exact spot you specified. Shooting feels solid, and the shotgun actually has a realistic range (that is to say, something beyond five feet). Killcams show you how you died, letting you learn enemy tactics and position. Even the loadout screen, with the most ludicrously over-detailed weapon customization yet, lets you hop into a firing range to test your latest creation. Maps are well designed, offering multiple paths to each objective and no obviously superior high ground sniping spots (yet). Even the beta’s multiplayer mode is objective-based, allowing players who work together to succeed over those who merely excel at getting kills. The game just feels right so far.

I feel that the adherence to realism in today’s games props up the same gameplay concepts not unlike being a zombie. Because realism exists as a singularity — there’s only one reality to aspire to, after all — games tend to trend towards the same design scopes, and as gamers expect certain features as standard it leaves little room for innovation, so say little of even a remotely different experience from game to game. This is the opposite of how it was in the past, where games were expected to exceed their predecessors. Now, your game needs to be just similar enough to Call of Duty to appeal to people who hate Call of Duty but still have come to expect everything it brought to the genre.

Ultimately, even as little as Future Soldier deviates from this formula in the  grand scheme of things, I do feel that its “near future” coat of paint adds just enough to make it worthwhile, proving that the realistic military shooter is a solid foundation upon which a number of deviations might succeed.


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