Call of Duty and Battlefield fans have been going at each other’s throats like cats on keyboards for years now, but Dave Cook feels this is one war that doesn’t have winners or losers. Join him as he looks back at almost a decade of PS3 and Xbox 360 shooters through his nostalgia-tinted specs.
”It all goes back to that dynamic experience, and the idea that we’re no longer passive consumers of on-screen action. We’re now the orchestrator, the person that makes those buildings topple, or those vehicles explode, rather than having our scripted protagonist do it for us.”
In 2006 a law was passed here in Scotland that deemed it unlawful for fans of Activision’s Call of Duty franchise to derive any degree of pleasure from EA’s rival Battlefield series. The same rule applied in the opposite direction. Any breach of the legislation was decreed punishable by extreme ridicule on an Internet forum of the court’s choosing, and would be followed by 300 hours of community service and severe name calling on Myspace.
This obviously never happened, but I’m still confused by people who act like it’s literally impossible to like both Call of Duty and Battlefield at the same time. As far as gaming industry ‘wars’ go, this is up there with the likes of the 16-Bit exchange between Sega and Nintendo, or what’s happening now with Sony and Microsoft, although if I’m being completely honest none of these industry skirmishes have winner or losers.
Put it this way; the rivalry between Activision and EA over its flagship shooters triggered an annual game of one-upmanship from both firms that resulted in an abundance of new FPS titles. Each release had more effort than the last, and even if that led to naff gimmicks or genuinely neat features designed to keep things feeling fresh, you always had something new to look forward to each holiday season.
So if you’re a shooter fan in general terms – never mind a staunch Call of Duty or Battlefield follower – then you’re a winner as far as I’m concerned. You really are spoilt for choice, and you were most certainly not a loser for publicly admitting you preferred one series over the other. Those games aside, you also have IP like Halo and a host of other shooters that have been inspired by the big players, so really, you’ve always had shooters out the arse my friends. Out the chundering arse.
Bringing the Boom
Something miraculous happened as the industry charged into the late ’90s. Thanks to the emergence of PlayStation and disc-based formats, developers finally had the power to make games more cinematic, and that sparked an exciting trend of crude but no-less enthralling FMV and CGI sequences in games. Remember the first time you saw Final Fantasy 7′s intro video? I guarantee a large percentage of you sat there at the time and thought, ‘this is it… the future.’
”This was what developers had dreamed of ever since they first saw the Holodeck concept in Star Trek; immersing worlds that pulled the player out of their bedroom and into a world of escapism.”
Fast-forward to the turn of the new millennium and you started to see studios teaching themselves how take those scenes and re-work them into something playable, so that we were no longer passive watchers of pre-scripted movies – we were right there in the heart of the action, exerting real influence over events as they unfolded.
I first felt we had made that leap when I sat and watched my friend playing the Omaha Beach landing mission in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault on PC. It was eye-watering, a truly watershed moment.
I saw cowering, screaming men pinned down behind steel fixtures as stray Nazi rounds churned up sand around them, while white-hot streaks of lead screamed past my ears, and the sound of explosions rumbled on the horizon as if Zeus himself had just broken wind.
This was what developers had dreamed of ever since they first saw the Holodeck concept in Star Trek; immersing worlds that pulled the player out of their bedroom and into a world of escapism, where they could be a race driver tearing around Hockenheim, a secret agent deep behind the Iron Curtain, or in Allied Assault’s case, a solider fighting at the peak of World War II.
We had arrived at that special place, and I’m certain the gaming press of the day – as it’s often known to do – deemed that games like Allied Assault were as far as we’d go in terms of cinematic direction and immersion. Little did those jaw-droppers know that we had only just touched the fringe of what was possible, and all it took for us to realise this was for the team behind that game – 2015 Inc. – to defect from EA and set up a new studio called Infinity Ward. The first Call of Duty released in 2003 and the shooter war was firmly on.
These games didn’t start the rise of cinematic shooters of course, and it’d be remiss to glaze over the impact of GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64, Timesplitters 2 and Halo: Combat Evolved to name a few. Each of these titles were cinematic in their own special way – from Rare’s opening Dam level with its superb pacing and fresh ideas, to Halo’s explosive final escape – but as the industry entered the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation, it was clear that Hollywood and military shooters were about to converge in spectacular fashion.
It’s weird actually, because on more than one occasion I’ve had gamers tell me that shooters set before modern times are boring due to their lack of gadgets and high-tech weaponry, but one glance back at Allied Assault’s brutal beach landing or Call of Duty 2′s Russian pipeline mission – one of my personal favourites – shows they can still be exhilarating to this day. These set-pieces were tense, engaging and worked hard to provoke urgency in the player with great effect.
One downside of cinematic shooters is, of course, the fact that you’re largely beholden to what the developer wants you to see, and this is a method of design that really started to inform the Call of Duty franchise with the release of the first Modern Warfare. This was about the time DICE, which was seeing great success with Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, was being placed as Activision’s closest rival, following Medal of Honor losing significant purchase in the market. The realm of military console shooters had become a two-horse race.