Military first-person shooters have lost their balls

By Steve Clark, Monday, 6 February 2017 11:25 GMT

When did war get so safe?

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“Fearing the President might put the nuclear codes on Twitter. Alt-Right and Hard-Left knifing each other’s throats. Half the global population convinced there’s 12 reptilian businessmen dictating world events for financial gain. This is a geo-political goldmine no shooter is digging.”

When was the last time a modern-day military shooter campaign blew you away – and not just with a frag grenade tumbling at your feet? Or even just a mission like All Ghillied Up or No Russian that stays with you long after the rifles fall silent?

Because from where I’m playing, it seems that today’s military shooters are one ball down on Hitler.

And that’s odd, when you consider the Doomsday Clock twitches at 2-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Or approximately the length of time it takes to complete a Call of Duty campaign. Rolling news flickers with refugees fleeing war-zones. Europe’s in a dangerous economic mess; Syria’s a ball of hot sand and flames. Britain stands alone on the white cliff-edges of Dover like a WW2 fever dream. At the heart of it all, a Billionaire Bond villain businessman takes the White House and cuddles up to a former KGB agent-turned-dictator who literally looks like he was born practicing the dark arts.

This shit writes itself. You can picture playing as a peacekeeper or merc in this volatile world, ambling through the labyrinth of hellishly squalid refugee border camps, defying dubious orders of corrupt politicians and killing all the nutters with AK’s to grind. Instead, Call of Duty pressgangs us into space, while Battlefield hunkers down in the trenches. North Korea is a ruled by a head-case hermit with deep daddy issues, and all we can come up with is Homefront: The Revolution?

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It’s fair to say that few modern-day military shooters have had a strong narrative game. They typically possess all the subtlety of a Tom Clancy novel. You’re a soldier. You shoot terrorists. And almost always, there’s a double agent in your midst. The world is black and white; good and evil; boring and bad. They’re the gaming equivalent of a 1980s popcorn actioner or a Michael Bay movie, if Bay was doped up on diazepam.

It wasn’t always like this. What’s missing today is courage.

When I think modern-day military shooter, I think Captain Price. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was released in 2007, slap-bang in the middle of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The word ‘terror’ was only just reaching saturation point. Modern Warfare’s story was just as enjoyably hokey as you’d expect/hope – a B-movie plot about the outbreak of a Russian civil war and a middle eastern coup d’etat – but man, we got to act out the same shit we saw every day on TV. These weren’t real wars, but they were instantly recognisable, grounded in a gloriously demented version of our own fractious world, without all blah-blah social commentary.

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Call of Duty’s modern-warfare trilogy defined the genre for its generation because it occasionally took risks. It wasn’t just the run there, shoot this mentality. It was there (it’s a shooter, we want to shoot things and it’s quicker to run than walk) but there were gameplay moments that still have a massive impact today. The heart-pounding intensity of All Ghillied Up, the remote sense of guilt after raining down bloody hell on soldiers, or maybe civilians, in Death from Above. We wonder whether distant, real-world drone operators feel the same.

That’s not to say COD was the only game in town, either. One of the last military shooters to try something different was Spec Ops: The Line, a kick-ass exploration of a soldier’s psyche – the Apocalypse Now of games. SOCOM: US Navy Seals and Rainbow Six brought near-simulations of warfare to gamers against goofy shooter rivals like GoldenEye and Halo. History still has time to repeat itself. As Ghost Recon: Wildlands attempts to paint its grit in technicolour, we’re seeing Overwatch domination, the squids of Splatoon, the unfortunate Battleborn – offbeat and MP-centric, which leaves a decent military campaign-shaped niche in the market.

But the last time Call of Duty served up even remotely risky play was with the invasion of America in 2013’s Ghosts, which might’ve felt like a chilling and thrilling gaming experience if it wasn’t so dull in execution. By that point, military shooters were feeding off each other’s bloated corpses. The uneasy Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising should only ever be remembered for its 10-syllable title. Medal of Honor’s bland Afghan backdrop felt like a cheap, repackaged run ‘n’ gun ‘n’ reload ‘n’ run ‘n’ gun montage stitched together with COD’s off-cuts. It was only a matter of time before Call of Duty was going to ditch the era (and the blackly humorous band-of-brothers levity) in an effort to evolve, and chase the Halo dollar. Safe, samey, secure and inoffensive.

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“Who is the games industry terrified of offending anyway? Vocal militants on every side of the political spectrum never bothered them before.”

Who is the games industry terrified of offending anyway? Vocal militants on every side of the political spectrum never bothered them before (take a page out of Rockstar’s ‘Zero Fucks Given’ manual). But when you’re a big-league triple-A developer getting tax breaks and subsidies from the government just like every other industry out there, it pays not to rock the gunship. Just churn out another shooter that you know will climb the charts anyway, no need to even bother trying. Nope, not one little bit. The genre has gone the way of big budget action movies like Jurassic World and Ghostbusters, which are guaranteed ticket-sellers despite underwhelming familiarity. Any idea that risks corroding profit must be battered to death with its own teeth.

Just imagine Twitter’s hashtag hurricane if Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian was released today. Censor-addict countries cheerfully demanding the excision of civilian slaughter. Non-apologies issued. A viral PR disaster. But those risks the developers were once willing to take, bunny-hopping over boundaries in both the single- and multiplayer arena, is the reason the Modern Warfare series is so ludicrously popular that Activision can sell a bad sequel off the back of a glorious, remastered original.

A prime example of tip-toeing around a game’s narrative possibilities is Battlefield 1. With its WWI setting, the awesome not-modern-day military shooter was an entertaining Boy’s Own Adventure ripped straight from the pages of Commando that at no point in its gameplay forced anyone to think ‘this is a war that killed 17 million people’ (although it was 17 million percent better than any of DICE’s other mainline modern-day dramas).

And it would’ve been light, Hollywood fluff even if it were a WWII game: A blast of stale and fresh risk-free repetitive Nazi slaying. We’re so relentlessly content to kill Hitler’s henchmen because a) that shit never gets old and b) they’re easily defined bad guys.

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In today’s world, we don’t even know who the bad guys are. Sure, IS are merciless caricatures, but after Manning and Snowden and Anonymous, we can’t trust our own Government either. Politicians corrupting themselves on a daily basis, reading our emails and spying on us through CCTV, while complicit social networks profile us all for advertising purposes. Fearing the President might put the nuclear codes on Twitter. Alt-Right and Hard-Left knifing each other’s throats. And half the global population seem fairly convinced that there’s 12 reptilian businessmen in a quiet office in Idaho dictating world events for financial gain. This is a geo-political goldmine no shooter is digging.

But there is hope.

Books and films have parked their tanks on the lawns of gaming’s natural territory. Theatre is constantly created to provoke and offend. Video games seem stuck in the same secure rut TV was back in the 90’s, isolated from reality and afraid to say anything even moderately controversial. For television, reinvention arrived thanks to subscription services like Netflix and HBO – networks that don’t need to fear unwelcome government intervention or ad revenue streams drying up, and instead focus on the viewing experience, to bring us shows like Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Westworld. These aren’t real worlds or real wars, but they’re recognisable.

For video games, refreshing the modern military shooter could – and probably should – be spear-headed by fearless indie developers or new studios who focus on gameplay experience over box art and creeping microtransactions. Studios like Playdead, The Behemoth and Campo Santo have already breathed fresh life into decaying genres, so why not the military shooter? That’s how it started, after all. When Infinity Ward developed the original Modern Warfare it was a fresh-faced 5-year-old upstart, filled with spirit, spunk and moxie (and some Activision dollar, that helped pay for the refined experience). Now, it’s a sulky 15-year-old with apathy.

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“Books and films have parked their tanks on the lawns of gaming’s natural territory. Theatre is constantly created to provoke and offend. Video games seem stuck in the same secure rut TV was back in the 90’s, isolated from reality and afraid to say anything even moderately controversial.”

Sure, there’s a golden opportunity with Call of Duty: The Cold War – at the precise moment a second Cold War is brewing, complete with Reagan Lite and Diet Thatcher in the cockpit of the free world – but we all know the game would probably be watered down to shooty mission, tank mission, sniping mission, and a not-very-good stealth mission.

Games should be entertainment first, art second (add obvious caveats here). They’re video games. And the argument that they should be purely escapist and avoid real-life is full of bullet holes. Modern-day military shooters are a fantasy. A power trip. A thought experiment. What if America and Russia declared war? A military shooter’s power comes from playing a side of the war we’ve never experienced before, not the same old shit in Totallydifferentcountryistan.

Nothing can bring to life a fractured world of intrigue and explosion as well the modern-day military shooter can. That’s a visceral fucking experience. Instead, video games pop their battle-scarred balls in an ice box, just to make sure they’re properly shriveled up.

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