Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Zero Frags Left?

Hmmm. This post has been a long time coming. Indeed, while I have hinted at it and beat around the bush with semi-related discussion in the past, this post is something I actually am concerned about for the future of gaming and my general interest in it. I am also not incredibly tired or drunk (I think), so you can safely assume that what you read here is actually what I am thinking. So, equip your Hats of Ranting (+1 to rage generation) and prepare to listen to a grown man piss and moan about seemingly trivial stuff in as callous and pretentious a manner as possible. Well, sort of.

In gaming society today, there is (as I have mentioned many a time before) a slight disconnection between a large number of the major game developers and the PC as a gaming platform. Simply put, the PC is not considered to be the bread and butter, default, go-to platform for making a game anymore. Make a game on a computer you may, but for all intensive purposes it will probably end up being on console. Or on a hand-held. Or on a damn phone. The point is, unless you are an indie developer going through Steam or Blizzard Games, making big titles exclusively for PC (i.e. console ports later) is not considered profitable. A good part of the reasons for this is due to piracy. The general nature of the gaming PC is to provide an open and customisable platform, which inadvertently allows tech savvy people various options for playing a game illegitimately. Write an executable crack, tamper with some config files, adjust network protocols etc. You don’t and can’t do this on a less open, less sophisticated environment like a console. So it is unsurprising that even major players in the market, such as Microsoft, have such a strong foothold in terms of where and how they want to drive the consumer market. They have even publicly stated their stance on developing for the PC, releasing ‘facts’ that both bewilder and stun long time PC gaming fans such as myself. Gotta sell those Halo copies somehow I guess…

I’ve mentioned all this before, so I won’t bring it up in depth again. The main point of this article is quite simple. I miss arena shooters. Seriously. Inside my favorite genre of gaming it would easily be my favorite sub-genre of FPS. The last true arena shooter in my honest opinion was Unreal Tournament 2004. UT3, while good, was a step back from something that could and should have evolved into an epitome of gaming skill. Instead it was tacky, sluggish and tailored for … you guessed it … console players. It has now been 7 years since any form of successor has risen from the ashes of continuously slower, tackier, repetitive and outright boring FPS games. The problem? I don’t think it’s going to change. Games like Call of Duty and Halo are considered the norm nowadays, and why? Their game play is anything but intense. The decision making processes one makes in combat during these games are simplistic and primitive. These kind of games have come into fruition at a time when the console market exploded around them and so they have been branded as the benchmark. The true arena shooters of the past are either forgotten or simply unbeknown…

Now I’m talking about the multi-player, deathmatch/CTF game here, not the single player narrative bull crap everyone cares so much about (and plays once and forgets). The feature component of any FPS game should be that visceral, physical feel to the game play that the player is engrossed in. A good arena shooter (i.e. any shooter that has deathmatch/CTF/domination game modes) should push this experience to the limit. You should be able to literally ‘feel’ your actions and behaviors and intrinsically understand how they affect the current game state for you, without even thinking about it. Your gaming avatar and your control over it should be like a natural extension of your body. The funny thing is, even since the days of Doom and Quake this has been achieved. The level of control given to an adept player just feels … right. You get used to it and the sky literally becomes the limit. A true arena shooter doesn’t impose degenerative rules or chance based game play elements designed to add catch-up or random elements to the game. It should have strong, predefined rules with few restrictions and multiple features to accelerate game play, not hamper it. What the fuck am I talking about? Well let’s see...

It seems that today, most people are content with their control of their FPS character alone. Aim and move, shoot some dudes, jump here and there. Congratulations, you are a casual player. In a not-so-recent article by a dude called Shamus Young (yeah, he has a proper blog) I would personally rank you at about the Duke 3D or Quake level. Why? Well, because that’s where you are if you think your handle of FPS games is good if that’s what you can achieve. There is (or at least there used to be) so much MORE to FPS games than just that. The best way I can describe this is if I draw up some comparative scenarios, so let’s do that:

Scenario A: I’m playing Modern Warfare 2. I have spawned with the best weapons the game currently allows me to use. I just got hit a few times while running past an open doorway. I’m still alive, but I got hit up pretty bad, indicated by the amount of blood on my screen. I have nowhere to escape to, but if I wait a few seconds for my magical invisible health bar to refill, I can come back round the corner and spray the piece of tinfoil the enemy is hiding behind with ½ a clip of overpowered 1 shot headshot, 3 shot body kill machine-gun fire. I aim down the sites to perform this action, severely limiting my view and movement speed, but somehow making me fire 3x more accurately (because I am now aiming a gun). Said enemy dies quite epicly. He also respawns and comes looking for me as I attempt to camp in a similar position. After several engaging moments of looking down a corridor, the enemy appears once again and I again shoot him full of lead. I decide to stay at this vantage point and repeat this activity on several more opponents until I run out of ammo. I then use grenades, for even faster/louder results. When they run out, I then get up and attempt to knife someone with my 10 yard instagib melee button, successfully at first, but dying moments later.

Scenario B: I’m playing Unreal Tournament 2004. All I have is my starting weapon and a sniper rifle. I just got hit a few times while running past an open doorway. I’m still alive, but I got hit up pretty bad, indicated by the low valued numeric symbols on my HUD. I have nowhere to escape to and don’t have regenerating health, so I’m pretty fucked! However, I know my movement speed is my greatest tool. I attempt to double dodge-wall jump back across the open doorway, firing my sniper rifle at the first sight of enemy I see. I surprise my foe with my random aggressive choice of movement and remove his head in the process. I take a tiny bit more damage and am now nearly dead. I want to find health as I know the next engagement with an enemy will be my demise. I move quickly but carefully to the closest known location of a health pack. Unfortunately my previous opponent must have predicted this decision and although he has inferior weaponry, is now guarding the only access to the health pack. Desperate, I make for an alternative route, but as he has full health and I have almost none, I die in the process. AS I DAMN WELL SHOULD!!! I respawn, quickly, and decide my best course of action is to gain a firepower advantage. I head to the rocket launcher, keeping in mind where I think he is and where he could possibly be at this point in time.

I probably sound like a bit of an elitist here, but let’s briefly detail the differences in these two situations in these games:
  • In MWF2 I spawn with all the equipment you need and have regenerating health, completely taking out the need to prioritize control of parts of the map for various pickups. You run around, shoot people and camp at good locations to kill them instantly with your instagib-machinegun. The ability to shoot through walls negates the need for me to orientate myself appropriately, turning fights into a spray fest. Enemies that die fast/instantly remove the need for me to carefully wear down the opposition to deliver precise killing blows where necessary. Camping in an advantageous, hard to reach location is beneficial for ambushing unsuspecting opponents, especially as I am aiming down the scope and have the RNG machine already in my favour. Although I move slowly, so does everyone else, making hitting people generally quite easy. Grenades and knife usage grant me incredibly easy kills, sometimes without even aiming. I am, overall, a terrible FPS player, but because the skill ceiling in this game is so incredibly low I am actually doing very well. Against people both worse and better than me.
  • In UT2004, I spawn with the worst weapons in the game. They are situationally viable, but generally speaking, I will get outgunned if I don’t grab something better. Not having the best weapons or regenerating health makes me want to control parts of the map where they exist. This is not easy, especially when other players are doing it as well. People move quickly and have multiple movement options other than just walking/running. They are hard to hit, but so am I making fights more about skill in aiming and less about luck. Not having regenerating health makes the game balanced around how much damage is effectively done in an engagement. I can/will kill someone, even if it takes me a few tries. However it will not be easy. Besides moving quickly they could still have better pickups than I, so I need to take control of that aspect as well. Camping is illogical. I need to think ahead of my opponent and do what I think they would be doing in the same situation. Or sometimes … what they wouldn’t be doing. The skill ceiling in this game is so high, I am sometimes overwhelmed by both the number of things I can/should be doing and the fact that while I am an excellent player, there is still someone out there who is better than me.
… This is just deathmatch. I could bring up other game modes like CTF, but I don’t think it is necessary. I hope from these small descriptions you can begin to see the differences in game play these two games offer. You may argue that MWF2 is not an arena shooter, but what else is there to compare it to nowadays? The truth is MWF2 is simplistic and uncomplicated. UT2004 is not. In fact, in a game like UT2004, you begin to let your intrinsic nature take over when the game play starts moving and flowing like a battle where you have total control. You begin to pull off extraordinary feats of skill, such as stuff like this, which would be accusable for cheating! They probably would be nowadays, but 7 years ago it would have been normal. Maybe lucky, but definitely routine. UT wasn’t the only game though. Even Half-Life and TFC had the components for making extraordinary arena shooter moments, which I think brings to attention the most important aspect about these games in general. You may design a game, perhaps unintentionally, to have a conceived level of control that players will have. If you let this control run a little bit rampant, impose less rules and boundaries on what people can do, then you don’t force people to play in the same box as everyone else. If you let players own creativity and flair come into existence during play … then you can allow players to achieve incredible things such as the following, and be one step closer to making the perfect arena shooter.

The only question remaining is whether or not there will ever be another one?

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