I’ve been reading a bunch of people complaining that Bioshock Infinite might not re-define the first-person shooter experience. You know the drill: every time a new FPS game comes out, you get the same old litany:
- “I don’t get to make any real choices and all of the in-game choices I get to “make” just ultimately result in either the same thing happening in a different way, or a different cutscene at the end”
- “I’m so sick of doors that don’t open and why can’t I go explore off in the directions they don’t want me to explore”
- “Every game has a pistol and a rifle and a grenade launcher and a BFG, why can’t I get different weapons”
- and of course “why can’t this be more like System Shock 2?”
And all of this misses the point. An FPS might not be a full-on rail shooter, but it’s still about going through the steps of a story; the very nature of an electronic game outside of a full-on-free-form game like SimCity (back when SimCity was not shitty, as it has apparently become) demands a relatively linear progression. Even sandbox GTA-style sandbox/action games have linear progressions built into them – it’s just that the main story has its linear progression while the side stories and one-off-events have their own, and you can bop around the various timelines as you like but you’re not going to get to skip stuff as a rule. The ultimate expression of this, of course, was Telltale’s Walking Dead game, which was excellent and also barely a game in any meaningful sense (it was much more of an interactive movie than anything else), but so long as the writing was rock-solid, who cared that your gameplay was relatively minimal?
Of course, an FPS offers more gameplay than The Walking Dead does, but ultimately ninety percent (at least) of the gameplay in any FPS is tactical – shooting battles. That’s why you play a first-person shooter: to shoot things. The weapons in any given FPS will generally be the same – in function if not form – as they will be in others, because there’s really only a limited number of ways to shoot things with guns (or magic staves, or whatever). Generally when something really neat comes out that breaks the mold for “types of guns available,” it will become a focal point of that game’s play (like the gravity gun in Half-Life 2). And then it will get copied by other games (like Dead Space with its Kinesis module). But this is good! Because when I play an FPS, I want to shoot things immediately and get into the story. I don’t want to learn HOW to shoot the things. I want to point the gun and shoot at them.
And yes, System Shock 2 was a genius piece of work, but it is to modern first-person shooters as Lord of the Rings is to fantasy novels – its influence (multilateral gameplay, an experience/skillbuilding system in an FPS, superb writing) spreads deep into modern design and everybody will always, on some level, feel that any other effort comes up short. Whenever somebody bitches about how they don’t make games like System Shock 2, it just feels like they’re saying “and why wasn’t that play as good as Hamlet?”
I play first-person shooters in order to shoot things. If I can shoot things in an enjoyable fashion, then the game is good. BulletStorm is probably my favorite FPS of the last few years because it wisely decided to take a new tack with first-person shooting – e.g. turning stunt shots into sport and also into character advancement – but also because it awarded me points for shooting baddies in the nuts, or grav-stomping guys into the stratosphere, or bouncing them into lava with explosions. Because that was fun, and made the stupid achievements every game seems it must now have into something actively meaningful. But mostly because it gave me points for shooting baddies in the nuts. Not every FPS has to be a genre-bending exploration of philosophy. Deus Ex: Revolution is not inferior to Deus Ex because you can’t choose the ending. (It is inferior because a single choice you make halfway through the game can render the game effectively unwinnable.) BioShock is not inferior to System Shock 2 because the moral choices you make are effectively all but meaningless. (It is inferior because you get built-in respawn points, which is silly.)
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t want our first-person shooters to be as good as possible. But a solid FPS is not to be sneezed at, especially when most people haven’t played it yet.