The origins of the tactical shooter

News Harry Slater 18 Apr 2011 - 12:11

With the latest SOCOM game out this week, Harry takes a timely look back at the origins of the tactical shooter genre…

War. What is it good for? Well, apart from affording lazy writers easy openings to their articles, it's also a fine source of videogaming fun.

Who amongst us can say that they've never picked up a digital weapon in anger, and grinned maniacally as they mowed down wave after wave of faceless goons, glancing off bullet wounds that would kill an ordinary man. Or woman.

But what if you prefer your war a little more realistic, and a little less like an 80s-action-movie? What if the thrill for you lies not in turning oncoming enemies into chunks of polygonal meat, but in the planning and execution of a cunning plan? If the solo superman isn't the way for you, then the tactical shooter might just be.

I know a few manoeuvres

Games have been toying with the idea of tactics ever since the early days of interactive digital entertainment. To some degree, you're employing tactics when you dodge behind a defensive wall in Space Invaders to avoid an oncoming bullet. Not a particularly large degree, mind. As games became more sophisticated and, more importantly, as the technology we used to play games became more powerful, moving to the left stopped being the be all and end all of your tactical choices.

In the early 90s, games like Cannon Fodder and Commandos: Men Of Honour allowed you to command squads of men into the heart of a conflict. You could split up your team, perform flanking and pincer movements or even have some of your squaddies hang back, then charge into the rescue if needs be.

Syndicate, too, required a level of tactical nuance that action games had, to that point, ignored, in favour of large explosions, platforming sections and weapons with infinite ammo.

This blending of action game and strategy title was a welcome change, allowing those who liked there to be a little more brainpower behind their blasting to still cut a bloody swathe through an enemy encampment. Unfortunately, though, the action strategy, or RTT (real-time tactics), genre dwindled towards the end of the 90s, as strategy games became more expansive and action titles more explosive.

In its place came a different sort of beast. Whereas action strategy games were often isometric affairs, placing you in control of a group from afar, what happened next threw you straight into the heart of the battle. You stopped controlling a squad and became part of that squad. It was the time of the tactical shooter.

The force unleashed

1998 is where it all started, with the release of two key titles – Delta Force and Rainbow Six. Everyone remembers Rainbow Six, and the sequels and spin-offs that it spawned, but Delta Force was just as important in the birth of tactical shooters. An FPS made with voxels (whatever happened to voxels?), Delta Force was a military simulator where a single shot could kill you, and wiping out everything that moved usually meant you'd missed your main objective, and had to start the game all over again.

Rainbow Six came first, though, and is still regarded as the seminal series in the genre. A perfect blend of terrorist trapping action and single hit kills, nothing can quite match the tension of creeping round a corner, your digits crossed that your careful planning and clever ideas don't all start to unravel once the bullets are flying.

Another notable mention has to go to the SWAT series. Starting off as a point and click adventure game, the SWAT franchise then moved into the RTS arena, before finally arriving, in 1999, as SWAT 3, one of the finest tactical shooters of the age.

Objective-based gameplay, harsh difficulty curves and a tension that no Hollywood thriller could hope to match, SWAT 3 was an exercise in game design and team tactics. It's one of the great shames of modern videogame history that the series died out.

Spheres of influence

After the initial explosion of tactical shooters in the late 90s, the genre's influence on the rest of the gaming world was easy to see. Titles like Deus Ex, with its stealthy combat and changing character load-outs, or Counter-Strike, with its soldiers versus terrorist gameplay and single hit kills, owed a great deal to the foundations laid down by the pioneers of the genre. Even a sci-fi game like Stalker, which eschewed great portions of the genre's trappings, still has its feet firmly rooted in tactical shooter territory.

Later titles, like the Battlefield series and, to a lesser extent, the Star Wars Battlefront games, kept the squad-based fighting, but expanded the scope of the battles by placing them in a multiplayer arena. Gone were the claustrophobic corridors of SWAT and Rainbow Six, replaced with expansive battlegrounds filled with medics, engineers and snipers being played by your closest friends or fiercest rivals.

Games Like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter took the action into the future, giving you control of cutting edge weaponry and tactics as you led your four-man team through a range of near future battlefields. Even the more brutish examples of modern shooters owe a debt to the likes of Rainbow Six, with cover mechanics, flanking moves and limited weaponry all hallmarks of that great series.

SOCOM on then...

Present-day tactical shooters are a many and varied bunch. You could call the stealth genre a direct predecessor of the tactical shooters, especially the Splinter Cell games, which owe at the very least a debt of gratitude to the Rainbow Six games, being as they are a product of the same studio.

Games like MAG have moved the action level up a notch, while still returning to the same core values that make the genre great. Operation Flashpoint takes the genre and adds masochism whilst almost every shooter nowadays has to have at least a sprinkling of tactics – either that, or brandish the “old school” defence.

Chief among the current crop of tactical shooters is the SOCOM series, which continues the genre's love of acronyms, bullet proof vests and objective-based gameplay. Add to that Move compatibility, a Command Mode that slows down time and highlights objects of interest, and an expansive multiplayer segment that promises something out of the ordinary, and you can see that the genre is in good hands.

Tactical shooters have come a long way in their short lifetime, but one thing has remained constant – the tension that these games can produce is second to none. Whether you're playing with friends or on your own, having a calculated risk pay off, or watching your perfect plans unfold without a hitch, tactical shooters provide some of the best experiences that money can buy.

SOCOM: Special Forces is out on 21 April exclusively for PlayStation 3, and is available to preorder from the Den Of Geek Store.

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