Last October, I found myself running through the campaign of the latest Call of Duty as I have every other year. I had the difficulty cranked up to Veteran, a notoriously difficult setting to play through in any first-person shooter. Does anyone remember Mile High Club and the ferris wheel scene from the original Modern Warfare? Jesus Christ.
However, when the credits rolled, I felt much like I feel at the end of any action movie – mildly entertained, pumped up for a few minutes, and struggling to remember any details from the experience. Why was it so hard to remember? This feeling became even stranger when a friend, while playing through Dark Souls 2, was able to recall countless moments from Dark Souls, which he had played months prior, to compare them with what he was experiencing during his time in Drangleic. Why was it so easy for him to remember?
After thinking about it for a bit, it really comes down to this – shooters are just not that hard anymore, and this needs to change.
It may seem strange to compare a first-person shooter to an RPG, but it is more the principal than the mechanics that I am suggesting need a change. We could really use some shooters that don’t just make you feel like you are doing the killing. I rarely am made to think “holy shit, these guys are trying to kill me, too.” Anytrue differentiation between easy and hard difficulties has also disappeared. If developers start incorporating the ideas that From Software has incorporated into the Souls series of games, we could have some of the greatest shooters in recent memory on our hands.
Moving from one difficulty to another in shooters is ultimately meaningless nowadays, boiling down to little more than getting killed more quickly by enemies that are just as dumb as they were on your easy playthrough. The injustice is palpable.
It wasn’t always this way. Games such as Perfect Dark and GoldenEye made higher difficulties more meaningful because, while you were getting killed much easier by enemies that were still just as dumb, you were also taking on more difficult objectives – the list of tasks growing longer with each increase of the difficulty and previously sealed-off parts of the levels opening up to allow their completion. You truly felt like a 00 agent taking on the responsibilities of a seasoned agent.
This is much like Dark Souls, in that, while the entirety of the game is quite difficult to play through, it takes place in an open world filled with extremely difficult, optional side bosses, each guarding their own unique prize. If you take on the tougher challenge, you reap all the rewards Drangleic has to offer.
This payoff is not present in current shooters. There is no real reason to increase the difficulty, unless you are an achievement/trophy hunter. The mechanics of difficulty in today’s shooters are broken, as the games becomes wildly unfair, with grenades raining down on top of you like hellish confetti, or just a few here and there, thrown with the accuracy of an NFL quarterback. Dark Souls, meanwhile, keeps everything fair and balanced. 99.9 percent of the time, you are deserving of your demise.
Developers can do two things to fix the difficulty problem: 1) improve enemy A.I. and 2) open up their level design. Shooting-gallery A.I. that isn’t a challenge without a cheap accuracy advantage is not going to make your game tense – it will make it frustrating. Enemy A.I. that behave like humans and try to outflank you, charge you when you’re reloading, and aren’t deadly accurate with grenades will provide a challenge that actually feels fair and will, therefore, be tense in all the right ways.
However, linear level design will not allow even the brightest enemy A.I. to flourish. If they have only narrow corridors to move down, how are they supposed to flank you or be anything more than paper targets moving up and down a firing range? Open level design will leave players feeling exposed, bringing on paranoia every time they enter into an area that is wide open. Every move will have to be thought out. With mechanics like this, shooters can start feeling difficult in ways we can feel in our nerves. Half-Life 2 got this right with their open level design, making it feel like an enemy – human or otherwise (We Don’t Go to Ravenholm, anyone?) – could appear at any time.
Dark Souls also relies heavily on tension, something that should be a shoe-in for every current shooter. I don’t mean tension of the Michael Bay variety, but tension of the Hitchcockian nature. You aren’t watching with excitement as a high-octane car chase unfolds. You’re dreading what horrors mightl be around the next corner, anxiously waiting to claim your life.
Believe it or not, this type of tension has existed in first-person shooters before, and not in games such as F.E.A.R. Tom Clancy’s original run of Ghost Recon games had this nerve-wracking tension in spades. Not only did the first few Ghost Recon’s sport the scaling objectives of Rare’s immaculate shooters, but it was designed to make you really feel like you could die at any moment. Levels were wide open and almost had a barren quality, the only ambiance coming from the wind whistling through the cold Russian mountains. The game had no music playing during the missions, adding to the tension. At times, things were quiet to the point where it drove you insane. When the bullets started flying from nowhere and your teammates were dropping left and right, it was truly jarring. You had to be on your toes and think about your next move. Soldiers that died stayed dead, and there was no regenerating health.
Wolfenstein got this level of tension right when it threw in its supernatural elements. What made them really work in the game’s favor was that they were never expected. Zombies would come bursting out of tombs, or creep menacingly towards the player down a narrow hallway. It felt like you were waging guerilla warfare with the supernatural and, boy, was it sweet.
The only real problem Ghost Recon faced, and which shooters still face today, is a lack of competent A.I. While so many developers are busy chasing Hollywood with shiny visuals and gimmicky, explosive killstreaks, they forget to give you a competent enemy to fight, something that Dark Souls is always presenting the players with. You can’t just charge an enemy in this game. You need to memorize rhythms, patterns, skill sets, and stop enemies from surrounding you. And there’s no fleeing. Enemies will chase you to the ends of Drangleic to chop off your head.
Let’s face it – the first-person shooter, as popular as it currently is, is in decline. Innovation for the genre is at an all-time low in the wake of the Call of Duty effect (for which Activision can’t be held at fault), and everyone is pushing out carbon copies of the same testosterone-fueled shooter. There is no thinking man’s alterative like there used to be. Even more current iterations of Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six eschewed the planning-intensive vision of their earlier installments. Games such as Titanfall are making strides to switch things up with free-flowing parkour movements and the mech-combat that is more than infantry combat in a metal case. You have to use your Titan’s powers deliberately and at the right moment. It is a thinking man’s shooter, but it is all in the heat of the moment. It would be nice to see some of this thinking taking place off of the battlefield.
I’m not saying that the shooter needs to become a survival horror genre or that we need horrific creatures pursuing us at all times to make the shooter fresh again. All we need is a dab of realism that goes beyond just prettier graphics and door-breaching animations that were approved by a military consultant. There is no doubt in my mind that it is scary to be shot at, and Dark Souls has shown me that it is terrifying to have a sword swung at you. When shooters start stimulating the brain and not just the reflexes, then we will have a good reason to play a first-person shooter again.