In the video game world, the shooter genre, be it first or third person, has been to me synonymous with terms like stagnation and linearity. Hallmarks of classic video games, like fast paced combat, boss battles, and exploration, have been effectively circumvented in favor of hallway-like level design, quotidian enemies, and unremarkable mechanics. At least, that has certainly been my own perspective on the genre for the better part of 10 years at least and contributed to my own abandonment of it.

Big name series like CALL OF DUTY and BATTLEFIELD came crashing through the kingdom’s doors and effectively gentrified the genre with their realistic aesthetics and grounded mechanics while game series like HALO have become excessively centered on the online multiplayer experience whilst only providing serviceable single-player content. While the online social gaming experience is not exclusive to the shooter genre on either consoles or PC, it is an undeniable fact that this focus on multiplayer has been a source of major financial and critical success for developers and has, unfortunately, paved the way for developers to focus almost exclusively on the multiplayer aspect, ignoring the single-player experience.

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Now, while most people relish the social aspect of gaming, I for one favor single-player content. This is entirely subjective and hence not meant to disparage the tastes of any gamer, but I certainly think that as a consumer, I am left wanting more often than not. I lean towards fighting games (which I fully acknowledge can be very social experiences) like the MARVEL VS. CAPCOM and GUILTY GEAR series and hack and slash games like BAYONETTA, DEVIL MAY CRY and GOD OF WAR to name a few.

What could this possibly have to do with shooters?
What could this possibly have to do with shooters?

Shooters, while not my preferred choice, have delivered some very fun experiences over the years. The ones I recall with the most fondness would be the GEARS OF WAR trilogy on the Xbox 360 released over a period of five years. Obviously, these games have a very strong online component but their single-player campaigns were of extremely high quality and gave me considerable replay value.

Also of note and much more recent on my radar are the new WOLFENSTEIN games: THE NEW ORDER, and THE OLD BLOOD, which have been released over the past 2 years. These two games have been of considerable note to me since they were bold enough to focus entirely on the single player experience. This gave the WOLFENSTEIN games not only considerable gameplay depth since the game actively gave you the choice to mix it up between the classic “run and gun” approach to a simple but viscerally satisfying stealth action gameplay.  It also had an actual story beyond the core “shoot the Nazis” narrative hook.

I mention these last two series in particular because, as far as shooters are concerned, they’re about as close to the two games I’d like to focus on for this piece. The style of game-play displayed in the GEARS OF WAR series is the nearest example there is to VANQUISH (which I will talk about first) as the WOLFENSTEIN games are essentially direct precursors to the latest installment in the DOOM series.

VANQUISH

The product of famed game director Shinji Mikami and the excellent Platinum Games and published by Sega, VANQUISH was released in the fall of 2010 with little to no fanfare. The game wasn’t notable for its story or characters, but the game distinguished itself due to its twitch-based gameplay and the velocity and urgency of its firefights. The game, unlike other shooters, focused exclusively on the single-player campaign and rightly so due to its main mechanic.

A firefight from VANQUISH.
A firefight from VANQUISH.

While one could easily describe VANQUISH as a cover-based third person shooter, this description sells the game incredibly short. The game offered the power slide, a mechanic that provided inspiration to subsequent shooters like BULLETSTORM, DESTINY and TITANFALL 2. With this mechanic, regulated and balanced by a meter bar on the player HUD, the focus shifts considerably from duck-and-cover shootouts to lightning-fast engagements as it endows the player character with the ability to rapidly move from cover to cover and through the battlefield. This act can be slowed down with Platinum Games’ trademark “slowdown” mechanic, also balanced with the same meter bar and previously featured in their hack and slash masterpiece BAYONETTA.

Mikami had previously described the game as initially conceived as a brawler type game akin to his previous work on Clover Studios GOD HAND and actually inspired by the classic anime series CASSHERN. While the brawler aspect was changed to the now established shooter, the third person perspective, the small melee combat component, and the powerslide mechanic still added a learning curve worth discussing in detail.

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The meter bar necessitated activating and balancing the powerslide mechanic and the slowdown, which is because these mechanics are the centerpieces of the game’s identity. The meter bar, on top of the singular and separate use for these mechanics, can be combined on the fly. For instance, during a power slide, the player can hold the aim button to slow down the gameplay and facilitate targeting of enemies on screen whilst still in rapid movement. The player can also use the melee button during a slide to execute an incredibly powerful and stylish kick to either weaken or finish off large enemies. Moving from cover to cover, jumping forward from cover or the simple act of dodging can be canceled into a slowdown sequence to permit strategic aiming and elimination of targets.

The power-slide in action!
The power-slide in action!

This system lends both strategy and urgency to the most basic of firefights and gives the game a feeling akin to a modern fighting game, as the game actively rewards your measured meter use whilst creating a very punishing environment should the meter be spent recklessly. This is manifested most clearly when the meter is spent completely. The player’s character’s actions are drastically diminished in speed and the active frames of the character are more numerous. Hence, it is easier to punish the player as the meter slowly recharges.

These sort of nuances are not common in shooters and, as stated before, display the roots of the initial conception of VANQUISH as a beat-em-up brawler and even of fighting games since meter management is a particularly notable staple of fighting games from the last few years (like STREET FIGHTER IV, ULTIMATE MARVEL VS. CAPCOM 3, MORTAL KOMBAT XL among others). Another distinct shooter-feature of this game is the presence of actual “boss” character enemies. While the encounters are repeated twice for each boss, the actual battles genuinely challenge the combined skills of the player in order to obtain victory, a most welcome addition in a time when the very concept of bosses in video games has become borderline nonexistent.

VANQUISH would end up becoming a cult classic that sadly didn’t seem to make much of a blip on the mainstream radar. It did, however, receive critical praise and numerous awards which, while not ensuring a continuation of it as a franchise, has cemented the game’s reputation as a pioneer in the shooter genre due to its varied influences and its intelligent application of them throughout its short but incredibly memorable campaign.

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DOOM

Developed by Id Software, published by Bethesda and released this past May, DOOM was curiously mired in some pre-release controversy due to the questionable quality of the multiplayer beta released only a few months before the final product was made available to the public at large. In this regard already DOOM only seems to be much like any shooter available now but one thing most gamers, myself included, were hardly prepared for was the quality of its single-player campaign and the deceptively deep gameplay mechanics at play both passive and active. I make this distinction between passive and active since the game not only adds things to the actual run-and-gun gameplay but also some slight RPG-esque mechanics that are in effect in the background.

From the get-go, Doom makes itself known and understood as a game that values speed over anything remotely resembling duck and cover shooting action. The player character moves at a considerably faster rate than in other first person shooters (FPS). Another thing that establishes the clear distinction between it and other FPS is the fact that guns do not require reloads. In a time when most shooters value the reload both for the aesthetic of the animations as for the actual game play strategy involved in its timing, DOOM proceeds to disregard the realism aspect of modern shooting games and embraces its nature as a game wholeheartedly. But the standout aspect of DOOM’s active gameplay is its glory-kill system.

 It's about to get real...
It’s about to get real…

When an enemy is sufficiently damaged, it begins to glow one of two colors depending on the spacing between it and the player character. This is to indicate that the enemy has become killable via a glory-kill. When an enemy shines blue, it is not immediately possible to execute it as it is too far away but once the enemy shines orange, the player need only hit the assigned button (varies depending on if the game is played on console or PC) and the enemy will be executed in a viscerally brutal manner. This immediately recalls the quick-time event kills from the GOD OF WAR series and METAL GEAR RISING: REVENGEANCE and the executions from NINJA GAIDEN 2. That being said, there are certain things that need to be evaluated regarding the profundity of this mechanic.

For starters, the glory-kill functions as a way to maintain health levels high as performing one on an enemy drops health relative to the current health level of the player. That is to say, when a player is dangerously close to death, performing a glory-kill ensures a large drop of health pick-ups whilst the same action performed at high health levels produces minimal health pick-ups. It’s a simple but effective method of balancing the reward of the system but a far more profound aspect of the glory-kill is its context-sensitivity.

When a player performs the GK, depending on where the player is facing the enemy, the animation will change drastically. For instance, when a player is near a demonic imp and aims the camera, so to speak, at the head of this enemy, the player grabs the imp and punches them so hard that it snaps their snap. Should the camera be aimed at the chest, the player character kicks the imp to the ground and punches its head so hard that it explodes. There are a number of glory-kills per enemy and the animations can vary visually and chronologically but the difference is less than seconds.

That being said, there’s a notable aspect regarding glory-kills that I would claim is similar to the super-moves in fighting games. During a GK, the player character is technically immune to any area attacks for as long as the animation lasts, recalling the immunity frames that are cornerstones in fighting games and their respective metagames.

Splitting headache?
Splitting headache?

Combining the context-sensitive factor with this knowledge of immunity frames along with the health pick-up benefit of the GK, the player is motivated to make decisions based on their location before and after the GK and what enemy takes priority to kill. Adding to this system is the chainsaw. A completely separate weapon toggled on or off with a dedicated button, the chainsaw functions in much the same way as a GK but rather than give health upon completion of the kill, it creates a massive ammo surplus for most if not all weapons. It is a guaranteed kill but its advantage is offset by the fuel limit it has. In essence, the larger demons require more fuel to kill while smaller ones require less. Again, simple and effective balance methods permeate throughout the game and are further compounded by the passive gameplay elements at work.

There are a number of subsystems in DOOM that affect distinct portions of its active gameplay systems and are as follows: the Rune system, the Praetor Suit upgrades, and finally the weapon modification system.

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The Rune System is based around certain Rune challenges hidden throughout the main levels. The player accesses these challenges by locating a Rune stone within the level and completing the assigned requisites of the challenge. Usually, these are time-based and force the player to use limited resources to eliminate a predetermined number of enemies or reaching the end of a level without dying. Upon completion, a Rune is acquired and the player equips the obtained Rune in the relevant submenu.

There are a number of runs and each one has a different effect. For instance, one run provides a temporary speed boost after a successful glory-kill. Another provides armor drops when performing a glory-kill and yet another enables the execution of glory-kills from much further away. These slight modifications have profound impacts on gameplay and the player is allowed to switch them at their leisure for whatever situation presents itself.

The Praetor Suit upgrades affect certain abilities of the player character. Divided into five distinct categories, the upgrades to the armor of the playable character can either affect the map viewing capability, the effects of power-ups picked up during a level, damage reduction to the player, equipment effects and finally the dexterity of certain actions like the speed in which ledges are climbed or the rate at which weapon modifications are switched.

What to upgrade now?
What to upgrade now?

Finally, the weapon modifications are about as simple as it sounds. Throughout the levels, in both obvious and secret parts of the level are special droids that, when accessed, can provide a singular modification to a weapon the player has in their possession. For example, the player might have a mini-gun and the options for modifications are a faster barrel revolution, enabling for faster start-up of fire or a modification that turns the weapon into a portable turret. This grants the game variety in the actual gameplay and makes up for the aforementioned missing reload animations with beautiful swap-out animations for these modifications.

All these systems certainly make the game come across as incredibly complex and whilst that is true on paper, the actual game is incredibly intuitive and it all becomes second nature relative quick.

CONCLUSION

Whilst this piece may have come off as incredibly technical in its descriptions of the games in question, I certainly think it’s important to highlight how complex video games have become not just in their executions but also in their range of influences and how this creates far richer experiences for players. it is a testament to the quality of the game design and its implementation that not only do I naturally take to the fighting/hack-and-slash mechanics, but embrace and actively seek out the benefits of its RPG influenced-mechanics. DOOM and VANQUISH stood out to me as examples worthy of admiration because they take influences from genres I am quite fond of like fighting and hack-and-slash games to genres I am less familiar with like RPGs. They create shooters that have the potential to become watershed moments for the genre.

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