I recently got the chance to play through the Call of Duty Ghosts campaign for the first time, and I was left thoroughly disappointed with the way the story handled itself. The game opens up with an apocalyptic attack on California more or less obliterating the landscape of the once (maybe not so much in real life right now) luscious state. Fast forward an arbitrary number of years, and you’re playing as the silent protagonist, lead by the total opposite of silent, Brandon Routh. You and Routh scout through the bombed out land of California, taking on a new citizen’s militia branch of government known as the Federation.
I’m going to stop there. Not because I’m worried about spoiling anything, but because that’s basically where the story ends. Yes, you eventually join the Ghost team to defeat the Federation and their leader Rorke, an ex-Ghost member. But the fact is, post-apocalyptic Call of Duty ends almost as soon as it begins. After two unique and exciting levels, the game devolves into your typical “This bad guy sucks. Let’s kill him,” military FPS story.
Many first-person shooters have fairly typical stories. The following game, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, does the exact thing where you’re Troy Baker, a PR stuntman for a private military company, a unique idea for a FPS, only to find out: Surprise! The owner of said company, Kevin Spacey, is a bad guy and you have to kill him. To be honest, I don’t even remember any of the Battlefield storylines off the top of my head. I just remember I was a guy shooting other guys, and that Travis Willingham was somewhere in Hardline.
You may have noticed, I haven’t even named the characters, just the actors that play them. It’s because I didn’t relate with them enough to warrant remembering their names. I had to aim at Routh’s character multiple times just to remember that his name is “Hesh,” a name I don’t even believe is spoken out loud in the entirety of the five hour campaign. I never felt like I was involved with these characters in anyway whatsoever outside of controlling what was basically just a camera on wheels to me. The entire point of the first-person camera is to create immersion, a feeling that doesn’t exist in these games.
First-person shooters are often made with only competitive multiplayer in mind. This isn’t a bad thing. There are thousands of players who live for competitive multiplayer. But, with this focus on the meta game, people who care more about story and single player like myself are left behind and alienated from the series. As a result, I’m usually not the first person in line to pick up the latest FPS. I bought Ghosts because it was on sale for 20 bucks on Steam, to put in context.
I come from a background of RPGs and point-and-click adventure games, so I admittedly care more about stories than most players. But, I also enjoy the fast-paced and intense action of first-person shooters, and I’m constantly disappointed when games fail to combine the simple pleasure of shooting a monster/person/zombie/whatever in the face, and giving me a decent context as to why I’m doing it outside of “It’s bad. You’re good.”
That’s not to say some shooters don’t do that. The obvious ones are Mass Effect and Fallout (3, New Vegas and the upcoming 4). Both series pride themselves on storytelling over action, but both still deliver incredibly fun gameplay. In the original Mass Effect, there’s a fairly simple objective early on where most of the inhabitants of this town are attacking you because a hivemind plant alien has taken over their brains and is trying to protect itself from you. You have to either kill the whole town, or use smoke grenades filled with a toxin that will knock them all out. It’s good vs. evil 101, but you have detailed context as you’re fighting these people. More subtly, in Fallout 3 when you’re exploring the sewers underneath D.C., you fight a lot of ghouls (zombies, basically). At first it may seem like they’re just there to pad out the game, but you eventually discover they were mutated physically and mentally by the nuclear waste that was left in the sewers where they sought shelter when the bombs dropped. Not as detailed as a hivemind plant colony, but it’s still fantastic context as to why there are zombies in the sewers.
There are other shooters like Borderlands, The Darkness, Metro, Resistance, and more that do a beautiful job with story-telling without sacrificing action, and they all get the praise they deserve. But they are far and few apart.
The shooter genre is often considered the “dumb” genre by many people. You don’t need to think in order to play a shooter. While this obviously isn’t true, its not far off either. I don’t feel like I accomplish anything while playing a game like Battlefield. It’s an out of body experience where you contemplate how your life has ended up with you holding a controller and pressing the same button over and over again with no real meaning or reason behind it outside of “it’s fun sometimes.”