The past couple years marked a very clear trend in first-person shooters. The likes of Titanfall, Evolve, Star Wars: Battlefront, and Rainbow Six Siege all released as multiplayer-only games. With players spending much more of their time online than in any single-player mode, it’s sadly a move that makes financial sense on the surface. But if you flash forward to this year, all of 2016’s biggest fall shooters – Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare – are hammering home a renewed, eager emphasis on story. And truth be told, it’s working.
I grew up with first-person shooters. Series like Battlefield, Call of Duty, Halo, and even Killzone played a massive role in my development as a gamer. But as I changed over the years, so did my taste in games. Shooting for the sake of shooting isn’t enough anymore, and it’s a gripping story above all else that draws me in. And I’m not alone. While everyone’s preferences and reasons for playing the titles they do are different, one need only look at the rabid passion fans have for narrative-based games like Uncharted to know the desire for story is there.
With all this in mind, Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare make up one of the most exciting first-person shooter, fall line-ups we have seen in a long time. There’s no doubt that DICE, Respawn, and Infinity Ward can make mechanically solid games. Add in a dedication to good storytelling though, and you start giving lapsed fans like me plenty of reason to come back.
Battlefield 1 – War Story Vignettes
First up, Battlefield 1 launches October 21 and offers an entirely new conflict for the series to explore. More than just allowing DICE to bring in horses, swords, and bi-planes, the World War I backdrop also sets up a lot of interesting, seldom seen places to take the story. And from the sounds of it, and the looks of the gorgeous story trailer, the developer isn’t going to let that opportunity slip past.
“While our characters are at war, the stories in Battlefield 1 are personal. They’re about people rather than history or battles. The Great War is diverse. We knew we wanted to embrace that variety. There were so many different perspectives and characters in World War 1 and we wanted to cover as much ground as possible,” DICE has explained about the game’s single-player campaign.
“We felt that to have one character hopping through those different settings wouldn’t be as immersive or totally respectful to the setting. So we decided on an anthology format; a set of characters with their own more focused stories. That way we can have immersion and variety – a double win.”
Made up of five vignettes the developer is calling War Stories, the campaign looks to include stories just as much about interpersonal relationships as the fights going on around them. The one story DICE has detailed in particular, ‘Through Mud and Blood,’ follows a chauffeur named Danny Edwards who volunteers for the military and finds himself as the new tank driver for a battle-hardened tank crew. He then has to earn their respect and loyalty as the odd-man out, struggling to fit in.
If Battlefield 1’s War Stories can truly pay off in terms of that very real and relatable human element, the game will stand out in the way many of its most recent predecessors just haven’t.
Titanfall 2 – A Buddy Story
Next is Titanfall 2, landing on store shelves October 28. One of the biggest complaints about the original game centered on its lack of a dedicated single-player campaign. While it has a story mode of sorts, Titanfall 1 just didn’t measure up to what players hoped for from the minds behind the stunning campaign of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Respawn isn’t making the same mistake twice.
Though the single-player gameplay trailer and the cinematic trailer above might not pack quite as much emotion as the Battlefield 1 story trailer, Respawn has already discussed some of the promising building blocks going into the title’s narrative. At it’s core, Titanfall 2 hinges on the relationship between rookie Pilot Jack Cooper and veteran Titan BT-7274.
“Titanfall 2 is about the bond between Jack and BT. That’s the essence of the story we want to tell. And when you think about it, every ‘buddy story’ has a kind of back and forth between its leads. They have to be able to react to each other or there is no relationship,” Respawn has explained. “That’s why we provided players a few responses to choose from when talking to BT. While these dialogue options don’t change the outcome of the game, they give you a fun way to banter with BT by choosing the tone that best reflects your own personality.”
Additionally, Titanfall 2 also promises to show more of the game’s world. “One thing that surprised us after the release of the first Titanfall was just how much fans wanted to learn about the universe. This sentiment gave us an extra push to find ways of delivering lore across all parts of Titanfall 2.”
Though subtle, even just that little bit of attention to character, and showcasing what fans want to see, can go a long way.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare – The Naughty Dog Touch
And finally, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare wraps up the first-person shooter season on November 4. Over the years, Call of Duty has tried plenty of things to spice up the yearly single-player campaigns, from bringing in notable writers and actors to adding multiple endings and player choice. Infinite Warfare is pushing these wrinkles to the formula even further however.
A large part of this is likely due to two relatively recent additions to Infinity Ward, Design Director Jacob Minkoff and Narrative Director Taylor Kurosaki. Minkoff worked with Uncharted developer Naughty Dog for over five years, first as a game designer, than as Lead Game Designer. Meanwhile, with a gaming resume stretching all the way back to the original Crash Bandicoot, Kurosaki served for over 10 years as Narrative Design Lead at Naughty Dog until both he and Minkoff left in 2014.
Even if their previous experience isn’t enough to get excited over, both are pushing a rather different focus than we’re used to when it comes to Infinite Warfare’s campaign. Speaking with Mashable at E3, “Call of Duty players are used to being the new guy. They’re used to being the grunt,” Minkoff explained. “What if we told the story of going from the creed of ‘no soldier left behind’ to the creed of ‘the mission comes first’? How a soldier becomes a leader. How that changes you, how that changes your perspective on war.”
Just like Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2, it’s the connections between characters that the two designers are excited about most. The player character, Reyes, is a soldier thrust into command, with those around him all reacting differently.
“As storytellers, we know that the best way to tell a compelling narrative about characters you care about is to put pressure on them. When you put pressure on them, how they respond to that pressure reveals their true character,” Kurosaki said. “Going from being a peer of Lieutenant Salter [one of the many characters in Infinite Warfare’s ensemble cast] to being her CO, and how that relationship change puts additional pressures on those two individuals. That stuff is all absolutely central.”
One need only compare the above trailer to the story trailers from Black Ops III and Advanced Warfare to see that shifting of priorities. While Black Ops III does hint at the tensions between characters, it’s mainly an internal voice-over from the protagonist about his own, personal mental state. Likewise, Advanced Warfare’s trailer is almost entirely about the dire global situation, complete with a few taglines delivered by Kevin Spacey himself.
The Retribution, the carrier ship at the center of Infinite Warfare’s campaign, will even serve as a hub location between missions. Players will be able to walk around and interact with the crew. And on top of the linear main campaign there will be optional side missions you can embark on, earning new gear, but also learning more about the people under your command. Even if all the new additions don’t entirely work for the best, it’s hard not to feel like this year’s Call of Duty is putting a lot more effort into the campaign. One way or the other, it will be interesting to see how it turns out.
Until the games release and players can finally sink their teeth into all three campaigns in their entirety, it’s impossible to know if any of the titles can live up to the promise of their marketing. But so far, DICE, Respawn, and Infinity Ward are all saying the exact right things to attract a lot of gamers that have passed in previous years. Gameplay may be king, but if you can get people to care about your game through a tight, compelling narrative, it certainly doesn’t hurt.