In Defense Of The First Person Shooter – Transmogrification

The straw that broke the camel's back.

This is actually technically an addendum (though it may become the introduction) to my series formerly known as The Greatest Game Ever Played. Also, I know I just said I was going to write about Stanley Kubrick, but Kubrick & Me will have to wait. I read an amusing comment that really made me want to write this, so here goes.

XCOM, announced in 2010, blew my mind. A transliteration of the mechanics of X-COM: UFO Defense, XCOM promised to be the immersive version of what we’d seen previously. The series had been abused to hell and back, with only two of its entries being considered great. This looked like a great way to return to the franchise–a different genre, perhaps, but X-COM in spirit. A lot of people complained. To them, X-COM was nothing more than a the equivalent of a simple isometric turn-based tactics game. They chose to ignore that the more important elements, such as base/team/character management and the escalating threat of an alien invasion, were still there. For them, it was turn-based isometric tactics or nothing. They started complaining about a glut of reboots to FPS, and for the longest time, I ignored it. I even let myself get carried away, agreeing that too many games were being converted to FPSes.

At best, they were wrong. At worst, they were liars.

It’s frustrating, really. There’s no genre more hated by a lot of old school gamers, whether they’re the old-school Sony and Nintendo fans, or, more importantly, the old-school PC gaming fans who were only in it for the pixel hunts and waiting their turns at things, than the FPS. It’s sad, because honestly, the FPS is the closest thing to what everyone seems to want video games to be, judging by the sales figures. As I’ve said before, it’s my belief that the most important thing a video game can do is put the player in a world. Why would you want to sit at your computer playing turn-based action all day when you could be transported into a digital world where you fight monsters or gunmen of the apocalypse with doves or frisbees of monsters of your own or whatever? Things like Digimon, Red Dwarf, Tron, and Star Trek’s holodeck have a large appeal partly because the idea that humans could somehow put themselves in a virtual world is an exciting prospect.

That's totally a cinematic, though. Either that or BEST WATER EVER.

Entering the game itself is, somewhere way down the line, the future of gaming. Not the future of all gaming, mind you, because killing off traditional games would be foolish and absurd, but it is something we’re going to see more of as gaming gets more sophisticated. Right now, the FPS is the closest thing we have to that future.

Think about it: all of the abstractions present in other genres–being two-dimensional, having a third person camera, being turn-based, etc–are absent in the FPS. What you see on-screen is what your character is looking at, because he or she is you. The gun is in your hands. The only things separating you from truly inhabiting your FPS character is the fact that you aren’t controlling it directly with your brain. Furthermore, the only games that truly simulate a living, breathing world (while ridding themselves of the pesky number values that RPGs use to determine character abilities) are immersive sims, an evolution of the FPS. Part of the reason that STALKER and System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are some of the most loved games ever is because they allow the player to participate in a world as much as technology will allow. The biggest praise that these games receive  I’m also excited that the genre seems to be making a comeback in the form of titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored, and Fallout 3.

Suffice it to say, I was quite surprised when people began saying that there was a massive trend of games transforming to first person shooters. I mean, I like when games become FPSes. Did everyone forget how awesome Fallout 3, Metroid Prime, and their subsequent sequels were? (This statement is actually more important than it sounds, by the way. Keep it in your head, because we’re coming back to it.) Quietly, I tallied the numbers in my head and came up with a comprehensive list (to the best of my knowledge) of all franchises in the past decade that have ever been turned into first person games.

Hold on to your hats, here is that list, in alphabetical order:

Fallout
Metroid

…and that’s it.

The typical adventure gamer after a few hours of stressful puzzle solving. This is important. Remember this.

Now, you may say “hey, what about XCOM and Syndicate!” I didn’t forget them, but they’re not out yet. We’ll talk about them later. You might also point out Shadowrun and SWAT, but SWAT made the jump back in 1999 with SWAT 3, so it’s not within the past ten years, and Shadowrun has gone through at least three genres, so it’s not like it was a long-standing series that suddenly became something else. Again, we’ll look at them a bit more in-depth later. Right now, I’d like to talk about the two franchises of the last ten years that have been through this transformation.

Releasing in 2002, Metroid Prime was (and still is) hailed as one of the greatest video games ever made. IGN took it a little too far and suggested that Metroid Prime was somehow gaming’s Citizen Kane. Such is the love for Metroid Prime. Its sequels, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, were also released to critical acclaim. Not a single Metroid Prime game has scored lower than a 90 on Metacritic. You may argue that the games are not strictly first person shooters, and admittedly, it’s debatable, but be warned: if you argue that it’s not an FPS, then we’re stuck with Fallout. Hardly a trend, now, is it?

Fallout 3 also released to critical acclaim. In fact, critically speaking, it’s the best-received Fallout game of them all, being the only game in the series that has scored over a 90 on Metacritic (PS3: 90, PC: 91, 360: 93). It won numerous GOTY awards after its release in 2008, and deserved all of it. Graphical weaknesses aside, it was, like Metroid Prime a solid, great game that nearly everyone I know enjoys. Like Metroid Prime, you might be tempted to argue that Fallout 3 was not an FPS, but, again, you’d be wrong. Mechanically, Fallout 3 is yet another variation on a theme, and that theme is a good one. People love it. New Vegas didn’t fare quite as well, partly because of atrocious world design (in terms of where things were placed, invisible walls, world flatness, and the awful NPC placement), and partly because its shooting mechanics relied more on silly RPG numbers. The shooting just didn’t feel right and felt more like a ploy to force players into VATS. As a result, the game didn’t feel right and wasn’t as fun to play, even if it did have more quests, more plots, and converted a host of mods into official gameplay mechanics. One of the top mods on the New Vegas Nexus removes that silly accuracy dice roll. Also, the FOV was a lot narrower than it was in Fallout 3, leading to an unpleasant gameplay experience. Still, it managed to receive RPGOTY awards in 2010.

You might argue that these games aren’t strictly FPSes, and you’d be right. They are, however, the only games in the past ten years that have made the jump to first person, and I’m trying to be sympathetic to the people who hate these first person transformations. Still, you know what these games all have in common? They’re all great games.

This FPS transformation actually seems to be a good thing, by this point, but if you don’t believe me, I totally understand.

I can't help but feel inspired to play Marathon now.

So let’s talk about older games that have been turned into FPSes, shall we? Off the top of my head, I can only think of, once again, two franchises. The first is Ultima. The second is SWAT.

Ultima Underworld was a great game. It transformed the most important game ever made (don’t believe me? Western game design owes its entirety to Ultima, as does the JRPG, from Dragon Quest to Final Fantasy and beyond) into a first person game. That took guts. Ultima Underworld wasn’t a smash hit–it sold 500,000 copies, which was great for the time (that immediately makes it one of the best-selling cRPGs of all time), but the sales were fairly slow, too. Critically, however, Ultima Underworld was so well excepted that it managed to make it on to numerous “best games” lists, including PC Gamer US’s “best 50 games of all time list.” The sequel, Ultima Underworld, was even better. PC Gamer said this about it: “Ultima Underworld needs to be hailed from the roof-tops for being one of the best dungeon-based adventure RPGs of all illustrious gaming history.”

Do I really need to say more? Ultima Underworld is hailed as one of the greatest gaming series of all time. Had it not made the jump to first person, it wouldn’t have been. You should go buy it right now. Admittedly, it’s not strictly an FPS, but, again, it was one of the few games I could think of that went from one genre to a first person game.

SWAT, on the other hand… originally, it was a Police Quest game, if you can believe it.  The Quest games were legendary in the field of adventure gaming. King’s Quest, in particular, has spawned numerous fan sequels, including a rather infamous game (due to Activision’s skullduggery), The Silver Lining. Admittedly, the series was spawned from the hellish womb of Roberta Williams, but whatever. Adventure gamers absolutely loved the Quest games.

Enter SWAT 3.

This is SWAT 4. But SWAT 3 is cool too.

SWAT 3 was critically claimed and super fun, but I don’t really have much to say about it, because I really want to talk about SWAT 4 instead. See, SWAT 4 is one of the greatest games ever made. It was designed by Irrational Games, those mad geniuses who later went on to develop, in conjunction with 2K Marin (AND THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT), Bioshock. Irrational Games, at one time, was actually located inside Looking Glass’s studio. Ken Levine used to work at Looking Glass, as did legendary designers Harvey Smith (Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, Dishonored) and Warren Spector (Deus Ex).  Looking Glass and Irrational cooperatively made System Shock 2. System Shock 2 is considered by many to be the greatest video game ever made, and even those who don’t believe that admit that it’s definitely one of the scariest, one of the most influential, and one of the best-written. In addition, Looking Glass also made Thief and Thief 2, also considered to be some of the greatest games ever made. I’d be happy to argue that Looking Glass Studios was the greatest, most important game developer of all time, in fact. My point is that SWAT 4 was developed by some of the best and brightest that the video game industry has ever produced. The amount of intelligence required to play the game, that careful, methodical plotting required to execute a perfect hostage recovery, was above and beyond anything that gaming had offered before (but, hey, FPSes have offered this level of intelligent gameplay for years; people who hate on the genre like to pretend it doesn’t exist. They’re liars.).

Are you noticing a trend here? Literally every game that’s made the jump to FPS so far happens to be considered amongst the finest games ever developed. Literally the worst game on this list is Fallout: New Vegas, and you’d have to be crazy to say that’s a bad game, unless you were focusing solely on the bugs.

So far, so good, right? Let’s talk about XCOM and Syndicate.

But first, have a picture of my daughter. Her name is Eleanor and she's a superhuman. Her mom was crazy but I didn't kill her, because I am not. Also I live inside Eleanor's brain now.

2K Marin, who worked with Irrational on Bioshock, went on to develop Bioshock 2. A better game than the original in every way, Bioshock 2 suffered complaints about the unnecessity of its existence. Seriously, the biggest complaint was not that it wasn’t good enough or anything–these complaints started long before the game was released–but that it wasn’t needed. Bioshock, people wrongly claimed, was original, and now they wanted more originality, not some cash-in sequel with a forced multiplayer component. Bioshock was just System Shock 2 with less depth and a different skin, but they didn’t care about that. Bioshock 2, despite everything it did better, was fighting an uphill battle. After playing it, not once, but twice, I must say, the game’s only faults are that there isn’t a timer at the end, that its FOV is narrow, and that its levels manage not to be quite as memorable.

In terms of storytelling and gameplay, the two most important aspects of any game, Bioshock 2 is absolutely flawless.

2K Marin wasn’t content with building a better Bioshock, it seems. The game’s DLC, Minerva’s Den, managed even to one-up Bioshock, with a truly emotional story that everyone ought to try at least once. The highest praise Minerva’s Den got, in fact, was that it felt closer to System Shock 2 than any other game in the Bioshock series. What I’m trying to say is… 2K Marin helped develop three of the finest games of this generation, and managed to one-up the same company that was born from and once worked alongside Looking Glass Studios in the process. 2K Marin has worked on some of the finest games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. These are the guys developing XCOM. Could it be in better hands? I don’t think so.

I want this cyberpunk, I want it all, and I want it now.

Finally, we have Syndicate. You may not know much about the developers, Starbreeze, but they have a reputation for making great games, even if they don’t have great brand recognition. Perhaps you’ve heard of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. It’s kinda considered to be the best-looking console game of the last console generation, in addition to being the best movie tie-in game ever made. If you’re not convinced of that, it’s within three points of Final Fantasy VII on Metacritic, sitting at an 89. Its pseudosequel/remake, Assault on Dark Athena, didn’t perform quite as well, but it’s still praised quite highly. After their Riddick games, Starbreeze developed The Darkness, which received mostly 8s and 9s from developers, and was praised for its great writing and level design. Starbreeze are rock-solid developers with a good history, and, while their output might not be as good as 2K Marin, Syndicate is looking super good so far.

I’m left with one conclusion: there is no excess of FPS transformations. Six franchises in twenty years (a total of 9 games, if my count’s right) isn’t exactly a lot. If we look at the past five years, we have only three franchises (Fallout, Syndicate, XCOM) for a total of five games (FO3, FNV, Syndicate, XCOM, and MP3). That’s not a lot, not by a longshot. What we also see is that each and every one of the genres that have been released aren’t just widely praised, but are considered some of the finest games ever made. The developers responsible for the two upcoming transformations, 2K Marin and Starbreeze, have made several great games that have received a lot of praise.

So, critics of FPS transformations, your claims that this is a rampant trend of all old games getting rebooted as FPSes is factually wrong. At best count, you have six franchises. If we get picky… XCOM will be the second, following SWAT. You have no legs to stand on and no room to argue.

So shut the fuck up.

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