The military shooter has been around for the majority of video game history. The concept, execution, and–most importantly–sales of these games is fairly simple and can often show off the current power of gaming platforms. With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the genre saw a reinvention and shift toward modern day military shooters, with high production value, massive scale, and easy accessibility. The shooter is easily the biggest genre in console gaming right now, the first person shooter is most popular type of shooter, and the military shooter is the most popular type of first person shooter. People love to hate the genre, associating Call of Duty with teenage bros playing in their family basement, wearing a backward Yankees cap, and sipping the latest energy drink tie-in. But it is only fair to acknowledge–in an industry that has numerous questions about its future, its audience, and its finances–the first person military shooter has been a constant amidst a sea of uncertainty.
My first experience playing Call of Duty was nothing short of jaw dropping. I was late to scene, not getting the COD experience until my roommate bought a copy of Modern Warfare 2. As we started our playthrough, I was instantly taken with the sheer scope of the missions. Battling forces in front of the White House and leaping over rooftops in Rio De Janeiro are still moments that distinctly stick out to me during the army-inspired rollercoaster that is Modern Warfare 2. The chaos of war was well presented with a blaring sound design, destruction-filled art direction, and chaotic gameplay.
Then came Black Ops, then Battlefield 3, then Modern Warfare 3, and then Black Ops 2. There were others, such as Sniper: Ghost Warrior, Medal of Honor (and Warfighter), and Homefront, but they have always played second fiddle to the aforementioned, larger titles. The problem is that these games largely rely on the same principles to communicate their message. A foreign threat is discovered as you battle through opening sequence set in generic hostile setting (Middle East, Korea, someplace in Africa), then players travel on a world tour of destroying other countries and their people, all set to a score by a hot Hollywood composer, and filled with snappy one-liners.
The fact is that the military shooter is no longer the average game, they are the blockbuster. The tentpole (or desired tentpole) that studios have to float their more ambitious ideas. Hollywood has been living on this principle for decades now; Fox releases a X-Men movie that makes money to fund their prestige Oscar flick. The latest Michael Bay movie pays for the purchase of the latest Lars Von Trier art film. However, in games and movies alike, there are expectations for these types of blockbusters. They must be spectacles, which are as enjoyable as they are thematically unchallenging; let’s not mince words, these games are made to appeal to the masses. They aren’t made to experiment with what games can do, they are not meant to tell meaningful stories, they are meant to bring in money and keep the stockholders happy. Are there caveats to this? Of course. Is anything wrong with this? No.
But could color me skeptical when EA’s Executive Vice President, Peter Soderlund, said in an interview with Venture Beat about Battlefield 4, “…we’re at a point in gaming where we can deliver an experience that is more dramatic, more believable, more human, and a lot more filmic.” We are, but is Battlefield 4?
To a packed theatre at GDC, Soderlund said “[Battlefield 4] signals a new era of interactive entertainment” Then elaborated on this by saying, “Next gen is not about polygons and shaders, it’s about the emotional connection players will have with these characters.”
When EA showed off their 17 minute trailer, Soderlund’s comments rang false. Sure, Battlefield 4 looked cinematic, but it did not look any more human, believable, or emotional. It looked like the same rollercoaster ride, featuring explosions, gunplay, and global conflict.
After I watched the footage, I wondered why I didn’t feel anything. Why wasn’t I excited about this million-mile-per-hour gun ride? The answer is that even with the prettier graphics, the louder explosions, and the more emotive faces, the game still felt like something I had seen before. I had been in run down houses, shooting it out with across civilian streets. I had blown up helicopters and avoided their wreckage. I had been in crumbling buildings, I had ran toward evac, and I had driven away from certain death. I had done it, gotten the t-shirt, and taken a picture of myself wearing said t-shirt.
There are attempts to make Battlefield 4 seem like it is more akin to Soderlud’s description. A moment where you have to cut off your commanding officer’s leg, a decision to shoot out the glass and leave the officer to drown, and other dramatic events. But they are only dramatic in name, not in execution. Mostly, because they are draped around staples of the genre. Cutting off a limb is harrowing, yes. But when no one is begging you reconsider, and one solid thrust is all it takes, all the drama is sapped out. More staples include faceless enemies which are still distant figures, rather than people you experience or understand. The dialogue isn’t profound or interesting, it’s still just zingers, followed by the stern, “Shut up!” The game doesn’t seek to tell the truth of war like Hemingway, Spielberg, or Burns, showing the gritty, harrowing, and ultimately human experience. It doesn’t seek to ask questions of why war exists or the effect it has on people. The game celebrates war, reveling in its violence and using it to create generic, recognizable scenarios.
Let me say once again, I have nothing against these kinds of games. Sometimes, after a long week, I like to pick up the controller and senselessly run through objective filled missions that boil down to us vs. them. For millions of people this is their game of choice and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, no one can expect these games to provide the defining video game experiences that other titles, with lower sales expectations can. Because while EA may be posturing to talk about storytelling and innovative first person gameplay, what they really need Battlefield 4 to do is sell. They need it to sell a lot of copies. Which it most likely will, due its pedigree of multiplayer and name recognition. But to do so it will be another joyride of death, rather than the game Soderlund is talking about.
Are you excited for more Battlefield? Is this game right in your wheelhouse? Let us know how excited you are for Battlefield 4 in the comments below.