Unoriginality Engine 3 and the console curse

Am I just getting old? It can't be that, unless we've gone back a hundred years and I've already reached half my life expectancy. No, there must be some other factor that makes me entirely unexcited about new first-person shooters.

I started playing shooters on the Mac with Wolfenstein 3D and Marathon. Before long, I was kicking alien butt in Duke Nukem 3D, trying not to let the fourth episode of Quake scare me to death (I never made it), getting my non-alien butt kicked in Q3Test, and enjoying the riveting experience that was the original Half-Life. Plus everything in between. Sure, I'd play other kinds of games, but none could deliver quite the thrill and visual delight of FPSes. I must have sunk thousands of hours into Counter-Strike and Counter-Strike: Source before I got sick of 'em right around 2007.

Nowadays, I don't devour new shooters with anywhere near the same voracity. I'll partake in occasional games of ARMA 2 or Left 4 Dead 2, but only if I'm playing with friends. Aside from those two, I'd say only one other FPS has kept me going back to it within the past year or so: Mirror's Edge, whose single-player campaign I just can't get sick of. And that isn't even an FPS in the strictest sense of the term. (You can actually beat the whole game without firing a weapon, although picking up an M60 and gunning down bad guys in those boat levels is pretty satisfying.)

I made myself buy Battlefield: Bad Company 2 the other day, hoping for better gameplay with the same gritty, realistic finish as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I was quite disappointed. Not only did the DICE title feel just as repetitive as its Infinity Ward cousin, but despite first-hand accounts of its graphical polish, Bad Company 2 just didn't look that good to me. Good for a cross-platform game, certainly, but not Crysis good. And definitely not "Crysis came out two-and-a-half years ago, let's see what we can do now" good. Bullet holes are drawn over stairways on two flat triangles, for heaven's sake. 

Battlefield: Bad Company 2.

My experience with Bad Company 2 seems like standard fare these days, unfortunately. That's why I'm probably not going to buy BioShock 2, even though Steam now has it on sale for 15 bucks. I loved the original, but I'm just not sure if I'll have any fun with the sequel. From what I hear, it's just more of the same. How sad is that? No, not my hasty, second-hand assessment of BioShock 2, but the fact that I feel so lukewarm about the sequel to one of my favorite games.

I could go on whining for another few paragraphs, but I'll cut to the chase. I think my lack of enthusiasm about new FPS titles comes down to two factors: lack of innovation in graphics and lack of innovation in gameplay.

Rehashing the same gameplay concepts worked back when game engines got major graphics upgrades every couple of years. Better graphics meant more immersion, and it added some spice to the same old tasks—run, shoot, find key, unlock door, move on to next level. I still remember when I got my hands on a leaked alpha of Unreal 2 many years ago; I spent hours running around the unfinished map at a slide-show frame rate, gazing in awe at the huge draw distance, the trees, the lone tank-like vehicle, and how alive the world seemed. There weren't even any enemies or anything to do, but the sudden jump in graphcial fidelity was still enough to make me feel immersed.

Soon after the release of the Xbox 360 in November 2005, the graphical fidelity of games began to stagnate. Keep in mind Epic's Unreal Engine 3 has remained the gold standard from the release of Gears of War in late 2006 until today. Sure, Epic's made some tweaks and improvements, but I don't see Unreal Engine 4 anywhere. In theory, stagnation in graphics shouldn't be such a big deal. You don't need to upgrade your computer or console as often, and game developers can keep recycling the same graphics technology, giving them more time to spend fine-tuning gameplay and trying cool new ideas. Right?

Gears of War on the PC.

Yeah, things didn't quite work out that way. The hardware portion did, sure enough, but game developers are still trodding out the same tired gameplay concepts time after time... after time. It's like every year, game studios have a meeting that goes like this: "Sales numbers on our latest game are fantastic! Let's start work on the sequel right away. We're going to make some new maps, craft some new scripted paths through those maps, add some new weapons, find some new voice actors, and make the multiplayer a little more accessible. Back to work, everybody!"

It's as if Hollywood started producing nothing but formulaic, play-it-safe summer movies. Where are the game equivalents of No Country for Old Men, The Dark Knight, District 9, and Wall-E? Where's the adventure, the experimentation, and the excitement? Movie studios can pull it off, so why can't big game-publishing houses do the same? Or is everyone happy just waiting for Valve to make all the cool stuff, like Portal and Left 4 Dead?

Until FPS makers pull their heads out of their collective behinds, I think I'll look for more cool indie platformers to try. I absolutely loved Braid and Trine, and I'm dying to get a refill. I'm starting to think we'll have to wait until the next generation of consoles before FPSes get out of their current rut, though.

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