My damning of Wolfenstein as generic brought on a bit of introspection for me. What do I mean by a generic action game? Well, obvious factors first: A game in which you shoot guys in various civic structures and industrial areas. Where that guy you thought was good turns out to be bad. Where there’s precisely one friendly, female NPC whose throat is destined for your tongue and whose kidnapping will no doubt motivate you later on. Where you confront the main bad guy at the end, just as they’re enacting some evil plan and your stupid cutscene-paralyzed arse sits there like a lemon while they unleash / transform into the thing you’re expected to fight before the credits can roll.
And as the years go by, more and more gimmicks are piled on the generic action game template. Bullet time. Cover systems. Collectible documents left behind by NPCs who don’t get how the postal system works. Brief asides where you take up a mounted gun turret with infinite ammo, (but a tendency to overheat) while platoons of extremely poorly-briefed, enemy soldiers pour into your line of fire. And, of course, RPG-style elements and some token attempt at a free roaming sandbox, resulting in more and more genres piling together into the big, wobbly, grey blob that is videogames homogenized singularity.
But it’s amazing how far the concept of generic has come. As early as five years ago, Wolfenstein might have blown minds. Ten years ago, a generic action game would be something like, say, pulling a title completely out of the air, Chasm: The Rift: Shooting very thick monsters while holding more guns than any human being could reasonably carry, in boxy arenas with no comprehensible purpose. And, ironically, that’s exactly the sort of thing shooters need more of now.
The process is always the same. A popular new shooter comes along and defines the next few years of action gaming: Doom. Quake. Halo. Gears of War. For a while, developers will make games by taking that model and adding at least one major new mechanic, lest their opus be described as “generic.” Doom with jumping, Gears of War with a grappling hook, Quake, but not shit, etc. Eventually, someone comes up with an addition that proves popular; their game becomes next year’s model of generic action games and the cycle commences anew. More and more standard features get slapped onto the basic concept of action shooter and no-one wants to take a step back because they’re afraid of getting left behind.
Once you’re locked in the cycle, it’s easy to lose sight of how action games began: Because shooting things is fun. I’m bored of health regeneration and broody gravel-voiced space marines harboring dark secrets. I’m tired of vehicle sections, RPG elements and crouching behind a fucking wall taking pot-shots at something I can’t quite make out because it’s crouched behind another wall fifty yards away.
What was the last mainstream FPS that didn’t have pretensions to be anything more than shooty fun? With just you, guns and a million slimy dudes to mop up? You know, the old Doom – Serious Sam – Painkiller model. We’ve been so preoccupied with the third person shooters and the sandbox-shooters and the RPG-shooters that we’ve neglected the just-plain-shooters.
Is it possible that a genre could die out just because it’s too easy to make? That developers would want to make use of all the money and advanced rendering technology at their disposal and classic-style shooters just don’t excite the designer’s imagination anymore? It’s possible. It’s certainly what seems to have happened with space-sims. There hasn’t been a mainstream, space-based, flight sim in ages, because you only have to render some ships, some floating rocks and a fuckload of empty void. Just about the only thing covering that niche right now is EVE Online, which is a little inaccessible to anyone with a boredom threshold shorter than sixteen years.
But just think of how impressive a simple game could become with the current generation power behind it. This is what Painkiller was showing us;once you stop worrying about anything other than a horde on the end of a shotgun, you can elevate that basic concept to dizzying new heights. Painkiller instead devoted its energies to level and monster design and it came out fucking fantastic. That was five years ago. Just imagine what a monster-spam game could be like today.
Think of an entire futuristic city with enemies packed into every inch. Think of a city like the one in GTA4, brightened up a tad and with every vehicle and pedestrian replaced with a zombie biker. Think of you in the middle of it armed with weapons like a scaled-up version of the line gun from Dead Space. Picture the weapon as it delivers a twenty-foot-wide laser that sweeps through an oncoming crowd of bads, effortlessly separating their top halves from their bottom halves and sending them flying skywards like caps on graduation day. Think of climbing to the top of the highest building and seeing the streets swarming below you. Think of being armed with carpet bombs. Now think of my huge throbbing stiffy.
Actually, I’m given to understand that Earth Defense Force 2017 might be right up my street, but fuck is that a hard game to track down. And besides, insects? I can kill insects whenever I want to with a single kettle of boiling water, while cutting swathes through legions of red-blooded humanoids is a luxury that society denies me.
Since I’ve been reviewing so many indie games lately, I’ll recommend another one, recently released on Steam, a game called AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! (I hope I spelled that right) A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, which I’ve been having shameful amounts of fun with. It’s a good example of elevating a simple concept: A series of heart-stopping base jumps through a huge variety of futuristic vertical cities, all wrapped up in a delightfully anarchic sense of humor that literally sticks two fingers up at detraction (seriously, that’s a gameplay mechanic). Just a shame about the title. Sure, it’ll be the first entry in anyone’s Steam list (unless they bought 1701 AD), but it’s a real bitch to Google.
“Erm…Tales of Monkey Island’s design director is Dave Grossman, one of the “big three” to work on the first two MI games you apparently worship.”
– SHODANFreeman, from last week’s XP comments
And yet, Tales is an infinitely worse game. Funny, that. You’d almost think the original Monkey Islands were created by more than one dude.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.