Shooter Season 2011 is at around the mid-point and fortunately it hasn’t yet become a grim parade of despair in my mind. After Rage, it’ll take a little hiatus until the end of the month, whence cometh Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3, which will probably be around the time I start getting depressed about it all. Fortunately there’ll eventually be Serious Sam 3 to see the season off, which should leave things on a high note, assuming it hasn’t gone all brown, dusty and realistic on us (checks screenshots) WHOOPSY DAISY.
I think it’s fair to say I have a bit of a rose tint in my Burberry half-rims when it comes to old-style shooters, which probably marks me out as a stubborn old fuddy-duddy with an instant bias against anything that doesn’t use a broader colour palette than a Francis Bacon painting. But there are a lot of things I like about the gaming style of today that perhaps I take for granted or don’t mention enough. I love that things are in 3D models now and not sprites that turn eerily to face wherever you happen to stand. I love the sight of a really breathtaking view that isn’t a parallax sky texture that does horrible things when you put it on anything that isn’t a ceiling. Maybe I get a little frustrated because there’s so much potential in the hardware we have today and all anyone wants to do is stare at a chest-high wall. This is why I want space combat games to come back. I want to shoot really big impressive terrifying things in front of a nebula. A really nice-looking nebula.
But I digress. Shooters weren’t always my thing. As a kid, first transitioning from my Amiga 600 to a Windows 95 computer that would eventually age to the point that it would occasionally need a ringing slap to the tower case to keep the fan running, I was loathe to play anything but point-and-click adventure games. When Quake came out I was content to just watch my brother play, and I have vivid memories of once being offered the keyboard and being too terrified to walk down a corridor in case there was a Shambler at the end. Yes, I know, I could barely see past my massive pussy flaps in those days. But this age of PC shooters was a quirky, experimental one during which you could try some new, colourful shareware with every magazine cover disk you acquired. I think it was a combination of Duke Nukem 3D and Half-Life that permanently broadened my palate, but while I’m still moony-eyed and nostalgic I’d like to take a moment to remember some of the lesser-known shooters from this period that all did their bit to expand my horizons.
One of the earliest games on the Build engine (later used by Duke Nukem 3D), TekWar was an adaptation of a series of novels by William Shatner. TekWar was somewhat ahead of its time, it came out in 1995 and was one of the first FPSes to populate its environments with non-combatant civilians and police officers as well as enemies, all of which you were free to shoot, even the ones you weren’t supposed to. And at a time when most people understood shooters only on the Doom level, perhaps this was an innovation audiences needed to be eased into. Half-Life did so by making you spend its first twenty minutes without a gun and surrounded by friendly NPCs. TekWar gave you a pistol and dumped you in a crowded street. I don’t remember much about TekWar, to be honest. All I remember is the screams. The terrible, terrible screams.
I played this one first as a demo called Powerslave and then was surprised to pick it up at a second hand shop as Exhumed and discover it was the same game. A largely unamazing ancient Egypt-themed affair with Anubis-headed guards with extremely camp attack animations, what I remember most was how the game really rubbed it in when you died. Your eye level would sink to the floor, you’d see your arm in front of you quivering in death throes and a pool of blood would swell out from under your mouth. And this was in sprites, remember. They couldn’t just arrange the character model like that. Someone actually had to sit down and draw/animate an arm sprite juddering in death throes. Or more likely, photograph one.
I enjoyed Blood‘s early-20th-century, hammer-horror vibe, but what I appreciated most was how the main character was transparently completely fucking mad. This was just after Duke Nukem 3D so wisecracking was apparently de rigeur for Build engine games, but where Duke made action-movie one-liners, Caleb screamed with laughter as he gibbed monks and called mime artists “pathetic insects” as he stabbed them with a pitchfork. The game lost steam after the first episode, and the sequel mis-stepped by playing up the comedy and abandoning the unique setting in favor of a future city for some reason, but it put its best foot forward, at least.
You also can’t fault the title for elegance. There was another shooter at one point simply called GORE. All we needed was a third game called TITTIES and we could have had marvellous themed LAN parties.
I liked Sin. Some people didn’t, I did. Built off the Quake engine, you played a dreadlocked future cop in a corporate nightmare future, but don’t let those eyes glaze over just yet, because the game was also camp as all hell. Your support character and apparently only friend was a squeaky teenage hacker with green hair, and the main antagonist was a female biochemist with jugs like water balloons who swanned about in red vinyl bondage gear. The game and its expansion pack had a commitment to story and personality that was unusual in shooters of the time but was rather tragically overshadowed by the almost simultaneous release of Half-Life, which raised the shooter bar rather devastatingly high.
An attempt was made to revitalise the IP with Sin Episodes, a proposed episodic sequel developed in the Source engine, which rather tellingly ended up trying to be like Half-Life 2 with gratuitous butts, and no second episode was ever released.
Whatever happened to that whole idea of “episodic” gameplay, anyway? Seems like Telltale Games were the only guys that ended up making a big thing of that. I guess after certain parties ended up taking longer to develop episodes than most developers would a full-sized game, everyone kind of lost faith in the idea. Yeah, you know who you are.
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.