The crux of my article stems from a recent conversation I had with an 11-year old over a Call of Duty match, ironically enough. A few others were talking about the glory days of first-person shooters where Quake and Unreal Tournament dominated the market, and I enthusiastically hopped into the conversation. After all, perhaps they really were the glory days, subjectively speaking. However, the 11-year old strongly voiced his resentment, going as far as calling the old-school shooters outdated and unimportant. Instead of counter-arguing his point like any fuming fan would, it made me really consider how first-person shooters have significantly changed over the decades.
The first-person shooter genre has seen more radical changes than any other genre in gaming. We’ve grown on the first-person perspective of a mostly faceless protagonist wielding insurmountable fire power while slaughtering enemies. The changes are more noticeable externally, usually allowing developers to be creative in crafting compelling mechanics and unique stories around them. From titles like Half-Life and Portal which presented their own groundbreaking game mechanics, it all started with a singular goal in mind.
Wolfenstein 3D can arguably be considered the starting point of the popularization and pioneering of the first-person shooter. First released in 1992, it was a groundbreaking shift from the stealth of the original Castle Wolfenstein to focus on first-person action using 3D environments. While the genre didn’t take off until the following year with the release of Doom, the game started what would become a phenomenon in the 90’s and early 2000’s with its own particular brand of shooter, or more commonly referred to as the arena shooter.
Arena shooters put emphasis on the multiplayer aspect of the game while injecting the gameplay with an unrealistic sense of speed and quick reflexes. These also included quick armor and ammo pick-ups, platforming, and agility best suited to PC gaming where the players mobility of the mouse was a tremendous skill. Titles like Quake, Unreal Tournament and Painkiller gave birth to a competitive gaming identity that led to the modern popularity of eSports.
However, these titles also had unique visual and narrative styles to them. Quake opted for a sci-fi shooter while combining elements of horror whereas Painkiller (like Doom) took players on a demon-infested journey into the abyss. They were largely fantastical experiences, ditching realism in favor of fast-paced, intense and visceral game play (something beautifully recaptured in 2016’s DOOM). While many saw this as the pinnacle of the first-person shooter at the time, in 2003 things were about to change with the release of a little war shooter called Call of Duty.
While not the most innovative or particularly new war shooter at the time, Call of Duty was the first to erupt in the mainstream spotlight. Thanks to a devoted following and the gradual growth in fans over the years, each annual addition in the series brought more attention to the World War II first-person shooter. Call of Duty 3 brought a whirlwind of praise and acclaim with both gamers and critics, many heralding it as the one of the best first-person shooters ever made. It’s status continued to grow with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, another surprise hit in war shooters that cemented its place in mainstream gaming. However, this also meant something troubling for the arena shooter.
Call of Duty’s rise to fame brought plenty of competition, many focusing on the war shooter style which stormed the market. It’s biggest competitor, Battlefield, became another cultural hit, invoking the same multiplayer-focused carnage of the arcade shooters with 64-player matches and destructible environments. While the game remained primarily grounded in realism, it became the new norm for shooters, with Call of Duty also putting its multiplayer ahead of the single-player experience. While old-school shooters like Painkiller and Quake were not without their fair share of single-player driven campaigns, most gamers knew the real meat was the competitive scene.
First-person shooters entered a new age of gaming, one that created more hype around the competitive, social market than the single-player experience. This was evident from the very beginning when Quake was the essential multiplayer shooter, but I have to admire the several games that did make great attempts to remain true to the Wolfenstein 3D and Doom formula of the lone gamer. F.E.A.R. and Black are perfect examples, both taking liberties with the serious, grounded tones of war shooters.
F.E.A.R. placed focus on supernatural horror to accompany its stupendously fun bullet time shooting mechanics, and is still widely regarded as one of the scariest shooters to date. Black highlighted grand-scaled destruction and some nonsensical physics, inadvertently paving the way for recent Battlefield games to build upon. There’s a trial and error process in the way war shooters are mostly handled these days, some bouncing off the success of the superior titles while the lesser known shooters attempt to recapture the initial shock value of the days gone.
Recently, Bethesda announced the revival of the arena shooter with Quake: Champions, building off the positive feedback from their DOOM revitalization. It’s clear that gamers are yearning for something more old-school in the first-person shooter genre, and it’s admirable that companies are willing to listen to fans to try and make it a reality once again. The problem is the unfortunate era the industry is in right now, where the war shooter is prime and the long-forgotten (or maybe not entirely forgotten) grandfathers of shooters have to work harder to market their unrealistic, often ludicrous premises to a new generation of gamers too adjusted to the realism of much more marketable war shooters.
However, this is not to say the fantasy-driven online shooter is completely dead. In fact, it’s very much alive as recent titles like Overwatch and Destiny have built up a considerably large fan base that rivals the war shooter communities. Overwatch in particular has gathered a massive following, creating a kind of hype culture around it that few mainstream shooters over the years have attempted to recapture. We may be seeing the creative first-person shooter make a comeback, but in a market predominantly filled with the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield, it’s refreshing to see shooters take themselves less seriously.
The evolution of the first-person shooter is an interesting journey, going from its roots where the premise was crazy and the speed was even crazier, to the overly grim style of war (and future combat, of course). It’s not to discredit the war shooter as plenty of them are spectacular in their own right, but diversity is key in an otherwise competitive genre that constantly requires developers to think outside of the box in order to stand high above their competition. I partially blame war shooters for saturating most of the market, but it’s clear gamers don’t have their hearts set on a specific style anymore. With competition comes more passion, and that should be celebrated. In fact, first-person shooters have, in essence, come full circle.