The His­tory of the FPS


Call of Duty 4 wasn’t the only game to do a lit­tle genre-splic­ing in 2007. Ir­ra­tional’s BioShock be­gan life as a spir­i­tual fol­low-up to the Sys­tem Shock se­ries—its creative di­rec­tor, the soon-to-be-fa­mous Ken Levine, was a de­signer on Sys­tem Shock 2— but over time it be­came more of a shooter than an im­mer­sive sim­u­la­tion or RPG. It casts the player as an air­plane crash sur­vivor ex­plor­ing a dis­in­te­grat­ing un­der­sea ‘utopia’ cre­ated by a rene­gade industrialist, in a thinly dis­guised med­i­ta­tion on the phi­los­o­phy of Ayn Rand. The game’s com­bat, which mar­ried chunky pe­riod firearms with pseudo-mag­i­cal pow­ers or ‘Plas­mids’, would prove its weak­est el­e­ment. More in­trigu­ing was the uni­verse of cru­elty and hubris it sketched, a labyrinth of leak­ing glass tun­nels and domed Art Deco plazas.

Build­ing on Half-Life 2’ s ex­am­ple, Ir­ra­tional left much of Rap­ture’s back­story for play­ers to dis­cover in the form of au­dio di­aries, graf­fiti, and ran­dom bric-a-brac. Its en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling would at­tract le­gions of im­i­ta­tors across sev­eral gen­res, from Raven Soft­ware’s un­fairly over­looked 2010 shooter Sin­gu­lar­ity through body-hor­ror mas­ter­piece Dead Space, to so-called ‘walk­ing sim­u­la­tors’ like Gone Home. It also formed part of an on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion about games as a means of rous­ing em­pa­thy or ex­plor­ing moral quan­daries. BioShock’s sig­na­ture char­ac­ters are the Lit­tle Sis­ters, mu­tated lit­tle girls who col­lect ge­netic ma­te­rial from corpses un­der the eye of their pow­er­ful guardians, the Big Dad­dies. Hav­ing dis­posed of the lat­ter, you can ei­ther spare Lit­tle Sis­ters or kill them to har­vest their ‘ADAM’, a re­source you can use to up­grade your own pow­ers.

The late ’00s saw the rise of the open world shooter, with Cry­tek’s fear­some Cr­y­sis swad­dling the player in power ar­mor in or­der to bat­tle aliens on yet an­other over­grown is­land wilder­ness. The game was sold as an ex­er­cise in tech­no­log­i­cal masochism, its de­tail, light­ing and plethora of ef­fects ‘melt­ing’ all but the most ex­pen­sive PC hard­ware. But its real trump card was the abil­ity to en­hance your Nanosuit’s agility, strength, or en­durance on the fly by draw­ing power from a fi­nite reser­voir, mak­ing it an en­gag­ing risk-re­ward sys­tem. It was soon eclipsed, how­ever, by the Far Cry se­ries, which Cry­tek had by now sold to Ubisoft. That’s both in spite of and thanks to Far Cry 2, a bruis­ing shooter stretched across 50 kilo­me­ters of African brush. Draw­ing on his ex­pe­ri­ences with Splin­ter Cell, de­signer Clint Hock­ing set out to cre­ate a bru­tal, Heart of Dark­ness-es­que sand­box in which play­ers fought malaria, self-prop­a­gat­ing fire, and bul­lets si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The re­sults were ar­rest­ing, but also frus­trat­ing, thanks to a patchy nar­ra­tive, al­ter­nately dim or ea­gle-eyed AI, and an un­fair en­emy respawn­ing sys­tem.

2012’s widely ac­claimed Far Cry 3 re­moved much of the frus­tra­tion, and a lit­tle of the so­phis­ti­ca­tion. It opened out the ter­rain, fine-tuned the AI to be more pre­dictable, and put cap­tur­ing en­emy out­posts—each a pot­ted stealth-com­bat puzzle, in­spired by the Bor­gia tow­ers in As­sas­sin’s Creed II— at the heart of ex­plor­ing the map. It also cre­ated a combo sys­tem, with play­ers chain­ing melee ex­e­cu­tions into ranged take­downs, re­flect­ing a grow­ing in­ter­est across the in­dus­try in fluid first-per­son an­i­ma­tions, epit­o­mized by DICE’s 2008 park­our game Mir­ror’s Edge. Less pos­i­tively, it traded the sec­ond game’s un­der­stated, cal­lous por­trayal of a per­pet­ual civil war for a far­ci­cal story about whiny, kid­napped back­pack­ers wrestling with the def­i­ni­tion of insanity.

Play­ers un­con­vinced by Far Cry or Cr­y­sis had a num­ber of ri­val open world shoot­ers to choose from. One of them was the Stalker se­ries, in­au­gu­rated by Ukrainian de­vel­oper GSC Game World in 2007, in which scav­engers pick their way through ra­dioac­tive ru­ins while keep­ing a look out for mon­strous crea­tures and in­vis­i­ble, fatal ano­ma­lies. Stalker’s sup­port­ing sys­tems were

re­mark­able—at one point, the AI was al­legedly ca­pa­ble of com­plet­ing the game by it­self—but its pun­ish­ing sur­vival sim­u­la­tion ethic lim­ited its au­di­ence. Gear­box’s role­play­ing shooter Border­lands took a friend­lier, trashier tack. Re­leased in 2009, it saw you tour­ing an an­ar­chic, comic book-style planet as one of four classes, hoover­ing up pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated (of­ten bor­der­line-un­us­able) weapons. Part of Border­lands’s suc­cess, the nov­elty of its ar­se­nal aside, was its hu­mor—a rare qual­ity in an of­ten po-faced genre.

The turn of the decade saw a num­ber of long-run­ning FPS se­ries be­gin­ning to lose mo­men­tum. Most ob­vi­ously, the Medal of Honor se­ries un­der­went an abortive at­tempt at rein­ven­tion in 2010, with pub­lisher EA look­ing to fill gaps in the sched­ule be­tween Bat­tle­field in­stal­ments. In jump­ing for­ward from WW2 to present-day Afghanistan, the once-proud se­ries merely left it­self open to unflattering com­par­isons with 2009’s Call of Duty: Mod­ern War­fare 2. id Soft­ware’s prop­er­ties were also at low ebb. Though an ac­com­plished hor­ror ex­pe­ri­ence, 2007’s Doom 3 lost out to Half-Life 2, while Quake had all but evap­o­rated fol­low­ing Quake 4’ s muted re­cep­tion in 2005. Raven Soft­ware’s 2009 Wolfen­stein re­boot dou­bled­down on the para­nor­mal as­pects of the se­ries back­story, to mixed ef­fect. Fol­low­ing a sim­i­larly luke­warm re­sponse to Sin­gu­lar­ity, par­ent com­pany Ac­tivi­sion re­tasked the stu­dio to help out with the Call of Duty se­ries. RAGE— id’s only new IP dur­ing th­ese years save mo­bile game Orcs & Elves— proved a vis­ual ex­trav­a­ganza and a grat­i­fy­ingly hefty, Mad Max-ish shooter, but all too of­ten felt like it was play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to its own graph­ics tech­nol­ogy. id’s old foe Epic, mean­while, was in­creas­ingly ded­i­cated to the third-per­son Gears of War se­ries and its flour­ish­ing Un­real En­gine busi­ness.

Call of Duty con­tin­ued to reign supreme, though it

at­tracted in­creas­ingly stiff com­pe­ti­tion from EA’s Bat­tle­field— a fran­chise in­creas­ingly (and a lit­tle un­fairly) pitched as a freeform ‘think­ing man’s shooter’, more re­spect­ful of player agency than the lin­ear, at­tri­tion­driven Call of Duty. Af­ter ex­per­i­ment­ing with a lighter, buddy-com­edy vibe in the Bad Com­pany spin-offs, DICE amped up the grandeur with Bat­tle­field 3, a mul­ti­ple per­spec­tive tale of ab­ducted nu­clear weapons set partly in Iran (the best­selling in­stal­ment un­til DICE’s jour­ney into WW1 with Bat­tle­field 1). The se­ries had be­come fa­mous for its Frost­bite en­gine tech­nol­ogy, which amongst other things al­lowed for real-time ter­rain de­struc­tion in mul­ti­player: Par­tic­i­pants could do ev­ery­thing from blast­ing out spy­holes in walls to lev­el­ling build­ings.

Call of Duty’s great­est ex­is­ten­tial threats, how­ever, were a mix­ture of in­ter­nal dis­cord and ex­ter­nal mar­ket pres­sures. In March 2010, Ac­tivi­sion—now by far the in­dus­try’s largest pub­lisher, fol­low­ing a mega-merger with Vivendi and its sub­sidiary Bl­iz­zard—fired In­fin­ity Ward co­founders Ja­son West and Vince Zam­pella over al­leged in­sub­or­di­na­tion. A few weeks later, West and Zam­pella an­nounced the foun­da­tion of new stu­dio, Res­pawn En­ter­tain­ment. A wave of law­suits and coun­ter­suits fol­lowed, along­side a mass ex­o­dus of staff from In­fin­ity Ward to Res­pawn. Ac­tivi­sion was forced to call upon the re­cently founded Sledge­ham­mer Games to help the de­pleted In­fin­ity Ward fin­ish Mod­ern War­fare 3.

While the se­ries weath­ered this cri­sis—thanks largely to Tre­yarch’s pop-savvy, hal­lu­cino­gen-crazed Black Ops sub­fran­chise—Ac­tivi­sion and other pub­lish­ers also had to man­age a prob­lem of bud­get ver­sus ex­pec­ta­tion. Scripted

Call of Duty con­tin­ued to reign supreme, though it at­tracted stiff com­pe­ti­tion

cor­ri­dor cam­paigns in the Half-Life vein were prov­ing in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive, thanks largely to the cost of HD art as­sets, and teleme­try showed that play­ers spent the bulk of their time in mul­ti­player. How­ever, at­tempts to re­move sin­gle­player from the pack­age led to an out­cry. Among the teams that strug­gled with this prob­lem was Res­pawn. The EA-pub­lished de­but Ti­tan­fall pi­o­neered the con­cept of cam­paign mul­ti­player, with nar­ra­tive el­e­ments, such as pic­ture-in-pic­ture cin­e­mat­ics, dropped into rounds of team death­matches. The game was en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­ceived—a mix­ture of tow­er­ing mech com­bat and nim­ble park­our du­elling, it re­stored some­thing of Quake and Un­real Tour­na­ment’s agility to a genre that had be­come bogged down in cover com­bat. Its au­di­ence tailed off swiftly, how­ever—many first-per­son shooter en­thu­si­asts found the mechs-and-pi­lots premise to be more of a nov­elty than a game-chang­ing fix­ture, though the larger prob­lem was per­haps that, on con­soles, Ti­tan­fall was exclusive to the Xbox brand.

Other shooter de­vel­op­ers ‘re­dis­cov­ered’ mo­bil­ity dur­ing this decade— Call of Duty: Ad­vanced War­fare and Black Ops III dab­bled at length with pow­ered ex­o­suits, while Halo 5: Guardians added boost slides, dou­ble-jumps and ground-pounds to Mas­ter Chief’s moveset. But the game that brought it all to­gether was 2014’s Des­tiny, the work of erst­while Halo de­vel­oper Bungie, now free from pro­duc­ing games solely for Mi­crosoft. It’s a mix­ture of

Other shooter de­vel­op­ers ‘re­dis­cov­ered’ mo­bil­ity dur­ing this decade

MMO-style loot­ing and Ti­tan­fall- es­que ac­ro­bat­ics, all bun­dled up in an aes­thetic that is rem­i­nis­cent of the ’70s space race and clas­sic sci-fi book cover il­lus­tra­tions. Des­tiny is in some ways quite a soul­less game: It’s as grindy as Border­lands, and far less self-dep­re­cat­ing, but its ru­ined, yet sump­tu­ous, so­lar sys­tem en­vi­ron­ments have an ir­re­sistible mys­tique. It also feels tremen­dous in the hands, with some beau­ti­fully judged weapon de­signs and class abil­i­ties.

With last year’s Call of Duty: In­fi­nite War­fare track­ing far be­hind Black Ops III, Des­tiny has be­come one of Ac­tivi­sion’s two flag­ship shoot­ers. The other is Bl­iz­zard’s joy­ful arena shooter Overwatch, re­leased in 2016. Overwatch is a lovely game to end on be­cause it is es­sen­tially an in­ter­ac­tive genre his­tory, a cel­e­bra­tion of its tri­umphs, foibles, and even fail­ures. It doesn’t merely reach out to weapons, gad­gets, and abil­i­ties from other shoot­ers, but also their quirks, ex­ploits, and the an­tics of their com­mu­ni­ties— Quake’s rocket jump­ing, aim­bots from Counter-Strike and in­ter­net edgelords in gen­eral. Its he­roes are love let­ters to 30-odd years of genre his­tory. Pro-gam­ing celeb turned mech pi­lot D.Va is both a pot­ted Ti­tan­fall and a par­ody of the nox­ious ‘gamer girl’ stereo­type, for in­stance. Sol­dier 76, mean­while, is Call of Duty man. Even as it pays trib­ute, how­ever, Overwatch also points to the fu­ture—be it in the ef­fort­less way it folds in con­cepts from fight­ing games and MOBAs, or in how it ex­tends the FPS cast-list well be­yond the mus­cu­lar, dude­bro pro­tag­o­nists beloved of so many ri­vals. It speaks to the enor­mous range of con­cepts that make up the mod­ern FPS, for all its myr­iad hang-ups—a genre that has al­ways been about so much more than fir­ing a gun.

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