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.