There was a time when the First Person Shooter genre used to be the bulwark of game innovation. The id classics Wolfenstein 3D and Doom brought the graphics revolution that heralded the start of a new kind of gameworld. Pathways into Darkness had an inventory and characters to talk to in a 3D space. Quake pretty much invented how we play online action games. Half-Life expanded on how a modern mainstream game can communicate story and world-building in a very minimalist style. Deus Ex grabbed that baton and pushed it even further with open-ended missions and remarkable AI. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare redefined what is expected in a multiplayer game, and solidified how FPS controls would work on a console.
I remember disappearing into those worlds. There was one summer that I spent constantly playing Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament over and over. Modern Warfare 2 was the only game that I ever went to a midnight launch and I’d drive home during my lunch break at work to play the game for 30 mins. However, with the seemingly annual release of almost every FPS franchise, my desire to revisit this genre has dwindled.
Sure enough, there have been lots of signs of a reawakening. The Wolfenstein reboot was decent enough and an encouraging return to form. I really like what the Dishonored franchise is doing with its world and combat. Dying Light was a personal favorite of mine last year. There are also numerous examples of games that take the first person perspective and use it more for story and immersion. Games like Gone Home and Firewatch are stupendous, but it would be misleading and reductive to call them First Person “Shooter” games. Luckily in 2016, there were three excellent games that brought innovation, adrenaline, and fun to such an influential genre.
Titanfall 2 is the followup to the 2014 multiplayer-only game. I loved that game, but while I played countless hours battling other players, I wanted to know more about the world. Thankfully, the sequel brings a fully-loaded campaign, and while short, it has all the character and action that you would ever need. There is one level halfway through the game that is worth the price of admission. “Cause and Effect” is already subject to some great analysis (link to waypoint article), and it is one of the great experiences that can’t be spoiled. Fighting two sets of enemies on two different timelines and, then, figuring how to use that to your advantage is gaming bliss.
The rest of Titanfall 2 is similar in approach. It eschews realism and convention in the pursuit of fun and making the player feel fast and powerful. It is unfortunate that it released so close to the latest iterations of Call of Duty and Battlefield, as it looks a lot of people skipped this most wonderful shooter. Playing through Battlefield 1’s campaign feels like a slog with the same tropes and battles you’ve always played. The World War I shooter hardly takes advantage of its important real-world setting. On the other hand, the big robot companion of Titanfall 2 has some of the most earnest and human characterization of 2016. Compared to its EA brethren, Titanfall 2 is an invigorating and fresh experience.
Superhot came as a bit of a surprise. I was familiar with the short demo that made the rounds a few years ago, but I was hardpressed as to how it would translate into a full game. Boy, was I wrong. Superhot’s main premise is that time doesn’t move unless you do. This simple concept transforms it into more of a puzzle game. Linking time and movement while simple allows for players to slowly become masters level by level. Some of my most satisfying moments in gaming this year have been in Superhot’s stylish and tense indie masterpiece. This game wants you to constantly replay levels in order to make better and more ridiculous runs.
While the story is fine with a cool hint of cyberpunk dystopia, Superhot really shines in the challenge modes with its different stipulations. Running through the levels again with only a katana is just great and forces you to rethink your path constantly. Superhot is the wonderful straight-up innovation that the FPS needs. It is one of the coolest games in years.
Sometimes to find the way forward, one must look back at the beginning. Or something like that. In this era of realistic and methodical shooters, the new DOOM is a huge revelation and a reminder of how amazing things can be when when a game strives for fun and tight controls rather than constraining players. It is hilarious how unnatural the lack of aiming mechanics feels after years of Call of Duty and Battlefield. But like a firebrand preacher, DOOM reveals the only true way to salvation. This game isn’t concerned with strategy, stealth, or any of the other aspects that have bloated this most primal of genres. There are no vehicles or mounted machine guns or on-rails sequences. Even the leveling up and multiple weapon configurations seems out of place in this game. DOOM is only concerned with pure un-adulterated videogame mayhem and destruction.
I’m not advocating that every game must be like DOOM. We’ve already experienced that with the plethora or Hexen, Painkiller, and Heretic clones. That path has already been explored. The real victory of DOOM in 2016 is that games stripped to the bare minimum, run at a blazingly fast pace just as viable as a large open-ended, tactical, stealth shooter. DOOM is a correction to the middling and ordinary direction of the franchise, and a memorandum to the genre about its illustrious past.