There’s little doubt that the First-Person Shooter genre has faltered in recent years. From overblown set-pieces, undercooked narratives to excessive downloadable content: the number of inventive and thought-provoking shooters — at least on a AAA budget — seem far and few between.
Many point to annualised releases for blame; blockbuster franchises have stifled ambition by enforcing a factory-line production. It second-guesses what fans want and creates a race to the bottom between developers, itching to outdo each other on Micheal Bay theatrics. Even as a once committed Halo player, the most recent iteration of 343’s sacred-icon felt like a confused cocktail of other shooters. The creative level design and careful story-telling I once loved had been replaced by generic climbing mechanics and clumsy dialogue.
To my surprise, however, two of the most bombastic and outrageous shooters of 2016 proved to mediate many of my issues. Titles with such creative and crafted single-player campaigns that I genuine stopped to realise how much fun I was having. Yet titles, all the same, that wear all the hallmarks of being symptomatic of the idiotic spectacle that constitutes for modern shooters. Alongside our insatiable desire to reboot existing IPs.
DOOM (2016) and Titanfall 2 (2016) offer something new in their single-player packages by being entire self-aware of their context. This extends beyond tonality and into their very construction and level design. These are games that opt for that trendy fast, high-octane action over anything entirely meaningful. But they do so with such care that this actually becomes something worthwhile in itself. They’re composed with a sort of musical orchestration: prefacing fast combat sections with eerie build-ups, breakdowns and crescendos. They offset all-out carnage with exploration and platforming segments to capitalise upon their penchant for agile movement. And whilst political and philosophical referent is sidelined for this action: they ascertain a coherent enough story to engage the player throughout the performance.
What makes DOOM so enjoyable is its flagrant non-conformity. It takes the dynamics of its twenty-something predecessor and repackages it to sit alongside modern-shooters. That fluid, outlandish jaunt of double-jumping, demon-slaying and nigh-on infinite waves of ammunition wears a fresh coat of paint. But it’s much more than a simple re-skin. Whilst I’ve written extensively about my love for realism and the ‘Ranger Difficulty’ Metro titles — where one is frequently down to the final bullet and forced to run — there is something deeply cathartic about this style of gameplay. In DOOM, the player is actively penalised for playing tactically, taking cover and being at all conservative. Our fabled space marine wields a seemingly self-loading shotgun and acquires mythical power-ups along the way. One is therefore forced to entertain the theatrics DOOM encourages, on its openly ridiculous terms, and reap the benefits accordingly,
In fact, the strength of DOOM is not so much its lineage and nostalgia, but rather that these elements are mutually aligned. Design and dynamics work in tandem. We move from industrial research labs to satanic rituals almost seamlessly. The level construction rewards this exploration and style of open combat, but remains linear enough to avoid getting lost. Combat situations have limitless solutions, so ammunition and weapons are aplenty to facilitate that. It also juggles its larger set-pieces with claustrophobic and juxtaposed combat to keep the player on edge. Where one is more startled by a handful of imps jumping from a dark corridor, than the hordes of Hell we have to face head-on.
It’s also accompanied by one of the strongest soundtracks I’ve heard in recent years. Mick Gordon’s aggressive score blends Periphery style guitar parts with Nine Inch Nails synths and percussion. It’s a subtle throwback to the scores of yesteryear: namely Duke Nuke 3D and Trent Reznor’s infamous Quake soundtrack. But it really ties into the game’s sense of moment and pacing: adding a tout and foreboding facet to every environment we visit, whilst allowing for clear signifiers between chaotic and calming moments.
A similar line of thought enchants Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall 2. Whilst it takes a seemingly more realistic stance — realistic in that includes talking, flying robots but does not extend to storming the bloody gates of Hell — it retains that marriage of design and pacing. In fact, it’s raison d’être is literally a distinction of tempo: in its ‘pilot’ and ‘titan’ play-styles. Whilst the former can mount walls and scale buildings in a traditional FPS format, the latter is rather a slow but heavily-armed AI mech. My preconception here was that this would make for an opaque, ‘one of the other’ gameplay — but it proved to shift between the two inventively.
These ‘pilot’ segments require platforming and fast combat. Shootouts are often backdropped with moving environments, conveyer belts and so forth, whilst the ‘titan’ moments offer larger and more intense encounters. Yet it’s the moments in-between, where the player is separated from their titan for a brief interlude — only to return for the boss battle — that it really comes into fruition. These moments demonstrate precisely that musical quality that DOOM attains though its side-rooms and exploration. That the game is not merely stitching together key battles but rather building a coherent body; a world and narrative, that allows the player to enjoy all it has to offer.
Titanfall 2 also flirts with time-travel with a unique creativity. In one level, the player has to navigate a destroyed building by seamlessly switching between different time periods. The requires carefully bouncing between combat and platforming, as the ‘past’ iteration of the building is full of armed militia. This leads to some wonderful moments of carefully timing impossible jumps and avoiding gun shots. And more strikingly, this feature is never exhausted to the point of boredom. The game moves swiftly onto the next problem, environment and encounter: maintaining pace and intrigue along the way.
In terms of basic story-telling, both games follow similar themes of rampant corporatism and shooting before asking questions. DOOM flirts with the bizarre prospect of mining Hell for renewable energy, meanwhile Titanfall 2 opts for a more classic ‘freedom fighting’ affair. Whilst neither story is particularly noteworthy, they are palatable given they actively facilitate the gameplay on offer. In other words, they accommodate the action and set-peices, whilst maintaining an intelligible sense of what the stakes are and who we should care about. (The latter point is often oh-so overlooked) And to its credit, Titanfall 2 carves a particularly warming relationship between the pilot and his AI titan by the end. It’s loaded with ‘your-humour-does-not-compute’ gags, but it’s a welcome handrail for the unfolding adventure.
On balance, Titanfall 2 and DOOM flaunt a frivolous and light-hearted tone that is easy to scoff at. They appear to be quintessential products of our time; boasting style over substance. I have purposely avoided discussing some of these factors: multiplayer, graphics and technical elements and so forth, because, whilst stunning, we should expect nothing less from these departments. Yet upon further inspection, both titles posses an attention to detail that does feel overdue and thoughtful. They are, above else, well composed forms of escapism.
They also ignite some sense of optimism for the future of first-person shooter campaigns. Given Titanfall 2‘s predecessor was an entirely online affair; this single-player campaign was added almost entirely in response to prior criticism. DOOM, on the contrary, was a title that no-one particularly asked for, nor expected to fare so well. Yet we have titles here that seem to quell a great deal of the angst gamers have towards this genre. They offer something fresh without faring too far from the beaten track. They have confidence and heart, without relying upon expansion packs or shameless re-skins. And even as explicit products of franchising: they stand (or wall-run) on their two feet, all the same.
DOOM and Titanfall 2 provide intense and rewarding single-player campaigns that never allow combat or gameplay to stagnate. There is a technicality and ‘method to their madness’ that holds true. And whilst neither title is particularly intellectually stimulating or life-changing, they offer quite literally the most fun I’ve had with an FPS in a very long time. And there is absolutely nothing wrong or crass about achieving that.