Aiming High: DOOM, Titanfall 2 and the FPS campaign


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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 The creative level design and careful story-telling I once loved had been replaced by generic climbing mechanics and clumsy dialogue.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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


Paris in Pixels: A Retrospective

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‘Paris in the fall. The last months of the year, and the end of the millennium. The city holds many memories for me –– of cafes, of music, of love… and death.’


The opening scrawl of Broken Sword: The Shadow Of The Templars (1996) sets a rather curious precedence. A delicate depiction of France that whilst forbidding, lack the theatrics expected of a video game. But it is precisely its non-conformity –– the middle ground between a written text –– that characterises the charming and unique adventure that follows. A rich blend of intricate narrative, memorable figures, gorgeous visuals and quite literally genre-defining gameplay: Shadow of the Templars birthed a franchise that earns a special place in my heart.


Of course, the multiplicity of said franchise is rather expansive. Broken Sword emanates from British developer Revolution Games –– and co-founder Charles Cecil –– who enjoyed some acclaim with Beneath a Steel Sky in 1994. The games, typically, focused on historical conspiracies within a 2D ‘Point-and-Click’ format and remain, to this day, Europe’s biggest selling adventure series. Spawning four sequels, Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997), The Sleeping Dragon (2003), The Angel of Death (2005) and The Serpent’s Curse (2014) –– with its third and fourth instalments briefly embracing a 3D engine –– the franchise is typically lauded alongside the popular LucasArts SCUMM titles.

But coinciding with the release of Duke Nukem 3D and Core Design‘s original Tomb Raider, Broken Sword began life amidst very different approaches to this medium. Its emphasis on hand drawn set-pieces, slow gameplay and dry humour make it not only incongruous within the video game trajectory at the time but even more so today. The relative subsidence of  Point-and-Click adventures seems to cement this. Posing the question: what is its appeal and longevity?


Broken Sword, as a series, is something incredibly special. It’s much more than one or three award-winning titles and more than a product of its time. It’s also more than a mere robust point-and-click game. (Thought it is commendable) There is a far richer quality that surrounds its role as visual, jovial entertainment. This article is not a love letter to its first game nor the nostalgia it inspires today; but rather a look at the various threads the franchise has spun over the last twenty or so years. In short, Broken Sword has a certain approach: a humour, an intellect; an idiosyncratic choice of location, design and pacing that deserves attention, if not praise, that it often fails to attract.

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Paris in Fall: Inventory screenshot from opening scene in Shadow of the Templars (1996)


In this grossest of generalisations, Broken Sword follows the escapades of American lawyer George Stobbart and French journalist, love interest and all round purveyor of sass, Nico Collard. The two cross paths in a number of fated incidents that bind them forever. In the Shadow of the Templars, a near-death experience finds them on the trail of the Knights Templar; a fundamentalist cult that sees the pair travel from Parisian catacombs to Syrian markets. The sequel bares a similar scale: with the pair caught in a Peruvian conspiracy for Aztec treasure and traverse the world as a result. Later iterations rekindle these undertones, exploring everything from dragons to Gnostic spiritualism.  Without descending into plot details, the emphasis on exotic, hollywood locations with hidden doorways and temples-of-doom are a cornerstone of this franchise. Protecting the world from well-hidden weapons and cults features heavily, too. But all the same, these moments are always juxtaposed with everyday locations: cafes, hotels and construction sites. There is a humility that surrounds its more spectacular segments. It is, in essence, the series’ charm: how its protagonists become ‘accidental heroes’.


Unlocking the extraordinary within the ordinary is the crux here. It ties together both its narrative and visual components. Its gameplay follows the traditional ‘Point-and-Click’ format of using inventory items to solve problems; with a leaning towards an every day sensibility. Whether it be the pencil through a keyhole or similar pocket-lint trickery, there is something very honest, if not Macgyver-esque about it all. Dialogue shapes this further, with NPCs often alluding to solutions and ways to move the  game forward. At time this can be more omniscient: how can I distract a police officer? Before descending into something far sillier. The officer clearly needs the toilet; perhaps the nearby fountains will get him to move? Such humour is always appropriately placed and never at the expense of story. Where the Monkey Island titles obviously strived for a more fantastical, outlandish tone, the Broken Sword games remain more reserved. They balance humour like any great text, to mediate the darker moments, without becoming farcical. It is, above else, an undeniably British approach.

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Broken Sword III: The Sleeping Dragon (2003) –– George and Nico become intwined with Arthurian legend in the franchises’ flawed but generally excellent foray into 3D gameplay.


In fact, the stories deserves greater attention. The mix of historical fiction, conspiracy and aforementioned normality is distilled rather well. The Neo-Knights Templar are reminiscent of an illuminati, freemason type group, but never feel too ridiculous for the subtext. As a historian, I find much of it rather digestible. That’s not to say fault-lines around the globe are harnessing the power of dragons; a power that will be exacerbated by a cult for world domination, but the build up is rather solid. The first title gives a wonderful, timeless insight into the execution of the Knight Templar by order of the Crown in 1314. The secrecy of their organisation is fitting and allows the player to journey across beautiful European and Asian locations as a result. By the third title, this pseudo-history is all the more acceptable. Revolution consistently embed their stories in a history that explores what is factually unproven but entirely possible all the same. In The Sleeping Dragon, which follows an Arthurian legend to Glastonbury, Revolution boast their British charm even further. It’s hard to imagine many developers venturing beyond Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in their internationally touted image of Britain. But here we see conversations about the BBC, the ‘rowdy’ music festival and the folklore that swaps the Somerset town. It all goes to serve the character of this franchise. Something that is exotic and exhilarating whilst retaining a personal, familiar feeling.

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Manuscript in Shadow of the Templars offers exposition through ‘Point-and-Click’ format


Its approach to the past is important on a cultural scale, too. Broken Sword is not an Indiana Jones nor Tomb Raider adventure. The mysteries of old are not used as playground for idle action. The game entails signifiant dialogue –– excellently written dialogue at that –– which makes the overall experience somewhere between an interactive story and a narrative heavy adventure. The flagrant lack of guns and violence is most pertinent. This is not part of a child-friendly age rating, although I do not doubt that factors, but rather a gun-ho adventure simply wouldn’t work with the tone and direction. Henchman and antagonists often wield handguns, offering immediate death for George and Nico in gameplay. But there is little impetus for either party to stoop to their level. In situations where Lara Croft would simply shoot her way out; George and Nico use stealth, common sense and whatever objects surround them to avoid capture. Firearms represent an end-game for the pair, making such encounters deeply refreshing.


Arguably, this could be a reflection of its regional heritage. Without wanting to over intellectualise the point, note that British culture is less facilitating towards firearms and therefore less fitting with the ‘everyday life’ that frames these games. For George to take a shotgun to a cafe would simply not make sense. As a result, Broken Sword has a more tangible violence. We knock out henchmen and avoid gunshots, but we do not reciprocate their means. Primarily, because it wouldn’t be logical: these characters are not violent people. But more notably, it would lower the tension and momentum that the titles build. We need to fear for these haphazard heroes and align with their cause. Otherwise, the mountains of dialogue would become laborious.

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Opening cinematic from Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997)


In other words, the dialogue that builds the character effectively compliments the gameplay. Indeed the strength of these titles can be credited to its well rounded cast and execution of such. George and Nico are defined figures who drive the qualities of the game. Stobbart is a stubborn, cocky protagonist but one deeply relatable. He is flawed, funny and his wise-cracks are not as sharp as he hopes. With Collard, we see a maturer flare, whose constant put downs make for a wonderful dynamic between the two. In later titles, the player bounces between these two characters, but what is important is that they remain recognisable throughout. They may not be immortalised in popular culture as previously noted tomb-raiders, but their depth outshines them all. It is also curious to note the criticism that the rather forgettable fourth instalment received for focusing on a new female counterpart. But all that said, the continuity between titles is well conceived. Gangster ‘Flap’, Museum curator André Lobineau and Police Sergeant Moue all make regular appearances in different titles. The games also have a penchant for easter eggs and internal jokes; poking fun at throwaway moments in early titles. More forgettable NPCs, from neighbours to the tourists George meets in Syria –– appropriately enjoying another vacation in its tropical sequel –– are scattered throughout the subsequent releases. Even the ghastly Goat puzzle in the first game makes for self-referential point about George’s irrational fear of the animal, nearly twenty years later. New characters are typically warm and interesting, but this continuity makes for a better experience. It threads the titles together whilst building a canonical universe of its own. Fan service or otherwise; this all contributes to the rich and unique Broken Sword world.

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‘The Goat Puzzle’


As for the relevance of this world today? A number of points seem pertinent. Primarily, the first two games saw resurgence a few years ago thanks to an App Store remaster. Smartphones make ‘Point-and-Click’ games rather more ‘touch and click’, but such a launch gave a new generation an opportunity to play these titles. It did so to great avail, although I personally did not care for the ‘Director’s Cut’ additions. (Revolution decided to pull a George Lucas and add new chapters to their remaster) Regardless, the sentiment was well received. More recently, and all the more excitingly, the fifth title to the franchise has seen a unanimous return to form. Released from a crowd-funded campaign, Revolution were free to make both the title they and the fans wanted. The overall result was a two-part title –– a pragmatic result of its unique production –– but a ‘sword’ game that saw the beautiful hand-drawn aesthetics, effortless humour and familiar faces embark on a new era. Boasting 1080p renders and more meticulous animation, this return to 2D ‘Point-and-Click’ proves an unyielding quality to these games. The Serpent’s Curse is the most enjoyable instalment for many years. It’s also available across all next-gen consoles and formats, making a remarkable revival for a supposedly dying genre.


There is also some underlying poignance to this newer release. The title of this article nods to the curious artistic design of Broken Sword. The games were always torn between gorgeous hand drawings and the choppy, pixelated technology of the mid-late nineties. But it’s seemingly come full circle. It once commanded the middle-ground between text and gaming; now does so with unashamed confidence. It is no longer held back by trying to fit in with its rivals. Broken Sword has both a style and substance of its own: the product of two decades of engineering.

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Deja vu: A familiar scene in Broken Sword V: The Serpent’s Curse (2013-14)


Above all else, the Broken Sword games are defined on their own terms. They have heart, wit and a truly personal approach to story telling. It has memorable character and remains the most British series I’ve played whilst forgoing a British protagonist. It also represents an effort to keep strong, to strive further for the perfect adventure game even in a world which fell for its pistol-wielding adversaries. When citing influential titles of 1996, few would look upon Broken Sword in the Call of Duty world. But is precisely that legacy that inspired this piece. For those who invested into this franchise, who stood by its curious middle-period and wanted more than mere remasters have found themselves rewarded beyond all doubt.

The Broken Sword games represent an integral part of my childhood; a growing desire to pursue history academically and an affection towards narrative-heavy gaming. But they also offer something far more profound. They are empirical proof that the flashiest, most expensive or trendy titles do not always attain longevity. That the more adventurous stories, the riskiest and more curious can be the most inspiring. That titles can hold intrigue well beyond exploring what passed as digital entertainment twenty years ago. It has been a precarious journey for this franchise, but its resolve and triumph is unquestionable. And I cannot wait to see where it goes next.


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