So, I've lost love for military shooters. But it wasn't always this way. I actually at one point, loved the genre and was eagerly embracing the new titles, but thanks to an overstuffed market I've fallen out of favor. Now staying away from all but a handful of titles and pointing and laughing at the rest. Remember the days when this genre first spawned and it was celebrated rather than reviled? We can trace it all back to the days of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
When the turn of the 2000s hit, it was mostly assumed shooters followed the Doom/Timesplitters/Serious Sam levels, where you ran around and shot things with absurd weapons. Call of Duty's entry to the formula was great because it surprised and shook up the standard. Up to then, the thought had been for shooters that “cinematic” was just another word for “has a lot of FMVs,” rather than married the gameplay to a sense of importance that you worked for.
Being involved in the big paratrooper drops, escape sequences on vehicles, and getting overswarmed with Nazi soldiers were all thrilling because it was a rarity and it hadn't been done quite like it before. Even your AI companions kept pace with you. It lent the game to a sense of importance, like something big was happening and you were caught up in it, rather than the one lone soldier against all odds. Even most of the deficiencies like the terrible AI or the obvious spawns got masked extremely well amid all the “oh crap I am going to die” ness of moving from objective to objective.
After three games of this – three excellent games, mind – the developers at Infinity Ward saw that the series was basically done. They had to plan for something besides the WWII setting, which was still being endlessly abused by other franchises at the time. So they got into their board room, tossed around a few ideas, and settled on some topical territory.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare shook up a lot of the turf going on at that time. They knew that treating the subject of current conflicts going on across the globe was a delicate situation and there was no clear horrible dictator like Hitler to defeat. So they were honest – they tapped into a lot of the xenophobia and jingoism at the post-9-11 time, while also keeping delicate to avoid mentioning specific locations or nationalities.
Sure, there was a clear bad guy involved with the middle eastern unnamed country and the joint collaboration with Russian insurgent Zakhaev didn't help. But the American Marines acted more like arrogant teenagers than dutiful soldiers, and the British Special Air Services, while correctly fixing their screwups, were immoral enforcers. Their actions were noble and competent, but the way they drug a high-ranking figurehead into the shadows and bludgeoned them in the head with a crowbar until they talked was downright psychotic.
Even as Yahtzee said at the time, “CoD4 has none of the My Country Tis Of Thee jingoism that turns me off most war games.” The neutrality behind the perspectives was a breath of fresh air, depicting a complicated conflict with multiple perspectives, none of whom were 'the good guys,' just a lot of perspectives with equally creative ends. You wanted the conflict to end and you knew who was at fault, but there was no side you really saw as pure, it was just more jerks than a combination gym/strip lounge.
To this day, we still have franchises like Medal of Honor, Battlefield or even the new Modern Warfare developers. Military shooters are still trying to tell an interesting story by showing the same stuff, but it just falls completely flat. Not that I don't love Battlefield's insane huge combat maps and multiplayer. But each time I try to get into it or other shooters, there's this overwhelmingly frustrating weight on my shoulders that reminds me constantly, “You have done all this before, multiple times, it's not going to get any better.” The multiplayer is always worth checking out, but we're hitting critical mass on free to play shooters, even Korean ones like Arctic Combat, and they're a total blast. Why would I drop $60 bucks on a brand new game when I can get the online shooter fix for free?
That's not even to mention the embarrassing mess that is Medal of Honor today. After a mediocre, identity-lost shooter with a terrible story, they made another one with more bugs than an organic fruit farm and a stupid name, “Warfighter.” Anyone can tell you why this didn't work – aside from its technically inept execution, the whole game was just a string of gunfights that removed the stealth/action/stealth again trade of sequences that made Modern Warfare so compelling. Even when Infinity Ward lost the rights and it went to a new developer, they were smart enough to keep the formula.
And what are military shooters now, anyway? The entire practice, as much fun as it is, had its time and now we're just circling the drain. They're losing what made the original good by running over the same turf, again, with none of the understanding. If you don't know what made the original good, then it's just a clueless man fumbling with the wrong end of a gun, firing it into innocents and his own foot over and over again. And further, it's kind of crazy when you think about it as a fan of shooters - there's no 'fantasy' anymore, since it's not even anything ludicrous like sci-fi environments or silly guns like Serious Sam. This is the main message transmitted by Spec Ops: The Line, a game that showed how utterly derranged the whole practice is when you think about it, and thusly leapt above the pile of shooters by its message alone.
It's just really saddening to see publishers – some developers, yes, but mostly publishers – see something as great and refreshing as Modern Warfare as a cash cow of roughly infinite size. It's never been this giant juggernaut of a money print, it was a trope-inverting take on current American wars. And, since its release we've hit a point where the game is outdated in its depiction, since now mostly foreign skirmishes are done by robots piloted by people in countries miles away. As much as CoD4 broke its mold, we've approached a point where its mold is now a disfigured mess. And it's a real shame that the genre will always be looked at as the mess of identical, rushed, messy shooters, and not the shot at brilliance that Modern Warfare was.