So “Fall”, or “Autumn” as we like to call it in the UK, is almost upon us, or is already showering us with a brilliant cascade of crispy brownness depending on where you live or what particular calendar you subscribe to. For videogames this means we’re about to encounter a similar cascade of brownness in the form of big budget AAA releases, most of which happen to be games wherein you blow stuff up, shoot guys, and say things like “The LZ is hot”. Destiny has ushered in this year’s Fall of Titan shooters (which doesn’t include Titanfall), and we’re soon to be graced by yet another Call of Duty game in the form of COD 11: Are They Even Trying to Name These Things Anymore, a game with notably fewer market competitors this year, what with the absence of the now delayed Battlefield Hardline: You’d Better Believe This Will Be Controversial.
These games are what they are, and despite not being the most creatively interesting titles around, they’re usually pumped with enough money and floor polish to be solid shooters. Unfortunately, the blockbuster nature of games like Call of Duty often means that they wholly steal the limelight from other shooters that try to push the boat out and experiment with new ideas. As somebody who hasn’t been more than vaguely interested in COD-etc since Black Ops, I decided to recommend some shooters that are worth trying out, if not even for their quality, but for the interesting ideas they implement. Then I decided to put them all in list form, because people don’t like reading things about videogames unless there are correlating numbers dotted along the side. Some of these are a few years old now, so they’ll be mighty cheap and playable on ancient, dust coated 360s and PS3s. In no particular order:
1. Spec Ops: The Line
Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: PC, Mac, PS3, Xbox 360
Average Price: £10/$15
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Spec Ops: The Line isn’t fun, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s a tough, intense, gruelling game that beats you around and refuses to hold your hand. Occasionally it’s even intentionally boring in order to better hit home it’s overarching theme of the monotony and desensitization of war/war games. In this regard, it’s one of the most important landmarks in videogame story telling of the last few years, mainly because it utilizes genre clichés and stereotypically “bad” design in order to enhance the emotional and dramatic effect of the game.
The ways in which the game eschews typical lessons learned from Call of Duty specifically is really intriguing. If you’ve played the game, you’ll be familiar with its infamous “White Phosphorous” section, which horrifically points out the flaws in typical modern shooter “AC130” gameplay, but equally clever is the moment wherein Captain Walker and co. are accosted by riotous, albeit innocent townspeople. There are no HUD/UI hints as to what you should do in this situation, and the pressure builds for you to make a decision when the townspeople start throwing rocks at the player. Reluctantly, most players decided to empty a clip into the crowd in order to send a message at the cost of innocent lives. Why did people do this? Because, hey, we’ve all played the airport part of Modern Warfare 2. Little did we know, it was possible to simply fire round in the sky to make the crowd disperse. We didn’t consider that, and that makes us pretty damned flawed as a community of gamers.
It was for these reasons that Spec Ops is so fantastic, but also why it was destined to fail. It was too harrowing and introspective for the mainstream shooter crowd its artwork was marketed at, and its marketing wasn’t aimed at the people who would’ve appreciated its quirks. Still, if you want a thoroughly thought provoking shooter that plays around with conventions and really bolsters its story through its mechanics, they rarely come better than Spec Ops: The Line.
Developer: People Can Fly, Epic Games
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Average Price: £10/$15
Release Date: February 22, 2012
In stark contrast to the dark introspection of Spec Ops, Bulletstorm is a game about kicking guys in the nuts and blowing their heads off. Bulletstorm is Gears of War reaching its logical conclusion – dudebros being dudebros to the point of parody, with a much needed splash of colour and absurdity. Rather than being rewarded for teamwork, scoring clean headshots or hiding behind walls, players in Bulletstorm are rewarded for combining different body shots with environmental effects and an array of crazy weapons that would make Ratchet and Clank blush. The result is a game that’s about as cathartic as possible, while still making you feel like you’ve achieved something.
Despite Bulletstorm‘s main strengths lying within its mechanics, its narrative manages to surprise as well. Protagonist Grayson Hunt is exactly the sort of irritating, gruff protagonist we’ve come to grow tired of, but throughout the game he grows as a person and realizes he can’t keep being an ass to his friends and colleagues. That’s not to say you’ll ever get particularly invested in Bulletstorm as a narrative, but its cheesy dialogue, colourful characters and vibrant locations provide an excellent backdrop for the chaos that ensues.
Why did Bulletstorm fail? I’m honestly not sure. About a week after launch, I saw trade-in copies piling high in GAME and CEX stores; piles that were later rivalled by Dragon Age II in March. I’d argue that poor and unnecessary multiplayer prevented the game from being a hit with online shooter fans,a s well as the fact that the game was aggressively marketed as the anti-Call of Duty in some pretty hilarious online skits. I guess the lesson is: if you want the COD audience, don’t make fun of them. I can’t recommend Bulletstorm enough though, because it captures the essence of what originally made FPS games fun – crazy weapons and over the top situations – and turns it up to eleven.
3.Ghost Recon: Future Soldier
Developer: Ubisoft Red Storm/Paris/Romania
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Average Price: £10/$15
Release Date: May 22, 2012
This one probably looks a little out of place on a list of shooters that bucked trends and questioned the norm, and I completely understand. In many ways, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is fairly unimaginative, and it’s far from being the best Tom Clancy game I’ve ever played. Its characters and story are total guff, particularly since the latter ends with a stereotypical Tom Clancy game anti-climax like that of so many Rainbow Six games before it. Any attempt at character development falls flat, and there’s just very little reason to care about anything that happens.
That being said, on every other level, Future Soldier works. I mean really works. The game gives you tons of gadgets and pseudo-futuristic scopes to use to get the job done, and heavily penalizes you for trying to solve situations in an “all guns blazing” manner. There are still plenty of action packed fire-fights and set pieces to satisfy your action movie itch, but its all tempered by quieter stealth sequences and careful planning. I’m not going to say that the game gives you as much agency or choice as past games in the series, but Future Soldier does a fantastic job of actually making you feel like a “Future Soldier”, a gimmick which Call of Duty has been trying to ape in the years since.
Future Soldier also excels in the multiplayer department, particularly within its wave based modes. These matches require a team to stealthily takeover a hostile building, then work together to hold that position for a number of turns. As the enemies pile on, the responsibilities you handed out to your friends/fellow players become moot, and everything becomes a frantic fight for survival. In competitive multiplayer, modes are tailored towards players who can outsmart their foes, rather than out shoot them. There are still plenty of gadgets, and the game’s Gunsmith mode offers up tons of gun customization. It’s possible that GRFS is a guilty pleasure of mine, but there’s something about it that just drew me in and wouldn’t let go.
Developer: Wolfire Games
Publisher: Wolfire Games
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Average Price: £3.99/$6
Release Date: April 29, 2013
In my introduction, I mentioned that not all of these games would necessarily be “good”, but they’re at least different and/or interesting. This is where I need to draw that card and reluctantly place it on the table, because I’m not really sure if Receiver is “good”, and I’m not really sure that’s the point of Receiver. This is a game wherein the main objective is not to defeat enemies, but rather to actually master the technical know-how of gun handling and reloading that has been watered down so criminally by FPS games. Receiver must be played with a keyboard, because there aren’t enough inputs on a gamepad to actually carry out a successful reload and still be able to move around the map.
Becoming “gun literate” is a rewarding experience, but it’s only for those with a fondness and aptitude for multitasking in games. Once the sentry bots come out, it’s incredibly difficult to survive and score a kill whilst trying to remember how to reload a real gun. Receiver is interesting, and it’s well worth checking out if you fancy learning how to operate a gun without the pressure of actually handling one, but for many gamers, I’d say that Receiver is slightly too impenetrable to ever be more than an interesting quirk of a game.
5. Binary Domain
Developer: Yakuza Team
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Average Price: £7/$12
Release Date: February 28, 2012
Binary Domain is amazing. Another game that looks about as interesting as a wet biscuit, yet manages to achieve extraordinary levels of absurdity and weirdness, Binary Domain knocks all expectation out of the park – and that’s why nobody bought it. The game is yet another Terminator/Blade Runner-esque story about the dangers of robotics and the moral dilemma of creating sentient machines to live alongside human, only Binary Domain takes it to new, disgusting levels, the details of which are just too juicy to spoil here. More clichés are used and then unused as Binary Domain brings out some truly brilliant story twists that most people won’t see coming from a mile away.
The game also features some pretty gigantic (and expensive looking) robot boss fights, which often take place in huge urban arenas scattered with rubble and shrapnel. Binary Domain also manages to sidestep a higher certificate by including really amazing gore physics for robots only; robots deteriorate with precise detail when you shoot them in different parts of the body, and it’s all guilt free(!) because they’re robots, it’s not like they have feelings. Or do they……?
Binary Domain was cruelly skipped by so many gamers, but I honestly think it’s one of the most unique and interesting shooters of it’s time, and certainly one of the best Japanes action games outside of Bayonetta. If there’s one game you pick up from this list, please let it be Binary Domain; it’s very cheap these days and worth every penny for its robot blasting action and bonkers story.