From 'Doom' to 'Overwatch': How First-Person Shooters Killed It In 2016

From 'Doom' to 'Overwatch': How First-Person Shooters Killed It In 2016

Almost every FPS game released this year had something to recommend it Glixel

From the resurrection of Id Software's hell-on-Mars classic to the all-conquering marvel of Blizzard's team-based shooter – it's been a landmark year

From the resurrection of Id Software's hell-on-Mars classic to the all-conquering marvel of Blizzard's team-based shooter – it's been a landmark year

Just after he directed the monumental Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee told one interviewer, “unless you make a martial arts film, you are not a real filmmaker”. He felt there is something in the raw, kinetic energy of the genre that speaks to the very nature of the moving picture. If he were a game designer, he could probably have said the same about the first-person shooter.

The FPS is pure, elemental design: a gun, a location and an enemy. But it’s the myriad ways in which these components are represented and explored that makes this perhaps the defining video game archetype. And somehow – god only knows how, because it has sucked in a lot of other ways – 2016 has been a vintage year for shooters. From the deconstructive brilliance of Superhot to the exhilarating unreconstructed thrills of Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2, almost every major FPS release over the last 12 months has been at least interesting, and often even brilliant.

Foremost, there’s been a real desire to explore the origins of the genre and get back to the fundamentals of what makes an FPS work. This is, of course, most obvious in Doom, Id Software’s riotous re-imagining of its legendary blaster. Stripped of narrative, jammed with classic weapons and utterly fixated on fast-paced gore, the game beautifully reconnects with its ancestor – but it also builds in modern elements. Weapons can be modified with scopes and alternate missile types; levels bring in much more verticality with overlapping walkways and staircases, and a whole melee and glory kill mechanic adds physical brutality to the bloody mix.

Like the best movie reboots, Doom cleverly idealises and updates the past, playing to our rose-tinted memories. “It's just properly brilliant,” says Dan Pinchbeck, co-founder of The Chinese Room and long-time Doom obsessive. “The way it tows the line between feeling like good old Doom and a really fresh modern shooter is so clever. The level design just keeps things flowing, and little touches like the quality of the parkour really make it.”

The release of Doom was, however, brilliantly foreshadowed by the arrival of surprise indie hit Devil Daggers – a cruelly difficult, minimalist study of the genre. Employing unfiltered textures, jagged polygonal models and artificially produced graphical faults like screen tearing and polygon jitters, it’s a self-conscious tribute to the visual limitations of early 1990s shooters. Here, the shadowy arena setting is devoid of context or backstory, and the player’s abilities are limited to throwing streams of knives in two different styles, taking the shooter gameplay back to its primal beginnings. In some ways the game worked like Kevin Williamson’s Scream movies, which both parodied old slasher movies and their weird idiosyncrasies to disorientate and frighten modern viewers.

Elsewhere we saw Blizzard's Overwatch paying obvious (and loving) tribute to Team Fortress 2 in its team-based tactical shoot-out design – but with its huge emphasis on hero characters, humour and eccentricity it also took us back to the famed Timesplitters series. Superhot used flat-shaded environment design, not so much as a retro aesthetic, but as a symbolic reference to human visual cognition. The game is about lightning fast threat detection and evasion so the fact that you only see the barest environmental detail while the enemies are painted in livid color is a clever approximation of our spatial awareness and acuity while under attack. Your brain picks out the predators first.

Battlefield 1, of course, made the very obvious retrospective move of returning the action to a historical setting, very clearly referencing the origins of the series. While Call of Duty floundered in space, EA Dice allowed fans to wallow in their own nostalgia, recalling old weapon types and tactics, and rediscovering basic character classes. But this wasn’t the only backward-looking shooter in EA’s stable. Titanfall 2’s exciting campaign mode has more than a hint of classic Nintendo design in its highly modular structure; each mission revolves around a different game design challenge, or a different weapon, item or ability, so the quest becomes a series of discrete skill challenges. How well can you wall jump? How clever are you at warping between time zones? Have you mastered titan warfare?

These issues are dealt with sequentially in the classic style of platform adventures – and the structure works. Titanfall 2 really engages. “It's an interesting one because it is really retro,” says Pinchbeck. “There was a strong nostalgic kick in big chunks, like I was playing Half-Life all over again and I really enjoyed that. We've seen a real resurgence of run and gun shooters which is really refreshing, and I think Wolfenstein: The New Order has a lot to do with this. TF2 works because it doesn't try and do everything all at once, it's more like ‘in this level, it's mainly about X’ and then it plays with that concept really well. It's a pretty old school approach but it works so well here.”

But there’s something else going on with these titles that’s less obvious. They all exhibit astonishing moments of “game feel”, that elusive quality in which inputs, sound and animation are combined to immerse the player in the second-by second action. “Game feel is the perceived physical response that the player gets from a game,” says indie game designer and coder Dan Pearce, who worked on the BAFTA-nominated Castles in the Sky. “In film, cinematography is the culmination of the color, composition and motion of a shot. In games, game feel is the culmination of the elements a designer can employ to provide feedback."

Pearce sees Titanfall 2 as an excellent purveyor of this quality. There’s a subtle sense of physicality in many little features of the game – even down to the way the digital ammo read-out on the gun models blurs when you go into aiming mode, simulating visual distortion and pulling you into the screen. “Reloading a weapon in this game has texture and weight,” he says. “Your controller vibration trails off as the clip slides out and kicks back in as the player character slams in a new clip with a satisfying click. The sound, the animation, the controller vibration and the tap of the reload button all feel good in isolation, but when combined they create a real sense of physical impact and responsiveness.”

Doom, too, brilliantly creates a micro-narrative around every demon confrontation. You shoot them, stun them, then follow up with a melee or glory kill – and every movement in that sequence comes with its own graphical flourish and perfectly timed sound effect. These often contrast in interesting ways, so the cold metallic pummel of the assault rifle will be followed by the liquid squelch of a foot through a skull. Doom is the Mozart symphony of violence. “They've focused lots of attention on making each gun and special fire mode feel different and fun,” says Pinchbeck. “The split barrel on the chaingun has got to be a standout shooter moment of 2016. It's one of those games that paints in really big colours but the more you drill down into it, all of those big splashes of energy are built on the most incredible attention to detail.”

Dan Pearce agrees. “Game feel is at it’s most noticeable in action games and 2016 has been great for this,” he says. “Doom guy punches holes into demons and health pickups explode out of them. In Battlefield 1, bullet impacts have a more pronounced thud when specifically colliding with a player. Superhot’s enemies literally shatter when you kill them. Heck, even Dishonored 2’s settings screen has more detailed, energetic feedback than most entire games.”

But what we have also seen in 2016’s cluster of first-person shooters is formal innovation. Battlefield 1 makes astonishing use of scenic destruction to give the player true agency over the landscape; the ability to blow a hole in a building, or to create new cover points with shell craters, is incredibly exciting. Overwatch adds masses of co-operative depth with its huge array of character strengths and weaknesses (and also plays interestingly with sound design, as this GDC talk from Blizzard’s Scott Lawlor and Tomas Neumann attests); Superhot plays with the whole concept of time, space and inhabitation in a game world.

These traditional shooters haven’t had the genre to themselves, though. 2016 also saw the continued incursion of indie developers and sensibilities into the FPS space. Both Firewatch and Virginia did fascinating things with the conventions of the genre, stripping away familiar elements to explore the emotional, personal and narrative possibilities. Dan Pinchbeck sees the future of the first-person action genre lying somewhere between these groups.

“Titles like ours and other walking sims, what they are mostly about is pushing world building and story and atmosphere to the foreground and I think they've happened as part of a wider movement taking place across games. I suppose what they show is that less can be more and leaving a player time to think and feel can be really powerful. I think there's going to be a swell back toward more traditional first-person adventures with traditional mechanics, but with a heavy push on worldbuilding and storytelling. The interesting space for me is the one created by rising development costs and falling digital sales – that's a big challenge but there’s also a big opportunity in there too.”

What the class of 2016 has really done is brought the attention back to moments. Often when we think of game design, we think in grand sweeps of genre and mission structure, but the beauty and value of games is often in momentary actions, whether that’s a perfectly timed double jump, or the blast of a shotgun. It is perhaps fitting that FPS designers should re-discover – in this year of shocks and endings – that true joy is intense and transitory.