Switzerland has been invaded by space fascists, the Somme is covered in broken biplanes and mustard gas. Penguins in battlesuits are fighting nightmares over the last star and there are still wizards on the moon. Shooters, the staple of many gamers’ diets, seem to be moving away from the familiar brownish battlefields of today’s military exploits and into the past, the future, and the weird of our warring races timeline.
Its been a long time coming, with shooters from across the last generation focusing almost exclusively on the modern era. With the unparrelled success of 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, game developers across the globe became transfixed with “realism.” Thus began a digital arms race attempting to mimic the same gritty traits of war for a nearly a decade.
While some notable exceptions played with formula or downright refused to conform, we have been trapped in the modern era for quite a long time now. Some of the biggest names in the genre, Call of Duty and Battlefield, as well as many others have continuously painted explosive pictures of war in Europe, America, and most commonly in the Middle East. Though rarely portraying the actual conflicts and countries of the region, their attempts to emulate global affairs were a constant stream of mild controversy and regurgitated plot devices.
If the genre is finally going to explore new locations and time periods, perhaps these themes can finally be put to rest. And this can only be a good thing. After years of facing the same adversaries, battling across the same deserts and liberating the peoples of the same fictional countries gamers are all desperate for something new.
But this isn’t the first time we’ve reached the end of a subgenre’s lifecycle. This has all happened before. Shooters in particular seem prone to falling into the same routine across a generation. Before there were games about the modern era of middle eastern conflict and eastern European tension, there were World War II games. These titles focused on the famous battles and climatic turning points. Today, these games feel ancient and dated, with the genre abandoning the time period for something a little more up to date.
The audience, much like today, had become tired of the same repeated weapons and tropes, and following the footsteps of Call of Duty (which led the WWII charge to begin with) fled to the modern era for a new thrill. There are only so many times you can storm the beaches of Normandy, liberate oppressed French towns and besiege the Nazi war machine in its homeland. Over the course of a dozen games, we experienced every battle you remember learning about, mimicked every iconic World War II film, and slogged through every variation of European countryside.
This same fatigue is what the shooter connoisseur is experiencing for today’s modern military fixation. We’ve all had fun scrambling through towns and outposts as incomprehensible jargon buzzes through virtual radios. We’ve witnessed the shock and awe of bombing runs and gunships, fought through crumbling war torn cities and felt the shockwave of nuclear detonation. Each shooter game is starting to meld with the generic mass, with similar maps, plots and enemies. But now the goliaths of the genre are beginning to move away from these well-trodden deserts. Call of Duty is set to explore the stars in a tale of epic space colonisation and rebellion known as Infinite Warfare. Battlefield is moving closer to its 1942 roots with the surprising reveal of Battlefield 1, a reimagining of World War 1 with everything a brief understanding of history would lead you to expect, from zeppelins to horses.
Although the gaming community was once weary of the historically (in)accurate weaponry and the cumbersome vehicles, there is a growing sense of nostalgia for the more varied sense of combat and movement that Battlefield 1 is attempting to tap into. We are all acutely familiar with the generic copies of modern weapons, each named with leftover scrabble pieces that look and feel almost identical. World War I had weapons of dramatically different design that players can newly experiment with: bolt action rifles, mounted fully automatic machine guns and pistols and all other sidearms.
Future settings offers an even easier chance for players to experience different and complimentary playstyles. Without the need to conform to history or the laws of physics, futuristic games offer entirely new ways to play. Looking at games like Titanfall you can see what the future can offer to the shooter genre, and while Call of Duty has been toying with the idea for a few iterations now, it appears Infinite will be there biggest departure from the contemporary games to date.
And while gunplay is possibly the most important aspect of the shooter genre, its not the only thing we can hope improves when the genre steps out of its familiar territory. Gamers have been desperate to play something that doesn’t involve the same lackluster approach to narrative and storytelling. The modern military shooter has forgone plot devices for explosions and set-pieces, and while exciting to partake in at first, there is very little left we haven’t witnessed before. With the big developers beginning to go beyond the military shooter, they might finally begin branching out away from simplistic two dimensional antagonists of the games before.
This doesn’t mean we don’t want explosive action and impressive visuals, but perhaps laced with some emotion or storytelling as well. World War I was a truly horrific age of war and suffering, with inexperienced generals sending countless men to their death. One such example was the abysmal assault on Gallipoli, which had British and allied forces charging up steep banks and cliffs under extreme gunfire. Playing through that could be an emotive and explosive moment. And the future offers just as much opportunity for dramatic events and creative stories. Looking at Infinite Warfare we have seen space combat both inside and outside warships. Perhaps we could lead an emotional evacuation from a rapidly depressurising ship, or witness crumbling debris from a space battle rain down on an unsuspecting city. Characters we care about and events that attempt to do more than showing off would completely revitalise the genre, in the past or the future setting.
Whether or not this is the beginning of a new cycle is yet to be seen, with the designers under no apparent consensus as to where to take the genre next. But depending on which of these diverging paths the players decide to support, we may well decide which of these timelines we find ourselves battling in for the years to come. Either way, hopefully it the modern day can slip into history, at least for now.
Rosh Kelly is a Freelance Writer who likes to sneak gaming references into serious conversations. Follow him on Twitter @RoshKelly1.