May 31, 2016

How Doom and Overwatch Avoid the Mortal Sins of Modern Shooters

As someone whose first console since the Nintendo 64 days was a Wii U, playing a military shooter for the first time was a jarring experience. The last FPS experiences I had before a decade-or-so of nothing but PS1 games and SNES emulators totally owning that system were Half-Life and Deus Ex, games which introduced such advanced concepts as 3D graphics and looking up and down with your mouse (previously achieved in the more cutting edge games with Page Up / Down). Imagine my surprise when I first played Killzone 2 and discovered that there are no health packs, no secret rooms, and that weapons I picked up before kept disappearing, leaving me with nothing but a lame pistol as an alternative to whatever gun I had equipped.

With time, I learned to love modern shooters and forgive their limitations. Killzone: Shadow Fall is one of my favorite multiplayer games, and I have the 300+ hours in Team Deathmatch to prove it. The problem is that for a long time, the grey, "realistic" military shooter was the only show in town, and there was no way to scratch that old-school itch without actually going back to the old games.

But the last month has been good to us. Not only have Doom and Overwatch turned out to be fantastic games, they're also the first games in a long time that have captured that classic shooter feeling, and in the process, done away with some of the most tired tropes that have been plaguing the genre for over a decade.

Regenerating health as a great way to kill the intensity of combat

Of course, just because a game mechanic is older or more obtuse doesn't make it good. Nobody wants to go back to the days where you had to remember to drink water in RPGs, and healing up in an FPS isn't much better: at best, tracking down medkits after combat is busywork, and at worst, hitting a checkpoint* after a battle gone poorly could force you to start the whole level over. Having your character auto-heal when you're not getting damaged seems like a natural way to streamline the process, which is always a good thing - complaints about "casualization" notwithstanding.

But the problem with regenerating health isn't so much about what happens after a fight as it is about what happens during the fight. Regenerating health encourages a play-it-safe attitude, cowering in a corner, popping out of cover for a moment to take down an enemy, going back after soaking up some damage, and so on ad nauseam.

For a squad-based cover shooter like Mass Effect, that slow, methodical approach works well, especially when the squad mechanics allow some variety by giving you the option of flanking an enemy or using special abilities. In a solo FPS, though, it kills the tension dead, as you do little more than wait for enemies to pop their heads out of cover in what is essentially glorified whack-a-mole. This is to say nothing of multiplayer, where taking away the need to gather supplies is a boon to the campers. Goddamn snipers.

Much like its classic namesake, Doom encourages you to move around by sending horde after horde of enemies at you, with precious health pickups spread throughout the level. But the latest entry in the franchise takes that dynamic to a new level: causing enough damage to a demon without killing it will cause it to flash blue and yellow, indicating that it is stunned and susceptible to a "Glory Kill", which involves the player character killing the demon with his bare hands in some unspeakable way, like the jawbreaker move, which I assure you is quite literal. Glory-Killing a demon greatly increases the chance that it will drop health and, later on, armor.

Open up wide, I'm comin' inside!

This adds another layer of depth to combat, as deliberately leaving certain enemies unharmed and taking it easy when attacking them is a vital way of keeping your health up. If at first your instinct when seeing a group of enemies is to take down the weaker, faster enemies from afar, you quickly learn that keeping them around is a reliable way of keeping your health - an advantage that will have to be weighed against the problem of having more enemies to deal with.

In Overwatch, on the other hand, health recovery is intimately bound with the game's squad-based mechanics. Some heroes can regenerate or self-heal, but save for those who are specifically supposed to be self-sufficient combatants like Reaper or Soldier 76, your front line fighters depend heavily on having a healer around. This means that doing well in combat is the result of a good team working together, not of a mostly disparate group of fighters each getting a bunch of kills.

I mean, if you keep healing your Reinhardt, that bastard is never going down.

The heavy

Some shooters understand that regenerating health encourages players to rely on cover, and have devised a particularly lazy way of forcing players to move around: the heavy. You know the one: the one that's introduced in a cutscene that seems a bit too dramatic when you consider that what you're faced with is a slow-moving opponent in body armor, who keeps blasting its shotgun regardless of whether or not you're actually in the line of fire, seemingly bored with its own existence. The heavy is too slow and stupid to be a threat in any one-on-one situation, but its high damage output at close range means that it can easily force you out of cover, making it very dangerous when covered by long-range fighters.

Possibly the most egregious use of the heavy is in Wolfenstein: The New Order, otherwise one of the best shooters to come out in recent years, but also one that had you fight a heavy that you couldn't see coming from your cover, while you're already facing a room full of Nazis. While he's almost guaranteed to kill you the first time around, its path is easy to anticipate, so taking it down is just a matter of pumping him full of bullets once he shows up. It's the worst type of enemy: impossible to deal with when you don't know it's there, and trivial when you do.

It can be argued that the Possessed Security in Doom is a heavy. Even in Overwatch, it's possible to get a heavy-style attack by having Reinhardt team up with Reaper. But there's a very important difference: neither Doom nor Overwatch expect you to keep to cover, and between your movement options and the special abilities that can help deal with them, these apparent heavies no longer feel cheap or annoying - they're just another type of enemy you need to learn how to deal with.

Besides, I uh... feel pretty confident about this one.

We actually don't need five slightly different types of machine guns

When I was a kid playing Doom II, I never knew the names of any of the weapons, but I never had a problem remembering what each one did: there was the spinning one with the really fast fire rate, the brown tube that fired sparkly blue stuff, the old-computer looking thing that shot green orbs that killed everything - hell, even the basic weapons are memorable, because they had a clear design and purpose, and remembering the weapons also helped you remember that other tool you had in your belt.

Meanwhile, when I try to think about the weapons I used in, say, Bioshock Infinite, I can vaguely remember there being a machine gun, a slightly faster machine gun, a slightly slower but slightly beefier machine gun, that Vox Populi one that didn't seem to do anything, and for originality's sake - some standard variations on shotguns, sniper rifles and the like. I doubt I could tell a Carbine from a Repeater if my life depended on it. In fact, I remember looking at videos of Killzone: Shadow Fall, CoD: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 and finding it hard to even tell which weapon belonged to which game.

Doom had an easier time with getting an impressive arsenal, given that it had such a strong legacy to rely on. But Overwatch is extraordinary not only in the weapon design, but in the innovative ways weapons are assigned to heroes.

Reaper is the best example of this. He could have been designed just like the the spy or scout from any multiplayer shooter: a weak fighter who can cloak or disguise to sneak up on enemies and stab them, armed with a sniper rifle for long range combat or a dinky gun for emergencies only. Instead, Reaper's sneak attack potential is due to his ability to zip across large distances in the map. When eh does attack, it's probably the least stealthy thing in the game: his twin shotguns are incredibly loud, and his ultimate moves involves him spinning around shouting "DIE! DIE!" as he shoots in all directions.

And hey, they listened!

It sounds like a terrible idea for a hero that's supposed to be sneaky, but the lack of any silent takedown is more than made up for by his ability to soak up health from dead enemies and to become invulnerable for a short period of time. This ingenious setup doesn't just make Reaper feel fresh, but does something which would've seemed impossible otherwise: it made the shotgun interesting again.

And most important of all: the two weapon limit

Really, do I even have to say any more? These are shooters. We want to be shooting things. There's no reason to take away the cool new weapon I picked up just because I need a machine gun for a minute.

Here I should mention The New Order again, but this time as a positive. This is the game that asked the question: what's the opposite of a 2-weapon limit? Why, letting you carry 2 of every weapon, of course! Wanna run around shooting two handguns, Max Payne style? You got it. Wanna use twin rocket launchers to take down massive robots? Go right ahead. Wanna use two sniper rifles simultaneously? Why the hell not! It's a great mechanism that allows you to balance between accuracy and damage as needed, and it comes in handy when facing the beefier enemies.

While sadly, neither Doom nor Overwatch have adopted universal double-wielding, the wide array of weapons and abilities available to you at any given time is a blessed rejection of what is possibly the most inexplicably popular FPS mechanic since the turret section.

Let video games by video games

There's much more that Doom and Overwatch bring back from the good old days: colorful environments, enemy variety, bosses - the list goes on. But most importantly, what they bring back is the understanding that a game can have a plot and even be serious about some things while still being silly and over-the-top. We don't have to be morose and brooding all the time - we can actually, you know. Have some fun.

Of course, there's every risk now of an equally cynical trend of overly cute and bright games starting instead - but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. In the mean time, I leave with one of the more beautiful moments of the new Doom:

*Of course, this mostly a problem due to the existence of checkpoints - but we'll deal with that one another time.