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Are single-player first-person shooter campaigns a lost cause?

Half-Life 3, if you’re out there, you’ve got a lot of hopes resting on your shoulders.

There’s no doubt about it, first-person shooters equal cash to games publishers. Just look at the clockwork (some might say cynical) production of sequels of established franchises year after year.

Activision lead the way with their Call of Duty games, smartly staggered between developers Treyarch and Infinity Ward, next comes the EA leviathan with Battlefield and Medal of Honor, then on to Microsoft via Halo and Sony with a side of Killzone and Resistance.

Each series named has a minimum of four games released for it already (and many more in most cases) and none show any signs of being retired any time soon – after all, it’s in IP where the money lies these days.

All of the titles have many features in common beyond their genre, featuring as they do a cavalcade of multiplayer modes designed to keep punters enthralled into the next in the series, and, perhaps more interestingly, each also features its own single player campaign. The question I’m left pondering more and more is: why?

If asked to pick out any of the above in order to say ‘now there’s a developer looking to push the boundaries of what the FPS can do in term of single-player gameplay.’ I’d struggle. Indeed, it’s arguable that since Half-Life 2, not one developer has looked to push forward the genre, and with Valve’s seeming reluctance to follow up their classic shooter it’s a trend that seems set to continue.

The thing is, in the wake of the likes of Dishonored, BioShock and Portal 2, non-standard first-person adventures which I wouldn’t do the disservice to as referring as ‘shooters’, regular FPS design just doesn’t seem to pass muster any more.

It’s a feeling I’ve had that’s been simmering away for a while now, but one brought to the boil by Medal of Honor and Halo 4 which are seemingly intent to let their single-player campaigns follow the path of least resistance at every turn. Insipid narratives, the same action as their 10-year-old forebears, nothing we haven’t seen before in competitor’s games and worse, attempts to kid us that they do offer something new. See those brief moments of Master Chief climbing, ripping doors open, etc. in Halo 4 and the infamous door breaches of Warfighter.

It’s as if FPS developers have been content to churn out the same game for ten years at a stretch and to be honest who could blame them? First they sell, but second, developers tend to have a rather large and unsympathetic publisher pointing at their yearly bottom line and demanding that their coffers be filled. How much progression can we expect when a studio has a year, two at most, to script, animate, program, polish and balance both their solo and multiplayer experiences?

The bigger question is where would traditional shooters be today if developers were given carte blanche to take them to their ultimate form? Perhaps Crysis points the way, offering a glimpse into the beginnings of a sandbox environment where players can tackle objectives at their own pace and even in their preferred order. Something that Bungie implemented way forward to way back in 2001 with Halo: Combat Evolved but never really progressed.

By now shouldn’t we have moved beyond waves of hapless grunts throwing themselves in front of our crosshairs? And then there are those cover systems which have started to resemble the old carnival rifle ranges, as enemies who might as well be garbed in shooting targets beg us to shoot them in the few seconds they decide to put their heads up above the parapets.

Further annoyance are games which pit eagle-eyed hostiles against us. We’ve all been there, positioned in thick cover and sniping from a county mile away, only for an enemy to spot us despite our chosen protagonist’s so-called expertise in stealth. Indeed, playing Halo 4 the other day I had that exact experience as the green Master Chief, crouching amid greenery, was gunned down from across the map by a lowly jackal prompting much gnashing of teeth.

I’m not asking for too much. Realistic AI which can be surprised and which doesn’t immediately retreat into repetitious cover – it’s OK to run away and re-group you know? A grounding within the in-game world so that we feel truly connected to environments, objectives which require more than us being funnelled down a corridor with no alarms and no surprises, and how about flexible objectives? Something Dishonored manages within a set of limits so why not regular shooters?

Perhaps Palmer Luckey’s ‘Oculus Rift’ headset might go some way to making us feel integrated, certainly surveying the scene with a twist of the neck, rather than a flick of the thumb, would help. But ultimately it’s the gameplay that must evolve. Gordon Freeman, if you’re out there, you’ve got a lot of hopes resting on your shoulders.