Making shooters mean something

Invoking national pride is a novel way to make gamers emotionally engage with a game.
Invoking national pride is a novel way to make gamers emotionally engage with a game.

Between the Call of Duty and Battlefield series, gameplay mechanics in modern-day military shooters are now very finely polished. We have a very good idea now of what works well, and mechanically the current crop of shooters all seem very similar. It's no wonder they are looking very samey.

Perhaps in a bid to stand out from an ever more homogeneous crowd, this year's crop of shooters features several titles that are trying new things outside the core gameplay, elements to make us engage with them on a more emotional level.

First up there's Spec Ops: The Line. In terms of straight-up gameplay, it's nothing special. It's a third-person cover-based shooter, set in the near future with mostly familiar modern weapons. Its setting is quite unusual, a future Dubai where monstrous sandstorms have buried the skyscrapers and turned the gleaming metropolis into a high-rise ghost town.

What really makes Spec Ops: The Line stand out, however, is the emotional punch wielded by its story. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the same novel that inspired Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, it tells the story of a small special ops team looking for surviving civilians and US military forces in the ruins of Dubai. What they find is a war-torn wasteland, torn apart by factional fighting.

For much of my playing time, I was unimpressed. The emotionally heavy story was involving, but it felt completely divorced from the stop-and-pop gunplay - it was like the gameplay and the cinematic sequences existed on separate planes of existence.

All of that came to a crashing end when one of my in-game actions turned out to have horrific, tragic consequences. I won't spoil the plot for those who have not yet played it, but suffice it to say that the game made me feel genuine remorse for my mistake. From then on, the whole game felt much more meaningful and consequential.

Also in an attempt to introduce a sense of tangible consequences for player actions , the Call of Duty franchise will be introducing a brand new feature: branching storylines. Rather than the standard reload-until-you-win formula that Call of Duty usually employs, some missions in Call of Duty: Black Ops II can be failed, and that failure has consequences.

A lot of work also seems to have gone into the story, which jumps back and forth between the 1980s and the 2020s, juxtaposing the real Cold War between the USA and USSSR with a fictional future stand-off between the US and China. Some characters will be active in both time periods, and the core of the story will revolve around two generations of career soldiers, a father and a son. We will also gain insight into the events that shaped this game's new villain, and feel some sympathy for him, despite his destructive actions.

Even multiplayer can work to engage players emotionally, however. Medal of Honor: Warfighter is using two interesting mechanisms to make players care: national pride, and one-on-one buddy dynamics.

The big news about Warfighter's multiplayer is its inclusion of special forces from many different countries, such as the UK's SAS, US Navy Seals, and Russian Spetsnaz, with each force in the game offering different capabilities, weaponry, and support gear. When I had hands-on time at E3, I immediately chose Australia's SASR, and despite being offered the chance to switch after dying, I stuck with it.

It's strange, as my politics lean strongly to the left, and I am a pacifist. Even so, I am proud of Australia's military forces, especially their high degree of training and their strong ethics, and I know that Aussie SASR troops have saved a lot of lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. I may disagree with the reasons for war, but I can at least be proud that these Australian special forces fight it well.

Warfighter also features fire teams, two-member sub-teams within a larger force, who watch out for each other out in the field. The game offers special tools to help fire team buddies co-ordinate, and there are special rewards for fire teams who work well together. I had a great time fighting alongside my fire team buddy, as we covered each other, provided suppressing fire, and co-ordinated our attacks.

In huge multiplayer games it's easy to feel lost in the crowd, so having a dedicated partner lends a real sense of camaraderie to the gunplay.

Over to you, readers. What does it take for a shooter to stand out for you these days? Please share your thoughts in the comment below.

This story Making shooters mean something first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.