Call of Duty: Modern Moneymaking

The first person shooter (FPS, or shoot-em-up) genre is the biggest and most profitable in the gaming industry, which is itself now (globally) the biggest entertainment industry on earth. Every year Activision pay off their expenditure for the next decade by releasing another Call of Duty game, and every so often Battlefield, Medal of Honour and Halo like to join the party to similar financial response. Given that many critics have built their name on slagging off such games, and that even the most ardent fans will admit that perhaps only four of the nine CoD games have actually improved on the previous one, this fact seems a trifle odd to my eye (which may have something to do with me being awful at them), and since I cannot apply science to this problem I thought I might retreat to my other old friend; history.

The FPS genre took a while to get going; partly due to the graphical fidelity and processing power required to replicate a decent first-person perspective, it wasn’t until 1992 that Wolfenstein 3D, the game often credited with ‘inventing’ the genre, was released, long after the first four home console generations had passed. However, the genre had existed after a fashion before then; a simple game called Maze War, akin to Pac Man from a rudimentary 3D perspective and with guns, is considered an early example and was released as far back as 1974. Other, similar games, including the space simulator Spasim (the same thing but in space) and tank simulator Battlezone (very slightly different and with tanks) were released over the next decade. All, as well as most subsequent efforts pre-Wolfenstein, used a tile-based movement system, whereby one’s movement was restricted to moving from one square to the next, since this was pretty much all that was possible with contemporary technology.

Further advances dabbled in elements of multiplayer, and introduced such features as texture mapping to enhance graphical fidelity, but Wolfenstein’s great success lay in its gameplay format. Gone was any tile-based or otherwise restrictive movement, and in its place were maps that one was free to move around in all directions and orientations in two dimensions. It also incorporated a health meter (and healing pickups), depleting ammo and interchangeable weapons, all of which would become mainstays of the genre over the next few years. Despite its controversial use of Nazi iconography (because the bad guys were Nazis, rather than the developers fascists), the game was wildly successful; at least for the short time before the same company, id software, released Doom. Doom used a similar interface as Wolfenstein, had better graphics and a more detailed 3D environment, but its real success lay in its release format; the first third of the game was distributed for free, encouraging gamers to experience all that the game had to offer before gladly paying for the remainder. With it’s consolidation and enhancement of Wolfenstein’s format and its adoption of a now-ubiquitous multiplayer mode, Doom is often considered the most influential FPS of all time, and one of the most important games full stop; its fame is such that versions of the game have been available on almost every major console for the last 20 years.

Over the next few years, many other features that would later become staples of the FPS genre were developed. The Apple Mac, not usually a traditional stronghold for gaming, was the platform for Marathon, which introduced a number of new game modes (including cooperative multiplayer), more complex weapons and placed a heavy emphasis on story as well as gameplay. Star Wars: Dark Forces introduced the ability to crouch for the first time, thus setting the template for today’s FPS pattern of repeatedly hiding behind chest-high walls, and 1995’s Descent changed the graphical playing field by changing from using sprites to represent objects and NPC’s in the gameworld to a 3D system based around polygonal graphics. This technology was one of the many technologies used in Doom’s 1996 sequel, Quake, which also increased the series’ emphasis on online multiplayer. Unfortunately, this market would soon be totally conquered by 1997’s GoldenEye, a tie-in to the James Bond film of the same name; the game itself experimented with new, claustrophobic game environments and required you to manually reload your weapon, but it was the multiplayer that proved its success. It has now been revealed that the multiplayer was actually nothing more than a hasty add-on knocked up in matter of weeks, but the circituous maps and multiple weapons & characters on offer made it endlessly compelling, and right up until 2004 GoldenEye was the best selling game for the Nintendo 64.

But the defining FPS of this era was undoubtedly Half Life; released in 1998, the game combined Quake’s graphical technology with a bulletproof gameplay format and one of the strongest narratives and plots of any game ever made. The single player experience alone was enough to raise Valve, the game’s makers, to iconic status almost overnight (a label they retain to this day due to their penchant for innovation and not being dicks about their business tactics), and when a multiplayer mod for it was developed (Counterstrike), it and its successor (Counterstrike: Source) became the most popular multiplayer FPS experience ever.

After Half Life, some felt that the FPS genre had been taken about as far as it could in its current iteration, and that the genre’s immediate future was to be based around increasing graphical quality, fiddling with storylines and making money. However, in 2000 Microsoft acquired Bungie studios (who had made Marathon back in 1994) and released their real-time-strategy-turned-third-person-shooter-turned-first-person-shooter as a startup title for their newly released Xbox console. The game incorporated a heavy focus on characterisation (helped by it occasionally leaving first person perspective for cutscenes, which Half Life never did) with a new style of enemies (well-rendered and varied alien opponents), a wide variety of weapons and the perhaps unusual feature of having an auto-healing system rather than health pickups. The game was called Halo, and it revolutionised the FPS genre.

Since then, advancements have been less revolutionary and more gradual, as the FPS genre has diversified. Halo has now gone through several incarnations whilst keeping the basic format the same, but the gameplay principle has been applied in almost every conceivable way. Battlefield and Call of Duty applied the concept to military-style gameplay with a strong multiplayer emphasis, whilst the likes of Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead added a horror theme (or at least used zombies as bad guys). The games based on the Crytek engine (Crysis and Far Cry) turned the focus away from linear mission design and on to beautifully rendered open-world levels (some would argue in direct contrast to CoD’s increasingly linear single player mode), and recently Spec Ops: The Line has followed in Half Life’s plot-centric footsteps with a nonlinear storyline based around the mental impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some argue that the current FPS genre is stagnating; indeed super-critical game reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw has recently created a new genre called ‘spunkgargleweewee’ to cover generic linear modern military shooters (ie Call of Duty and her extended family) and indicate his contempt at their current form of existence. But to many they are the pinnacle of current-generation gaming, or at least the most fun way yet devised to spend an afternoon. By way of an example as to how much people… enjoy these things, the most recent Call of Duty game was released with a feature for the PS3 to allow the map packs used for multiplayer to be downloaded to the console’s hard disk. This was a feature requested of Activision by their hardcore fan base, who were somewhat perplexed at the request; the feature was, they pointed out, not going to make the game run any faster. But the fan base said they realised this, and it wasn’t a performance issue; it was just that they were playing the game so much that the process of continually reading the map data from the game disc was beginning to wear out the laser used to read the disc information. Thank you, Call of Duty fans, for making me feel especially productive after spending an afternoon writing an article for nobody on the internet to read.

The almost slightly actually not quite triumphant return

Hello to all who may be listening- I have returned to my little corner of the blogoverse! My time off has given me, among other things, a lot of time to muse upon potential topics for me to cover in the coming weeks (in part due to the fact that I have been watching way too much TV), but to begin I thought I might wander away from my normal format. Rather than an essay, here’s a story idea I’ve been toying with for a while- for a laugh more than anything else. Brownie points to whoever can guess the setting before the end.

Jake sprinted forward as the shockwave from the explosion hit him.

He had known the chopper was coming down- it always did- but an untimely bit of suppressing fire had kept in him his spot for a moment too long. The chest-high wall behind which he had been crouched mere seconds before was now smothered in a heap of burning, twisted metal and, somewhere amidst the wreckage, the corpse of some poor pilot. Jake would have felt sympathy for him, had all his thought not currently been occupied with the ball of flame and shrapnel currently flying towards him. One slug of metal caught him hard in the back, pitching him forward with a sharp cry of agonising pain. He lay there, face buried in the dust, his eyes swimming. Everything was blurred, out of focus- droplets of sweat and blood clouding his vision. His ears seemed to slowly switch off, the once crystal-clear noises of the battlefield now seeming dull and quiet, like listening through cotton wool. He was very aware of his breathing, taking short, sharp, gasping breaths, as if determined to savour each if it were to prove his last. The world seemed distant now, his world consumed by the pain of his back. The edges of his sight were closing in, as if he were staring down a tunnel, his peripheral vision reduced to near blackness. He was close to unconsciousness.

Suddenly, a harsh rattling sound yanked his senses back into reality. The noise and chaos of the battle returned into sharp focus, and Jake wished they hadn’t- the sudden assault on his ears sent almost sent his brain into shock after the momentary lull. He was lucky to be alive, and knew it. Had he been a nanosecond slower, then the sound of the explosion might have been the last he heard. Jake’s instincts as a soldier quickly returned to the fore; he flicked his head round to his right, ignoring the crick in his neck, and was faced with a wall of concrete. Good- another wall. That was why he wasn’t a colander of bullet holes right now.

Jake gave himself a few seconds to recover. Despite the ferocity of the explosion and his proximity to it, he seemed to have fared remarkably well- a testament, no doubt, to the human body’s almost superhuman resilience and ability to recover in times of crisis. In a but a few short moments, it had recovered almost completely, and Jake was able to pull himself up into a crouch without too much difficulty. Almost instinctively, he pulled his weapon up to his shoulder. ACR, standard army issue. Not the best, but it was resilient and a damn sight better than the AK’s the terrorists used.

As if reading his thoughts, the sound of sub-machine gun fire split the air near his head once again. Jake dipped his head, and cautiously peered around the edge of his wall. Two obviously Middle Eastern men, heads draped in simple red turbans, were crouched behind another wall a few metres in front of him, both holding weapons perched over the wall. Jake would have giggled at the blatant stereotype had one of the men not immediately spotted him, jumped out from behind his cover, and sprinted towards him. Big mistake. In one fluid movement, Jake turned his body to face his attacker and brought his gun up to his eye. For the briefest of moments, a red dot sat square on his target’s head. A long burst of fire later, and he was down, dead before he hit the floor. Boom, headshot.

The other man, perhaps slightly in fear after what had happened to his comrade, seemed more cautious. After a short while, Jake realised that he would be quite happy sitting behind his wall and firing bursts at regular intervals, meaning Jake would have to go on the offensive in order to reach his objective. However, he did not favour a frontal assault- risky at the best of times, employing one against an armed, aware opponent across a 15-metre stretch of open ground with no  support was verging on suicidal. But, there was more than one way to skin a cat…

Jake’s vision changed. Somehow, he seemed to visualise himself in his field of view, as if suddenly in the third person. Himself, pressed against the wall, his aggressor, ducked below his barricade in between bursts. Slowly, Jake poked the nose of his weapon around the edge of the barricade, waiting. His opponent popped up, and began another burst, but Jake was ready. His gun aligned itself with his target almost of its own accord, as if guided by some benevolent computer rather than Jake’s hand. One deadly burst of fire later, and the other man was slumped over the barrier.

Shaking himself, Jake’s vision restored itself and he cast a quick glance around to check his position. To his left rear lay the still-smouldering remains of the helicopter, forming just another part of the landscape of destruction. Around half a mile back lay the drop zone, where Jake’s team had arrived a short while ago. The battle was meant to be just over a small suspected weapons facility stuck in the middle of an otherwise empty desert, but it was clear from the number of people defending it that it was a far more important target than the top brass had envisaged. Artillery fire had forced Jake to find cover in a crashed, but still surprisingly intact, aircraft, and he had become separated from the rest of his team, hemmed into a single alleyway of death by walls of debris, wreckage and barbed wire. If it hadn’t been for the concrete walls providing cover, Jake very much doubted he’d be alive. Still, he was close now- the compound lay ahead.

After a final check that there were no hidden gunmen waiting for a pot-shot, Jake tucked his weapon into his belly and sprinted towards the recently-vacated barrier. As he passed the body of the man who’d run at him, something caught Jake’s eye. Not the corpse itself, but the weapon lying next to it. Stubby-nosed, with a short barrel and big stock, the weapon was obviously a shotgun, and Jake had been in enough firefights to attest to the power of the version the terrorists used. Unfortunately, he only had space to carry two weapons… but what the hell, HQ could cover the cost of one missing weapon.

As he swept by the body, Jake’s free left hand reached down to the holster on his leg and flicked out a standard-issue army handgun. Whilst manoeuvrable and quick to aim, they were no match for the shotgun for clearing out a room, and Jake’s was dropped by the corpse. He then used the same hand to grab the shotgun and, still running, slipped it into the now-vacated holster. The holster itself was a masterpiece of design- intuitive to use and allowing for quick storing & readying of weapons, Jake had seen it take weapons ranging from pistols to RPGs, and had never seen one lose its grip on a weapon, even when hanging from a rock face. Not that the design mattered excessively- it made staying alive easier, and that was all he cared about.

As he skidded in behind the barrier, and tried desperately to ignore the smell of the corpse draped over it next to him, Jake surveyed the scene ahead of him. Around 20 metres away, a doorway lay open, leading into the main compound. Judging by the view through both it and the window next to it, the room appeared to be deserted. But Jake knew better- that room would always have someone in it to guard against overly cocky intruders. Quickly switching weapons, the shotgun’s power more use than the assault rifle’s accuracy in this situation, Jake charged towards the door, weapon at the ready. As expected, another terrorist was seated at a table within the small room, but before he could reach for his weapon Jake had emptied two shells into his chest. Satisfied that he was out of the picture, Jake readied himself, and moved to the next doorway, before stealing a glance down it.

The corridor ahead appeared deserted. Plain, ugly concrete walls decorated with wires and seemingly pointless control panels were all that greeted him. He stepped through and proceeded cautiously, keeping his weapon at the ready. Reaching the first door, Jake bodily booted it down and was inside in an instant. Nothing- just an empty desk and a few papers. Nothing important- at least, nothing related to the mission in any case.

The next door yielded a similar result, but the third, at the end of the corridor, was far more interesting. It was what looked like a large canteen area, tables and chairs scattered about the place and several on their sides. However, more of a pressing concern was the four terrorists currently occupying the space.

Jake leapt forward, just about avoiding the streams of bullets erupting from the terrorist’s assault rifles as he skidded behind an upturned table. He turned quickly, and saw another man, previously been hidden behind the door. Jake reacted first, and unloaded another shot into him- the terrorist collapsed, limp and lifeless. Jake swung back around to see a retreating back as another enemy made for the safety of a dividing wall- another shot, and he too was down.

Jake quickly surveyed the scene in front of him- of the two remaining men, one had taken refuge behind another table and one was currently shooting from a window onto another man down below. He had to move fast- if he delayed then whoever was on the ground could be killed, which would free up another gun to train on him. Jake ran out from behind his cover and immediately launched another shot at the terrorist’s hiding place. It was as much for a distraction as anything else, but he was surprised that the wooden table held so well. Running an angled line off to his left, Jake dodged around the side of the table and, before his adversary could so much as squeeze a trigger, unloaded a slug into him that sent his body collapsing into the floor. As he leapt over the corpse, a small part of Jake idly wondered why he hadn’t moved the table.

It didn’t matter though- he was on the last man. He was trying to bring his rifle round to face Jake, but he stood no chance of getting there in time- Jake’s shotgun already had him in its sights. He squeezed the trigger.

*Click*. Out of ammo.

“Oh f-“

Suddenly, vision went to third person again as Jake’s limp corpse was flung backwards by the force of a clip of bullets  slamming into his chest. He fell back onto the floor, arms loose like a rag doll. Everything faded to black.

“DAMMIT”, screamed Jake in frustration as the kill cam replayed his failure. For a moment, he considered throwing his controller at the wall- he’d been playing for a couple of hours already now, and the weather looked pretty nice outside. Well, for a moment, before the obsession returned and he settled down for another crack at this b*stard of a mission.

-Yeah, sorry, I don’t play FPS’s, so I may be a bit out with the specifics here. Hope you enjoyed it anyway, even considering that this is twice as long as the average post.