There was a time when all you really needed to make a truly great shooter was a killer campaign. Half Life, Duke Nukem, Wolfenstein, and Doom were gaming royalty. The original Halo: Combat Evolved defined an entire console generation based mostly on a fantastic campaign. But it really seems like the focus has changed to multiplayer in recent years and most developers just can’t be bothered with quality stories, opting to tack on a few shooting gallery levels with dialogue to games clearly geared towards PvP.
Last gen we had BioShock and the sleeper hit Bulletstorm, but we also saw series like Halo and Call of Duty devolve into single player mediocrity with only multiplayer to justify the purchase. And now Overwatch has perhaps become the first true blockbuster to charge a full AAA price tag for a game with literally no in-game story at all; just an ongoing series of Youtube videos for those who actually want to get to know the characters a little. It was tried before with Titanfall and Evolve, but neither of those titles became the hits they were hoped to be and the lack of single player content was usually the reason given for players’ relative apathy. Sixty dollars for half a game just wasn’t what people were looking for.
With video games emerging as a fantastic and ever-growing medium for telling all sorts of stories, it’s kind of disappointing to see a genre that lends itself so well to immersion apparently running in the opposite direction. Reboots of classics Doom and Wolfenstein seem to have failed to capture that early ‘90s magic (although the latter was a major hit in Europe and with many gaming publications), and we all know how Duke Nukem Forever turned out.
What’s going on here? Are developers out of ideas or are players just so focused competitive online play now that the single player experience has become an afterthought at most? Also: HALF LIFE 3, WHERE ARE YOU?!
While blasting my way through the various facets of Gearbox’s recent multiplayer-centric team-based shooter Battleborn, I noticed something different about myself: I didn’t want to play it alone. Historically, I’ve always been a solitary gamer who enjoys the occasional bouts of PvP and co-op, but single player experiences have always been my bread and butter. I never really got the hype for the lauded co-op in Gearbox’s flagship series, Borderlands, finding it kind of rushy and grabby whereas I prefer to take my time and explore at my own pace.
Aside from the relatively small amount of missions, Battleborn is a perfectly fine single player shooter with funny writing, tons of characters to choose from, and dialogue that is a little different each time you play it. But after playing through the chaotic battles that result from the difficulty spike that comes with adding extra players and more/tougher enemies to the mix, these full-blown epic throwdowns made the single player experience seem tame and joyless in comparison. I don’t know if it’s just decades of geeky isolation catching up to me and making me yearn for the comradery of my fellow gamers or just the game’s multiplayer-centric design, but I don’t really enjoy playing Battleborn by myself all that much.
And maybe this is becoming true of the gaming community at large. We’re so used to everything being connected to the internet -and the rest of the world- that some kinds of games just feel empty without sharing the experience with other players and now we’re ready to shell out the big bucks for games exclusively built for that.
This might be the way the mainstream industry is going, but I doubt we’re going to be terribly short on great single player FPS experiences for long. We may just have to look a little harder. The Shadow Warrior reboot is getting a promising-looking sequel, Dishonored and Alien: Isolation (while stretching the definition of what constitutes a shooter) have turned heads with their stealth approach, and Deus Ex is present and accounted for as well. And there’s still Far Cry.
So to answer my own question: no. First person shooter campaigns may no longer be the industry-leading belles of the gaming ball that they once were, but if you take a good hard look, there are are still a lot of options out there for gamers looking to shoot up the joint without dealing with the added intensity of contesting with other players who run the gamut from gaming gods with inhuman skills to incompetent children to griefers who only show up to ruin your fun.
And maybe separating the two experiences somewhat is a good thing. What makes a great single player shooter doesn’t always make for a great multiplayer game and vice versa. Although I personally want a game that delivers both, I can see why the industry might start focusing more on titles like Bioshock Infinite and Overwatch that do one or the other exceptionally well. It leaves developers free to do what they do best and lowers budgets while catering to specific markets.
Hyper-competitive bros and art nerds are two very different gamer crowds that have mixed in this genre for a long time. The bros historically dive straight into the PvP while the nerds take their time soaking up the campaign and often find the multiplayer excessively hostile and unwelcoming. Maybe instead of promising epic Halo campaigns and disappointing the fans in that aspect when the multiplayer turns out to the obvious focus, splitting the series into two different campaign and multiplayer-focused titles would be better, with different studios each focusing on what they do best?
I’m a sucker for value. I need bang for my buck. Naturally, we’d assume this means that a great FPS needs both single and multiplayer components. But I sometimes wonder if I’m getting the best value when I buy a game with a weak campaign but good multiplayer or mediocre multiplayer and a solid campaign. Like maybe they could have taken the resources they used to tack on some half-ass single or multiplayer mode to make the best parts even better instead.
Sure the best of the best shooters have delivered both in the past, but the gaming community and the industry it supports are both evolving. Single player FPS’s may not be going away, but we may still be looking at the beginnings of a shift that may change the genre as we know it. And if devs can crystallize what it is that gamers really want from the experience, it may even be for the better.