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A Call to Arms: The Hamster Wheel of the Military Shooter

War is hell. No doubt that’s what EA realised after receiving less than stellar reviews for Medal of Honor: Warfighter, the follow up to its 2010 reboot of a series that, to date, has 14 games to its name. That’s one Medal of Honor game plus change every single year since its inception in 1999, and put alongside the genre’s other usual suspects - Battlefield and Call of Duty - a three-pronged fork begins to emerge; one that jabs with unnerving regularity. War is not only hell, but frequent.

The proliferation of the military shooter is hardly an untouched topic by the specialist press. Gallons of ink, real and virtual, have gone towards discussing and deriding, ugh, yet another chapter in gaming’s bang-kaboom-explodey-hooah tome. But to what end? After all, for all the criticism lobbed from the trenches, military shooters continue to sell in staggering numbers: just look at 2011’s launch of Modern Warfare 3, which broke sales records in its first week. Clearly, if there was no interest in these games - if public sentiment had truly waned to the extent that years of editorialising would have us believe - publishers like Activision and EA would not insist upon making them year in, year out; evidently their sales are enough of a message that it remains profitable to continue making more. Yet the poor reception of Warfighter stands as a curious punctuation mark in a style that has normally gotten by - sometimes impressed, but more often simply getting by - with the traditional blockbuster-style presentation. Certainly, the poor reception for Warfighter speaks of its lacklustre quality, but perhaps it is also reflective of a shifting mindset; a realisation that the gameplay structure of military shooters has, for the longest time, remained largely unchanged among the brands that churn it on an annual basis.

As a medium of expression, videogames are unique - it’s a medium that gives those who work within it the ability to do so much in so many different ways. If it can be imagined, it can be created, and thanks to various boundary-breaking minds from across the globe, we have games where we roll up sumo wrestlers and starfish, construct our own levels with a patchwork of cutout items, and dance controller-free to routines that help instil coordination and rhythm. There’s plenty of variety throughout gaming’s entire range of genres - and where games within the same genre clash, their volume enforces variety, a need to introduce a different spin in order to present unique selling points. (“Create your own levels!” “Dance with four players simultaneously!”) Competition is exactly that: the need to be different. Yet when it comes to expressing the idea of a military shooter, it’s with a brown colour palette, bass-heavy explosions, and macho in-your-face gunplay. One studio looks to outdo the other by being exactly the same as the last great success.

It’s a curious spectacle. Curious, and bizarre. A quest for a slice of the competition’s market is embarked by fulfilling an incestuous, self-feeding design philosophy. Style and tone flows from one franchise to the next, and back again. Spectacle is shoved forth to become bigger, ever bigger, ever louder, ever more dramatic. The arms race of military shooters is little more than a student grabbing sneaky looks at his neighbour in the exam hall. Battlefield? Medal of Honor? Call of Duty? They’re all speaking the same language.

This need to compete, because others are competing, compromises quality. Warfigher has demonstrated this. When a game exists for no other reason than to exist alongside the competition, it’s not just the public that suffers at the expense of corporate competition, but gaming as an expression. It undermines its versatility, its unique ability to be whatever the creator wants it to be - even when it shares the genre with others of a similar nature. Warfighter’s executive producer Greg Goodrich says “a movie like Saving Private Ryan is much different to a movie like Battlefield: Los Angeles, but they're both war movies.” True enough. There's also no mistaking Harvey Dent shooting aliens for Tom Hanks shooting Nazis. Saving Private Ryan and Battlefield: Los Angeles are not only thematically different to one another, but visually different. Two war movies doing unique things. But when one game looks as brown, as explosive, and as gung-ho as the one next to it, it's not really the same argument.

The point I’m trying to make is this: there’s plenty of room for games to play within a genre - creative room - without resorting to the same template of explosion and nonsense. Spec Ops: The Line demonstrated that the action and mayhem can go towards telling a powerful story of war’s consequences on a personal level. On the surface it was a cover-based shooter, typical of its type, but by using that structure (that limitation?) to the advantage of the story, Spec Ops emerged as a unique winner. This was a game that had something to say.

The majority, however, are singing each other’s song. On today’s gaming landscape, a military-themed first-person shooter stands out as much as a tartan tablecloth at a kilt convention. No doubt plans are already underway at EA HQ for the next game in the Medal of Honor franchise, and given Warfighter’s reception, I’d expect current progress will be scrutinised. (Though in light of EA’s blame-shifting statement, perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.) Just as Activision was forced to shelve its Guitar Hero brand, perhaps Warfighter’s reception is an indication that the bombastic military shooter genre is next in line for a rest.

Perhaps it should take the high road and retire gracefully. It’s been saying the same thing for too long; time for more considered and diverse approaches to earn their stripes. The smoke is starting to clear, and reviewers are becoming weary of the same style delivering the same action. And in light of all this, if Activision has chosen not to worry about Black Ops 2, it does so at its own peril.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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25 comments

  • Aarononymous - October 31, 2012 2:21 p.m.

    It'll be interesting to see if the interest in military shooters dies off after the US military leaves the Middle East (if that ever happens).
  • 7-D - October 31, 2012 1:21 p.m.

    I think they're a propaganda experiment to acclimatise and glamourise war to the yoof for WW3
  • ultimatepunchrod - October 31, 2012 11:35 a.m.

    "On today’s gaming landscape, a military-themed first-person shooter stands out as much as a tartan tablecloth at a kilt convention." You are a delight. Seriously though, interesting article. I think CoD may be differentiating itself just enough with BLOPs 2 that it can survive. I hope the "me too!"s go away because there really is a lot more to gaming than these types. However, I think most "serious" gamers have moved on anyway. They may pick up a COD every now and then, but it's hardly anyone's favorite game anymore. At least not among my gamer friends.
  • MasterBP - October 31, 2012 10:12 a.m.

    My biggest problem with military shooters is that since they have been selling so ridiculously well, the chicken-headed developers (or publishers) of other games decided the only way to compete is to make their game increasingly similar to said military shooters (mechanics wise). The biggest examples that come to mind being stuff like regenerating health, sprinting, and forced multiplayer modes in games that don't need them, homogenizing the shooter genre as a whole. If I wanted to buy Call of Duty, I would goddamnit.
  • Bansheebot - October 31, 2012 6:12 a.m.

    Military Shooters: The Iphone of videogames.
  • roosterdip - October 31, 2012 6:02 a.m.

    This article is complete shit. you have no clue what you are talking about. most of the comments here are right on point. there are tons of options out there... the problem is that not to many people want them or play them. to the guy who wants better stories.... keep dreaming. the reason single player is short and useless is because the pubs are feeding to what the market demands... over the top mulitplayer. With COD selling 15 million and BF selling 10 million copies these games are not going anywhere and the public has spoken.
  • JarkayColt - October 31, 2012 5:18 a.m.

    I agree with most of this. I don't have much of a problem with the "military shooter" in general, but we really do not this many, nor this often. It's iteration on its most basic level. Rather than wait two or 3 years to implement a bunch of substantial changes at once, they simply add negligible enhancements purely to put the games one baby step ahead of whatever the last most recent release was. And, as was mentioned, they get away with putting out sequels with the absolute least effort possible just to perpetuate sales (by what would essentially be at least twofold). Playing Battlefield sits better with me because it doesn't release every goddamned year. On a similar note, does EA really need both MoH and BF? I think MoH has proved that it cannot make a comeback, so EA would probably be better off focusing fully on BF, which is the only game that has any hope of holding a candle to CoD. If it were just CoD and BF every other year then I really wouldn't be that bothered, just like it doesn't bother me that certain other select, competing franchises are annualised (e.g. sports games). They cater to a specific audience and it makes those publishers a bunch of money that they (hopefully) trickle down into other projects...so...why not? Nobody is forced to buy these games every year, either. Buy it every 3 years and you might notice the changes. Or at least, I would expect as much.
  • bass88 - October 31, 2012 3:27 a.m.

    Black Ops 2 will get stellar reviews. If Black Ops 2 failed then gaming as a whole would suffer a huge setback. The gaming media obviously do not want this so many will slap 8 or 9/10 onto it despite it featuring many of the negatives that plagued Warfighter. Seven months later, they will write articles about how Black Ops 2 was a huge letdown (they will criticise linear and repetitive gameplay as well as casual racism in amongst the macho patriotism) but that the next COD looks like it has fixed those problems. That, my friends, is the hamster wheel of the Miitary Shooter.
  • tehtimeisnow - October 31, 2012 1:04 a.m.

    militery shooters r the only good ganes on the marcket now and they r the games holding this hole industy together while nitedno and sony try to destroy the industy with there gimmecky motion controls and 3d. if u dont like militery shooters then ur just afrade of change. there the new industy standard and they got that way cuz there good games
  • somerandomchap - October 31, 2012 2:24 a.m.

    Jesus you are dedicated
  • taokaka - October 31, 2012 2:46 a.m.

    I'd love to see gamesradar let you do the review for call of duty: black ops 2. Please Gamesradar, PLEEEAAAAZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!!!!!
  • Hobogonigal - October 31, 2012 6:12 a.m.

    I will second that notion.
  • pl4y4h - October 31, 2012 9:06 a.m.

    ^ I like everything this guy posts. Forever.
  • avantguardian - October 30, 2012 11:56 p.m.

    people that want different have different. they have the halos, killzones, farcrys, crysis(cryses? crysises?), borderlands. gears, dust, tribes. all that ftp shit. i don't see that as the real issue. as the writer pointed out, warfighter sucked. hard. ea is obviously just trying to directly compete w/ activision. if it was a well made game, or succeeded with what little it did bring to the table, the point would be somewhat moot, imo. i see the "problem" having a lot to do with our current place in this generation of games. shooters are a lot like sports games. towards the end of the cycle, the limits of tech really start to stagnate the genres. i expect the next wave of consoles/PCs to reinvigorate a lot of those who have become frustrated with the "sameness" of current games, especially shooters and sports games. and i'm not saying that the constant regurgitation and lack of ideas isn't an issue, i just don't think it's THE issue.
  • secher_nbiw - October 31, 2012 1:03 a.m.

    This article isn't about shooter in general (the halos et al) but military shooters in general. No one is disputing that there are options out there, but for gamers who want to play a military inspired game, the options are shit. You can't honestly say that the problem with military shooters is the tech. It's the uninspired stories, the bland characters, by-the-numbers Clancy plots. Tech won't result in better crafted stories, or better character and events. Gamers buy this shit, so they (we) are somewhat complicit, but there is little innovation in the details and execution of military shooters. Tech may be a small part of it, but many gamers I know would happily overlook lower production values if they got better stories.
  • ParagonT - October 31, 2012 5:20 a.m.

    You mean realistic-military shooters since Halo, Gears, and others are in fact military shooters... but I digress. Stories and bland characters are a big problem, but so is the tech. Tech can widen the possibilities of the AI, Phsyics, multiplayer cap, objects available per map, and more. All those things effect the stories and such things. Black ops seriously has an arcade like style going through the story-line, but imagine with better tech, they could seriously add more enemies, better AI, and better physics in the mix. That could affect the size of the map in a whole, level design, and even the story to put you in a massive warzone. Not saying that tech is the main issue, but I wouldn't call it small by any means.
  • avantguardian - October 31, 2012 6:22 a.m.

    thank you, this is a lot of what i mean, but i was getting a bit long-winded. the options to truly advance the genre, i.e. tying together many of the things paragon refers to, lie in the tech. spec ops emphasis is on story, bf's is on graphics/spectacle/scope, and cod's on gunplay (love to talk about those 60 frames). with better tech, you wouldn't have to compromise any of these aspects as much, making for a progressive kind of experience; the kind every gamer is looking for. the leap to cod4 (excellent game, btw) would not have been possible without the increase in tech. more to secher's point, games like arma and stalker are out there, too, but they seem to be a bit like mech games (a la armored core); in that they sound very appealing on paper, but the sim-like aspects that people claim to love so much turns out to be actual fun for a very niche group of folks. as they say, the numbers don't lie.
  • avantguardian - October 31, 2012 6:25 a.m.

    oh, and also, as paragon mentioned, almost everything i listed is a "military shooter".

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