I've been playing video games since the days of Doom 2. That fact makes me feel young and old at the same time. My early years of gaming were some of the most formative for the industry, as well as for myself. Sure, there was a lot that happened before, but I like to think that the real magic came out of PCs around the time of Civ2 and the like.
Doom demonstrated the amazing simplicity of a first-person shooter. You don't need a reason or a story, just some cool guns and something to shoot at. Years later, many shooters have added some semblance of story (though not necessarily a good one) and have invented various alternatives to healthpacks and an infinite array of guns, lasers, and explosives. The meat of those experiences, however, are relatively simple - you shoot things dead. Before they do that to you. You're often a lone-gunman, whether it be superhero-type or just lucky scientist, out to save the world. First-person-shooters might as well be called "only-person" shooters.
In most video games, the perspective has a profound impact upon the player. It defines the relationship between what's happening on screen and what the player is feeling. In a first-person game, the player is the avatar. What happens to the character is in fact displayed as happening to the player. As opposed to in a third-person game, where the player is controlling a character that is displayed as someone else, it is very easy for the player to think about the events in a FPS as happening to him or her. This is the problem that I have with shooters: I don't like being shot at. Never have. Never will. And seeing the bullets wizzing at my head (as the screen is usually thought of as the character's eyes) unnerves me. Often the result is rather disappointing: I am unable to think about responding to being shot at. I usually remember to shoot back, but rarely do I shoot accurately. It's not that I can't control the mouse - it's rather that I am so overwhelmed with being shot that I can't focus myself to respond quickly and efficiently enough. Especially in the instance where I'm playing solo and have only my own wits to follow, I find it incredibly difficult. Add to that the fact that some shooters love to scare players (Doom III, anyone?), and I very often just don't play them. I'd much rather play a game with a third-person perspective, where I don't take my character's personal health nearly as personally.
All this led me to expect to not appreciate Crysis or Call of Duty IV: Modern Warfare (and yes, I am just getting around to both of these games). But amazingly, not only did I play both of them extensively, I keep wanting to go back and play more.
I rented and played the single player campaign of Modern Warfare. Aside from being a solid all-around experience, with great art, animation and generally good AI, what that game really brought to the table for me was a brillaint demonstration of how a first-person shooter can be a team-based game even in single-player mode. This especially rang true to me in the flash-back section where you're sneaking around and following your commanding officer. I thought the story-arc and pacing of that mission was perfect. It was great to see a level that felt intense and pressure-filled without even shooting at anyone for minutes at a time. Having what was essentially a guide lead you around in this mission and in others was a great approach to dealing with the linear, on-rails nature of FPSers. By having someone barking orders and directing player actions, the linear nature slipped away as there was rarely a time that the player needed to forge his own path and figure out where the developers and level designers wanted the player to go. Rather the player was in the wonderful position of waterskiing behind the NPC boat - able to enjoy some jumps off the wake, but always connected and moving forward.
I'm still in the process of playing Crysis. I am enjoying it as well, though obviously for different reasons, as there is no guide walking you through each level. Rather, Crysis's brilliant addition to the FPS genre comes from the power suit. As I mentioned, most shooters add new, interesting weapons. Borderlands is a game predicated almost entirely on the idea of getting cool new guns. So far, at least, the guns in Crysis are nothing to write home about. I've used a sniper rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, some C4 and some different machine guns. Being able to alter the components on each gun (laser sight, flashlight, scopes, grenade launcher) is certainly fun, but not earth-shattering. No, the brilliant change is deceivingly simple - make the player super strong, super fast, invisible, or super armored - but only one at a time. This choice means that there are different ways of playing the game. You can sneak up to a bad guy and then hit him, or shoot him, or run really fast past him. It means that in a game that is still relatively linear, there are many more choices about how to get from A to B. That change is the world in a genre that is so often claustrophobically straightforward.
Unfortunately for me, Crysis had some issues running on my PC. Unclear if it's anything I did (I've got an overclocked PC that I put together, I just added a second ATI radeon 4850 video card and recently played around with some voltages), but it's a sad reminder of what can go wrong with gaming on the PC. Next time I'll write more about the bad rep PC gaming gets, and what can be done about it.