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Let’s face it – of all the game genres out there first-person shooters have got to be the least innovative. If you watched someone playing the original Doom and compared them with someone playing the latest CoD release you’d struggle to tell the difference. The genre really hasn’t moved on much over the years. It’s about time some of these stupid conventions suffered a shotgun to the guts and got dumped in a shallow grave.
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Why So Conservative?
There are all kinds of reasons that FPS games stick to convention. Risk averse publishers would always rather have more of the same than go out on a limb with a new concept because something that sold before is, in theory, easier to sell again. There are limitations to what you can do with an FPS AI algorithm. There are limitations in level design. You don’t want to make things too hard on the player. Ok, so there are loads of excuses, but that doesn’t mean innovation is impossible and besides it’s more fun to pick holes in the standard conventions than to explain why they exist.
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The Land of Crates and Barrels
The two staple scenery fillers for FPS games have been used for decades now. They add a new dimension to boring corridors and empty warehouse spaces. They can serve as ladders to reach new areas of a map. They can be used as makeshift explosives to blow away your enemies.
The thing is they are used even in environments where they make no sense at all. I mean seriously, how many times do large groups of your henchmen need to get blown away before you realise that having piles of highly explosive barrels sitting around everywhere is a really bad idea? Why do groups of bad guys stand next to explosive barrels and continue to stand there under incoming gunfire? What are they actually planning to do with all these explosive barrels anyway?
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Indestructible Fences, Pipes, Walls and Doors
If you see a weak looking slatted, wooden fence in a game you’ve probably come to realise that chances are good you can’t shoot through it. Often it looks like you could kick it down, but actually you’ll be unable to do anything to get past that fence. This is just weak level design. If it looks destructible then it should be destructible. Modern weaponry can easily fire through walls.
How about huge pipe systems? They pop up all over the place in FPS games but you can’t shoot them to unleash scalding steam into the face of your oncoming enemy. You can’t even rip a bit off as a makeshift bludgeon.
There are games that have ditched this convention but you’ll still find occasional knee high walls that can’t be vaulted or titanium fences with a wood finish effect.
The absolute worst of all has got to be doors. Given enough time anyone can kick down a wooden door. Given a rocket launcher it would take a bank vault style metal door a foot thick to stop you from getting in. If the door doesn’t look tough then I should be able to smash through it. I hate having to go past an indestructible door only for a bunch of AI to spawn there and shoot me in the back.
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Stupid, Cheating AI
There are definite pros and cons to artificial intelligence in games. There are serious limitations to a typical FPS AI algorithm, but like I said before we’re ignoring the excuses for the purposes of this article. Besides some games still have no excuse for their awful AI; most PCs are powerful enough now that you can create some quality opponents for your players.
The AI in FPS games is always a weird and unlikely hybrid of crack shot accuracy with a sixth sense for tracking down players but a propensity for running into walls or ducking behind exploding barrels for cover. Some games just cheat; it doesn’t matter how sneaky you are. The AI knows exactly where you are.
To be honest the odds are stacked against you. The AI can always aim more accurately than you -- they have to be dumbed down in this regard. The AI never runs out of ammo but you’ll always have a limited supply. Where are they getting all this ammo from? How come they only ever have half a clip on their corpse when I search it?
If you come under fire the worst possible thing to do is to stand in the same spot. There’s no doubt AI have improved in this regard over the years but not by much. Even if you take cover - let’s say behind a low wall or a pile of crates - the worst possible thing to do now would be to regularly pop up your head every 15 seconds in exactly the same place.
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Do You Really Want More Reality?
There are a lot of other conventions in FPS games that make no sense. You can carry a small arsenal on your back but still have the ability to run and jump. You can use a first aid kit to patch up a bullet wound. For that matter you can fight an entire army of enemies and actually grow stronger as you progress.
Another increasingly common convention is the ability to duck behind something for 20 seconds and fully recover your health. Far too many games are doing this now.
On the other hand do you really want more reality? If you died every time you would really die in an FPS game then you’d get mightily frustrated really quickly. Do you want to be medevaced to a field hospital every time you get shot? How about a gruelling surgery mini-game?
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Linear Action and Triggers
Probably the most predictably mind numbing thing about single player FPS games is that fact that they are so linear. Fight your way through a series of one-way corridors and rooms where everything gets mysteriously locked behind you. How about a bit of choice? It would be nice to scope out an environment and have an option about where you enter and how you attack.
The only thing worse than the linear route through an environment is when you get to the end and they make you backtrack through the same map. I know the devs are saving money but come on.
If you play single player FPS a lot then you’ll quickly become used to triggers. You fail a level and then you figure out that when you activate the radio, pick up that ammo, open that door or even just pass that specific spot on the map, the enemy horde will be triggered to pour in. When you spot a trigger in a game it really detracts from the immersion and you’ll naturally exploit it, you know that you can run about and tool up as much as possible and then go and trigger that fight. Some triggers make sense, others are arbitrary and they need to be ditched.
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No Interaction in Cut Scenes
Cut scenes are generally a bit rubbish -- you can advance the story and give the player a break without having to splice in some cinematic scene. I’m all in favour of retaining player control during cut scenes so you still feel immersed but you’ve got to do it right. If I shoot the guy who is talking in the face or run away out of the room then they should react in some way. How about giving me a choice in the conversation? Some kind of interaction would be nice. If I wanted to watch a movie I wouldn’t be playing a game.
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Standard Modes: Deathmatch and Capture the Flag
The conventions in the FPS genre aren’t limited to single player. The worst offenders in multiplayer are the modes. Can we please have some new ideas that don’t suck? Deathmatch doesn’t make sense unless you have some background set up for it and it’s the least fun of all multiplayer modes anyway. It doesn’t take advantage of the fact you can have co-operation.
Capture the Flag is pretty tired too. It makes the whole thing feel like a training exercise. And no, switching the flag for a ball or a bomb or a suitcase doesn’t make it a new mode.
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Kill Everything That Moves
How about throwing in a few innocent bystanders? It can really add to the atmosphere and make the gameplay more interesting if you have to avoid shooting non-combatants or even protect them. A dumb kind of "shoot everything that moves" policy makes for boring repetitive gameplay. Let’s throw some civilians into the mix.
In fact it would be nice if you could disguise yourself. How do your enemies know to shoot you the instant they see you? Wouldn’t it be more interesting if they really had to identify you first? It would give you a more realistic set up for taking out dozens of soldiers or aliens as a one man band.
What do you think? Post a comment and let us know your most hated conventions. What were your favourite games that broke convention? What would you really like to see in an FPS game?
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Screenshots from Half-Life 2, Metro 2033, Aliens vs Predators and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.