Originally published on GameInformer.com May 13, 2015, at 7:00 PM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 5/21/15.
Selected for Game Informer Newsletter, 5/23/15.
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Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
First person shooter games can be victims of their own success, with franchise titles sticking close to formula and others hoping to mimic their good fortune. There's no question the formula is addicting, having earned my allegiance for several generations. But my interest began to wane with last gen titles, so I was curious to see if this new gen could help restore my flagging enthusiasm.
I was a longtime fan of powerhouse series Call of Duty and Battlefield, but my devotion peaked with Modern Warfare 2 and Bad Company, respectively, having achieved the highest rank in competitive multiplayer (without prestige). Likewise I lost interest in beloved Killzone after the sequel. But I wanted to give Advanced Warfare, Hardline and newcomer Destiny a chance.
Destiny has presented the most unique experience by virtue of its adopting elements from massively multiplayer online and role playing games. The closest comparison I can make is with last gen's MAG, having been a beta tester on that shooter, which boasted up to 256 players in a competitive Domination mode match.
But Bungie's MMO/RPG hybrid is a decidedly different animal, engaging fewer players in cooperative multiplayer combat against waves of AI controlled foes. Indeed, its public events bring gamers together to attack common objectives and is one area where this shooter excels
Granted, this is similar in practice to Gears of War's Hoard mode, Call of Duty's Zombie mode or other variations on the theme. What's different is that these events are not a dedicated gameplay mode but arise during one's journey and are completely voluntary exercises that anyone nearby can participate in.
The thrill of joining forces on the fly against a common enemy raises the bar, though this, too, is not unlike drop-in/drop-out co-op options in otherwise single player games like Borderlands or Dead Island. And true to form, Destiny is best played cooperatively, whether with friends or strangers.
But to its credit, especially for an online-only game, Destiny can be played solo (at least as far as I've gotten). To that end, controls and gameplay are solid, whether targeting, shooting, hit detection, movement, etc. Movement, in fact, is a key component of what makes this game fun to play.
A jetpack expands gameplay into a vertical theater to access loot or gain a strategic advantage over enemies. Such design encourages players to consider alternate routes regardless of the situation and rewards such navigation. I've actually come to rely on it when scouting new areas for loot or combat options.
Loot grinding plays a role in this shooter, as it's one means of obtaining and upgrading materials or weapons. The upgrade system itself is solid, though loot is regrettably rare. Most pickups involve ammo dropped by fallen foes, but crates or chests of gear are not a common feature. But then perhaps I'm spoiled by Borderlands!
Still, your arsenal and pickups allow you options when confronting foes, which mostly are ranged opponents but also include melee alternatives. This is where upgrading your character helps as, for instance, using the Titan's Fist of Havoc can clear out nearby melee foes or significantly deplete a boss's health bar.
Criticisms that Destiny is repetitive are warranted, as you fight off enemies at each objective then secure the last goal against waves of attackers. Likewise the story can be unsurprisingly shallow. However, it's still a fun experience, using well designed maps and enemies to establish a strong fantasy element and add verticality to solid shooter gameplay mechanics.
The fact that each mission provides a balanced solo or cooperative experience enhances its playability, and the art direction and amazing score provide a compelling context for the action. And I haven't even played the Crucible competitive multiplayer mode. All told it did keep me playing awhile -- to about level 16 -- and I will return to it in the future.
If you're familiar with the Call of Duty franchise then you know what to expect from the Advanced Warfare entry. Overall the game features the same solid single player experience with quality shooting mechanics, impressive presentation and jaw dropping set pieces, and competitive multiplayer still features excellent map design, deep customization, a wide variety of modes and frenetic run and gun arcade action.
Noteworthy changes for me with this release are the setting and exoskeleton. The single player game introduces you early on to the new reality of advanced security measures and countermeasures, including towering mechs that climb over you into a firefight and drones that attack en masse. The multifaceted exoskeleton, common to both solo and competitive modes, likewise is unveiled from the beginning.
Default abilities allow for launching to otherwise inaccessible heights, soft landings when leaping off high ledges, effortlessly traversing wide gaps and dodging quickly from side to side. These are necessary offline but add important tactical options when competing online against similarly equipped human foes. The exoskeletons also can be augmented with additional gameplay features.
I usually spend most time playing online, so tried Domination, Search and Destroy and Capture the Flag modes. All are typically engaging and well designed, but I enjoy Domination best so focused on that. To its credit, Sledgehammer Games maintains the quality gameplay, but in fact ups the ante by supplementing player movement with the exoskeleton.
The way that the exoskeleton opens up gameplay in simple yet dramatic ways cannot be underestimated. While the series' maps traditionally allowed for multiple paths and even elevated vantage points, introducing vertical access points and fluid movement between all access points makes the arcade experience that much more exhilarating.
This is true whether assaulting an enemy position or securing an objective. The thrill of approaching a foe from above undetected or, conversely, the anxiety of protecting your position from assault at any angle creates a more exciting scenario than traditional gameplay allows. Encouraging such strategy is a challenge, but when controls are this intuitive, the transition is an easy and fun choice.
As with Destiny's jetpacks this concept is not entirely unusual, but added to the franchise formula and offering gameplay options outside expanding movement, exoskeletons do create a fresh take. On the downside, scorestreaks can be imbalanced, as the series' killstreaks had been, and spawn camping still can plague some maps, but both are less obtrusive here.
I have not done a deep dive into the campaign, and cooperative multiplayer likewise was not explored very far. However, I did enjoy what I played of the story missions, and I have high hopes for co-op as it was a standout in previous entries. But to judge Advanced Warfare against its predecessors' online components, it not only holds up well but expands on the franchise's success in engaging ways.
Battlefield is another series that I've mostly played online. Renowned for its team-based tactical combat and large scale warfare, Hardline represents a radical departure from formula. I tried my hand at Hotwire, Heist and Conquest and, while Heist is an interesting take on a cops and robbers scenario (think Kane & Lynch or Payday) and Conquest treads familar solid ground, I've spent most time playing Hotwire.
The Battlefield Hardline beta showcased Hotwire mode on a couple maps, and I was immediately hooked by the near constant movement facilitated by mobile capture points. By making vehicles the objective, Visceral Games ensured a twist on the Conquest formula that keeps competitors on their toes during the entirety of each match.
Playing Hotwire I was immediately reminded of Grand Theft Auto IV's online gameplay. Whether Free Mode or Deathmatch, the most fun I had during GTA IV was driving cars or piloting gunships around the airport, all the while gunning for gamers either alone or with others along for the ride. Playing chicken with cars full of gunmen was a common pastime.
Hotwire elevates this to an art form by incorporating objectives and rewarding constant kinetic action, whether racing to secure objectives by maintaining a set speed or trying to undermine others' possession of the same with the arms and vehicles at your disposal. Noob tubes such as grenade and rocket launchers become the weapons of choice.
Of course you're still at the mercy of certain design or player choices such as a prevalence of camping snipers on more wide open maps and teammates who prefer to target enemies instead of objectives. But the most common criticism is the move away from the large scale warfare that fans expect.
This raises the interesting dilemma that developers face when creating FPS games especially. Adhering too close to formula risks stagnation and waning popularity, but tampering with a successful format risks losing your loyal fan base. As a longtime shooter fan, I don't envy studios the decisions that they have to make when so much is at stake.
This brings me back to the concept that certain franchises and their developers, and by extension the genre, can be victims of their own success. Many die-hard fans eschew dramatic changes to their beloved games, whereas other equally passionate fans bemoan the lack of evolution. I belong firmly in the latter camp but respect those who prefer the alternative.
From my perspective, I welcome the kinds of changes that these three games have implemented to varying degrees. Interestingly, I've noticed that what each shares is an emphasis on movement, whether the jetpacks and exoskeletons of Destiny and Advanced Warfare or the mobile capture points of Hardline, not to mention stronger fantasy elements such as in the former two games.
I'm not sure whether these studios have gone far enough for my tastes, but anything that expands gameplay in three dimensions or complements it in story or art and map design is worth exploring. And if this generation has enabled growth in these areas or it's a natural evolution of the genre, either way I think that fans benefit (so long as we still get our large scale combat, that is). ; )
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