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Earning That 1000 Yard Stare
Posted on Wednesday, December 10 2008 @ 18:18:27 PST

Has it come this far, world? Have our lives devolved so greatly from our legacy of expansion and progress that it's come to this? Are there really so many hours in the day that actual experience isn't good enough anymore? A handful of clever game developers sure seem to think so.

In my day, there were kids who played RPGs, kids who played shooters and kids who played both; being one, I can say they were never as good as the specialists. Shooters had a language of movement and accuracy, which was eventually altered to fit on consoles. RPGs were complex crucibles that might only carry over a table of elements from their preceding games.

Not being one of those specialists, it wasn't hard to see that the wants and needs of the greatly involved were being catered to the most. Things have a funny way of changing, though, and that's just what they did.

Call of Duty 4 brought leveling and RPG elements introduced in more niche FPS titles to the mainstream. Grinding, an ancient art once reserved for RPGs of all flavors, had found a new home in the land of shooters. Now, progress can be measured by the type of gun you tote, special perk you utilize, or the little piece of scribblediguk next to your name. Experience isn't everything, though, and that is one of the major conceits made by Call of Duty 4. Even a fresh "character" with few guns and fewer perks has a fighting chance if they're familiar with the game's language of movement.

That conceit almost looks beautiful now, though. People used to actually complain that guns needed to be unlocked in Call of Duty 4. Obviously, those people weren't playing Medal of Honor: Airborne, Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Hellgate: London or even Tabula Rasa. After experiencing those games, the stark truth that experience now only applies to each individual title would be tattooed on their minds.

Think you have a steady hand and a dead eye? Wrong. Your character is wet behind the ears and weak in the wrists. Though you may speak the shooter's native tongue, it wants you to learn the local dialect. The only school teaching the lingo is a school of hard knocks; a school where you will definitely suck despite your best effort until, after enough bullets are fired and enough enemies are killed, the Principal arbitrarily pulls the cotton balls out of your mouth and lets you speak clearly.

You may be no better at aiming, moving and reacting now than you were ten hours ago at the start of this game, but your character is. All the dice rolls in the world couldn't falter his aim, now! If only they'd taught marksmanship a little more stringently at the space/normal/apocalypse marine academy. Mmm... Selective realism.

They wouldn't want to do that, though. After all, we're talking about the past ten hours of this game! Can you imagine what it would have been like if your character knew how to aim properly? Five hours!

While its arguable that the personal level of interaction and precise method of control are what give shooters their appeal, the world in which you move and enemies you face add just as much to the illusion. False reality is already a tricky thing to manufacture, but it gets a good deal easier if a layer of false progress is thrown on top. If you aren't crippled by ineptitude, you might miss all the beautiful scenery, sound design and other artistic elements that are not the end of the game. Developers don't spend millions on that stuff so you can breeze through it without a second thought. What, should they have spent that money making enemies legitimately more difficult or environments that actually take consideration to traverse? Try putting a screen shot of that on a magazine cover.

As long as level design, AI programming and "replay value" are still difficult to implement in video games, developers will continue to bloviate, and only after you've listened to their gibberish for a while will you get the full story.
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