Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: If You Played a Videogame This Decade, It Was Probably Halo

For videogames, the decade belonged to the First Person Shooter.

When we tick-tocked into 2000 (and the world didn’t end), videogames were still a fledgling medium, marginal in economic important, marginal in cultural relevance, just plain marginal – they were, for the most part, a niche of consumer electronics. Now, individual game franchises are assets worth billions of dollars (Call of Duty), and with coverage from highbrow outlets like Slate.com and The New York Times, they’re gaining a little artistic credibility, too.

To be fair to those who furrow their brow at phrase “games as art,” the argument didn’t always have credence. Art, by my sweepingly general definition, possesses something timeless. Doom and Quake are interesting today not because of what they were, but where they were leading. And where they were leading, quite simply, was Half Life 2.

But games like Halo and Call of Duty also sold a shit-ton, and conveniently reinforce my point. Hit the jump and find out why videogaming in the aughts was dominated by the bob-and-weave of a gun on your TV screen.

World of Warcraft fans are doubtless calling foul and claiming that the decade was, in fact, characterized by the rise of the Massively Multiplayer Online game. They should relax; they have a point, and the many yachts of Bobby Kotick (executive at Activision, WoW publisher and contemporary Uncle Scrooge) agree. So be sated and listen.

The games that made the Xbox (and Xbox Live)

Think of an Xbox without Halo. Are you seeing a promising but failed venture, slapped down in its first year by the Playstation 2?

Me too. Halo is the green, armored coin of the realm at Microsoft’s gaming division – they freely admit it. When they launched the Xbox in 2001, it was a big, clunky, unappealing alternative to the Playstation 2. But I bought it for the same reason as many others: it launched with Halo, a promising first-person shooter already getting rave reviews from the gaming press.

And lord, were they right. Halo earned every decimal of the 9.0s awarded seemingly across the board. When developer Bungie plopped me down on their strange, Arcadian ring world, dotted with ancient ruins and alien occupiers, they created a genuine sense of wonder – in my opinion, what only the best games achieve.

Halo was the first FPS to successfully integrate vehicular combat on a large scale. The Warthog, signature jeep and rugged steed, handled with swagger, swerve and heft from the first game onward. However, after the first game, the series itself swerved, perhaps under the impossible weight of expectation created by the first game. Let’s be clear: the mechanics, core gameplay and general quality remained consistent throughout. The arrogance is harder to place, but it shows up around Halo 2; coincidently, when the series made its leap onto Xbox Live.

Make no mistake: Halo 2 made Xbox Live. Until then, Microsoft’s pay-to-play online service had been a multiplayer venue for Xbox games. Halo 2 turned it into a phenomenon. It is solely responsible for teabagging, the practice of lowering your posterior onto a fallen foe’s face. Any douchebag encountered over Xbox live has his spiritual roots in Halo 2.

Before Halo, the general consensus held that first-person shooters belonged on a PC, where the mouse-and-keyboard provides pinpoint accuracy. Halo paved the way for everything from Call of Duty to Killzone. It didn’t change the console FPS; it is the console FPS.

The WWII game comes and goes; Call of Duty survives

World War II games are an industry cliché today; popular webcomic Penny Arcade quipped years ago, “Normandy is the new Hoth” (referencing the previous popularity of the invasion of Hoth, popularized in…forget it). You get the point. A generation of games, beginning with the Medal of Honor series, recreated Saving Private Ryan until it stopped selling. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, the series’ proper beginning, debuted on the Xbox 2002. Medal of Honor: Airborne, the series’ lackluster final chapter in WWII, was released in 2007 to a great, big critical shrug.

Medal of Honor failed on two fronts; it relied too heavily on cliché, and too frequently portrayed the character as a lone wolf, fighting through a linear tunnel of Nazis. Call of Duty, on the other hand, provided the character with original, credible recreations of WWII battlegrounds. It felt fresh and striking in the same way Saving Private Ryan did.

More importantly, it jumped ship when the generally indiscriminate buyership turned its back on landing boats and M1 Garands (in this example we ignore Call of Duties 3 and 5, filler games developed by Treyarch). Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare made the leap into silence, shadow and ambiguity of the present day. The game was nearly perfect, and garnered a suitable following. Unlike Halo circa 2001, however, it did nothing to innovate or advance the genre. Instead, it did what Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty games have done all along: recreated the Saving Private Ryan. And updated it, too.

Return of the King

As I mentioned above, Valve’s shooter Half Life changed the way first-person shooters were created. Before, levels were obviously linear crawls from point A to point B. Half Life masked that linearity by presenting a seamless illusion of a living, working, fully-populated black-ops research station. Players encountered scripted moments for the first time: scientists getting yanked into air vents, scientists plummeting down elevator shafts, and a thousand other things you’ll never quite be able to itch away from your brain.

Needless to say, expectations were high for Half Life 2. How could it possibly reinvent Half Life, which reinvented a genre essentially unchanged since Doom?

Revision wasn’t Half Life 2’s masterstroke. In fact, I’ve been struggling to define its success since it left me floored in 2004. It simply produced the most convincing game world I had ever – have ever – played.

It’s in the details. Valve’s proprietary (and apparently inexhaustible) Source engine renders in crisp clarity an Eastern European city occupied by alien invaders. These aren’t phosphorescent arachnid-type monsters; they are thugs, goons, bullies who beat you with shock batons. Reprising the role of Gordon Freeman, your journey through City 17 is mediated by linear design, as in Half Life. But you don’t notice, nor do you care.

Personally, Half Life 2 was the game that introduced me to the concept of games as art. It is, to me, a great work of science fiction, and an achievement in interactive storytelling. Its conclusion left me in a funk for days. It also makes a powerful case for the supremacy of the first-person perspective in interactive storytelling. The character never breaks with Gordon’s vision – no pan-aways, no third-person shots – lending an immersion to the storytelling that isn’t present in, say, Mass Effect, where the player is constantly external to their avatar, Commander Shepherd.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another Valve title, Portal. Set in the Half Life universe, Portal combines the most popular form of last decade – platforming – with a first-person perspective, and melds it to what can only be described as the best gameplay mechanic in human memory. For me, it only confirms Valve’s supremacy among mainstream developers. For those unenlightened, pick up The Orange Box for $20. You’re in for a treat).

First-person shooters dominated the decade, commercially and artistically. While a sizable crop of fair-to-middling shooters beg to differ, those seeking proof need only look at the crowds lining up at your local Gamestop for the release of the next Halo game.