The Art of the Single Player Shooter
In recent years it seems that the single player shooter is something that has slowly been dying out. Many FPS games focused so heavily on the multiplayer that the story portion was under par or non-existent. Games like Battlefield and Call of Duty (ugh Ghosts) placed less and less importance on the single-player modes and as a result, they were boring and undercooked. But this year that trend has seemed to turn around. We have had games like Doom and Shadow Warrior 2 that have been all about the single player and the three biggest shooters of the past three months have had single player campaigns that have exceeded all expectations. Perhaps that is the surprising part, three franchises (CoD, Battlefield and Titanfall) known for their multiplayer have really put some significant effort into creating an excellent mode for people who don’t like to compete against others and that, in my mind, is worth celebrating.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
The first of the titles is easily the most infamous. The Call of Duty franchise has been derided by the gaming community for years but it still sells an enormous amount of copies every year. Despite this apparent contradiction, CoD has produced some solid, if not amazing, single player modes over the last few releases. This year however, was the first year I felt the single player to be a must play.
The developers, Infinity Ward have stuck close to the bombastic nature of the past Call of Duty titles but have added some welcome improvements that has the game feeling fresh and exciting again. The first key feature is the ability to tackle missions in an order of your choosing. CoD has dabbled with non-linear elements in the past but this is the first time it has felt fleshed out in a meaningful way. It really adds to the feeling that you are roleplaying as a commander against overwhelming odds instead of just another soldier.
The other component is the space fighting sections. Once again vehicles are nothing new to the series but Infinite Warfare has taken it to the next level with these space combat sections. The advanced fighter ship controls well, has an impressive array of combat options and most importantly is fun to use. It is no X-wing vs Tie Fighter but then again it isn’t trying to be. It is a welcome addition to the CoD formula that breaks up the usual corridor shooting and enemy waves that players have become accustomed to.
Add to this some Zero G infantry fighting, exciting futuristic weapons and a story that is highly enjoyable (in a B-grade sci-fi sort of way) and Infinite Warfare has plenty for single players to sink their teeth into. It is, in my mind, the most accomplished CoD single player component since Modern Warfare 2 and should not be ignored in favor of the multiplayer.
Ever since Battlefield Bad Company 2, players have been waiting for a competent single player mode in a Battlefield game but sadly it just hasn’t come about. Battlefield 3 and 4 both had stories that were out and out stupid and the whole single player side came across as nothing more than a tech demo for the Frostbite engine. That has all changed with Battlefield 1 and its unique take on creating a story based around a historical event.
The structure of the story in Battlefield 1 is the real key here. Having five different chapters, with five different protagonists has allowed DICE to tell some very personal tales from different periods of the great war. It also makes much more narrative sense in that there is no longer one character that is good at every discipline of war but characters that specialise in different areas. For example, one story is about a pilot, one about a tank driver and one about horse riding desert warrior.
The contained stories feel almost like letters home, tales that could have actually occurred during World War 1. They manage to capture comradery, horror, fear and jubilation like no other historical war game has done in the past. If someone had told me that I would feel real emotions in a Battlefield campaign mode I would have thought they were mad, yet here we are. The ANZAC story is particularly hard hitting and I imagine that would be true for all Australians who had family members taking part in that horrific chapter of human history.
The story only lasts about 8 hours, with each chapter taking between 1-2 hours, but it feels like just the right length of time. These emotionally draining stories are stronger because of their brevity and would feel diluted if they dragged on. In all this is an impressive bit of gameplay and storytelling that should be experienced by anyone who has an interest in this bloody war.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of these three franchises is Titanfall 2. The original game didn’t even have a single player mode, opting instead to double down on the multiplayer side but with the second entry, Titanfall has entered the shooter elite as far as catering to solo players goes.
Titanfall is all about fluidity of movement. Wall running, building momentum, leaping with wild abandon are all keys to becoming a Titanfall player and Respawn has built a campaign entirely based around this fact. The level design during these missions is, without a doubt, exceptional. Each level encourages and guides players as they improve their skills in the various disciplines the game has to offer. Each level adds a twist to proceedings that forces players to think in different ways, solve puzzles or string together maneuvers. Sometimes it is a combination of the three. It is a testament to Respawn that when I reached the end of the game I felt like I wanted more immediately, despite its 10-hour length. I would happily purchase some single-player DLC just to experience more levels based around the exceptional movement system. Oh, and I would be remiss to not mention one of the greatest levels in the history of shooters. The level where the player takes control of time is simply genius and should be placed on a pedestal by all aspiring FPS developers.
The other key feature of the campaign is the relationship between the pilot and his Titan, BT. While the story isn’t super exciting, the dialogue between these two is a real joy. As the game progresses it is easy to see that their relationship improves and there is the appearance of a genuine friendship between the two. This buddy style story is nothing new to games but rarely has it been done with such nuance and skill. It really adds impact to a story that could be easily forgotten.
Titanfall 2’s campaign is a pure joy to play. I once heard Titanfall described as a “badass simulator” and that holds particularly true for the single player mode. It is a power fantasy, but it is a power fantasy that has been put together by a talented team that has injected it with originality and humor, making Titanfall 2’s solo mode my surprise of the year.
What these three games have proven this year is that developers are starting to focus on the art of the single player campaign once again and I couldn’t be happier. Three games from the same genre have taken three different approaches to this art and all have been a huge success. Not everyone has the many many hours required to dedicate to becoming great at multiplayer modes but those people still want to experience these well-loved worlds. Thankfully, with this year’s releases, in any case, that has been achieved. That makes this time strapped, single player very happy indeed.