I finished “F.E.A.R. 2” yesterday, exhausted by all the shooters I’ve been playing. I wondered: Why do I consume so much of what feels like hollow culture?
What do I want from shooters? And is what I want what I should expect from a genre defined by the action of gunning people down?
My problem with so many video games is that they can feel aesthetically shallow. Not every game needs to have some deep meaning, just as every song doesn’t need to have a constructive message or poetic epiphany.
Some songs can just have a good beat. And some games can just be fun to play.
What I want, at least sometimes, is a sign of real human emotion. I want matured aesthetics. If characters are going to talk in the games I play, I want them to talk like people. If I’m going to be asked to help a character in a side quest or to make a moral decision, I want those quests to feel original or intelligent or honest or anything else that isn’t primitive or cliche.
I abhor what is dull. I have little tolerance for that which repeats what I have seen and heard before.
It doesn’t help “F.E.A.R. 2″ that I played it at the end of a several-month stretch in which I also played through “Call of Duty: World at War,” “Resistance 2,” “Far Cry 2,” “Left 4 Dead,” “Killzone 2,” “50 Cent: Blood on the Sand,” “Gears of War 2,” and “Resident Evil 5.”
I’d done the shooting thing. A lot.
The ninth game of the season, almost inevitably, was not going to be the charm.
And most of the time, the ingenuity in these games is in how you shoot or what you shoot. Seldom do they explore how else you might interact with their world — lest they wouldn’t be shooters anymore? — or how this world and its people exist from day to day and choice to choice.
Most of these games live and die by their singular focus: their shooting mechanics.
“F.E.A.R. 2″ is all mechanics. There’s little else distinct enough in the game to praise. Its developers did themselves no favors by taking what should have thematically felt fresh — a new iteration of their melding of commando-combat and horror — and setting it in a stock narrative of evil corporations, experiments on small children gone awry, clone soldiers and evil paramilitary forces.
If “Killzone 2″ was meat and potatoes, “F.E.A.R. 2″ is nothing more than meat, potatoes and green beens. It puts one more thing on the dish, but it’s still a plain serving.
“F.E.A.R. 2″ plays very well. Its shooting mechanics are superb. Its enemy soldiers are smart, strategic and interesting to fight. Its sound design makes combat punch and crack out of my speakers. But this is a game made in a genre where outfits such as Bungie and Valve are excelling at those qualities as well. Being excellent at mechanics is not enough.
Games such as “BioShock” and “Far Cry 2″ are more of what I’m looking for in a new shooter. They are games that apply new themes to the familiar genre. They may not match the mastery of shooting mechanics in a “Halo 3″ or a “F.E.A.R. 2,” but they still elevate my experience as a player to somewhere I haven’t been before. They introduce me to virtual places I haven’t witnessed, to meet characters and experience situations that feel new. And better than those games being novel is that they feel interesting.
More important than the ways the shooters like “BioShock” or “Far Cry 2″ feel new are the ways they feel classic. They achieve their best qualities and feel so fresh, ironically, by tapping into the old aspects of the human experience that games often ignore: ideas of vengeance and guilt, free will and compassion — timeless aspects of being alive that resonate with emotional and thematic maturity.
The new shooters that I most like are those that ask me to think and to feel. They have the elements not just of a good shooting gallery but the marks of good fiction.
I’ll hang on to my “Halo 3″s and “Killzone 2,” the shooters that thrive based on the mechanics of their shooting gameplay. Whichever come earliest in the season will probably get the benefit of my doubt. But as the shooters keep coming month after montn, my patience will be exhausted. I’ll be left feeling unwell. I’ll be yearning, as I am today, for something deeper, something more grown up, something with emotional weight or thematic spark — something I can feel proud of playing and that won’t for a second make me feel like I just wasted my time.
Next: It’s “Godfather II” day today, as long as my PS3 doesn’t overheat and temporarily stop reading discs, as it did last night. Scary!