While Far Cry 3's open-world landscapes let players forge their own path amid a backdrop of slippery sanity and leering villains, the game's crafty spin on the genre isn't alone in mixing things up in the shooter category.
A handful of other action games on Xbox attempt to provide alternatives for shooter fans, with adventures that don't settle for simple run-and-gun experiences. We talked to the developers about how they push players in new directions.
Spec Ops: The Line lead writer Walt Williams still recalls the moment that inspired much of the moral ambiguity seen in 2K's cynical military shooter. The scene in question came at the beginning of Fallout 3 when, after acquiring a pistol, Williams was able to sneak past the security detail of Vault 101 before coming across the Vault's Overseer interrogating his daughter with his back to the camera.
Williams approached unseen and settled his sights on the back of his head. "I thought, 'He's a major character, they won't let me kill him.' And I pulled the trigger and blew his brains all over his daughter," he says. "It left me in that moment shocked that the game [allowed] me to do it. But then another part of me was going, 'You pointed a gun at a person's head and pulled the trigger. What the f*** did you think was going to happen?'"
Moving the line
Despite its appearance and marketing, The Line is perhaps the most prominent recent example that there's life in the shooter genre beyond the bombast of the Call of Duty juggernaut and its ilk. Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Delta Force captain Martin Walker and his small squad are sent to investigate the disappearance of a missing battalion in Dubai after a catastrophic sandstorm.
But the situation quickly escalates, setting the stage for an otherworldly case study in madness and war. As Williams puts it, it's about focusing on the "actual ordeal of combat" over the spectacle. "We were really trying to do something with this game that would make you think about what it means to play a shooter, really think about pulling the trigger," he says.
In spite of the overwhelming popularity of games like Call of Duty, Williams argues that there's just as much need for other types of game experiences. "I don't think [anyone] simply plays a game because they only want to shoot things and anything else is a waste of their time," he says. "Some days you want something cheap and easy to let your mind unwind. Other days you want to go deeper."
It's only part of the challenge Williams says games face in order to affect players emotionally - like any other medium. "[Spec Ops' main protagonist] Walker [was] an interesting character to write," Williams says. "I think everyone has a very different opinion of him by the end of the game. We use our art to explore our emotions, and with games we don't have to be afraid to create a situation that could make a player uncomfortable," he says. "Games don't have to be simply entertainment. They don't have to just be fun."
Below the surface
The Line is not alone in its agenda to challenge player expectations of what a shooter can be. This console generation offered a number of alternatives for those willing to look. Metro 2033's bleak, atmospheric approach deliberately moves away from a straightforward-action model entirely.
"Metro is certainly different from many other shooters - but difference can translate as reward as well as 'risk'," says Huw Beynon, who worked with developer 4A Games. "There's a theme that links all its mechanics, and it was our decision to make simple survival - let alone combat - a significant challenge. The Metro is a hostile, treacherous world, and [protagonist] Artyom begins the game as a relatively naive, innocent young man."