I found myself cursing Call of Duty at Eurogamer Expo, sat in Namco's area, wondering why on earth Project Aces had decided to turn one of the best aerial combat games ever (Ace Combat VI) into something more akin to a super-serious FPS. Gone are the massive flying fortresses that you couldn't find anywhere else. Gone are the engrossing sub-narratives that all served to augment and enhance the central point to the story: that YOU are the story, complete with a universal callsign that meant it was an easy fit for anybody. Gone are the high-G turns, the evasive acrobatics and the constant chatter that reminded you of your status as Premier Badass of the Skies.
Sure, now we get to Make Metal Bleed, but considering the lukewarm reception that greeted H.A.W.X. 2, following in its footsteps seems a little odd, let alone actively trying to emulate a triple-A FPS as Namco Bandai's reps earlier in the year were keen to suggest.
But then again, turning Ace Combat into a pseudo-FPS experience is part of a growing trend that can be found sprouting up most particularly in the strategy genre these days, explained in a handful of easy steps:
- Find a much-loved but long-dormant classic strategy title from The Good Old Days.
- Have a business meeting to see if there's enough in the IP to turn it into a potentially lucrative franchise.
- Hire a studio that have previously made good, if not exceptional, shooters in the past to develop it.
- Ignore the original's gameplay completely and secretly start development on an FPS under that title's name.
- Announce it to the press.
- Delight as word spreads across the Internet that a 'sacrilegious crime' has been committed, meaning you dominate headlines.
- Release gameplay footage nearer release that displays a slick, competent, shiny shooter.
- Bask in the sunshine of victory as hatred turns to disgruntled appreciation.
- Enjoy profits on release.
I think I've watched the Syndicate trailer about ten times since yesterday. It's intriguing, very slick, excellently edited and has a trendy, aggressive soundtrack to it that has rippled throughout Twitter. I know I'm being manipulated, but part of me doesn't care. Starbreeze have already proven themselves in the shooter market, indeed there was a minor furore when it was discovered that they wouldn't actually be returning to make The Darkness II. The trailer gets everything spot on: casual violence, the appearance of slick-gunplay, cool dialogue, pulsating soundtrack and sci-fi appeal. So much so that you completely forget that it's called Syndicate, until the name appears at the end.
And that's rather the point.
New IPs are risky ventures. But everyone loves shooters, right? Only, having a new IP shooter is very difficult to pull off: for every Borderlands there's a Singularity, and even the former has been described by Gearbox themselves as something of a sleeper hit. Better to whip up a frenzied hubbub by manipulating the masses, then. Strategy games are often stuffed with creative backstories and deep game worlds, but no one gives a monkey's about strategy games any more, not really, certainly not EA. Better to make a shooter, everyone knows what they're about. everyone loves Call of Duty and Halo, right? We'll put in some guff about paying tribute to the original game and maybe dot around a view datapads, bring a character back, make sure that it's at least set in the same time period.
My shotgun thought when EA announced Syndicate was that it might be a little risky in itself. What about the backlash from people who played the original? But then you remember that the original game is nearly two decades old and that the face of the games industry from CEOs down to consumers is very different indeed. Backlash is lovely, it causes debate, from 'How dare they...' responses to 'Well, why shouldn't they...' suggestions. To argue that IP should only be restricted to the form and genre of its original inception is a little bit ridiculous. After all, how are you supposed to play a strategy game on a console?
We're afraid of new things. We are in a conservative industry, as David Cage put it earlier this week. He slammed marketing companies for failing to help reshape the landscape of modern gaming. They are able to as well, Heavy Rain is proof that if you make enough noise, and the end product is good, the crowds will come. Of course, Heavy Rain might not perhaps have done so well had it not been a platform exclusive and fuelled fanboyish debates so wonderfully, allowing Sony supporters to rally around it and use it to condemn their rivals for offering nothing but shooters. But I by no means promote that as a primary reason for success, it's just something to think on. Take away exclusives, and the consoles are relatively interchangeable.
But did the marketing departments do this or are we to blame. Well, it's a little of everything really. The fact is that games as entertainment sell far better than games as art. Cage nodded towards a culture of 'racing, shooting and jumping', though I'd expand the racing part to include any sports game of choice. I know many people who simply play FIFA and little else. We know what we like and we daren't go outside of that because games are so expensive compared to other media. It's perfectly possible to enjoy a plethora of films, from a variety of different genres, offering a multitude of emotional experiences from action to horror to comedy to romance to action-comedy-romance-horror (Shaun of the Dead, anyone?) for the price of a single game.
As the now-defunct Bizarre's ex Design Manager told CVG a little while back, 'fear is a bigger driver for consumers than desire. They're not going to buy something they haven't tried before, because it might be crap'. But I would posit that it's a decision forced upon the gamer. Look at iOS, look at Android, you'll find far more variety, not to mention higher sales, on those two than you will upon high street shelves. Why? Simple, the price point. They're not bad games, I return to them again and again, and many of them offer deeper, longer experiences than you'll find on PSN and XBLA for half/a quarter/an eighth of the price.
But that doesn't help me as I'm sitting here wondering why the hell a sweeping epic story with character, verve and drama - all centred around me as a character - has been replaced with interchangeable boring military jargon where I'm playing as 'Faceless Hardbitten Veteran Number One'. I can't help wondering if we're stuck in something of a downward spiral and, when Cage asks 'what about all the people who don’t play because they have no interest in shooting other people? We’re pushing the whole market into a niche', I can't help but agree.