Last year wasn’t significant because of the number of first-person-shooter games released. For a few years now, this has been a popular niche for developers and publishers since it caters to the hard-core gamers who are the bread and butter of the video-game industry. The reason 2007 stands out is the variety and excellence of the first-person shooters that were released, due in part to the processing power of the next-generation PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and to the increasing emphasis that developers are placing on story and character development.
Halo 3 (Microsoft Game Studios; Xbox 360; rated mature) This game’s single-player story mode is exactly what it needed to be: more of what the first two games gave us. Where there was innovation in Halo 3 was in the multiplayer options available for FPS gamers. With the ability for 16 people to go after each other, or for four players to cooperate on playing through the story, Halo 3 made a plural out of the FPS genre.
Bioshock (2K Games; Xbox 360; rated mature) Bioshock was groundbreaking for two reasons. First, the art direction and singular vision behind the game make it a complete and entirely believable world, despite its madness. The second reason involves the debate as to whether FPS games should construct the protagonist as a blank slate. The idea is that individual gamers are better able to “become” the character if that character is vague. This is why nobody knows what Halo’s Master Chief looks like. In Bioshock, the character you play has no identity at all, and this becomes critical to how the story plays out. The clever game designers took a philosophical argument and made it a plot point.
Jericho (Codemasters; Xbox 360; rated mature) It’s the talented storytelling of Clive Barker that causes Jericho to stand out. He’s crafted a horror game that is gory, weird, and tinged with religion, basing the story on gnostic texts. You are the commander of a seven-person military unit trained in conventional and occult warfare. Each squad member has some kind of occult power, and you can move from team member to team member, making strategic use of each one’s talents. This ability, compared to switching from one gun to another, is a great game-play mechanic.
The Orange Box (Valve; PC, PS3, Xbox 360; rated teen and mature) You’ll use surprisingly few weapons in the Half-Life games, of which three are included in The Orange Box. The protagonist, Gordon Freeman, isn’t a soldier, super or otherwise. He’s a scientist, and his primary weapon is a gravity gun, a device that allows him to pick up and move heavy objects. Admittedly, such objects can crush enemies, especially when flung at high speed. Unlike so many games that beat you over the head with explanations, Half-Life is refreshingly vague about what you are supposed to do. At times, trying to solve the puzzle of “How do I get across this room?” becomes maddening because of the lack of clues, but most gamers appreciate being left to figure things out.
BlackSite: Area 51 (Midway; PC, PS3, Xbox 360; rated teen) BlackSite is built on mystery. You play as a U.S. soldier caught up in a conspiracy, starting the game by looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but instead stumbling across some bizarre and dangerous creatures. Imagine your surprise when you encounter the same creatures in the desert around Rachel, Nevada, the closest town to the rumoured American military base at Groom Lake—Area 51. No shock, then, to discover that the enemies you fight in BlackSite are aliens. I was able to overlook some of the technical problems with this game, and instead enjoy the sly subversiveness of the game’s story, which is a pointed commentary on U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Crysis (Electronic Arts; rated mature) Crysis was developed to push the limits of PC gaming systems, and would be fairly standard first-person-shooter fare if it weren’t so visually stunning. You are a member of a special-forces squad sent in to secure an archaeological site, but there’s something on the island that’s making meat out of all the soldiers. The flowing imagery of Crysis hasn’t been achieved before, and it sets a new standard for visual fidelity. To really make the most of this game, you’ll need a topnotch system running Windows Vista. You can play the game on lesser computers, but you’ll miss out on what makes it so special.