by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 4th July, 2018
I pre-ordered Far Cry 5, even though the 4 bored me to death and even though the game is just another huge-ass open-world title that features pretty graphics, tons of stuff to do, and not a gram of soul. That wasn't the smartest decision I made because my gut was right and the game was interesting for about five hours before it became another drag like the Far Cry 4 was.
Yes, Ubisoft is capable of making tremendous worlds that are prettier than real world we live in, but their problem is infusing those worlds with life, with motivation to push further, with incentives that will give players reason to finish off those side activities other than being slightly (or slightly more in my case) obsessively compulsive or wanting to unlock all those shiny achievements, and with level of immersion worthy of those games' budget and hype.
Okay, Assassin's Creed Origins was an excellent game and it featured a huge level of immersion and a phenomenal world that brimmed with life. But, as the rest of recent offerings from Ubisoft, the game was cramped with side activities that ruined both the immersion and enjoyment. Anyway, this introduction is here to create a background for the true topic of this piece; the fact that we need more directed, linear, and fun-as-hell games like the one mentioned in the title. After torturing myself recently by reinstalling the damn Far Cry 5 and realizing that no, the game didn't suddenly become fun and exciting, I decided to try some other shooter in order to fulfill the craving for some quality single-player gunfights.
Shadow Warrior 2 was the prime suspect but then I realized that Microsoft's Game Pass works on PCs also, although the offering is less than stellar. If you're on a PC you can play just a handful of Xbox Play Anywhere titles that include ReCore, Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, Halo Wars 1 and 2, and Gears of War 4. Not enough titles for $10 monthly subscription (okay, it's worth it for a month or two before you are left without anything to play), but on the bright side Microsoft offers a free 2-week trial; a perfect way to play some new games for free. Since I never played GoW 4 and I desperately needed a quality shooter, I decided to give Xbox Game Pass a go.
A couple of days later I was simply stunned by the game's quality, by its immense production values, and by its perfect gunplay. Gears of War 4 is a perfect example of what is missing in modern video games market - linear AAA games that are highly directed but that offer amazing gameplay, pretty visuals, and are perfect for those of us who prefer single-player experiences.
This is even more obvious in shooter games market, dominated by online games and open world titles. Look, I don't have anything against open world games; the Witcher 3 is my favorite title of this generation and among three favorite games of all times and Assassin's Creed Origins is the best fun I had last year along Blood and Wine, but in most cases open world shooters tend to be empty shells filled with uninteresting content and they tend to be too unscripted for their own good.
When you create your own fights, they usually suck big time. Just look at Far Cry 5 for example; a game rich in potential that offers unlimited possibilities when it comes to the variety of gunfights. But most of the time you will be forced into chore-like fights when random enemies spot you while driving, you will experience same old camp battles that always play the same, and you will have maybe a dozen or so encounters where everything is on fire and exciting. The rest of the journey will be filled with copy-paste encounters that are even duller because of the game's poor feel of spitting lead.
On the other side you have games like Gears of War 4, where you (if playing on higher difficulty) always have to try to flank enemies, where there's no time for thinking from which side to tackle enemies because everything around you explodes and the air is filled with lead, and where you have to aggressively advance through battlefield because the Horde is relentless and will kill you in a sec if you are stationary. Then we have small levels filled with scripted combat encounters that are phenomenal and adrenaline-inducing not because we are free to do whatever we want.
No, they are so good because level designers play the role of a director that tries to make the experience as exciting and fun as it can be. You clear one room of baddies than walk a bit, talking with your mates, and then there's another encounter that doesn't feel the same as the last one even though it happens on the same level. This is because every fight is perfectly directed in order to maximize immersion and tension, giving players just enough room to breathe and not suffocate under the weight of a fight.
This isn't possible to achieve in open world playgrounds because you cannot provide a guided experience because enemies aren't limited to small, confined spaces that are intelligently filled with walls, hallways, covers, and other elements that make fights more intense. Add to that less than stellar enemy AI and you have tedious fights that always look and feel the same. You try the stealth approach and either kill everyone without being noticed or start an open fight and start taking down enemies one by one because they aren't aggressive, they don't have a clue how to take cover, they don't know what cover fire means, and they cannot use environment to gain an upper hand because they are dumb as fuck. The only thing they can do when you turn the difficulty up a notch is to become deadly precise and kill you with just a few hits.
On the other side, we have distinctive AI patterns in Gears of War 4. Juvies are highly aggressive and just swarm you, inducing adrenaline-filled shots and preparing the ground for drones. Drones possess some brains, they also are aggressive but they also use cover and are always trying to flush you out with grenades, to make you run out of cover by being aggressive in gaining ground, and by killing your teammates so you have to get out and revive them. And then we have Scions, who are there for cover fire and to provide backup with their powerful weapons.
They also make you uncomfortable, making you switch from cover from cover because they can kill you with one blow. And what to say about bosses and mini-bosses, who are also highly aggressive and pretty hard to kill. This, in addition to phenomenal guidance thanks to the game's excellent game designers makes every combat encounter in Gears of War 4 explosive, tactical, gritty, bloody, and fun as hell. The AI isn't particularly smart but it is challenging and utilizes different patterns that make players improvise and be aggressive. And this game features one of the best guns mechanics ever. Each shot has a distinct weight and kick to it. You just feel how it rips and shreds enemies, giving you the incentive to continue filling them with lead. And there're also chainsaws and that excellent reload mini-game that makes this most mundane action in shooters always fresh and interesting. In Far Cry 5, you get the bow, which really is fun to use and not a single other weapon; they all feel the same, like some tin toys that rattle and squeal and cannot kill an ant not alone human.
And next, Gears of War 4 immerses players to their neck because every element of the game feels like it is organically stitched to all other elements. The bigger than life story, characters who look like they spend 26 hours per day in gym, gothic architecture on steroids, powerful but slightly subdued soundtrack, enemies who look like they came out from your worst nightmare, the heavy metal thunder of chainsaws, and extremely visceral combat and gunplay. Far Cry 5 has pretty graphics, disjointed combat, boring story, over-the-top voice acting with lines that try too hard to be cool, the disparity between always happy-go-lucky characters and the grim state of the world they are in, making the game look like some Frankenstein's monster who are similar to human but because of its ever so slightly unnatural face and disjointed movements it makes looking at it (or, in case of Far Cry 5) highly unnerving, repulsive even.
And then we have the problem of a soulless main protagonist, a problem so often found in video games but intensified in Far Cry 5 and most other shooters. Games like Far Cry and those that offer single-player campaign just because of common decency (like CoD and Battlefield) often feature protagonists that players cannot relate to. They are just empty shells waiting to be killed, after which you reload the game. On the other hand, we have games like Gears of War and Wolfenstein, games that try creating some emotional bond between the player and the character he or she leads into countless battles. In Gears 4 this bond is strong, not because JD (who is a pretty unimpressive character) but because the game added Marcus and one of the main characters. He's there alongside you and you just know how badass he is.
The quest for finding him and saving him, which lasts during the better part of the game, gives the player that hard to find extra incentive to play that game other than killing bad guys. You want to play in order to save Marcus, to find out is he alive or not. And even without this element, the game is capable of generating motivation because the story is quite good and it unveils at a perfect pace. Along with it, you roam through areas filled with history, each with some relation to the Sera's past whether it be long forgotten times of Silver Era, Pendulum Wars, or the recent Locust War. In Far Cry 5, you get some chunks of uninteresting story, you don't care about your character, or any other character, at all, and the game gives you a huge world to explore without any incentive to do this except getting experience and viewing pretty sights.
And let's talk about the pacing of the game, which is perfect in Gears of War 4. In linear games generally, developers are able to dose the difficulty, the number of opponents and the overall sense of challenge much better than in open world games. And while in open world RPG games players get a sense of justifiable reasons why they cannot battle certain opponents and enter certain areas, because their level is too low, this isn't possible to use in open world shooters. Because of this, the pacing and the sense of difficulty progression feel broken In most open world shooters.
On the other side, Gears of War is one of the best examples of pacing done right. The game doses enemies, their type, and number perfectly. Players have a sense of progressing through the campaign because it is obvious that enemies are becoming harder to beat and fights longer, along with a sense of higher challenge that asks for players to gradually implement new tactics, to become more aggressive and to try flanking opponents more often. This gives the game an excellent sense of immersion and progression because everything is becoming harder and harder, but at the same time you don't notice almost any extreme difficulty spikes that also can ruin the experience. I noticed such a spike just one during the game's nine-hour campaign, which is great.
Gears of War 4 shows that the advancement in technology doesn't mean that all games have to be huge, open world experiences. It shows that linear games can be extremely fun and challenging. This doesn't mean that games with big, pseudo-open world levels cannot give that sense of immersion, cannot offer that perfect blend of each element into one organic whole, cannot feature pacing that is thoroughly enjoyable and has a natural feel to it. Bioshock achieved all of this, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution also showed how pseudo-open world games can be tightly packed, excitingly directed experiences. Last year's Prey is another example of pseudo-open world game done right.
But in trying to make games bigger, better, prettier, and more advanced, developers starting to ignore these single-player linear experiences because they think that type of games won't sell or won't be cherished by gamers. But they are wrong. Just look at the latest God of War or the last year's Hellblade and you'll see that we want more linear, tightly directed single-player games. And this is especially true for shooters because the market is crowded with Battle Royale games, crowded with free-to-play multiplayer titles, crowded with multiplayer shooters in general. On the other side, we have open world shooters without a soul, which fail to deliver their promises of unlimited possibilities and exciting world to explore. Sure, titles such as Just Cause work excellent as sandbox playgrounds where you can make any kind of explosion you like, but as shooters, they fall short because nailing all elements that make a shooter great is way harder in an open world environment.
Because of this, we need more games capable of creating an emotional bond with their main protagonists. We need more games that feel like an organic whole, with all of their elements perfectly fitting one into another, with them building on top of each other and creating an experience that feels natural and flowing, not being a disjointed creature that looks even worse because of its incapability to look as a living, breathing thing. We need more games that push players to their limits but aren't cheap about it. That are capable of providing a perfect ratio of challenge and prize, that aren't too difficult but also aren't too easy.
That don't take us, gamers, for fools who just want cheap thrills in form of mowing down stupid AI- controlled enemies without thinking about different strategies, without needing to improvise. We need more games that are good at what they do, that can offer more than pretty visuals and solid voice-overs. Those that pay attention to details, to all little things that make a game truly great. We need more directed, relatively linear experiences that give the power to level designers and let their creativity shines by creating intense fights and rich level architecture and levels that won't be considered as just another area of a huge open world map.
We need more games that are capable of offering a marvelous single player experience that will immerse us into it, that will make us drown into it for hours on end, making us forgot about the passing of time before we return to reality and find out that the sun has set. We need more games capable of offering fantastic single player but also being capable of offering rich and enticing multiplayer without any of them suffering because of the other. In other words, we need more games like Gears of War 4.