Monday Spotlight - 2010 & The Tale of Three Shooters

Each and every Monday I take an in-depth look at one video game topic. This can be anything related to games and the industry, from individual titles and consoles to developers and prominent figures, and everything else in-between. All related topics are fair game and I will offer some history, commentary and insight for each. Check back each Monday for a new spotlight, and click here for past entries.

2010 was a great year for the FPS. Halo Reach brought Bungie’s involvement with the blockbusting series to an impressive end and MAG took online, squad-based, console shooters to another level. The GoldenEye 007 remake finally gave Wii owners an FPS to be proud of and Bioshock 2 offered an excuse to return to Rapture. But for shooter fans, 2010 will be best remembered as the year that three of the biggest FPS franchises went head to head. Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops, and EA’s Battlefield Bad Company 2 and Medal of Honour were all gunning for the same slice of the market with their take on the contemporary, modern warfare shooter. It was pistols at dawn as we saw record breaking sales, mainstream media coverage and controversy in a battle that was as up and down as a Black Ops lobby.

EA’s Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was the first out of the gate in March 2010. Part of EA Digital Illusions CE's (DICE) Battlefield franchise, best known for its expansive squad based multiplayer, it looked to set the tone for the year ahead. Although it is at odds with Call of Duty's more individualistic gameplay and is further set apart by its Frostbite 1.5 destructible environments, it is still seen as Activision's direct rival in the FPS field and the two are destined to forever be compared.

These comparisons are easily made from afar, but anyone with experience of both series would concur that they are quite different games, despite competing for the attention of the same audience. Available on PC, 360 and PS3, Bad Company 2 was both a critical and retail smash and has been supported with a steady stream of map-pack DLC. Praised as an improvement over the original console-only Bad Company, it was hailed as a direct challenge to Call of Duty’s reign as king of the console shooter.

In what has become an annual event, Activision would release a new Call of Duty in November 2010, and it was the turn of Treyarch with their much-hyped Cold War adventure, Black Ops. It would receive a record number of pre-orders and was greeted on the morning of release by long lines of gamers, all itching to pwn some noobs or something equally nonsensical. With a user base that encompasses everyone from core gamers to those who keep a home console exclusively for their yearly CoD fix, Black Ops was able to shift a staggering 7 million copies in its first 24 hours.

Instantly familiar to fans of Treyarch and Infinity Ward's previous work, Black Ops offered an over-the-top single player campaign and an accessible and addictive multiplayer. The welcome return of zombie mode enabled it to stand-out and is a credit to a developer that is often (unfairly) derided for not being the equal of Infinity Ward; the original developer of the CoD series and the team behind the continuing Modern Warfare titles.

With BBC2 having its own, well established fan base and distinctive multiplayer, EA looked to compete more directly with Activision’s powerhouse by reviving its slumbering giant - the Medal of Honour series. With at least eleven individual titles from 1998-2007, Medal of Honour was once the best-selling console FPS by a country mile but disappeared entirely just as the genre was becoming more lucrative than ever. The series fizzled-out as its World War 2 settings became overly familiar and the thrills seemed increasingly tame in comparison to the new generation of shooters.

In October 2010, EA reintroduced the series with a reboot, switching the World War 2 setting for modern day Afghanistan and doing a fairly convincing imitation of Call of Duty; a series which once looked to emulate MoH. Developed by Danger Close and with multiplayer duties handled by DICE, it was a solid attempt at playing catch-up and did enough to differentiate itself from the competition - most notably by stressing the role of your squad and utilizing covering fire. But more than its solid campaign and engaging multiplayer, Medal of Honour attracted attention for something it intended, but eventually wouldn’t do - identify, by name, the playable enemy forces as the Taliban.

The prospect of gamers taking the role of the Taliban and killing US troops across the multiplayer modes did not sit well with politicians, press and the military, and EA were subsequently pressured into scrapping the idea. In truth, EA were guilty of little more than offering a real world name for the generic Middle Eastern forces that are found in most modern shooters, but it was a step too far for many. With the negative press stacking-up, EA would relent and the generic “Opposing Forces” were born - the Taliban in all but name. This situation begs the question as to what point do modern events become acceptable as subject matter for video games, as opposed to movies and books, something which I have touched upon before. I don’t recall any outrage directed at the Battlefield Bad Company 2: Vietnam expansion, which sees one team take the role of the communist forces and features conversation between characters based on authentic, radio communication, though of course that conflict ended some 35 years ago.

Much like MoH, Black Ops had its fair share of media coverage, though by and large it was rather positive. Although there was the inevitable moral panic about kids playing a game as violent as Black Ops, which predictably ignored the fact that it is clearly labelled as being suitable only for adults, many news agencies picked up on its popularity instead. Headlines focussed on the CoD phenomenon and the earning potential of the biggest, AAA video games in a rare spate of positive press for the oft maligned genre.

BBC2, Black Ops and MoH were three of the most visible video games of 2010 and this was reflected in their sales. Unfortunately, online sales figures are about as reliable as a sundial at midnight, but the consensus is that Black Ops made a killing, BBC2 did very well for itself and MoH was very profitable, with EA claiming over five million copies shipped. Black Ops was the best-selling, cross-platform title of 2010, with various reports suggesting it sold a mind-boggling 18 million units worldwide. Adding to Activision’s pot was 2009’s Modern Warfare 2 which reportedly shifted a further 6 million copies in 2010. BBC2’s figures weren’t too shabby either – north of 6 million by the end of the year.

The FPS continues to be lucrative business with every self respecting publisher looking to add a shooter to their portfolio. However, moving forward there are many questions regarding the genre and three of its biggest series. For the second straight year we will have a new Call of Duty and a new Battlefield, only this time they are being released in direct competition. Battlefield 3 is due this October, only two weeks before Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, setting the stage for a battle of the titans which, financially, MW3 is likely to win. The gaming press is already abuzz with details for each and have begun making premature comparisons, asking which will be the better game.

For Activision, MW3 is likely to be the most important CoD since the introduction of the Modern Warfare moniker with CoD 4. Although its developed by Infinity Ward, numerous key members of the lauded team are no longer on-board following a mass exodus of talent, including studio heads Jason West and Vince Zampella. Accused of a breach of contract and attempting to indirectly sabotage Treyarch’s Black Ops, the pair were fired and have since founded a new studio, staffed by key members of the original Infinity Ward team. MW3 is Activision's opportunity to show that they have moved on from this embarrassing and very public split, and they will have to work harder than ever to convince gamers that the loss of key talent will not have a negative effect on the quality of the finished product.

Activision-Blizzard has earned its position as the number one third party developer, but they do have a track record of running lucrative series into the ground with incessant sequels, spin offs and a lack of innovation. Tony Hawk is a shadow of its former self and the Guitar Hero series was placed on hiatus last year after complete market saturation had left consumers numb to the series and unwilling to invest in the expensive instrument peripherals that were once the toast of the industry. Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick continues to tease the prospect of a MMO style CoD, and Elite will offer gamers the chance to pay for a more in-depth multiplayer experience, though it wont effect what is offered for free. A new studio, Sledgehammer Games, has also been established to create an action-adventure instalment in the series.

The FPS bubble won’t burst just yet but, for Activision at least, a significant downturn in CoD profits would be disastrous, with a large proportion of their business tied up in only two franchises (Warcraft being the other). EA will also be watching the sales figures carefully as Battlefield remains one of their biggest and most loved franchises, a cash cow at a time when their stocks need to be replenished after the costly acquisition of PopCap Games, and the success of BF3 may go some way to dictating whether there is still life in the Medal of Honour series. Work is already underway on a sequel, though it is yet to be seen if EA will look to compete as closely with CoD as they did with the reboot.

When it comes to AAA shooters, we may never see another year quite like 2010. With three acclaimed series fighting it out, the ultimate winner was the consumer, who had the pick of three highly polished shooters. The competition this year bears watching as it will likely tell us much about the long-term health of the modern warfare, FPS blockbuster and whether the unprecedented success of the CoD franchise may be sustained or if, like the music/rhythm genre before it, it's days are numbered. But even if the likes of CoD and Battlefield do start to slow down, rest assured that the FPS is here to stay as us gamers never seem to tire of shooting each other in the face.

We are Oscar Mike.


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