Are Wii Shooters Better Than The Rest?

Michael Thomsen makes a strong case for shooters on the Wii. I don't agree with everything he says, but he's got me excited for the future.

I play a lot of shooters, first person, third person, cover-based, or run-and-gun. I like the genre, and I like to think that I know on a basic level at the very least what makes a good shooter. I also don’t think there are many good shooters on the Wii. I believe that the best by far is Dead Space: Extraction, followed by Red Steel 2, and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. It’s telling that each of these games limit our movement to some degree. Dead Space: Extraction takes it away completely, while the other two let us lock on to enemies, so we don’t have to worry about turning around. Wii shooters have always struggled to find the proper balance between moving and shooting, and I think that this is one of the reasons they’ve always felt smaller in scope and ambition than shooters on other consoles. They want to be big, but they just can’t compete, and according to Michael Thomsen from IGN, they shouldn’t.

Thomsen wrote an article a couple weeks ago about, and he made two points that stuck with me. convincing me that he just might be on to something.

First, he completely dismisses those critics who complain that motion controls are just an added hassle and that it’s “easier” to push a button. He quotes Rod Humble, head of The Sims Studio, as saying, “A utility advances by reducing user interaction time and increasing productivity, a game does the opposite…It's the nonproductive bit that's enjoyable" ("Why Shooters Are Better on Wii", IGN, 12 April 2010). Thomsen then elaborates:

Many players groan at the thought of flicking a piece of plastic to open a door or reload a pistol, but that's only because these actions are still treated as mundane parts of game design. They're thoughtless and functional, designed for efficiency instead of inefficient play.

…The problem with the often simple and poorly tuned gestural controls in Wii games is not that they exist, but that they don't go far enough. I don't just want to flick out an empty magazine, I'd also like to use the pointer and remote to pick out a fresh magazine, line up the edges with the underside of the gun handle, flick upward to put it in, and then swipe again to make sure the chamber's clear.

Thomsen envisions a game in which such actions would replace the Active Reload system in Gears of War, and call me crazy, but I think that sounds awesome. The more that I think about it, the more that it makes sense that inefficient systems are naturally more fun than efficient systems. Active Reload is itself a great example of this idea. You have to think about reloading, it’s no longer a mindless task, it’s harder, and Gears is all the more fun for it. The same can be also said about the whole cover-based shooter genre. You have to find cover, you have to wait for the enemy to pop out of his cover, and in some cases, you have to worry about your cover getting destroyed. The whole concept is an impediment to shooting but nearly every recent shooter has embraced it. Uncharted, Mass Effect, Call of Duty, Battlefield: Bad Company, and Dark Void are some games that immediately spring to mind and all of these have a major focus on cover. If gamers really cared about efficiency in their shooters, about what was “easiest,” then Serious Sam would be considered a masterpiece. But it’s not. We want the added hassle of inefficient play, the Wii just hasn’t given us a game that goes far enough in doing so.

Of course, such a complicated and lengthy reload system has no place in the modern, fast paced shooter, and that brings me to Thomsen’s second major point. He concedes, “That would necessitate gun fights be slowed down and enemy numbers be lessened, but it would also encourage added care to aiming by making each bullet a more prized commodity because of how long it takes to load them." The Wii can’t handle big battles, not because of hardware limitations but because the controls don’t provide us the speed that we need to kill all the enemies before they kill us. You can’t turn with a bounding box as fast as you can with a duel analog controller, so the game shouldn’t ever require us to turn quickly. Motion controls dictate slower, more purposeful movement and should focus on smaller, more intimate fights. Wii shooters that fail to do this, fail completely.

I love the combat in Red Steel 2. It has that intimacy, not just because I’m using a sword but because the pace of combat lets me focus on one enemy at a time. Every battle has me fighting a set number of enemies. Their total is displayed at the top of the screen and can range from three to 20, but no matter how high that number gets, I’m only ever facing (if memory serves) five at a time. When one dies another takes his place, but I’m never rushed by more baddies than I can handle. I know that when I enter a room with five guys that I’m not really fighting five guys; I’m getting into five duels, one starting immediately after another.

Thomsen claims that the Wii actually represents the next evolution of shooters. A bold claim, but one that makes sense given the evidence. He explains that Halo is a fine game, but that there’s no next step after it, “Modern Warfare 2 and BioShock are steps backward from that open-ended, AI driven playground where constant movement, assisted aiming, and unbroken aggression were the norm." Sure, we can argue about which franchise really represents the pinnacle of shooting, we all have our own opinions, but you can’t deny that there isn’t much of a difference from Halo to Halo 3: ODST, or even from Call of Duty to Modern Warfare 2. Settings change, fights and enemies grow bigger, but the general approach to shooting stays the same. It’s always a single “us” versus a lot of “them.”

Motion controls, whether in the form of the Wii, Natal, or PlayStation Move, bring with them fundamental change. Thomsen concludes, “A confrontation of ideas is coming, and it will hinge on the issue of motion controls as a way of bringing games into real three-dimensional space. Wherever that confrontation leads, it will be traveling in the footsteps of the Wii shooters."

Personally, he still hasn’t convinced me that Red Steel is better than Halo, as he promised to in the first paragraph, but he did convince me to give that oft ridiculed game another shot. It’s still not that good. The sword fighting is terribly slow and inaccurate, and the jittery reticule is annoying. However, I see the potential Thomsen talked about. After comparing the radical leap in design and quality from Red Steel to Red Steel 2 -- from a game that just mimicked its peers to one that tried something new -- to the changes from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to Modern Warfare 2, I can honestly say that I’m more excited for Red Steel 3 than Modern Warfare 3.

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