Even as military shooters become more and more derivative, they can at least be creatively derivative.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare did a lot of things right, and many of those things have gone on to become staples of the military shooter genre. One such staple is “the AC-130 level” or some equivalent, a level that places you high in the air, above the action, away from danger, and enables you to rain down detached and impersonal destruction on your enemies. It was a wonderfully innovative level when it was first done and innovation can’t be copied, though many have tried. Most recently, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon and Battlefield 3 both tried their hand at this kind of level. One of them succeeds because it knows imitation can only take you so far, the other one fails because it copies all of the aesthetics but none of the substance from Call of Duty 4.
There are very specific reasons why the AC-130 level, “Death From Above”, worked so well in Call of Duty 4. Gameplay-wise it offered a break from your typical FPS shooting, and it slowed the pace of the game so that it wasn’t all action, all the time. Oh, and it was thematically important. With the jump to modern times, Call of Duty 4 set out to showcase all aspects of modern war. Seeing a battlefield from high in the sky through thermal goggles felt like a distinctly modern way to wage war. Infinity Ward also understood that being high in the sky and away from danger was inherently boring, so they tasked you with protecting a group of soldiers on the ground. This meant that you could fail the mission even though you weren’t in danger, which created tension, which created excitement, which was made all the stronger by the fact that the soldiers you were protecting were your avatars during the previous level. Players had a personal connection to them. All together, it was the perfect combination of context, theme, and pacing.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon unabashedly apes almost every aspect of “Death From Above” for its own AC-130 level, “Spooky”. It’s so blatant that you can’t help but roll your eyes, and yet the game knows exactly what to copy to be exciting and when to break away to remain interesting.
As in “Death From Above”, the game tasks you with protecting a group of ground troops, which helps create tension even if it is horribly derivative -- failure must be (or at least seem) possible. It also lets you switch between three types of guns: 25mm rounds, 40mm rounds, and 120mm shells. This is almost exactly the same set of weapons that are available to you in Call of Duty 4. The specific sizes are different, but the functions are the same. However, allowing the player to switch between these guns is an important aspect of these levels, which are really just glorified turret sequences: Such a choice helps make these levels feel more interactive despite their highly scripted nature. I can use the wrong the gun, I can accidentally blow up my comrades, and my choices can have deadly consequences -- all of which keep me invested and interested in the action.
This kind of level no longer works as an interesting commentary on the impersonal nature of modern war, so Assault Horizon rightfully ignores all that by not distancing you from the action. One of the guys that you’re supposed to be protecting gets left behind by the extraction team, and it’s up to you to rescue him using a Skyhook (one of those big balloons that get scooped up by planes). So your plane flies in low to do so, and now you’re in the heat of battle, you’re getting shot at, you’re at risk. Such a twist is unexpected because it goes against everything that made “Death From Above” memorable, but by going in this new direction, Assault Horizon keeps things interesting. Its style is derivative, but its content is creative.
The same can’t be said for the “Going Hunting” level in Battlefield 3. It begins as something different with you getting into a jet plane, but partway through the level, you switch to a bomber-style view and that plays just like “Death From Above” and “Spooky” but without all the things that made those missions fun or interesting.
There’s no tension because no one is ever at risk. You’re not getting shot at, there’s no squad on the ground getting shot at, the only way to fail is if you don’t blow up the enemy in time, and you’re not exactly on a strict time limit. Without that possibility to fail, you’re just pointing a cursor at dots on a screen and pressing a button. It’s boring.
You do get to use a variety of weapons, but you don’t get a choice about when to use them. Instead you’re told when to switch guns, and then presented with a series of targets designed to be destroyed by that particular gun. Each time that this happens you’re presented with specific instructions about what button to press, making the whole level feel like a tutorial that never opens up to let players experiment. The entire sequence is so scripted and instructional that it barely even qualifies as interactive.
Unsurprisingly, “Going Hunting” is also thematically irrelevant. It’s not used as a commentary on war and brings no new twist to the table. The jet sequences that frame the bomber sequence at least put you in danger, though they’re still just glorified turret sequences. Overall, “Going Hunting” mimics the style of “Death From Above” but none of its substance.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon proves that a cliché can still be interesting. Executing on this idea may require a developer to go against everything the cliché represents, but at that point it’s no longer clichéd, so you’ve succeeded. Namco’s game proves that a good idea is worth more than all the visual polish that Battlefield 3 can offer. Even as military shooters become more and more derivative, they can at least be creatively derivative.
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