Well before PlayStation 4 and Xbox One released, and titles like The Order: 1886 and Thief were hyped through the ceiling, the shooter genre began to see a radical shift; or rather, a veritable evolution, from an emphasis on competitive online play through simple matchmaking, to an emphasis on total online play in a similar vein as MMORPGs. Defiance is the arguable catalyst for the trend, having introduced the concept of a persistent online world to the last generation of shooters, but with regards to today’s industry, Destiny and The Division are at the forefront of this fledgling genre. While both games won’t hit systems for some time, they’ve already begun to illustrate the advantages that an online focus offers shooters.
Making the jump to online could allow shooters to create what the genre has struggled with since the days of Doom and Hexen: longevity. From Killzone and Halo to BioShock and Uncharted, first- and third-person shooters alike scarcely break the 15-hour mark, and instead rely on sequels to extend their canon and competitive multiplayer to add replay value. That’s not to say it’s impossible for shooters to bring depth to the table—just look at Fallout—nor to call it terrible design. But rare is the FPS that leaves the player with the same sense of wonder offered by, say, RPGs. Cop-out “stories” included in games like Call of Duty and Battlefield are the most offending and exist solely to excuse desperately short campaigns, which themselves exist to become box-art ornaments.
Working with an online platform has the potential to solve this issue. IPs like Halo and Resistance would be at no shortage of canon and could likely flesh out a much deeper narrative than the ones they’ve yielded thus far. A persistent online world could allow developers to craft exactly that without sacrificing the replayability of online content. In fact, MMO-lite progression would likely trump Team Deathmatch and the like in terms of returning players.
"I hope I get the lead part."
It’s no secret that shooters aren’t known for their gripping plots and endearing characters. While games like The Last of Us and The Order: 1886 are aiming to change that, shooters will likely remain popular for the guns, the fast-paced action, and the over-the-top action scenes (not for having your hand held by a system with no faith in its players, developers). A shooter could have the smartest writing you’ve seen all year and superb replayability, but still fall short of other titles for lack of an engaging narrative—depending on your perspective, of course.
Case and point: the Borderlands series. GearBox’s shoot-and-loot IP is so heavily stylized that it’s practically spawned digital fetishes. From its cell-shaded aesthetic and bombastic humor to its ostensibly nonsensical weapons system, it’s got style dripping off the screen. Yet despite a wealth of colorful and entertaining characters—Tiny Tina, Mad Moxxi, Marcus, Scooter, Handsome Jack, and all our Vault Hunters—both games lack anything close to a coherent plot. “Here’s your goal, you’re some kind of super-human due to your occupation as Vault Hunter, and you’ve got lots of guns. GO!” is hardly a tear-jerker, though it does get you laughing at times (often unintentionally).
Borderlands in particular is a strong candidate for the online shift. The 10 Vault Hunters we’ve met thus far have inadvertently created a solid class system (with plenty of room for additions), the series has already dabbled in the concept of end-game content and raid bosses, and Pandora is the perfect setting for an even more massive game. That’s to say nothing of the crafting system that’s just begging to be applied to infinite, randomly generated guns, or the fact that if an established IP can further prove the viability of online shooters then the genre will garner support more easily. And, of course, GearBox recently confirmed that they aren't done with the IP, though we shouldn't expect a third entry anytime soon.
It’s nonsense to assume that levity and wit are just gathering dust in GearBox’s closet, trapped by their genre and desperate to be heard. There’s no reason for shooters, or indeed games in general, to lack proper storytelling—an oversight the medium continues to wrestle with. With that said, it is a safe assumption that the immensity inherent in online shooters would better support a deep plot. It’s certainly not a cure-all remedy—writers will have to bust out a proper story either way—but wider breathing room is a strong step forward.