Wii FPS (working title)

Since it was revealed, Nintendo’s Wii Remote has been saddled with the potential to change the way we play games. Particular interest has been paid by fans of action genres, such as first-person shooters, due to one particular aspect of the revolutionary controller. As you probably already know, the Wii-mote’s infra-red sensor works like a cross between a mouse and a light-gun, allowing a user to manipulate a cursor or reticule simply by pointing at their TV. The motion sensing features and various buttons of both the Wii-mote and Nunchuk, as well as the analog stick of the latter, provide additional control inputs that can be used for things such as player movement and interaction. It’s generally agreed, however, that the de-facto first-person control standard has yet to reach perfection on the Wii.

The problem with the current method of control in Wii FPS games is that they attempt to blend camera control with aim control. Naturally, the Wii-mote is pointed at the screen to manipulate a reticule the player uses to aim his weapons at targets. This input is also used for controlling the view, however, by turning the camera when the reticule reaches the edges of the screen. When the invisible bounding box marking the transition from aim to camera control is too large, it results in the sluggishness found in Red Steel (medium setting has the smallest bounding box, by the way). A small bounding box eliminates the “light-gun” potential of the Wii-mote, though, by limiting the amount of on-screen real-estate it can point at. Either way, motion-based controls are also limited in their availability, since the Wii-mote must constantly be pointed at the screen.

Phil improves the bounding box, but limits the Wii-mote’s light-gun aspect

Some writers have opined that what was missing were fully customizable controls: not just for the camera turn rate (generally designated “sensitivity”), but also for the size of the bounding box. EA apparently listened, because Medal of Honor: Vanguard has the most customizable controls yet for a Wii FPS title, including complete control over bounding box size. Unfortunately for the genre’s hold on me, however, another Electronic Arts title has completely stolen the show by offering a peek at an alternative yet unrealized. Other games that had come to feel natural, specifically every Wii FPS released to date, have once again become awkward exercises in frustration. Ironically, this revolutionary game isn’t even a first person shooter.

The Godfather: BlackHand Edition could easily be just a quick cash-in port, brought over from last-gen consoles to make a quick buck on Nintendo’s popular new system. Despite a welcome amount of new content, however, it’s how the game utilizes the many control inputs of the Wii that separate it from the rest of the pack. Although one shooting aspect of the game uses the same bounding box method mentioned above, BlackHand also demonstrates the possible future of many third-person games, and offers a hint of first-person control evolution.

In the traditional third person perspective, movement in the game is controlled by the analog stick, and the camera is controlled by the D-pad. Having acclimated to it, I find my thumb rests comfortably with its tip on the d-pad, and it’s pad/joint resting on the A button. Like Zelda, you lock your character and camera onto enemies by pressing the Z-trigger. If you decide to fight mano-a-mano, the Nunchuk and Wii-mote act as your left and right fist respectively, allowing you to naturally throw jabs, hooks, and uppercuts. Pressing the B trigger while locked on will grab your enemy, setting them up for a flurry of punches or other hands-on methods of dealing damage, such as chokes and throws.

The “hands-on” approach in BlackHand beats the competition

You can brandish a gun as well when locked-on to an enemy, in a system similar to Crackdown for Xbox 360. This allows you to target specific body parts; kneecap to drop them to a kneeling position, shoulder to drop their weapon, and/or a headshot for an instant kill. Instead of using an analog stick, however, the Wii-mote’s pointer is used to aim at the desired body part of your target. Having played both games, I whole-heartedly endorse the latter over the former; the Wii-mote is far more intuitive and fun.

Although the camera is fixed on target during lock-on, the basic elements of a revolution are there. The Godfather: BlackHand edition does allow you to switch to free-aim, again like Crackdown, but this is where the bounding box comes in. The D-pad camera stops functioning in this mode, unfortunately, preventing the separation of camera and aim controls. Although this is a discouraging oversight, the game offers a taste of what it might be like to free your gun in an FPS. Preferring to control the camera myself, I’ve fallen into the habit of hopping into free-aim mode when the enemy is in my sights, popping them in the kneecaps with a few shots off-the-hip, and switching back as I run in to finish the job, Gangland execution style.

Mmmm, hop n’ pop…

Practicing motion controlled grenade tosses with molotov cocktails

Anyway, it feels natural to control my character’s movement and camera with traditional controls while opening doors, throwing punches, and aiming guns with a flick of the one-handed controller. Unlike any FPS on the Wii, I can throw a motion-sensed punch or point the Wii-mote away from the screen without spinning the camera out of control. Surprisingly intuitive, I’m immersed in the gameplay and story much more than any other version of The Godfather, which now feel like hollow shells in comparison. Few games from any series have made me feel like such a Hollywood-style badass, or even better yet, made me feel like I was on-screen. This further evolution of traditional controls, based on those pioneered by the Zelda series for over a decade, is the current epitome of third-person gameplay. I just wish I didn’t keep accidentally switching weapons when playing Twilight Princess.

What about first-person shooters, though? Zelda-style lock-on is the antithesis of the genre, especially when it comes to multiplayer competition. Simply removing lock-on and bounding boxes from BlackHand’s control set provides the answer, though. With the camera and movement controlled by the D-pad and analog stick, the Wii-mote’s pointer is free to aim anywhere on or off screen, and it’s motion controls won’t spin your view around. This is what I call a quartet of control; moving, looking, aiming, and interacting can all be done seperately. It’s been done before, despite claims otherwise, but we’ll get back to that.

The standard FPS set of control customization, such as turning rate (sensitivity) and whether to use D-pad for movement or camera, would of course be preferred. Prince of Persia: Rival Sword’s camera centering button, placed comfortably on the Wii-mote’s – button, would be nice. Halo-style “sticky-aim” could be used to help us beginners become acclimated to run ‘n gun games, but I foresee “stop ‘n pop” style games like Gears of War becoming popular among the hardcore segment of the Wii population. At least, until enough of us get our bearings. The Godfather: BlackHand Edition has a cover mode similar to that found in Rainbow Six: Vegas, and though BlackHand may not handle it as smoothly, the Wii-mote easily outperforms its dual-analog counterpart with precision and ease-of-use.

Diagram of analog extension using existing grooves originally designed for “Wii-Zapper”

Most hardcore FPS fans are skeptical of change, though. Having played first-person shooters primarily on home consoles, despite beginning on PC, I myself continue to resist truly mastering the keyboard and mouse combination. More on that later, though. Gamers themselves, game designers are also prone to the same control prejudices as the rest of us. Halo’s Lead Designer, Jaime Griesemer, recently stated in the latest issue of EGM that “a large group of players… would love to play Halo or some other [FPS], but they can’t use two thumbsticks at the same time.” He went on to add that “[Motion Sensors] simplify aiming in an FPS to a degree, but they also separate aiming from looking around. So instead of doing two things at once, you’re trying to do three.”

It’s easy to forgive the mistake of confusing the Wii-mote’s IR pointer with its motion sensors, I guess, but Halo players already do more than two things at once. They aim, move, time multiple button presses (watching pro combos on MLG.com’s VOD will blow your mind), re-evaluate tactics according to battlefield conditions on the fly, all while coordinating with up to 7 teammates AND trash-talking opponents! Bungie could introduce Zelda-style lock-on to attract the uninitiated, much like the first two entries in the Metroid Prime series, but FPS fans would eat them alive.

Multitasking and physical challenge are trademarks of the first-person genre, and the reason why it’s become the most popular form of video-game tournament. Maybe I have a hard time sypmathizing because I’m the kind of player who actively seeks out both physical and mental challenges (the true definition of a Hardcore Gamer?) The adrenaline rush and zen-like state of mind that comes from being pushed to your limits is what attracts hardcore gamers to video game touranments and online competition. Multitasking has been bred into the gamer generations, if not everyone.

The daunting behemoth

Steel Battalion is a game that pushes me to the aforementioned limits, and provided my first chance to aim independently from the game’s primary camera. The analog stick on top of the left joystick controlled the VT’s (Vertical Tank) camera, viewed on the main screen. The right joystick controlled my weapons, which had a secondary camera I could watch on the bottom of the screen. Do you think dual analog FPS, or even my imagined Wii FPS, are hard to play? Try moving, looking, and pointing in different directions simultaneously, guiding 20 tons of walking steel with two joysticks, an analog stick, pedals, and a stick shift. Don’t forget dozens of buttons, each with a unique and important function, and little lights that flash at various intervals (usually to let you know that you just missed something important). Now do it online, against Japanese addicts who got the game first, and oust them from their positions on the leaderboards. Yeah, a “quartet control” FPS is gonna be cake after that.

Those of us who truly wish to call ourselves hardcore gamers should be willing to brave new control methods, as we have in the past. Pong fans balked at the joystick. Atari fans resisted the D-pad. 8 and 16-bit fans (derived from the word fanatic) slowly learned to embrace an analog stick or a mouse while simultaneously coping with newfangled 3D graphics. Now the 3D generation must be willing to move on from a trio of control to a quartet. This will require us to push buttons, D-pads, and analog sticks, as well as moving our hands and aiming at the TV, although rarely all at once. Like fans of obsolete controller technology in the past, many dual-analog and mouse fans will tell you that it’s too complicated to learn. Will we give up now and concede our limitations, or will we do the same thing we did when we saw Super Mario 64 for the first time: die trying?

Unlike many in the competitive console gaming community, I don’t think the dual analog is well-suited to competitive shooters. Even when playing Halo tournaments myself, the knowledge of the Xbox controller’s limitations gave me unique confidence. This knowledge was gained from using a Sega Dreamcast controller to compete against mouse and keyboard players back in 2001, and my recognition of Halo’s “sticky-aim” long before other console-only competitors. I was able to best most mouse users on the Dreamcast, prompting queries of “What settings do you use?” and “A controller… really!?!” Skilled and experienced mouse players, however, wiped the floor with me. No matter how much practice, my analog stick simply couldn’t compete on a level playing field with the mouse.

Although its older bro gets more attention, the SNES set the standard Sony & Microsoft would follow

Console games like Halo rely on auto-aim and other tricks to convince us otherwise, but analog sticks lack the speed and precision required for the same tests of physical skill seen in PC games, hence Halo 2’s greater focus on team-tactics and “balanced” weapons than its predecessor. The hardware of the dual-analog controller is too limited to sustain continued growth of a player’s abilities; at some point, the player simply surpasses the physical limitations of the controller. We must exert maximum effort for minimal gain. Any further growth is purely mental, a combination of tactics and confidence. Ever since Dreamcast and online gaming helped open my eyes, I’ve wanted FPS controls with the precision of a mouse, yet still in the palm of my hand.

Hope you read that last phrase carefully, because I believe the mouse and keyboard combo is far from perfect. Keyboards are huge, and a mouse needs a hard surface to rest on, both requiring precious real estate in the living room or convention center. Although a dual-analog is deficient in precision and response compared to a mouse, or number of inputs compared to the sea of buttons that is a keyboard, it wins out in many ways; comfort, easy button access on multiple planes for both fingertips and thumbs, a second analog input for movement, as well as analog triggers on some systems. It is these advantages of control that have helped make consoles the primary choice among gamers, and why more and more PC players switch to dual-analog controllers for anything other than an FPS or RTS.

For all the strides competitive gaming in general has made towards consideration as a sport, and the assertions made that games require athletic precision, controller limitations represent a noticeable chink in their argument’s formidable armor. If just a portion of physical finesse was removed from basketball, we would have trouble telling the difference between an NBA pro and a college player. Some pro-sports do have equipment restrictions, but they’re used to level the playing field, because technology has continued to enhance physical performance rather than limit it. The Nintendo DS delivered mouse-like precision in a handheld package with Metroid Prime: Hunters, but the system is simply too unwieldy to match the comfort of a console controller, limiting its mass appeal. Still the best handheld FPS game and system to date, but I digress.

Xbox 360 vs. PC game Shadowrun uses tactics and special abilities to level the playing field between controller and mouse

Games in any genre, but especially first-person shooters, must blaze a trail of innovation on the homebound Wii. At least, if they wish to stand-out against their dual-analog and PC brethren. Slight variations of the same old thing just won’t cut it compared to the graphically lush fare offered on more powerful gaming systems; PS3 jumped out the gate with Resistance: Fall of Man, Halo 3 will stomp all console FPS competition for Microsoft and their Xbox 360, and do I even have to mention the birthplace of the first-person genre? In the face of such competition, the Wii’s first-person shooters must play to their strong suit and develop evolved control.

Thus we find ourselves on the precipice of a true revolution with the Wii, realizing a dream born during the resurgence of arcade popularity and mainstream adoption of 3D graphics in the 90’s; an off-the-rails light-gun game. The Wii throws in a nice seat on the couch and arcade-style boxing/sword-fighting/et cetera for gamer nirvana. The question now becomes not only will they make it, but will we come? Are we ready to step up to the plate, as we have time and time again? Are all the editorialists who’ve pined for the white-knuckle challenges of old-school gaming willing to accept a new challenge, or do they want an FPS where you only have to do one thing at a time? Perhaps some people are still waiting for the day when that little brat asks Marty McFly “you have to use your hands?

I’d like to point out that I’m hardly the first person to write about my so-called “quartet of control”. A few people have argued for different attachments and new versions of the Wii-mote to achieve this, including various gun shapes. I certainly applaud their pimping of “quartet control” (Mark Bozon calls it a trinity, since he doesn’t count interaction), but in light of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, I don’t think we need to add any more fuel to the video game violence fire with “Nintendo guns”. Sure, the NES Zapper is beloved, but that was before Columbine happened, and Jack Thompson rode so many Grand Theft Auto controversies to fame.

The Wii-Zapper, or as it’d be called by political hacks, the “murder simulator”

Besides, I think a pistol-shaped controller would be an ergonomic mistake in comparison to the current design. I believe the remote and nunchuk shapes allow thumbs to rest in possibly the most comfortable positions yet seen in console controllers, even making the Xbox 360 controller (one of my favorites) feel like I’m wearing boxing gloves. I also disagree with using motion-sensing to control the camera, because the concept suffers from problems of sluggishness versus over-sensitivity like the bounding box. Not to mention that I like when the Nunchuk and Wii-mote represent my left and right hands. I love this concept for an analog stick that slips onto the Wii-mote, however, but I don’t know if it’s both technically and economically feasible.

This whole debate may be moot, however, considering recent comments from Reggie Fils Aime and Shigeru Miyamoto. Fondly called Shiggy by fans, Mario’s famed creator recently stated “There are also other enhancements to the Wii interface and developments being planned that are going to really make games for hardcore players a lot more fun and interesting.” When combined with the recent statement about Metroid Prime 3: Corruption’s delay from Fils Aime, things get intriguing. “…the fact with Metroid is we want to make sure that that game is perfect.” said the ass-kicking name-taker, adding that “We want the sell-through as well as the critical acclaim for Metroid Prime 3: Corruption to be the best in the series, and that’s a lofty bar. To do that is taking a little bit more time than we had anticipated. But it’s coming. And it will be great.” Just saying, looks like they’re gonna drop their own solution on us, when Samus finally shows up to the party.

Diagram of analog extension using existing grooves originally designed for “Wii-Zapper”

Whether or not such speculation comes to fruition, I think “quartet control” FPS games would do just fine on the Wii, along with any other genre. The PC managed to give birth to first-person shooters without analog movement, instead opting to use keys on the keyboard to control strafing and speed when the switch to 3D was made. I’m convinced Wii can do the same (pun intended) with either camera or movement. The D-pad on the Wii-mote may seem out of place, but after playing The Godfather: BlackHand Edition, Nintendo’s innovation from the 80’s feels like a revolution to me.