The Appeal Of Tactical Shooters


Even though I said I shut the book on the original Ghost Recon on Monday, afterwards I decided to at least try out the expansion packs Desert Siege and Island Thunder. As of this writing I’m most of the way through Siege as I finally commit to a long-planned sincere attempt at tactical shooters. I think there are two main elements that differentiate hardcore military simulators from most other shooters, including modern games that call themselves tactical shooters.

The most intimidating element of them is of course the high lethality — in most cases one or two bullets will kill a character in these games. That one thing drastically changes almost the entire experience. When you’re being shot at in most shooters it doesn’t matter at all, but in games like ArmA and Ghost Recon it’s seriously intense. To that end, those games have distinct sound effects for bullets hitting near you. As opposed to the hundreds of dudes you mow down in Call of Duty, winning a Ghost Recon or ArmA gunfight with just four or five enemies feels like an achievement. Most importantly though, the high lethality rule turns a shooter into a less visceral and more cerebral game, which is what really goes counter to mainstream shooters.

For instance, in Ghost Recon if an enemy knows your location and you both get behind cover, if you peek out from the same place where the enemy last saw you, he’ll probably take you out almost instantly. Also, when you shoot at enemies they immediately hit the deck and find cover. In games like these flanking tactics are far more important, and you can pretty much never rush into situations. The main thing that turns people away from true tactical shooters is that they quickly punish you for any mistake, but it’s a distinct taste that offers its own fun if you’re willing to find it.

Other than some interface issues, the only thing about Ghost Recon I’ll say feels outdated is how it handles indoor combat. The 2001 game takes a broad approach to combat that works for its massive, open-ended maps. You spend most of your time shooting at guys in open fields 150 yards away, but that same apparatus becomes clumsy once you have to clear a building. I can almost never order units to enter buildings without them getting shot, and when doing it myself enemies often aim and shoot faster than I can react. In a game about shooting at enemies before they see you, it’s tough to do that when you’re breaking into their houses unless your sniper perched somewhere can see them through windows.

I think the most fundamental difference from normal shooters brought on by things like high lethality and more tactical AI is the loss of player empowerment. Most mainstream games today are about making players feel cool and powerful. Assassin’s Creed wants to make you feel like the baddest guy in the room. Halo wants you to feel like a supersoldier. Call of Duty wants to make you feel like the badass protagonist of a military thriller. Ghost Recon, ArmA, and other military simulators make you feel like an ordinary soldier, or at most a Special Forces guy who despite being geared up is far from invincible. You feel vulnerable, or at least as if you’re on the same playing field as the enemy, and you have to actually use your brain to win.

The feeling reminds me of the classic Thief games — how Garrett never feels like a badass but rather a guy who’s just slightly more skilled than those around him and can die from just one mistake. That seems to be a common trait of older immersive simulators. System Shock 2 makes the player feel perpetually at-risk and Ultima Underworld starts players off in a notably weak state.

The older Resident Evil games are what I would compare this feeling to on consoles — that sense of having to really think about every decision you make, and every enemy feeling like a real threat. The modern Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II are similar to these kinds of games as well due to how even common enemies in them actually use defensive tactics and need to be outmaneuvered. The most recent and relevant example though is probably Dark Souls — a game that never lets players feel invincible.

The other main element that sets tactical shooters apart is how open-ended they are. I touched on this in Monday’s post, but I really think it’s arguably the most important thing about these games. It’s definitely the most appealing thing for me and the element I’d like to see make a return in mainstream shooters.

I can understand Ubisoft making the modern Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six games more forgiving, but I think they threw the baby out with the bathwater when they also made the games more linear. A big reason these games were called “tactical” shooters is because players could actually plan their own tactics. Each mission in OG Ghost Recon is an open map where you decide what path to take and in what order to complete objectives, including optional objectives. I don’t see how that makes a game more difficult or intimidating.

The main reason I started playing these games now is because playing through Assassin’s Creed III’s (ironically an open-world game) linear main missions gave me a taste for something with a greater sense of freedom. I don’t think that has to be mutually exclusive to the “one hit and you’re dead” system. Why can’t there be military shooters that still offer player empowerment while also offering the level of player choice displayed in hardcore tactical shooters? Far Cry 2 almost got there but is too shallow an experience, and Far Cry 3 made all its main missions linear again. I think Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is the closest modern game to what I’m asking for.

Basically, one of my dream games would be a tactical shooter that isn’t so punishing but still gives the player total control over the mission plan.


  • I’d forgotten about that American remake of District 13. Didn’t know Paul Walker and David Belle were in it either. Looks promising.
  • Wired has a pretty glowing write-up of that Nintendo F2P game.
  • First screenshots of that Daisuke Jigen movie.
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