Incoming: What Call of Duty Could Learn From Arcade Games

dreamcast_18

Call of Duty could really stand to learn something from games like Rage Software’s 1998 Incoming. Playing it again made me realize how long it’s been since I played an arcade shooter, and how they accomplish a lot of what blockbuster shooters attempt.

So it’s 4am and I can’t sleep. I check Steam’s random deals section just because and spot the old favorite from the Dreamcast’s early days for $1.50, not even realizing it was on Steam. A couple minutes later and I’m playing the game and being retaught old lessons. And yes, this is a compliment on the infrastructure of  Steam as well as a lesson to sift through its “trash” every once in a while.

The first level of Incoming — the first 30 seconds after you hit “start new game,” quickly communicate the appeal points. You’re operating a stationary turret defending a base from aliens. The sound of the turret’s Gatling gun is immediately satisfying as it blows the alien ships into chunky 3D particles. You operate one directional input and two face buttons. A few seconds later you’re in a helicopter blowing up tanks below you into similarly chunky particles, introducing another directional input. The environment around you looks just “modern military” enough to seem cool while not looking over-designed or complicated. The game’s interface looks fancy and high-tech but only gives you exactly the information you need.

Games like COD have tried to sell on being accessible and quickly playable to a wide audience, and many games have tried to follow COD’s footsteps by doing the same things it does. Yet, when you start up COD the first entire level is a tutorial to teach you every single button on the controller, and by that point you’ve probably had to put up with barely-interactive storyline sequences. Maybe these games are accessible to a lot of people, especially people who already play first person shooters, but they certainly aren’t simple. What happened to pick-up-and-play?

And it’s not like Incoming is a completely dumb game either. Once in the helicopter and up against serious enemies you have to work out strategies for not dying all the time. After losing my first life I immediately began watching my radar, anticipating enemy movement patterns, and maneuvering behind bogeys. Then come challenges of three or four at a time in pincer formations. That’s called good enemy design in relation to the player’s abilities and environment. What do COD and other modern first-person shooters do? Put you in a corridor full of chest-high walls and copies of the same dude with an assault rifle.

This is one reason I’ve started to prefer older, non-military first person shooters like DOOM. Shooters of that era are generally more immediately playable, but also take care in the design of their enemies, weapons, and levels that you just don’t see in COD or the Battlefield 4 campaign. A freelancer at Kotaku recently described how that kind of care goes into Halo, particularly the mission “The Silent Cartographer” from Combat Evolved. He describes how Halo very rarely has you popping in and out of cover, but instead conducting a delicate dance for each enemy type, constantly adjusting your patterns for each new situation.

I think I know what happened: Gears of War got popular with its “stop and pop” gameplay rhythm and developers ran with it hoping to cash in on that game’s audience. But even Gears is much more than stop-and-pop. It has levels laid out to where you need to strategically shift between cover. It has various enemies designed to elicit specific behavior, and distinct weapons for distinct situations. The weapon limit in Gears and Halo play into that challenge of situational awareness. In most games I’ve seen, the two weapon limit just means choosing between this assault rifle or that pistol or that RPG.

Incoming exhibits that same variety of gameplay but in a slightly different way. After that helicopter section, boom, you’re in a tank fighting a land-based battle with a similar but different strategic approach with similarly simple controls. Look away, now look back! You’re back in the helicopter with a new enemy introduced. Now look again! You’re back in the turret dealing with those new guys. Then you’re in an alien space ship.

Someone reading this might be thinking that we already have recent arcade shooters like Resogun or Super Stardust, and I’ll admit we definitely have shmups these days. What we don’t have a lot of however are genuine 3D arcade shooters. Incoming was well-regarded back in 1998 and 1999 because it was a simple arcade shooter with graphics that were then worthy of a full-retail console game. Actually, that’s what made up a lot of the Dreamcast’s library — easy-to-grasp arcade games with top-of-the-line graphics. Imagine if a game as simple as Incoming had environments and explosions that look like the ones in BF4. What we don’t have today are high-fidelity arcade shooters, but what we have a lot of are high-fidelity games trying to nail the same accessibility arcade shooters did, but with almost none of the simplicity.

Maybe the developers of today’s shooters just never thought about looking back at arcade games. They do have very different heritages — today’s COD originating from the PC world and Incoming feeling more like a Japanese arcade game. Perhaps a game that tries to cross the streams would be a good idea…

BULLETS:

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