If you’re playing one of the latest crop of shooters, your character is more likely to be dressed in a neon jumpsuit than army fatigues. Your battle arena probably isn’t a dystopian hellscape, but a sun-drenched city or a jewel-toned forest. The modern shooter is embracing more than the grim reality of combat. It knows that shooting gameplay is fun, and the look of today’s games is more likely to reflect that pure enjoyment with color, humor, and a heightened take on reality. Gritty is out. Goofy is in.
This type of aesthetic shift isn’t uncommon for shooters. There was the gory alien-blasting phase and the idealistic World War II phase that came before. Most recently, the sign of a shooter that wanted to reach dedicated fans was a somber, cynical attitude. That manifested in stories centered around deception and betrayal and a visual style that was equally dark and depressing.
Given the many years of that standard, a change to brighter fare isn’t a surprise, and it’s been in the works for a while. Think about the bright environments of Titanfall, the vibrant Guardian armor in Destiny, or the garish color palette of Sunset Overdrive. All three came out in 2014 and they all looked very different from anything else on the market at the time. The shooters we’ve gotten so far in 2016 have exploded in color, without sacrificing challenge or quality of gameplay.
Ratchet & Clank presented some of the most innovative alien worlds yet to grace a game. Sure, the story is kid-friendly and full of light-hearted jokes. It’s also a satisfying game to play for any age, complete with bizarre weapons and a few boss fights that take a couple passes to beat.
Then there’s Overwatch, Blizzard’s new shooter currently in open beta. It looks like a Pixar film, with characters including a pink-haired Russian soldier, a robot monk, a Brazilian DJ, and a super-intelligent gorilla. Even though it’s borrowing its visual style from kids’ movies, the strategy and skill required to excel is no child’s play. Each character has different strengths and weaknesses, and pulling together a team of five that can collaborate for a win demands that players bring flexibility to the table.
Battleborn is another shooter that blends style and substance. The cast of characters has just as much variety as Overwatch, and Gearbox Software seemed to take inspiration from the color riot of Saturday morning cartoons in their design. But the gameplay has MOBA roots. And, as you’d expect from a game in that lineage, the character skill caps are very high and multiplayer matches trend intense.
After several years where recreating the world we know was the big technical challenge, what comes next? Combining the best of realism and creativity. Putting all that graphics power toward creating more stylized universes and characters that keep the immersion but give players something new and truly original. Video game art has never been better, and we haven’t seen it peak yet. The new standard doesn’t need to be how well you imitate the known world, but how thoroughly you can transport players someplace totally fresh.
But what seems most exciting about the new wave of games is the sheer variety, especially for those players who might need a gentler introduction to the genre. Hop into a multiplayer match of Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare or its sequel and you’ll hear more kids than adults. Or Splatoon, which trades bullets and KDR for ink and territory acquisition, is a way to break in a friend who hasn’t picked up a shooter before. Finally, more people are picking up games across all ages, genders, races, and whatever other demographic data point you might choose. It’s about time to see that variety of humans (and non-humans, given the number of robots and sentient animals showing up in character rosters) reflected in the top games.
For those of us who have been deep in the genre for years, a new look doesn’t mean the end of the hard-edged power fantasy. There’s still a time and a place for the Serious Business shooter. There’s also a time when you don’t want a hamfisted ethics lesson or any further reminders that the world sucks. You just want a judgment-free escape into some fun with guns. That kind of gaming makes you happy, and it’s great to see shooters reflecting that joy out from the screen.