In my last post, I wrote about Duke Nukem Forever and how I’m looking forward to it for reasons most people aren’t—because it will likely feel dated. One of the things I miss most in modern shooters is the boss battle. You don’t see them much anymore, at least not like you used to back in the day.
Like most other genres, first-person shooters used to feature clearly defined levels with a boss battle at the end. If not in every level, there were at least a few bosses, and you could count on one big final boss.
Boss battles are defined by an end point (or arena) in a level, in which you must fight a bigger and more difficult foe than the rest of the level in order to progress. Usually, they require endurance—being tougher than most enemies—and trial and error until you figure out their pattern and the correct strategy to defeat them. One example that instantly springs to mind is the final boss in Metroid Prime, because it was huge, and I never beat it. Great boss battles were sprinkled throughout Metroid Prime, and they boasted the doubly satisfying pay off of both beating the boss and earning an upgrade to your weapons or suit abilities.
These days, boss fights are scarce in all shooters; you’re lucky if you even get a final boss. Because it’s fresh in my memory, I’m going to use Crysis 2 as an example, but my specific criticisms apply generally to many popular modern shooters: Halo, Call of Duty, and Gears of War (yes, I’m aware it’s third-person perspective) being some of the main offenders. In Crysis 2, you fight off an alien invasion of NYC using guns and a nanosuit that grants you all sorts of cool abilities, from cloaking to tactical support. Along the way, you fight consistently tough, smart enemies who will stop at nothing to kill you. The closest you’ll ever come to a boss fight is an encounter with a Pinger, a giant, bi-pedal, robot-like thing that looks like one of the invaders in Spielberg’s adaptation of “War of the Worlds.” The encounter occurs about halfway through the game, and it is awe-inspiring and reminiscent of a boss battle, but it’s not the real thing.
Crysis 2 follows the same model of the false boss fight as many modern shooters. It introduces a larger foe and makes the first encounter feel like a boss battle. Outside of the larger mass, the Pinger lacks any characteristics of a boss. The battle is not confined to an arena. The Pinger is bigger and requires more firepower and endurance to kill, but you don’t have to learn its pattern or an elaborate strategy to defeat it. There is no reward for defeating it except progressing further in the story. How much cooler would it be if you unlocked your nanosuit powers after defeating multiple bosses throughout the game?
Worst of all, the Pinger is the only enemy in the game that can be considered boss-like. Like too many other modern shooters, Crysis 2 recycles the Pinger “boss” repeatedly until it just becomes one enemy in a larger battle. Older games used to turn early bosses into sub-bosses later in the game, but they also had new real bosses for you to fight at the end of the level. Modern shooters have something that resembles a boss, but it’s often one endlessly recycled enemy that just requires more firepower to kill.
And like most other modern shooters, there is a distinct lack of a final boss in Crysis 2. There is a big battle at an intersection featuring multiple Pingers, followed by a battle with a bunch of cloaked standard enemies, followed by an end sequence. Too many shooters now require a simple button press at the end, as if that was all that was really needed to save the world. You have to fight through a horde of enemies so you can flip a switch and call it a day.
I blame it on reliance to (shoddy) storytelling more than anything, which ignores the primary reason we play games. The limp, clichéd story takes so much importance that gameplay gets shoved aside. There are cases such as Call of Duty where a big final boss fight would make little sense and the scripted, plot-advancing encounters are a logical, perhaps stunning innovation. I don’t expect to fight a 50-foot monster in Call of Duty. That said, even Bioshock managed to have a pretty cool final boss, and it featured the greatest and most cinematic video game story of all time.
Maybe it’s part of the growing trend of making games more accessible to everybody. Developers want more people to be able to experience the complete game and finish the story, so they end it with a simple button press followed by a cutscene instead of challenging the player with a final boss. With shooters being the most popular genre, it makes sense they would lose the bosses. Older games were shorter and lacked deep stories, so they often had to feature punishing difficulty and brutal final bosses that required dozens of attempts to retain value. If I’m correct, that still points to developers favoring story (and mainstream appeal) over compelling gameplay. If I’m wrong, then I’m clearly missing something. Maybe I’m just dated.