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Veteran Member - Level 13
The main difference between level design in classic shooters and level design in modern shooters is the overall mindset. In classic shooters, enemies didn’t drop a ton of ammo. Maybe ten rounds for your Uzi in Shadow Warrior or a few rockets for your Rocket Launcher in Doom, but nothing that could last you through the whole stage.
The levels were always open-ended, and filled to the brim with secrets. Did you know there’s a missile launcher hidden in the first level of Doom? Or extra grenades behind a poster in the first level of Shadow Warrior? It added replay value to the stages, giving you more things to do every playthrough.
What great hidden weapons did you find in Call of Duty: Black Ops? What fun secret ammo caches did you find? Modern FPS games usually want to shuffle you along the path, making sure you see all the set pieces in due time and hearing your faceless comrades yell orders to you.
Quick quest: What’s stopping the level design from being akin to Duke Nukem? I’m serious, Duke Nukem 3D’s second level has a set piece moment where you witness a skyscraper get destroyed. This is probably the precursor to the explosive set pieces you see in Call of Duty, but here’s the thing. The level was expansive enough for you to clear out the enemies guarding the detonator however you wanted to. After the building explodes, you still get the freedom to clear the rest of the level however you want.
Speaking of Duke Nukem 3D, Hollywood Holocaust is a very simple, yet effective level. There’s no sprawling complex for you to explore, nor is there a fleet of enemy soldiers marching in. There’s just a movie theater. A very well designed movie theater at that. There are tons of secrets to find, in fact, there are two secrets that get you powerful weapons just at the start!
Sadly, I must once again turn to Bioshock Infinite to show off bad level design. While the levels are extremely atmospheric and open, they end up feeling more pointless than anything else. There’s no need to search every nook and cranny for ammunition, because Elizabeth will just throw it at you. When you have Liz in the game, there’s no reason to open up your levels like that, especially after the Vox Populi take control and there’s no longer interesting visuals.
However, the first Bioshock feels like the polar opposite of that. Your guns rarely have enough ammo to Rambo through a mob of splicers, causing you to search every nook and cranny to find ammunition for your guns. Unlike Bioshock Infinite, your weapons are all very distinct and have their own advantages. So if you want to survive against the different foes, you’ll need some ammunition for all weapons.
That’s the mindset I want to see in more first person shooters. If you don’t explore the level, your chances of survival will be slimmer. To make that possible, your level design has to be open. Yet, an open battlefield isn’t always the answer. You can make your levels as large or small as you like, as long as three things are true.
One, make sure it’s not too linear. Sure there has to be end of the level, but having multiple paths always adds to the replay value, and overall fun. Having nothing but a glorified hallway with a fancy skybox doesn’t give the player any incentive to replay it.
Next, the open level needs to have some meat to it. A vast world with absolutely nothing to do is often worse than a linear level. Even if you’re not going to put in secret areas, at least put in multiple vantages points to take down your foes. If the open-endedness ends up just being an illusion, it doesn’t need to be there.
And finally, atmosphere. If the levels all look the same, they will rarely be memorable enough to warrant a revisit. Even Doom, which I’ve done nothing but praise in this series so far, has fallen victim to this common trap. Levels all seem to have the same atmosphere, and you can’t immediately notice the difference.
In conclusion, if you’re going to design a shooter, don’t make it a bunch of empty corridors with some enemies that pop up. You can’t rely on your gameplay alone to carry the game. After all, one of the best ways to tell a story is through the location around you. Tune in once again tomorrow for my thoughts on FPS storytelling.