I’ve been contemplating the auto-aim feature of contemporary first person shooter campaign modes for a while and have struggled with it conceptually. The reason for its inclusion in current-generation FPS seems unintuitive or at the very least, counter productive. Given that the focus of most of these games is on competitive online multiplayer where not only is it not allowed, but it’s actually considered a ban-worthy offense, the feature’s prevalence in campaign and co-op modes is striking in its lack of ongoing usefulness.
There are a few reasons for its inclusion that I can surmise. First, as I mentioned in my LA Noire review, as games continue to borrow from cinema, gunfights become increasingly predictable. Put another way, heroes don’t miss. The industry standard for modern FPS (at least the military FPS that flood the market) remains Call of Duty and its bombastic set pieces. The campaign mode in CoD is structured entirely around those cinematic set pieces, and in order to reach them competently, quickly, and in dramatic fashion, enemies must die in calculated fashion. Missing feels too pedestrian.
These set pieces also create a necessity for the auto-aim feature, though. Because very few popular military FPS are proper simulations–ie, single shot deaths, the inability to recover health by staying behind cover for an indeterminate period of time–the way to increase the game’s difficulty–in addition to adding a cinematic, army-of-one environment–is to bombard the player with countless enemies. Without the ability to quickly and accurately snap between hordes of oncoming baddies, the probability of not being completely engulfed in enemy fire quickly approaches zero.
Both of these concepts are supported by the infamous airport scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The scene attempted to be a shocking depiction of terrorist tactics and warfare, and make a statement that video games can act as social commentary. However, the level is far more interesting conceptually. To my mind, other than vehicular set pieces in the CoD games in which you’re practically invincible, the airport scene is the only level in which the auto-aim feature isn’t offered. Think about how gruesome that would be: the ability to lock on to innocent citizens as they cower in fear. It would make a terrifying scenario far more disturbing. Instead, you’re asked to spray and pray through a crowd of unarmed travelers. While this tactic makes you a far more lethal killer* (in a macro sense), it also highlights a strong dynamic: not only are terrorists reckless, they’re also unskilled and untrained; heroes never miss, but terrorists are wanton in their execution.
After terrorizing an airport full of civilians, you’re eventually confronted with a literal wall of enemies: police officers carrying riot shields. At this point, you’re once again afforded the auto-aim feature, but rather than finding the exposed areas of your targets, you lock onto the chest of your combatants who are hidden behind bullet-proof shields. Though you eventually prevail, the concept is driven home: terrorists attack in an unplanned, undisciplined, and less effective manner than covert ops.
The first FPS that I can remember with auto-aim was Nintendo 64’s Goldeneye. At least one of the above notions applies–that of cinematic fidelity and heroic roleplaying–but more expressly, the auto-aim feature was instituted in the game because of the wonky control scheme. While in current FPS, the auto-aim feature engages when you aim down the sights, Goldeneye was the exact opposite: aiming down the sights meant you were on your own, but if you “fire from the hip”, which when Goldeneye was released was simply thought of as “firing”, the game will auto-lock onto enemies in the vicinity of your crosshairs.
The issue in Goldeneye, which has been rectified by the two-analog stick system, is the ability to move when aiming down the sights of your gun. In Goldeneye, if you aimed down the sights, you were stationary, but it allowed you full usability of the 3D space. When firing from the hip, you were largely relegated to a single horizontal plane, necessitating some form of auto-aiming.
There are, obviously, a few FPS (or first-person perspective games, at least) that don’t offer the auto-aim feature, such as the BioShock or The Elder Scrolls series. Those games pride themselves on experiences, unlike the military FPS that seem more interested in visuals. There are few moments in gaming more exhilarating than being chased by crazed citizens of BioShock’s Rapture and struggling to shoot them. The overwhelming sense of terror is drawn by your inability to quickly dispense of an oncoming maniac. When’s the last time anyone was actually panicked playing a single-player campaign mode in a military FPS? This is not to say that one system is better than the other, but it does highlight the different approaches to creating these games.
So it makes sense why modern military FPS include auto-aim in their respective campaign modes, but at what cost to the eventual product? People complain about FPS being relegated to old-school rail-shooter territory, except in rail shooters, you typically had complete control over your aim. So it comes down to whether or not you’re impressed by watching things digitally blow up or not because by the time you’re done mowing your way through machine gun-equipped pylons, that’s all that’s left.
*You can rule out this reasoning for the removal of auto-aim when you take into account that you’re forced to walk through the entire airport. You would be far more lethal if you had the ability to run, but the game Tried To Make A Statement by forcing you to walk slowly past all of the dead bodies you just mercilessly slayed.