Every time a new shooter launches, I start a countdown until it becomes a clown show of brands and hideous skins

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Every time a new shooter launches, I start a countdown until it becomes a clown show of brands and hideous skins

There’s an epidemic of ugliness in multiplayer shooters. Its cause goes by many names—the skin, bundle, drop, outfit, coating, or its most generic moniker, the cosmetic. Unassuming at its onset and quiet by nature, Cosmetic Uglification is a viral affliction infecting the best shooters of our time. When left unchecked, all semblance of aesthetic cohesion is sacrificed at the altar of individual expression, exclusivity, and FOMO. Every shooter I love is becoming visual ooze before my very eyes.

Signs of Cosmetic Uglification are everywhere: in spec ops soldiers trading tactical vests for diamond-laced streetwear, elite operators wearing Lara Croft cosplay, or commandos going loud in pajamas. As seasons rage on, live service games garner years worth of stylistic baggage unique to our post-Fortnite world. It’s become normal to watch shooters that once flaunted a style of their own be infiltrated by garish outfits and pop culture guest stars. Throw in enough Mortys and Santa outfits and even the strongest art direction eventually becomes unremarkable mush. The very items that can drive us to play our favorite games longer also have the capability to erode their appeal.

I recently had a moment of clarity in Call of Duty while being brutally executed by Diablo 4’s Lilith holding an AK-47: Cosmetic Uglification never happens all at once, but the cycle always begins at launch, and it can take over before you realize it’s there.

The pattern

There’s no better time to enjoy a shooter’s style than when it first comes out and a full party of operators actually look like characters in the same world. We really don’t give default outfits enough credit. Yes, they’re basic, but they’re often among the most detailed, iconic, and well-crafted forms our heroes and operators can take. That’s no surprise since it’s how the characters were originally conceived to look—outfits that prevailed through months or years of concepting and discussion. They’re way more special than their “common” rarity tag implies, but it’s hard to resist switching things up when a battle pass comes along or new store items drop that promise you can look a little different than everyone else.

(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

In the early days of a shooter, player fashion is in line with the game’s style even if you splash some cash. Immediately available store cosmetics are often charms, gun skins, or simple color variations on default outfits. But give developers enough time, and the silly skins start to arrive. It’s becoming a regular thing to return to a shooter after six months or a year and smack face-first into sensory whiplash as a once-visually coherent game has become a clown show of brands.

Everybody looked cool, but nobody looked like they belonged.

The trend is most noticeable in Call of Duty, where operator bundles sporting glowing jackets, pumpkin heads, and exploding kill effects live alongside $20 packs that let you become actual celebrities like 21 Savage and Nicki Minaj. Back in December of 2022, the final prize on the Modern Warfare 2 season 1 battle pass was a guy with a helmet. In season 6, battle pass skins include a Groot-like tree monster that’s so hard to see that Activision removed it from the game, and Spawn from the comic Spawn. The same thing happened over the course of 2020 in Warzone as the original tacticool operators were outshined by the arrival of Rambo, John McClane, and Godzilla.

When I returned to Modern Warfare 2, I couldn’t find anyone using the base operators I enjoyed at launch. It was a sea of Groots, flaming skull heads, weirdo clowns, and a robot woman exclusive to the $30 Blackcell battle pass. Everybody looked cool, but nobody looked like they belonged.

A screenshot of the Call of Duty in-game store, showing a series of increasingly out-of-place cosmetic bundles and featuring a Nicki Minaj skin.

(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

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