Thursday, November 25, 2010

Most Breathtaking Moments in Gaming

Here, you'll have the pleasure of reading my gushing about some of my favorite moments in gaming. I was gonna use "Awesome" or "Artful" moments, but I think "Breathtaking" is the verbiage best-suited for my cause. A “Breathtaking Moment in Gaming” is defined by a few parameters, indicated as followed:

- Memorability; will I remember this scene/sequence in five or ten years, after I've completed another fifty to one hundred games?? Or, did I play the game five to ten years ago, and still clearly remember the scene??

- Description of the human condition; does this particular scene make a reflection on the plight of humanity?? Does it sympathize, or otherwise effectively address, the human struggle?? Does it resonate with the player's heart/conscience after they’ve effectively spilled buckets of enemies' blood and emptying thousands of rounds of ammunition??

- Redemption/Condemnation; does this scene carry with it a meaning deeper than what is portrayed?? Does it have a theme(s) that are typically involved with classical Literature or cinema??

This list operates outside of standard gameplay conventions. Awkward controls, inane objectives, and dated graphics are all riding backseat today to the human spirit's influence in producing great video games. I narrowed the list down to five, and I will be counting down in order of preference, with #1 being my personal favorite. Had I included my entire list of awesome moments, this article would suffer both from lack of readership and lack of focus.

Two disclaimers:
- These are moments in gaming that I find personally to be touching; little to no discussion/research has been involved in their selection, nor have I attributed their greatness to poll results from any published source.
- Despite being the gaming enthusiast I fancy myself to be, I have not played a great many games that are considered "classics," therefore my list will be void of moments from several games that millions of gamers hold close to their hearts.

I've successfully dodged all Kingdom Hearts games, most of the Final Fantasy series and Final Fantasy spin-offs, and all notable Playstation 3 and Wii games, just to name a few. This is not because I have a bias towards Microsoft and/or Xbox, but simply because my budgets of time and money over the past ten years have not allowed me to enjoy as many games as I truly would like to have played.

- Spoiler Warnings –

First, a few honorable mentions:

- Killing/Sparing Darko Brevic, Grand Theft Auto 4 (Xbox 360, 2008)
- Breaching the Citadel, Half Life 2 (Xbox, 2005)
- Conversation with Sovereign, Mass Effect (Xbox 360, 2007)
- Invasion of the Normandy 2, Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, 2010)
- Landing Ultra Combos in Multiplayer, Super Street Fighter 4 (Xbox 360, 2010)
- First Emergence from Temple of Time as an Adult, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998)
- Dead Nicole, Dead Space (Xbox 360, 2008)

Breathtaking Moment #5 - Bird Colossus battle, Shadow of the Colossus (PS2, 2005)

Shadow of the Colossus is a truly unique game. It broke the mold when it first came out, introducing genre-bending gameplay, indefinable aesthetics, and a mysterious story. Critics and fans alike rave about this game, and it, quite daringly, brought a concept previously familiar only to fine art and artists to the gaming masses that can only be thought of as insane in the context of a videogame: minimalism. Gaming has always been a race to produce games that are more extreme, more exciting, more chaotic; Sony Computer Entertainment of Japan took a huge risk in keeping the game in such a tight focus: boss battles, light platforming, and exploration. Present only enough of a story to give the player a subject to drive the one objective.

While there is much to say about this game, one battle stands out from the rest: Colossus five, the bird. In a shape that can best be described as a flying crucifix, the "a-ha" moment that accompanies solving the puzzle of mounting this beast is immensely satisfying. The player, in his quest to slay sixteen giant beasts in a desolate land, must stab them in weak points, denoted on their bodies by magical, glowing insignias. The first four land lubbers are pretty self-explanatory, as are all but a handful of the beasts. When this beast came soaring on to the scene, my thoughts were optimistic, because I would just wait for it to land, jump on it, stab it, and move on to the next battle.

Much to my surprise, the beast will not land anywhere near me. The arena in question is a spacious, open lake, with only a handful of small temples, statues, and bunkers dotting the landscape in a (as I recall) symmetrical fashion. The menace perched atop towering obelisks, mocking my feeble body as I swam to safety again and again in my attempts to trick him in to landing. His primary method of dealing damage is to sweep down and in toward the player, slamming him with his stone-brimmed wings.

Only after an hour or so of deliberation and frustration was I able to mount the beast the only way I've ever figured out is possible - by jumping and grabbing onto the beast – mid flight. Only by jumping onto a tuft of fur on the innermost portion of the wing during the midst of his barrage was I able to latch onto my foe. My relief was short-lived however, because my foe immediately departed for the skies, and all the landscape I had become familiar with faded into the distance as I was dragged hundreds of feet into the air. As the beast writhed and flailed, I postulated that failure to manage my grip gauge efficiently would likely result in an instant death, and therefore, starting from scratch at the landing near the lake.

Clawing my way around the anatomical landscape of the Colossus, I managed to locate three weak points: the tips of the wings and right behind the head, on top of the neck. I clearly recall my heart pounding as my grip gauge slipped further and further into impotence, rendering me closer and closer to a virtual death, and a very real failure. Soaring through the sky elicits a dreadful sense of height, which is especially impressive given the limitations of the hardware on which it operated. Colossus five is a special breed of battle, one of the few that incurred in me a genuine sense of dread. I felt especially accomplished as they giant beast plunged into the lake with its dying breath.

Breathtaking Moment #4 - Underwater Hyrule, Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Gamecube, 2003)

I’ll come right out and say that I took a solid three years to finish Wind Waker. Having cut my teeth on Ocarina of Time and later, Majora’s Mask, the “kiddie” style of Link and the cel-shaded environment as a whole really put me off. I must confess that losing interest in a game due to its art style is quite shallow, and once I overcame my ego and finally settled into the idea of playing a game whose surface appeals to a kindergarten class, I really sunk my teeth into the game. It only took three restarted games, but Wind Waker finally took hold of my urge for adventure and elegant puzzle-dungeons.

I still was a bit irked by the setting, though. I played Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and even played A Link to the Past on the GameBoy Advance for kicks, and after spending my adolescence tramping through overworlds that featured mountains, lakes, valleys, farms, fields, and other lush and intriguing landscapes, I quickly grew bored of sailing from island to island. While the islands themselves were intricate and held plenty of character, and the ocean gave a great sense of scale, the time-consuming journeys among the islands grew tiring.

Despite the feeling that the game desperately needed an overworld, I was waist-deep in Wind Waker when I was thrown on my head; in the quest for the Master Sword, the player is sent under the waves to the long-forgotten Hyrule Castle. Hyrule Castle, being sealed in a bubble, has the ocean surrounding it, and the rest of the Kingdom of Hyrule that I all came to know and love in our youth was submerged beneath the waves that I was growing accustomed to sailing upon!! Within the castle I faced a brawl with some of the toughest enemies of the game, and I was rewarded with a staple of the series: the Master Sword, which unsheathed with an elegant sheen. I remember feeling pity for the world which characterized the Nintendo 64 console for me, which is a rare feeling to be evoked from video games. From this moment on, the game had a real kick in the pants, and I plowed through it with great enthusiasm. Considering how Hyrule felt like a home with its familiarity, welcoming environments and memorable characters, the image of the kingdom in a state of indefinite suspension evokes feelings of alienation and loss.

Breathtaking Moment #3 - Rally Point Omega, Halo: Reach (XBox 360, 2010)

I must inform you that I carefully considered that the shock value of this game may still be reverberating in my heart, but I have chosen to include it, nonetheless. Halo: Reach maintains a dim and gloomy atmosphere while hope is the driving force to stay the course, and complete the mission at hand. The entire game revolves around the concept of sacrifice and loss, two themes that are rare in videogames, and near-absent from first-person shooters.

Rally Point Omega is the after-credit sequence of Halo: Reach. While Halo fans have been accustomed to a sneak-peek at some future iteration of the game, a mysterious cutscene, or a humorous bit of play, Halo: Reach did away with that tradition. In its place is a remarkable end-of-game sequence, and what is certainly a strong testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable opposition.

As previously mentioned, the campaign revolves around sacrifice. The player's squadmates on Noble team all end up making the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, with most of the team expiring while looking their death straight in the eye and engaging in what was necessary to secure the objective at hand. Jorge, Carter, and Emile all wittingly and willfully faced certain deaths in their duty, which really propels the importance of the task at hand that ultimately falls on the shoulders of the player, Noble 6. Noble 6 successfully delivers "The Package" and protects Captain Keyes as he takes the precious cargo aboard the Pillar of Autumn.

The meaning of selflessness is really accentuated in the after-credit sequence. While seeing all of one's teammates sacrifice their lives to keep the mission alive and not lose hope, Rally Point Omega really brings the sacrifice of Noble Team to light. Noble 6, choosing to operate the MAC cannon from the ground to protect the Pillar of Autumn as it departs for outer space, is not able to escape planet Reach while the Covenant fully invade and "glass" the planet. The Pillar of Autumn takes off, the credits roll, and then players once again are behind the visor of Noble 6.

I checked the mission objectives: Survive. I immediately knew that this mission is never meant to be completed. I scrounge about for some new weapons, and the battle ensues. Elites, grunts, jackals and skirmishers circle around me. At first, the battle is manageable. However, the numbers of foes and their aggression and cunning increase and they gradually become an unstoppable force. The covenant fleet clogs the sky, dropships, banshees and spirits fly about freely, as they have no fear of resistance from the dwindling population of their now-conquered planet. After last-ditch evacuation attempts, the rest of the population has been laid to waste by invading armies or bursts of plasma from covenant warships. Soon, my helmet cracks, rendering the battle all the more one-sided as my visibility is drastically impaired. Soon, my shields and health expire, and Noble 6 throws his damaged helmet to the ground as the helmet-mounted camera records his last moments of struggling before the Elites surrounding finally put Noble 6 to death. By this time, I understand what it took to give humanity some hope, as did the rest of Noble team before me.

Breathtaking Moment #2 - Smothering Mary, Silent Hill 2 (PS2, 2001)

Silent Hill 2 is a gem of the video game market. Despite being part of a franchise, as a standalone title it rivals Shadow of the Colossus in terms of inimitability. It features slow, methodical gameplay and puzzles with vague hints and irrational solutions (coin puzzle, anyone?). Also, it’s the single most disturbing game I’ve ever played, both with respect to completely enveloping me in the eerie atmosphere, as well as with respect to content and themes. Bullying, murder, suicide, rape, incest, and terminal illness take center stage here. Cheap thrills and closet monsters ride backseat to brooding, mystery, dread and psychological fear.

The story is a bizarre one, with the widower, James Sunderland, being invited to a place of intimacy that he and his wife, Mary, shared before she passed away. The puzzling part that drives the entire game is that Mary has been dead for some time, and the letter addressed to James has been signed by Mary herself, and she invited him to visit her at their “special place,” being the hotel room they shared on a vacation.

Without going into great detail about the game, for sake of spoiling it, there are four real endings to the game, and they all play out the same. The player plays through the game, is scared as hell for eight to twelve hours, and lastly, something depressing happens. Although the game features more than one ending, the gameplay and plot do not deviate from base line at all, as the endings are dictated by the player’s interaction with a key character.

The plot’s mechanism revolves around James looking for his wife, and asking the handful of deranged cohabitants of Silent Hill if they know of her, or have seen her. These characters are all worthy of some deliberation in and of themselves due to their erratic behavior and seriously disturbing backgrounds. But all the same, James takes every moment that he can to reflect on how much he misses his Mary, and how confused he is about the origin of the letter sent to him from his dead wife.

Where Silent Hill 2 is likely to invoke horrible reactions out of some folks is during the home stretch of the game. James discovers a home video tape of his late wife that he recorded while they were on vacation. The touching video, which he views on a VCR in the room in which it was filmed, Mary elaborates on the splendid atmosphere and aesthetics of the town, and then begins coughing and it is revealed to the player that Mary is terminally ill – meaning, she is diagnosed with a disease that has no cure, and ultimately is fatal, i.e. cancer.

The game is daringly vague about plot, and no matter which ending is viewed, no substantial closure is provided. One thing is clear though: James smothered Mary with a pillow while she was lying sick on her bed. After Mary has her coughing fit at the end of the home video, the scene changes to a hospital room as James suffocates his wife, in an attempt to end her suffering. Certainly, the gravity of the home video has to be seen in order to really be appreciated.

This is the only game that I’ve played that really connects to the human heart with respect to suffering. Anyone who has ever seen a loved one in pain knows that it is dreadfully heartwrenching. Konami had the nerve, at the turn of the millennium, to make a game that revolves around this very personal theme. The game is open for interpretation, much like controversial endings in film or literature. I interpret it as follows: James’ act of killing his wife is an act of selfishness, because he could not bear to see Mary enduring such suffering. He killed her to end his own suffering instead of letting her stay with treatment in the hope recovering. Seeing as how it is a selfish act, the spirits of Silent Hill saw fit to punish James. Apparently he tricked himself into believing that she died directly as a result of the disease, the omnipotent town led him to the place he most associated with his happy marriage and forced him to confront his selfish denial.

Breathtaking Moment #1 – Killing the Boss, Metal Gear Solid 3 (PS2, 2005)

Metal Gear Solid is an outstanding game by itself. It could have ended with the traditional Metal Gear boss battle, involving ridiculous enemies with exaggerated powers and an onslaught of Metal Gear bipedal robot war machines, and it would have been a great game all the same. However, Kojima-san and company chose instead to dive into the realm of symbolism and art. Killing the Boss is as artistic and beautiful as it is gutwrenching and inevitable.

The Boss, appropriately named, is the final boss of the game. The battle carries much emotional weight with it, because the Boss is both the mentor of, and a mother figure to, the main character of the game. Seeing her defect to the enemies is as heartbreaking as it is confusing, especially as the cinematic cutscenes throughout the game display her tolerating the cruelty, greed and bigotry of her new team.

The battle itself takes place in an open field, with only a few fallen logs and a tree or two to provide cover. The circular arena is otherwise covered in beautiful, white wildflowers. The player is free to shoot the Boss, but she will only engage you in close-quarters combat (CQC) for reasons that are later disclosed. The combined applications of stealth, vigilance and reflex make for an exciting, fast-paced battle. Being lathered in beautiful, white flower petals make it feel all the more intimate. The real tear-jerker comes after the Boss’ stamina has been depleted.

After a moving cutscene in which the Boss lauds the main character for his loyalty to his country, praises him for his growth – both as a person and a soldier, and confides in him her last laments, she asks for the player to put her out of her misery. But this isn’t left to a cutscene – the player must actually pull the trigger on the controller. It is stamped on my mind like a bad memory, the image of Snake standing over the Boss, gun in hand, aiming at her head. I tried every possible button combination, and then stood; waiting for the screen to change but the image remained the same, waiting for my command. Finally, after what felt like hours of trying to change my fate, I gave in and dealt the Boss her death sentence, an unjust execution in the name of global peace. There is no other game on the market that forces such a heartbreaking confrontation on a player, and is therefore worthy of praise and commendation.

That’s it, folks. These are moments that stuck the sharpest knives in my throat. Agree?? Disagree?? Did a few touching memories from some of your favorite games come to mind as you read about mine?? Post in the comments section, or go ahead and start some discussion on Facebook!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reflections: Call of Duty: Black Ops

Another year, another Call of Duty, another 20 million men between fourteen and forty years of age living out their inner bloodlust fantasies. Black Ops is the same old dance to a slightly different song, and there's plenty of content to enjoy here. Go ahead and skip to the multiplayer portion of the review if you so desire - it is highlighted a little further down the scrollbar.

Let's first establish this: if you, the reader, are not a fan of Call of Duty, the most recent iteration will not do much to please you. As previously mentioned, this game is more of the same. Compared to other franchises, it could more appropriately be labeled as an expansion pack to the CoD series than a sequel. We're still trotting through warzones, aiming down our sights, shooting, throwing grenades, and going prone when the screen is red. There is little departure here from what fans have come to expect.

The game looks good - as do most games on this generation of consoles. With a multi-million dollar budget, Treyarch has crafted sprawling vistas, cramped tunnels with roots hanging from the ceilings and mud on the floor, fiery explosions and beautiful plumes of smoke. Standard fare for action games, and well-polished. Vehicle sequences deliver satisfying sensations of speed, as well. I dare to say that this is the best-looking NVA/Russian murder simulator that has ever been released.

Characters look great, too. The attention to detail on the outfits of Woods, Bowman, Reznov and the whole crew would flatter the manufacturers of such fatigues. Some of the faces look a bit plastic, and Reznov's facial hair looks like it came from a dollar-store, but these are minor complaints, even to the critic's eye. From mud-smeared faces to the buttons on the pockets of your squadmates, there's a lot of eye candy to oogle at in between bouts of chaos. Lip-synching is well-timed, which is great considering the amount of orders a player will be taking from angry, impatient veterans.

Black Ops introduced a delightful storytelling mechanism to the CoD franchise. Instead of playing through a campaign in present-time, first-person narrative, the missions are introduced via a series of flashbacks. Alex Mason, the main character is under interrogation, and the game consists of playing through his memories, and the occasional mission from a squadmate's past. Some jazz about number sequences (that I won't spoil for you) and secret weapons keep things moving, but many of the missions felt tired by the end of the campaign because only a handful of missions really reveal anything substantial regarding the plot.

The plot in itself is nothing revolutionary, and basically gives a player a few good reasons to mow down multitudes of foreign faces. A few memorable missions are placed throughout with some regularity, but the plot unfolds at a very slooooooow pace. Also, the tie-in character from Treyarch's previous CoD game, World at War, gives the game a welcoming sense of familiarity. In terms of quantity of information, the whole plot could be written by hand in a few minutes, but no one purchased this game to question their goals in life - we wanna be blown away by visceral engagements and thrilling firefights.

Personally, the best part of the campaign, hands down, was the interrogation scene in the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) tunnels. Although, with respect to realism, the game hardly takes itself seriously, this scene really brought to life the inhumane torture practiced by the NVA and Viet Cong during the infamous Vietnam War. Being forced to play Russian roulette with your squad's leader, and then the subsequent daring escape from the rat tunnels really had my heart pounding.

Black Ops features an impressive variety of sound effects. Every gun has its own unique firing sound, every firing sound has a different tambre depending on the location from which it's fired. Tunnels, empty buildings, the great outdoors and cramped alleys all carry unique variations of the sounds of gunfire - an impressive feat for a game with over twenty unique weapons. The ejection and replacement of magazines during reloading animations all sound clean and crisp, and CoD's trademark "tat-tat-tat" of bullets tearing through fabric and flesh are all clear and present, and as welcome as ever.

I must say that Treyarch overjumped their destination, to my dismay. While it is obligatory for a game that takes place in a war zone to feature banging and booming all the live-long day, there were more than a few occasions in which I just kinda felt like a piece of meat getting bombarded by the sounds of gunfire and grenades more than the gunfire and grenades themselves. In all seriousness, I advise keeping this game at lower volume than players are accustomed to because of the sheer noise factor. At more than one occasion, my ears rang from the constant pounding and cackling of gunfire and explosions.

Additionally, there is one objective in particular, during a very particular mission, in which the sounds of enemy gunfire drown out some mission-critical information. The resulting confusion will incite frustration and rage in every one of you (the readers), as it has in every one before you, so you RUN DOWN THE HILL AND PRESS THE "USE" BUTTON ON THE THREE BARRELS to progress. Having revisited the mission, Mr. Woods indeed is very clear in his instruction, and even shows you an example of what must be done, he's just difficult to hear.


Here's what we came for. The price of admission is justified in the dozens of hours we'll be logging into this epic time-sink. Once again, if previous entries in the Call of Duty series didn't spring you, this one isn't likely to sweep you off of your feet. But in the likelihood that you do, go ahead and jump in - the water's warm.

Treyarch apparently listened to the legions of fans who inundated Activision's inbox with tales of frustration, rage, and trade-in ultimatums. Wisely, many issues of imbalance have been addressed, and make MW2 feel like the beta-version of this shooter.
Gone are the days of:
- Semi-automatic .50-cal rifle
- Dual Wield shotguns of any sort
- Noob Tube + Scavenger + Danger Close = infinite supply of tactical nukes
- Quick-dives
- Marathon + Lightweight + Commando = War zone ninja
- Carry-over kills from killstreaks

Actually, much to my surprise, taking Black Ops online is nowhere near as infuriating as the Modern Warfare 2 experience proved to be. Yes, it's still possible to corner camp, and yes, sometimes knife kills will charge right through a bullet to the chest, but other than that if it pissed enough people off, it has been fixed.

The infamous diving that some players would utilize to immediately go prone to dodge a volley of bullets has been addressed, as sudden changes in stance -especially from a sprint- are accompanied by a brief moment of impotence as the weapon is shifted about. Also, the grenade launcher attachment for assault rifles has been toned down with a much more drastic arc. Whereas the grenades from MW2's attachments flew in what can best be described as a derivative of a straight line, the grenades in Black Ops have a truly arc-like trajectory, which must be taken into account before firing, which makes cross-map instant kills less of a possibility, and taking some of the "n00b" out of the "n00b tube." I won't kid, the grenades are still a very potent part of an arsenal, but the inability to gain additional attachment grenades via scavenger, and the complete removal of the "Danger Close" perk (which amplified explosive damage and blast radius) has reduced the grenade launcher attachment from a game-changer to a useful tool; a change I'm sure many players are welcoming.

I must say that the maps are well-designed. Favoring -in order of preference- domination, team deathmatch, headquarters, and demolition, the maps I've played on have placed the objectives in areas that are, by and large, challenging to both assault and defend. Having objectives in the right regions of the maps discourages camping and makes the strategy of placing equipment less of a routine and more of a practice of experimentation. All the maps (with the exception of Nuketown) feature arenas to cater to all playstyles, which is delightful. Corridors, rooms, multi-tiered warehouses, hills, and open fields compose some fine maps for multiplayer antics.

A controversial change in direction is the use of CoD points as a form of currency to unlock weapons, attachments, and perks. Experience is still earned from playing games and all that that accompanies, and experience is used to level up. The major change here is that all perks and attachments are available from the get-go, allowing players to create classes to their liking as soon as they acquire the points to allow it.

Relative to previous CoD games, players will be arranging their favorite classes much, much sooner. No more waiting until level XX to get the perk you love so much, all it takes is a few games' worth of points. Not all is lost from the leveling aspect though, as all primary and secondary weapons are not available for purchase until their corresponding level is met. Overall, the use of CoD points to purchase weapons, attachments and perks is a great idea; the only drawback being that leveling-up does not give the player as much to look forward to. Thus, your personal feelings on using CoD points as opposed to the traditional system dictated primarily by level alone depends on your affinity for leveling up.

Here's the gist: Do you like Call of Duty games?? Do you have $60?? Then do yourself a favor and purchase Black Ops, there's lots of fun to be had with millions of other players on the servers, and you know what to expect. More of the same old song and dance, but if you like the tune, then go ahead and indulge.

Call of Duty: Black Ops gets a B lettergrade!!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thoughts so far - Call of Duty: Black Ops

Having purchased the most recent iteration at the midnight release last week, it's fair to say that I was excited to play it. At first mention of it some months ago, I wasn't quite thrilled; but the more I read about it, the more I began to like it. That having been said, I preordered it after some sway and joined in the hype machine.

So far, it feels like a big improvement over Modern Warfare 2. If you've read my review on MW2, you'll recall that MW2 was a bit disappointing for me. Where MW2 featured every room full of bitches holding killstreak campfests, Black Ops discourages camping with a variety of design mechanisms - much to my delight. Also, the layout of the upgrading/unlocking scheme is a delight.

The shooting mechanics are largely unchanged from MW2 (And the first Call of Duty for that matter) which is fine. The slick and crisp shooting is a staple of the franchise, and has undoubtedly contributed to its success. Kills gained through killstreak bonuses add to the gross killcount for a game, but not to the immediate killstreak. For example, getting a kill with a bonus that requires eight kills does not grant the killstreak granted by nine consecutive kills. This encourages players to be active in the game, because they can't camp and hoard kills with devastating killstreaks. Needless to say, this is a positive change.

As much as Call of Duty players love to level up, some emphasis has been removed from it. Instead, CoD points are earned that are used to unlock perks, equipment and attachments - most of which are available from the get-go. Now, players engage in an economy of points instead of unlocking gear and perks at predetermined levels. I find this to be a superior layout, because I can accommodate to my particular tastes much sooner, letting me design classes to my liking as long as I spend my points wisely.

A full review ought to be around some time over break. So far, Black Ops is quite a mess of fun - as it ought to be.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Reflections: Modern Warfare 2

Last night I popped in Modern Warfare 2 for the first time in months. With the advent of Black Ops upon us, and as a game I feel so passionately about (though not for necessarily flattering reasons), I felt that giving it a proper send-off was appropriate. I put another two hours on the game clock, bringing my total time spent in multiplayer to five days, five hours and change. In two hours of playing, I was reminded of many of the things that prevented it from being a great gameplay experience.

The multiplayer component of Modern Warfare 2 suffered from being too ambitious of a project. In an attempt to deliver everything that a player could want, the game simply delivered too much. From a gameplay perspective, players are spoiled by the sheer quantity of choices they have, and the endless permutations thereof. However, it is important to note that the game is built from a rock-solid engine, and feels tight and fast no matter how hectic the gameplay becomes or how many players crowd a lobby.

Call of Duty games have always had a distinct feel to them, even as the series continually evolves with the gaming landscape. Responsive controls, quick animations, hard-hitting sound effects and a strong visceral element that accompanies aiming down a weapon's iron sights all contribute to keeping the game fresh for hours on end, even after terrible losses. From the staccato yelps of the submachine guns, to the booming bass of the SPAS-12 shotgun, and even on to the soft pitter-patter sound of bullets tearing through fabric and flesh, all Call of Duty games have a strong and extensive library of soundclips to produce joy out of the simple task of firing a virtual gun. Aiming down sights, going prone, crouching, and running are all very responsive and prevent the player from blaming his death on some flawed element of gameplay.

Also, the game is fast. Kills happen quick, coming under fire is unforgiving, armor is nonexistent, and a player can switch his class, his weapon loadout and respawn before he has a chance to get angry and sulk. A wide range of powerful weapons which rarely require more than four bullets (which with most of the weapons being fully automatic, is practically instantaneous) to execute a kill ensure that the game stays fast and hectic. Aim assist is even present to help nail moving targets, as if a wide array of powerful weapons is insufficient. Furthermore, if an explosion occurs anywhere near you, don't count on surviving it because they have an impressive kill radius. Health is practically a non-issue, and regenerates back to 100% within about five seconds provided a player can stay out of the fight for that period. Health becomes a non-issue though, because the majority of times that a player gets shot, they're as good as dead, making health and damage an arbitrary sort of indicator that says "Hey, get ready to respawn."

Sadly, for every step forward regarding fundamental elements of gameplay, Modern Warfare 2 slowly treads backwards. The extensive combinations of perks and equipment turn an otherwise effective shooting game into a contest which will typically result in a victory for players who are most willing to sacrifice their dignity for a good kill/death ratio. These combinations include -but are not limited to- the following:
- Akimbo shotguns/stopping power/sleight of hand, which gives players the power
to fire two shotguns simultaneously while reloading with
near-instantaneous swiftness.
- Marathon/Lightweight/Commando/tactical knife, which empowers players with
dramatically increased running speed, increased instant-kill melee attack
range, unlimited sprint, and the ability to use melee attacks at about
twice the normal frequency.
- Heartbeat sensor, which allows players to see the locations of all units, with
distinction between friendly and opposing forces, within about ten in-game
meters. This weapon-mounted attachment constantly feeds a player with
critical battlefield intelligence without requiring them to take their
eyes off the battlefield. One can go undetected by heartbeat sensors with
the "Ninja" perk activated, which is of course at the cost of another
unique ability.
- Scavenger/Danger Close/Grenade/Rocket launcher, regardless of whether the
explosive is a secondary weapon or an attachment, scavenger gives the
player practically infinite ammo, assuming they can run over a dead
body or two during their exploits to resupply on their explosive rounds.
The idea of infinite explosive rounds isn't such a bad idea, but the
explosive rounds all have an incredible kill radius, and Danger Close
expands the kill radius, making these weapons of choice rather than
tactical tools to nail bothersome campers or provide effective cover.

While many of these perks and equips provide an effective advantage to suit a particular style of play, and can be critical for counteracting an opposing team's strategies, in certain combinations they encourage gameplay that spoils the online experience for friends and foes alike. No one wants to play with a camper whose sole desire is to get impressive killstreaks, nor does anyone want to play against such a person; and both of these cases are especially for objective-based games. With killstreak bonuses such as attack choppers, gunships and fly-by-wire Predator missiles coming in at five or more kills in a row, these bonuses pretty much encourage camping - especially since attaining prerequisite killcounts with each killstreak awards a player with emblems, titles, experience points, and bragging rights.

Expanding upon the idea of attaining online decoration for getting lots and lots of killstreak bonuses, players are rewarded for attaining landmark quantities of kills for all weapons and while using certain perks and equipment, such as "kill one thousand enemies with x weapon" or "kill five hundred enemies with x perk activated." This idea by itself is fine, but many players resort to using the same weapons and sets of equipment ad nauseum despite how their tactics may be mismatched for the map or the tactics of players on the other team. With titles and emblems with which to decorate one's online persona, experience points to help level up, and bragging rights hinging upon the acquisition of these arbitrary killcounts, there is a lot at stake and a lot of players go overboard and fail to help out their teammates by pursuing these awards.

I believe it is reasonable to assume that some of the millions of players of Modern Warfare 2 are willing to overlook their frustrations with the game for the sake of their prestige level. This brings up one of Modern Warfare 2's key hooks, which continually brings people back, firing up the game for some more kills and a few more levels. Leveling up and unlocking weapons and gear is an undeniably rewarding experience, and it is only until one recognizes that they are playing the game only to level up and gain prestige that they will recognize that this game has some serious faults that, when properly (improperly??) exploited, can deprive a match of its fun.

The single-player campaign is a bloodthirsty romp through a variety of geography, providing an equal-opportunity bloodbath through underprivileged neighborhoods and military bases alike. It is no slouch in spectacle, and is a fun ride, but it is ultimately forgettable. Over-the-top presentation accompanies firefights with a multitude of weapons not only at the ready, but also ready to be pried from the dead hands of rebels, mercenaries, and rogue military agents. Surely, a welcome addition to the game is the breach-and-clear sequences, in which players blow open doors or walls and then have a limited time in slow-motion to eliminate all the threats in the room, lest innocent lives be lost. Breach-and-clear sequences are among the most exciting portions of the game, hands down. The campaign is divided into missions, each providing a firefight that progresses linearly until the end of the level.

The narrative is a forgettable plot involving typical brands of evildoers threatening the masses, and the few protagonists of the game feature no character development to speak of. The only mechanisms which move the plot along are various acts of terrorism and the military response to such actions. Characters' involvement and reactions to the plethora of disasters afflicting their home country are hardly recognized. I must note, however, that the plot hardly takes itself seriously. This is not meant to be a political commentary wrapped in a first-person shooter, and the plot never aspires to be more than a reason mow down hordes of angry men while using high-powered weaponry. The plot is a weak device, although I must say I prefer a campy plot to a story that is convoluted and tries to convey a serious message but utterly fails.

A redeeming point of the single-player game is the variety of locales in which one does battle. Shantytowns, jungles, enemy bases, American suburbs, internment camps, mountains of Arabia and Washington D.C. are all represented, and keep the action fresh with a new coat of paint for every level.

In place of World at War's Nazi Zombies cooperative mode is Special Ops. A series of challenges that are best when played with a friend, these two-player challenges take settings from the game and turn them into everything from on-rails vehicle missions to arena-style elimination games. These are quite entertaining, and deserve special credit with how they encourage players to work together to conquer otherwise overwhelming odds; especially on veteran difficulty.

Overall, Modern Warfare 2 deserves to be tried. It is a "noob-friendly" game, allowing people with only moderate exposure to gaming to log in and get a respectable quantity of kills after becoming acclimated with the control scheme. Your level of involvement with the multiplayer depends on your affinity for rank-ups and arbitrary symbols with which to adorn your online alter-ego. It's not for everybody, it's not for me, but a lot of players continue to be entertained by its frenetic pace, contemporary setting, realistic weapons, and near-limitless potential for earning awards. Having personally spent over one hundred hours playing Modern Warfare 2's online multiplayer, I'll be the first to tell you that it's quite addictive, but I also must inform you that sadly, it's also quite shallow.

Modern Warfare 2 gets a C lettergrade.