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.

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