Friday, November 13, 2009

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Look, there's only the most marginal of reasons to write this review. You already have Modern Warfare 2. This game has sold 4.6 million copies in the UK and US as of yesterday evening, according to NPR. You already have an opinion.

But let's pretend you don't. Let's pretend you actually give a fuck about what I say here.

First off, the campagin is short. Very, very short. If you're a single-player-only kind of person, this isn't the game for you. The campaign isn't even nugget-sized; it's like one of those KFC popcorn chicken things they make out of leftover batter drippings with four molecules of chicken at the center.

The campaign isn't bad, mind you. The combat scenarios are totally passable. It's got its share of powerful melodrama, epic battles for the survival of the world as we know it, and plenty of unexpected twists. It's just that all of it's packed into about four or five hours. You barely begin to have some sympathy for a player character before they kill him off in some tear-jerking scripted event. I believe you go through at least three different characters, maybe four. Despite its brevity and slightly schizophrenic feel, the campaign does have some interesting moments.

When you boot up the game for the first time, a box pops up and asks if you're okay with some objectionable content. Doesn't say what it is, just asks if you want it to censor itself (at no penalty to you, the player). I told it I had a heart of stone and to let me through. So it popped up another box saying, "Are you sure you wanna see some horrific shit? This is the last time we're gonna ask." To which I replied, "Uh, I'm a gamer. Ain't nothing you can show me I ain't seen before." Which, I'm happy to report, is untrue. Infinity Ward managed to make me feel quite uncomfortable during the referenced mission.

The gist of it is this: your character is implanted, undercover, with a terrorist organization. The mission opens with you and three other dudes riding an elevator, decked out in body armor, carrying light machine guns. And then you step out of the elevator at the security checkpoint of an airport. The mission objective is simply "Follow Makarov's lead." Makarov proceeds to open fire on the mass of civilians. So, if you're to follow his lead, you do too. It feels downright icky, frankly... the civilians scream, run away, shield their loved ones with their bodies, and plead for their lives. And in true COD-style, they don't immediately fall into a motionless heap the moment they're shot. No, many of them drag themselves along the ground, leaving a trail of blood behind them. So it's incumbent upon you to shoot them again. If you're the sort of person who can't bring yourself to play the dark side in a Star Wars game, tell that boot-time box that you want the censorship. Personally, I was pleased to find that a game managed to arouse any sort of emotion whatsoever in my jaded, shriveled heart.

Ickiness aside, there are a couple of other moments that are neater and less gut-wrenching. One mission I particularly liked was right after an EMP burst is set off above the battlefield. Suddenly the world is quiet, and quite dark. You have no night vision, no radio, minimal HUD, and all of your advanced electronic gunsights stop functioning. A very neat idea, made even more neat by the geographic setting of that series of missions. A location I'm not going to reveal, since the game's so damn short that it needs all of the shock value and surprise it can get.

So the single-player campaign is like one of those cubical Snickers bars you get on Halloween. But how about multiplayer? Isn't that what Modern Warfare is really about?

Well, it's okay. It's basically the same as the first game's multiplayer, but with a few minor differences.

First, the maps are better than the first game. There's really only one dud in the whole roster, in my opinion. There are a couple I don't like; but those don't seem to have structural issues. But the map titled "Wasteland" is boring, and always devolves into either endless hunt and seek or a dogpile in the middle tunnel area. Just twenty-four hours after launch, and it invariably collects a handful of votes to skip each time it comes up. People aren't tired of it; they just don't like it.

The rest of the maps are a good mix, though. And other than mentioned above, none of them have the failings of the previous game's maps: namely, repetitive chokepoints. It seemed like in MW1, on each map, there was one particular area (that two story house, that crashed helicopter, those two buildings overlooking the airplane, those stairs down to the market) where all of the battle took place. You could be pretty certain of finding some action if you just ran there after your spawn. I haven't seen anything like that developing in MW2; the battle shifts all over the map.

What I'm less thrilled about this time around is the character customization system. The perk system (little rule-changing additions to your character), if anything, has been scaled back and blunted. And as a result, everybody chooses the same perks. It seems like everybody uses Sleight of Hand, which allows for faster reloads; Bling, which allows two weapons attachments; and Stopping Power, for greater damage. The point of the perk system, in the first game, was for variety in your opposition. This time around, there's little variety, because there's one or two clear "best" perks in each category.

I do like the addition of selectable and unlockable kill streak rewards. However, most of the additional rewards come at very high streaks, meaning I never get to use them--my highest streak is only 8. And some of the higher streak rewards are real game breakers: the helicopter gunner reward, for instance, pretty much guarantees you'll kill the other team twice each before it runs out. Since the rewards are granted for multiple kills without dying, they're granted to the best players. They often turn a close game into a massacre, which seems like a poor way to encourage fun.

Also, for a game that claims to be ultra-realistic, there are a couple of details that are wrong and drive me crazy. The first is that their stealth bomber sounds like a jetliner. That's utter bullshit. A stealth bomber is spookily silent as it flies overhead. I know; they used to fly over my place back in Springfield, MO all the time. If you didn't happen to look up at the right time, you didn't see them. Because they make no discernible noise to draw your attention.

Similarly, an ACOG gunsight is not an electronic device, relying instead on ambient light or a tritium lamp. That's one of its strongest selling points: it doesn't need batteries. So, why does an EMP render it dark? An EMP fries electronics, not fiber optics or tritium.

All that said, Modern Warfare, both iterations, is the only online FPS that I've played for any length of time since the original Counter Strike. But what does it matter what I have to say about it? You already bought a copy.