‘Real war’ style simulations in any gaming genre generally have about as much appeal to me as a candyfloss covered turd. They might sometimes look nice from a distance, but on closer inspection I can see that the flavour is so obviously going to be wrong I really don’t want to take a bite. The lack of appeal is because despite the fact I enjoy a good bit of aggression, gore and warlike competition in my games, I’d rather have a fantastical take on things when it comes to setting and flavour. Softy lefty hypocritical sensibilities they maybe, but I think that actual wars and actual guns and such are a horrible ugly side of humanity, that doesn’t really need glorifying or reproducing any further than actual history books and documentaries. Serious issues like these are best treated seriously, not in frivolous videogame titles. It’s also one reason I’ve never gotten into historical miniature wargaming. Not that interactive methods of explaining history have to be frivolous and certainly can work, it’s just a subject matter that needs to be handled very carefully in my book.
However in recent years the Call of Duty franchise has seen so much play on my XBL Friends List, that I’ve succumbed to giving it a try anyway. I’m also no stranger to the concept of the ‘magic circle‘ around a gaming activity, and why it can arguably be removed from any real-life experience. Also I love to have a game that I can play with as many of my real-life friends for social reasons, no matter how much I actually like it. In the past Halo 2 sufficed nicely, however on the 360 I’ve found that my original standby ‘social game’ Halo 3 was not cutting it! And potential replacements like Team Fortress 2 or Left 4 Dead haven’t really captured the zeitgeist with my less gaming literate buddies. In other words I still have way too many friends that only really play COD.
I’d already picked up Call of Duty 3 as part of the ebay deal I got when buying a second NTSC XBox and I’ve currently rented out CoD4 Modern Warfare as well, through a specialist UK game rental site that I am trying out. To be honest my review of the single player campaign for both games would be pretty similar: Retarded friendly and enemy AI, scripted sequences filled with what can only be described in internet vernacular as “LOL-Fail”, stupid checkpointing and ‘trigger’ locations, tedious trial and error gameplay, laughably unrealistic portrayals of ‘realism’, ridiculous QTE-style sequences, complete gimmicks of ‘variety’ levels and too many poor design decisions to list. Despite being released so long ago, even the first Halo and Half Life 1 are many years ahead of where these games are today for story mode, and stuff like Gears of War is so advanced compared to them, I’m actually quite shocked that these campaign modes still exist in their current format. Back to the Past, rather than the Future then, Call of Duty campaign modes can offer the current player real ‘retro gaming’! Also somewhat amusingly many ‘fantasy’ games do a far better job of giving an impression of real war and combat (because obviously I have sooo much personal experience of that…! what I am actually talking about of course is a feeling of immersion & suspension of disbelief, and not the strong feeling that I am just ‘playing a game’ that COD games give me). Despite all of this however where both COD games do score quite well is in the challenge level they provide. Albiet you often only pass a section after numerous trial-and-errors to “find the softest route” and learning the scripted enemy “chain” sequence that is the drivel that passes for enemy AI in these games, but despite this ‘cheapness’ to the experience, there’s still that lovely kick of fiero once you finally get to the next checkpoint after dying ten times – and even on standard difficulty a new player can be expected to die far more frequently than in other contemporary FPS titles.
COD4 is clearly better than COD3 at least, by removing most of the ridiculous QTE-style moments and having a far more interesting storyline behind it, the current-day / near-future fantasy presumably allowing it much more scope. Also the remarkably actually good voice acting (rather than the atrocious stuff in COD3) helped carry it, and the ‘variety’ sections were also far improved. It also appears to offer far more replay value in terms of arcade mode and various Achievement-hunts on offer.
But I noticed via Achievement spying that some of the biggest COD players on my FL hadn’t even completed the campaign modes as far as I had in a single night of play on each, so these games can’t be judged overall on this mode of play. Like Street Fighter, these games are clearly built more for multiplayer, and arguably some of the failings of the campaign modes at least actually prepare you a little better for versus play – eg. constantly re-spawning enemies, or the ‘press on to the objective disregarding the hail of bullets like a lunatic’ game sections. So far I’ve only scratched the surface of the multiplayer game with a few hours of COD4:MW and a couple of games on MW2, and I’ve observed play of a couple of my friends for a few more hours on Modern Warfare 2. My initial experiences are already far better than stuff like Gears of War Versus mode or really bad times like my first try on Team Fortress 2 on the 360. It was really easy to get into a decent relatively lag-free game and also a nice smooth interface to play on the same team as Navan, which meant we had at least a modicum of teamwork. Naturally the first thing I did was mock the distasteful real-world setting of the game by shouting at Navan in faux-redneck American “When can I kill some of them goddamn AY-Rabs?” “I hate them EYE-Rackies!” “What about Nazis, can I shoot some Nazis?”…
But despite having a friendly guidance on-hand it was still extremely daunting dropping into a multiplayer game without any clue of the maps, weapons, classes or even knowing the button config! I still cannot believe how badly most of these games treat a new player – at least Gears 2 offered some training missions against bots, Halo 3 offered a special match-made newbies area, and Left 4 Dead at least let you figure out the maps and mechanics as a co-op campaign from a survivors-view point, whereas both Modern Warfare titles seem hell-bent on doing everything the wrong way around. Whilst there appeared to be some kind of matchmaking engine resolving the team match ups at least (although it may have just been dumb luck, as it didn’t always seem to work), I soon discovered my character was equipped with a special ‘noob-gun’ and ‘noob character’ skills layout, and yet I was still being asked to fight against players that had grinded their way to “higher levels” in the online game, and so now had options and setups that I wasn’t even allowed to use! Now I’m sympathetic to the idea of unlocking stuff on games and have experienced the way it can give some titles added longevity. I don’t even mind having to unlock characters in a fighting game that much, it’s just that if you are going to do it there should always be an option to instantly unlock all the characters for those people who don’t care for such grindy stuff, and want to play straight-up in a fair competitive fight (& it’s also vital for tournaments but that’s a side issue). However doing it the Modern Warfare way is so much the antithesis of this that it can only be described as deliberately “anti-fair”! Can you imagine going into a Street Fighter match and being demolished by someone doing a hadouken in your face, and then trying to do one back yourself to even the odds, only to discover you had to win 50 fights before your “Noob Ryu” gained the ability to fireball? It’s unthinkable really, so I’m astounded that the competitive FPS community accepts this kind of thing. Now I’ve heard lots of arguments that “it’s not that bad” and “you’ll get all the important stuff within a few hours online” and all of that may well be true, but it still doesn’t change this fundamentally bad design aspect for a competitive MP game. The idea that “giving a new player all the options immediately would be overwhelming” is also something I can understand very well, however, I should not be matched in direct competition with those that do have all the options, and it’s even worse because some of these things are not just options, but flat-out advantages. What happened to matchmaking being about noob-vs-noob? If you’re going to have better guns (or better characters, or levels or whatever) available in a competitive game like this, they actually ought to given to the new players to help them out as a handicapping tool, not the experienced or good players.
So what’s at work here? There’s no denying these kinds of design ideals are bad for actual fair competition in a game, but I believe they are popular with many players precisely because so many players are not really competitive at all. Most would rather grind for skills and advantages to win than have to actually beat their opponents fairly, and so many people are indoctrined by games like COD into this idea that many seem to think this is what videogames (or at least, competitive online games) are about. Unfortunately I think the “Juggernaught” gamer style is far more prevalent than many would admit to or believe – people want to “just win baby” and don’t care about it being any kind of legitimate experience of competition. Quite apart from the shadey world of exploits and lag switches and the like you can see this just as easily in the deeply ingrained concept of “NOOB PWNING” in video games. What a detestable attitude! Why on earth this kind of anti-sporting concept has become seen as something acceptable is beyond me. You don’t see this ideal espoused very often anywhere else. In sports a win over a lesser opponent is often seen as something not quite as good as a ‘real’ victory. In the Street Fighter 2 V anime series Ryu and Ken (the lovermen that they are) set out on their world voyage together in heart and body “to go to meet the mighty!” to become stronger fighters. They don’t go out with the goal to find the least challenging opponent possible and pummel them into the dust. Yet so many of today’s ‘gamers’ seem addicted to these kind of grinds for fake achievement (just take a look at the subscription figures for World of Warcrap), and then move onto their secondary or even ultimate goal of having their e-peen stroked by a good bit of online N00B PWNING.
As sad as I find it, in some ways it’s great to have games that appease such players’ needs, but it would be rather nice if these things could be detached from the true competitive games that other players might like to play, be they new or veterans, or of low skill or high skill in a given game.