Sunday, November 28, 2010

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

I feel about Modern Warfare, as a video game, much as I do about The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I think both are technically well-made, but I have little personal affection for either. I probably enjoyed playing Modern Warfare more so than I did watching Lord of the Rings, but I think parts of me also despised the game much more so than those movies, toward which I would describe myself as more lukewarm. In all fairness, I am not a particular fan of first-person shooters, so Modern Warfare may have started at a disadvantage for me, but truly I must say that playing it was one of the most soul-numbing experiences I ever had in gaming.

The game was sold to me as the modern exemplar of its genre. If you were to play only one FPS in your life, in other words, it should be this one. I might actually be inclined to agree with that, although I have admittedly not played that many examples myself. But Modern Warfare does include just about everything one should expect from an FPS, and most of it done better (if only slightly so) than in any other game I've played.

There is fun to be had here, as well as some of the most exhilarating moments I've had in gaming. Truly, what make the game are the explosive set pieces and scripted sequences that leave the player feeling as though they are acting out a Hollywood blockbuster. There were occasionally stunning images, such as the sight of a helicopter spinning out and going down in real time (no cut to cinematic, pre-rendered or otherwise), while my character sat watching from another helicopter alongside. Even more impressive were the interactive moments that, although obviously scripted, gave the player just enough of an illusion of agency to feel like the hero of the script, as in the game's most adrenaline-fueled scene, when the slow motion kicks in, and you know you've got just one clip in your sidearm to make count, or else.

My favorite mission in the game, essentially a series of scripted encounters, had me playing as part of a two-man sniping team. The operation takes place indoors and outdoors, moves from the foliage to an urban environment, and encompasses just about every gameplay type--stealthy infiltration, long-range sniping, escort mission, and hectic standoff while awaiting rescue. Had that been the only mission in the game (actually, it was spread across two campaign levels), it might still have been the most perfect FPS I would ever have played, despite also being the shortest.

But then there were the other five hours of the roughly six-hour campaign. Most of the game, unfortunately, is just tedious room-clearing, practically indistinguishable from the basic gameplay found in Haze or Perfect Dark Zero, which are regarded as among the worst FPS titles of this generation. You just march forward, unload a clip into any enemy combatant that pops up probably out of nowhere, reload often, retreat to regenerate health, and probably die many unforeseen deaths before it's all over. The formula repeats several times, until there are seemingly thousands of nameless dead left behind on both sides, and there is almost no discernible narrative to let you know where you are, who you're fighting or why. It's unsettlingly impersonal, one of the most emotionally and spiritually deadening experiences not just in gaming, but in my life in general.

The game is assuredly better than Haze or Perfect Dark Zero, yet in some ways it made me feel worse. It may be the game's attitude in the face of its own realism. The game's action is, for sure, very over-the-top, but the overall aesthetic is still starker by far than the cartoony Perfect Dark Zero or even a rugged sci-fi shooter such as Gears of War. Even in the aforementioned favorite mission of mine, there was something eerie about the way, every time I sniped a guy in the head, my AI partner would compliment me with a mesmerized "Beautiful." In Haze, these sorts of war-intoxicated hollow men were the bad guys. Even Army of Two, with its mercenary protagonists, was less unnerving, because it actually came across as satirical at times, whereas Modern Warfare seems sincerely gung ho in its militarism.

The very worst (and most impersonal) mission in the game, "Death From Above," has the player staring down the sights from an AC-130 gunship that is providing cover fire for friendlies on the ground. Everything is black-and-white, and your job is to fire upon the many tiny, noiseless enemy silhouettes below until they just stop moving. Your mostly dispassionate pilot will periodically mutter a "Nice shooting" to let you know that you hit your targets. Although Modern Warfare was released three years ago, the stage bears a remarkable resemblance to the infamous WikiLeaks "Collateral Murder" video that came out earlier this year. Even the pilot audio is almost identical. It all suggests that, compared to Haze or Army of Two, Modern Warfare's representation of war is probably the more realistic. It's also uglier. What's furthermore baffling is that, come end credits, developer Infinity Ward chose to roll more of this type of footage, before closing with an irreverent rap anthem that samples, among other things, the developer's own pre-release hype for its game.

So did I ultimately have fun with Modern Warfare? I guess. I'm really not sure, however, because by the end I had kind of stopped feeling.


Czardoz said...

Your several references to PDZero induced me check out your article on that game again, and I came away with the impression that everything you criticized about that game actually applies to Modern Warfare as well.

You say that Zero "comes down to stage after stage of guns blazing, and the game struggles to keep that interesting." Sure, MW may have a few more "variety" stages, but they were hit or miss, no? Was the core gameplay any less "guns blazing" than Zero, any more successfully interesting?

In Zero, "if you manage to get the jump on a single frustratingly helmeted foe, his death will always alert all other guards to your presence." When in MW, aside from the Leftenant Price stage, do your enemies not know exactly where you are at all times?

"The weapon selection in Perfect Dark Zero is very limited, with even basic grenades only showing up late in the campaign." Aside from the occasional rocket launcher, MW presented only a series of automatic rifles and pistols, and it seemed to me that grenades, though available throughout, were highly unsuited for any purpose beyond a messy suicide.

The story "seems like a complete afterthought, full of loose ends while barely explaining how characters get from one location to the next." Which article did I take this quote from? Har har.

I certainly feel that the worse thing about Zero was not anything about the game in itself, but rather the fact that it simply wasn't the game that its predecessor was.

Despite its flaws, Zero is a game I could play once, with moderate amusement. MW is a game I could play never.

In conclusion, was Zero really a much lesser game than MW? Or do the weight of public opinion and some hot graphics simply make MW "feel" like a better experience?

Henry said...

Not only _could_ my criticisms against PDZ have been applied also to Modern Warfare, but in fact I _did_ lodge those same complaints in my MW post. It's no wonder that I felt such a sense of deja vu as I wrote this latest post (though hopefully I was more concise this time). Rest assured, unless there comes a game that truly wows me, this will be the last FPS to get its own dedicated post from me.

But to answer your question, yes, MW is a better game than PDZ, though not substantially in all areas. If you were to break it down to a list of pros and cons, the two would share many of the same cons, but MW would have a considerably longer list of pros. Even the core experience, though much the same, is more bearable in MW (fewer lulls, less unintended wandering, no lame puzzles).

Czardoz said...

The wandering I despise, but I thought you actually liked the puzzles in PDZ? Or were you not referring to those unlocking things mini-games, but other puzzles?

Henry said...

Those unlocking things were a nifty idea, poorly executed. I certainly don't miss them in other games. But I was thinking more of, like in the temple level, when there might be a panel on the floor and a pit of spikes, and one guy had to step on the panel, and the other guy had to walk forward and die, because neither had a clue. I don't remember exactly how it went down, but I know that I hated it.

Czardoz said...

Or like in that other temple level, where one guy had to rotate these lasers, and then accidentally/purposely lasered the other guy to death? Oh wait . . . wrong game . . .