Every Friday, The AV club employees start our weekly open thread to discuss game plans and latest gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What are you playing this weekend?
Discussing Call Of Duty from a critical perspective can be complicated. The series is so big and so popular that every new game will sell 100 million copies no matter what anyone says about it, so there isn’t much funny for a writer or reader to say “graphics are good, games are good, therefore games are good.” It gives an opportunity to dig in and pick up what the games are proverb, which is almost universally gross: Militaries with unchecked power are actually good. War crimes are good if they are committed against people who are bad guys. Guns are cool. Weapons weapons weapons weapons weapons. (I sure have done this tooduring my many years of trying to find something to say about Call Of Duty on this website.)
But get stuck in the implicit approval of a lot ooh-rah macho military crap means missing what the game is actually trying to do, which I think is worth talking about for the sake of the new Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare II—not because I think it’s secretly brilliant, but because I think large parts of this game are a mess. They’re an interesting mess, though, and they speak more to the developers’ outsized ambition (or perhaps an unwarranted level of trust in players) than they do to any kind of dubious willingness to depict war crimes.
During Modern Warfare IIcampaign I thought about – as I often do – about Titanfall 2. Respawns Apex Legends forebear is the best first-person shooter ever made, and one of the reasons for that is an ingenious single-player campaign where each level plays with some new mechanic that takes what you’ve learned in previous levels and twists it or expands on it. (which, as it happens, is also the structure for perfect video game Kirby Super Star). MWII tries something similar, and every time it does it’s absolutely convincing.
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For example, this series has pretty much always had some shake-up levels, where you’re suddenly a gunner in a tank going through what’s actually a shooting range or whatever, rather than a dude on foot. On one level, MWII sets up something similar by tasking your character with covering fire on a friendly convoy from aboard a helicopter. You assume this is how the level will play out, but after a few minutes your helicopter is hit and you’re thrown out the open door, dangling upside down from a rope. It’s amazing, and it plays with expectations in a clever way that also serves as a little showcase for the kind of tricks the developers are up to.
Then the level continues for another six hours (if you have as much trouble as I did), and it’s excruciating. You quickly cut away from the helicopter, and it switches to a new gimmick: You have to jump from car to car in the convoy while shoot villain cars while trying not to die while prevent your car from exploding while avoid landmines while maintain a constant speed so the bad guys you’re chasing don’t get away.
Pretty much every level that does something cool is like that. A raid on an oil platform during a storm is all about cool rain effects and stealthy tricks, but then you switch to a large cargo ship being tossed around in the storm that is a triumph of modern video game technology and a harrowing set piece where containers sliding around on deck immediately to kill you if they touch you. The smart way to win is to ignore the awesome level design and just sprint to the finish, which is a waste of the whole dang thing.
It gets to the point where you’re desperate for some traditional no-nonsense COD action, sitting behind cover and popping out to kill bad guys while they do the same, but there is surprisingly little war in this great war game. Instead, it’s a lot Torpedo-ish stealth missions and horribly punishing open stealth levels where you are inexplicably 100 times more fragile than you are in any other level.
But those levels seems so interesting on paper. You collect random objects and turn them into weapons. You have to hide and outwit bad guys. Entire games are built on such settings, and here COD is just throwing it away as another thing to do between shooting guys and shooting other guys… which is probably the problem. The developers push the game to do things it hasn’t really introduced you to, like the stealth missions, or the game asks players to do things it hasn’t really taught them to do… like the stealth missions.
So is a big swing that doesn’t work a more compelling experience than doing the same thing every other year? I think it is, but at the same time, about each Call Of Duty was some desperate experiment that really tried and failed most of the time, I’d get as sick of it as I was of the games in the series that didn’t try enough new things. But at the same time, the standard multiplayer is as good as it always is. Hardcore fans will complain about small incremental changes, but whatever. They are fine. You shoot the other guys and it makes a satisfying noise if you get them before they get you, and if you get enough guys, crazy crap flashes on the screen saying you did a good job. As much as we wish otherwise, that’s all a video game needs to do sometimes.
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