Modern Warfare 2 is a Japanese RPG

Or maybe it’s an MMO. Either way, who knew? (Probably a lot of people, but not me)

I mention jRPGs because right now, I am in the thick of “leveling up” my weapons and all I could think of was Disgaea. In Disgaea, items are actually places you can “enter” and by progressing through the levels of the item, you actually make it stronger. You can also increase its attributes by taking out certain monsters (both specialists and bosses). In Modern Warfare 2, every weapon has a set number of challenges that systematically increase the “power” of your weapon. You can unlock things like sights, camouflage, and stronger ammo. It’s addictive, just like Disgaea was.

The beautiful thing about MW2‘s system is that, as far as I can tell, the improvements are small enough that they don’t knock the balance of the game out of whack. While I may have unlocked the thermal scope, heart monitor and grenade attachment, I am limited to using two (after unlocking another perk) attachments. It works perfectly. And even if I do happen to fully upgrade/unlock my current weapon of choice (A SCAR-H) I will probably move on to another weapon to continue the process.

Therein lies the hook. Raph Koster definitely had it right in his book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. I know it’s is more complex than this but it it turns out that our brains are wired to enjoy doing repetitive things that we perceive as being fun. The designers at Infinity Ward have honed this to a razor’s edge. It’s like they looked inside my brain and tailored Modern Warfare 2 to pretty much inject fun directly into my brain.

I am a simple man who has simple (gaming) needs. I was actually going to discuss these things in conjunction with Torchlight and Borderlands, but this is just as good a time to talk about it as ever. I only need a few things in my games. I need to see little numbers popping up off the bad guys (multicolored numbers, if you are really trying), I need lots of things to unlock and I’ll take some leveling up (the more the better). Take all those simple things and throw in a robust statistic tracking system and I am in heaven. I haven’t played a ton of jRPGs, but I have played a ton of MMORPGs. Both of those game scratch that numeric itch.

So while it has its flaws, Modern Warfare 2 is almost the perfect game for me. It has these simple things I like, in spades. To recap: I need: Stats (check), Little Numbers (not quite what I want, but I’ll let it slide), constant progression (Leveling up (check)), and Unlocking (that’s a gigantic CHECK).

So I think I have a new favorite FPS on the 360. Halo 3 has been unseated and I’m not sure it (or Halo: Reach) can regain the throne. I don’t know how much I really believe this, even as I’m typing it, but if Halo: Reach doesn’t incorporate some these mechanics, I don’t know how much it will grip me.

FGotY 2009 [Xbox 360]

Wrapping up the individual console posts is the Xbox 360.

Jason O – 2009 was definitely the year where the XBox 360 was the dominant platform in my house. A lot of good games graced my disc tray. Borderlands was bordering on greatness but couldn’t quite pass cross into becoming a classic. Lego Rock Band was solid but uninspired. Modern Warfare 2 brought us more of the same but was still quality entertainment. Shadow Complex gave me a brief and enjoyable foray into a game genre that I consider well past its prime. While I may not be playing it any longer, I think the most fun I had with a game this year was Red Faction: Guerilla. All I really ask from an “open world” game is to be open enough to let me solve problems with my own style. Red Faction: Guerrilla delivered on this. The real pity is that once you’ve beaten the game and levelled most of the buildings on Mars there isn’t much reason to keep playing. Lack of replayability aside, I don’t think there has been any game this year that has been so much fun from start to finish.

James – I think the game that I had the most fun with would be Prototype I wasn’t expecting more than to be able to run around and destroy everything HULK-style and I pretty much was able to do that. It did get repetitive and I never ended up finishing it but I think I had the most fun with it while I was playing it.

Nat – The Xbox sat a little bit on the back-burner in our house this year. However, it did get some play time. I’m going to go against a lot of gamer’s ideas and say that I had the most fun with The Beatles: Rock Band this year. Not really knowing much about the group, it was a great interactive, historical trip. ‘Splosion Man gets and awfully close second for laughs alone.

Brock – The 360 has been gathering dust a lot around our house especially during the last half of this year. That said, I’d have to give my pick for the most fun game I’ve played on the system this year to ‘Splosion Man. Even when I was hurling the controller around the room in a fit of rage after dying yet again thanks to some of the most sadistic platforming I’ve ever done, I couldn’t help but smile while doing so. The crazy antics, awesome music (did you know that everybody loves donuts?) and mind-bending ending made this my pick of the year when it comes to fun on the 360. Plus, Twisted Pixel were the first to give away free Avatar awards for getting achievements. How cool is that?

Will – The Xbox 360 gets the most use around my house. When I look back at the games that were an obsession for me, the ones that had me thinking about them when I wasn’t playing them, I came up with the following list: Halo 3: ODST, Borderlands, Shadow Complex, and Dragon Age: Origins. I give my FGotY 2009 [Xbox 360] award to Borderlands. I spent a lot of time trying to sell this game on fans of console FPSes. I told them that its four-player cooperative play was a great deal a fun. I told them that there was something very gratifying about constantly collecting loot and comparing that new shotgun to your good old reliable one that got you through that epic fight with Skagzilla. I told them that four different classes, each with multiple skills trees, made for a decent amount of customization. I think I spent as much time trying to sell the game on others as I did on playing it; my Soldier character has fifty-two hours devoted to him alone! I enjoyed this game so much that I also have a copy of the PC version. I spent all that time marketing the game for Gearbox because I know a lot of gamers who would get a lot of enjoyment out of Borderlands‘ unique blend of FPS and RPG, but they deprived themselves of the opportunity to partake in its fun because they were waiting for Modern Warfare 2 to be released. Hopefully Gearbox will release a GotY edition that includes The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned and Mad Moxxi’s Underdome to capture the gamers they missed the first time.

Tony – My 360 definitely got a work out this year. I think I’ve finally hit almost every major release this year on the console, and it definitely was a great year for the 360. I thought long and hard about which game I had the most fun with. In the running were many of the titles already mentioned here by my co-bloggers and I’ll also mention having a lot of fun with Forza Motorsports 3 and Left 4 Dead 2. but in the end, the game I had the most fun with was Batman: Arkham Asylum. It took me a few hours to get into the game, but after the first Scarecrow level, I was in – hook, line and sinker. Then, once I got used the fighting system and felt comfortable and in the flow, the game opened up ten fold. There is nothing more satisfying than stringing up a bad guy from a gargoyle, drop silently behind his buddy to take him down and then take out a third with a batarang in quick succession. After I saw the 2005 Batman Begins, I wanted to be Batman. As Nat mentioned in the PS3 post, in Batman: AA, I was Batman. It doesn’t get any funner than that!

2 Minute Review – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

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More Modern Warfare!

Do: Continue the story of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Type: First Person Shooter

Platforms: XBox 360 (Reviewed), Playstation 3, Windows

Price: $59.99 all platforms

Travel to exotic locales, meet new people, and destroy all their stuff

Travel to exotic locales, meet new people, and destroy all their stuff

Meat: Until Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out I was not a big fan of the COD series. I won’t go into specifics, I just didn’t particularly care for it. However, Infinity Ward won me over at last with COD4 and I played through many of the single-player missions multiple times and found the multi-player to be a welcome respite from Halo 3’s infuriating design decisions. However, one observation I had about COD4 was that it was essentially two games. An excellent single-player story that had all of its art assets and underlying engine reused for the multi-player portion. This is not a complaint, as I found myself perfectly happy with each “game”, though I would like the two to have crossed a little more.

Unfortunately, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 does little to alleviate this. If you’ve played COD4, you’ve played MW2. As a bonus commentary, if you’ve played COD4 you’ve also played Call of Duty: World At War, just with a different time period and weapons. Essentially you’ve got the single-player game with a strong story focus and almost frustratingly linear level design and a strong multi-player component that practically exists as its own game. As a bonus, there are the new “Special Operations” missions that use many of the single-player and multi-player maps for specific game types, all of which can be played co-op and some can not be played single-player at all.

From a technical standpoint the game is near perfect, which is not much of a compliment since COD4 was already polished to a mirror shine. There are some graphical improvements, especially in the weapon models, but the game will feel very familiar if you’ve played its predecessor.

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Also, you can just hang out

Perks: Without a doubt this game is about as close to technical perfection as you can get in a contemporary first person shooter. I’m sure you could harp about even more photo-realistic graphics or greater audio fidelity, but in terms of how the game works it’s as good as it needs to be and that’s all I ask.

The single-player story is well designed, at least from a level perspective. They have greatly improved enemy encounters by removing the ridiculous infinite “spawn closets” that enemies used to appear from until you passed a checkpoint. Combat is frantic and remains an adrenaline fueled affair. I want desperately to enjoy the fight itself in a first person shooter, and the Modern Warfare series has yet to disappoint.

Some nice additions to the game are the new weapon attachments, like the heartbeat sensor and thermal site. Both add new tactics to the game and yet are not without their own limitations. The breaching mechanic, while simplistic, never seems to get old. When you breach a wall or door the game goes into a slow motion “bullet time” which allows you to act quickly to prevent the execution of hostages or counter-ambush enemies that were lying in wait. I think they did this just enough to keep it from getting old.

The Special Operations missions are a nice touch and add some replayability if you’re one of those people who don’t enjoy replaying their favorite single-player missions. The Special Operations range from holding off waves of enemies, vehicle chases, single-handedly wiping out enemy forces, and stealth missions. A nice co-op mission allows one player to be the AC-130 gunner while the other player coordinates on the ground.

Multi-player remains the same but with more options. At last you can use more than one weapon attachment and they’ve added additional perks and challenges to keep the on-line portion attractive to the compulsive obsessive. The underlying system remains the same so the learning curve is not steep even with new perks, attachments, and killstreaks. They have done a much better job of balancing the different options available to the players, removing the controversial juggernaut ability and limiting the use of matyrdom. In my own opinion I found the whining about these perks more annoying than their usage in COD4, but the changes have not adversely affected on-line play in the least.

Be polite. Be efficient. Have a plan to kill everyone you meet

Be polite. Be efficient. Have a plan to kill everyone you meet

Screams: Here’s where you need to hold onto your hats, kids, because I’m going to say some very bad things.

Despite my earlier comments about the “No Russian” mission, the rest of the story is a bust after that point. There is no emotional payoff and the rest of the story is more like an alternate history novel than a Tom Clancy knock-off. Despite the criticism of COD4 as a poor Clancy-esque novel, I liked it. The whole concept was plausible and barely utilized my suspension of disbelief. The new story makes some ridiculous leaps, is overly reliant on plot contriavances and macguffins, and some plot elements are relayed in the middle of firefights so you might miss them completely.

While I appreciated COD4’s careful balance between realism and playability, I always felt they kept it just realistic enough that I didn’t feel like I was in an 80’s action movie. Firing from the hip was inaccurate, I didn’t have a health bar, and everyone seemed to be using regionally appropriate weapons. All of that is out the window in MW2. Russians are using weapons that make little sense for them to have, Brazilian gang members are using primitive and oddly high tech weapons at the same time, and US forces come the closest to reality in a “future force warrior” sort of way but still possess an odd amalgation of weaponry. You now have weapons that can be dual-wielded, which might look cool throws any sense of “reality” right out the window.

Also, the game is ridiculously hard. As a compensation for the removal of infinite spawn closets, enemies just start out ridiculously numerous and volleys of bullets will shred you to pieces even on the easiest of difficulty levels. Some of the Special Operation missions seem to be intently focused on being played co-op despite the ability to play them single-player. None of this is insurmountable, but the game can be needlessly frustrating at times. Especially in light of how well balanced COD4 was regardless of skill-level.

A further problem is that none of this ties into the experience you earn in multi-player. Experience points used to unlock new perks, weapons, and equipment is all kept seperate. Want to play local split-screen? Fine, but those experience points only count towards split screen play. Special Operations also does not help you advance. Wait? What? One of the driving forces behind Call of Duty multi-player is the ability to rank up and earn new stuff. Why bother playing on-line if it doesn’t help me advance? You give players the option of doing special operation missions but their is no real payoff for doing them. All you get is…more special operations missions?

I could forgive this system in COD4, but after Rainbow Six Vegas 2 allowed you to earn experience both on and offline I don’t see the point of it. The problem is I want to unlock the different weapons and I want to use them all the time. Single-player or multi-player. I don’t want to be forced to interact with foul mouthed cretins to fully play your game, Infinity Ward. The way the game is designed they have nullified the whole point of doing special operations except for a tiny subset of people who don’t want to play with aforementioned foul mouthed cretins but will still venture to do on-line multi-player with friends who don’t mind getting nothing for their efforts other than bonding time with good buds.

As for the main multi-player portion itself, while the different weapons and abilities are more finely balanced I was worried that the additional killstreak options would further tilt the game towards the more experienced players. The biggest weakness of COD4’s multiplayer was its lack of good matchmaking by skill. This becomes an even bigger problem in MW2 since additional killstreak rewards just tip the scales further towards players who are doing well. This makes MW2 the least newbie friendly game released yet.

Furthermore, Infinity Ward has disabled party chat in some game modes in order to “encourage players on the same team to work together”. This was a huge mistake, as many players relied on party chat to avoid the large number of players who tended to use racial slurs or the idiots who would sing incessantly during a match. Instead I find myself unable to play those modes with friends and when I do play I have the microphone muted and the volume turned down. Well done, Infinity Ward, instead of encouraging teamwork you’ve turned a good portion of your player base into virtual hermits. I have noticed far fewer headsets plugged in during games then before. Previously, people without headsets were the minority, now they are the norm. Clearly something is going wrong.

Verdict: RENT – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a well polished shooter and worth renting, if just to see the fate of the various characters from the previous game and to enjoy the combat and various “toys” available. If you’re not an existing Call of Duty fan then you will likely not feel any need to play the game beyond the single-player game and maybe a handful of Special Operation missions.

The infamous Modern Warfare 2 airport shooting

Controversy can be good advertising. Although I have to give Infinity Ward some credit, when your game has been pre-ordered by everyone and their cat it’s not like you need cheap publicity to sell your game. While I tend to take a cynical view of business many times, this is one time when the facts as we know them seem to contradict the more jaded conclusions being jumped to.

I am, of course, talking about the already famous “No Russian” sequence in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Since the cat is already out of the bag and other websites have discussed this in detail I am going to give a spoiler warning here and move on.

Initially I thought I might skip over this scene, especially after finding out there is no way to avoid conflict with the police. Yet when the police came I managed to take advantage of game logic to avoid killing any of them until the very end. At that point I realized that I was not becoming the player. That I could see myself trying to disguise my non-killing of civilians but when shots are fired in anger am I not going to shoot back? I do think some of the game logic ends up sacrificing some of the impact from the scene, since half a dozen armed men are not going to be able to take on what seemed like the entire Moscow police force and real life can’t exploit AI weaknesses to push on to the next checkpoint without killing someone.

The payoff for the scene was anger. While many have criticized Infinity Ward and said there was a better way to portray how villainous the main antagonist is without such a heavy handed (and heavily scripted) sequence, when I took Makarov’s hand and he casually shot me in the head I realized all my agony, all my regret, all my concern over the consequences of my actions were for naught. Despite trying to hold onto my humanity, trying to be one of the good guys, I was going to die for nothing. Worse, I was going to be used to start a war.

The emotional payoff is huge. I don’t think I’ve been this vested in a villain since I was betrayed by Rhalga nar Hhallas (aka: “Hobbes”) in Wing Commander 3. Videogames have seen their fair share of villains and many of them I would consider far more epic than Modern Warfare’s Makarov, but I hate this guy. I can’t wait to take him down.

Was it cheap, exploitative, and unnecessary? Was there a better way to convey the depths of Makarov’s villainy? I think Infinity Ward was desperate to show there was no nuance to this character. No matter what may have happened in his past, there is no justification for his actions. He cheaply slaughtered his own countrymen and women so that he could turn the murder of an American agent into a full-scale war.

People are not going to like this sequence. They’re going to question motives of developers and producers. I think that’s good. It’s a powerful scene that is not to be taken lightly. I would definitely encourage anyone who feels too disturbed by the content to skip it. I think it’s a fair thing to do. Otherwise, experience it, even knowing what is going to happen, because it has a major impact on the story.

Funny, though, that even though the people at the airport are not real I could not shoot unarmed civilians when I was a “good guy”, even if I was in deep cover. Odd that even though they were not real, I began to hate Makarov right from the start simply because he could so casually slaughter them.

Modern Warfare?

Wow. Just wow.

Modern Warfare indeed.