Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent 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 each new game is going to sell 100 million copies regardless of what anyone says about it, so there’s not much fun for a writer or a reader in saying “graphics are good, gameplay is good, therefore game is good.” That presents an opportunity to dig in and address what the games are saying, which is almost universally gross: Militaries with unchecked power are actually good. War crimes are fine if they’re perpetrated against people who are bad guys. Guns are cool. Guns guns guns guns guns. (I’ve certainly done this as well, in my many years of trying to find something to say about Call Of Duty at this website.)
But getting bogged down in the implicit endorsement of a whole lot of ooh-rah macho military crap means missing what the game is actually attempting, which I think is worth talking about for the new Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare II—not because I think it’s secretly brilliant, but because I think big chunks of this game are a mess. They’re an interesting mess, though, and they speak more to the outsized ambition of the developers (or maybe an unwarranted level of confidence in players) than they do to some kind of questionable willingness to depict war crimes.
During Modern Warfare II’s campaign, I kept thinking—as I often do—about Titanfall 2. Respawn’s Apex Legends forebear is the best first-person shooter ever made, and one of the reasons for that is a genius 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 of perfect video game Kirby Super Star). MWII attempts something similar, and every time it does, it is absolutely compelling.
For example, this series has pretty much always had little shake-up levels, where you’re suddenly a gunner in a tank going through what is effectively a shooting gallery or whatever, rather than one dude on foot. In one level, MWII sets up something like that by tasking your character with providing cover fire to a friendly convoy from onboard a helicopter. You assume that’s how the level will play out, but after a few minutes your helicopter gets hit and you’re tossed out the open door, dangling upside-down from a rope. It’s great, and it plays with expectations in a smart way that also serves as a little showcase for the sort of tricks that the developers can pull off.
Then the level goes on for another six hours (if you have as much trouble as I did), and it’s excruciating. You quickly cut yourself loose from the helicopter, and it switches to a new gimmick: You have to jump from car to car in the convoy while shooting bad guy cars while trying not to die while keeping your car from exploding while dodging landmines while maintaining 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-ass rain effects and stealthily merc-ing dudes, but then you switch over to a big cargo ship getting rocked around in the storm that is a triumph of modern video game technology and an infuriating set piece where containers sliding around on the deck will immediately kill you if they touch you. The smart way to win is to ignore the amazing design of the level and just sprint to the finish, which is a waste of the whole dang thing.
It gets to a point where you’re desperate for some traditional mindless COD action, sitting behind some cover, popping out to kill bad guys while they do the same, but there’s surprisingly little war in this big war game. Instead, it’s a lot of Hitman-ish sneaking missions and horribly punishing open-ended stealth levels where you’re inexplicably 100 times more fragile than you are in any other level.
But those levels seem so interesting on paper. You collect random objects and craft them into weapons. You have to hide and outsmart bad guys. Whole games are built on setups like that, and here COD is just tossing it off as another thing to do in between shooting guys and shooting other guys… which is probably the problem. The developers are pushing the game to do things that it hasn’t really introduced to you, like the sneaking missions, or the game is asking players to accomplish things that it hasn’t really taught them to do… like the sneaking missions.
So is a big swing that doesn’t work a more compelling experience than doing the same thing as every other year? I think it is, but at the same time, if every Call Of Duty were some desperate experiment that tried really hard and failed most of the time, I’d get just as sick of that as I did of the games in the series that didn’t try enough new things. But at the same time, standard multiplayer is as good as it always is. Hardcore fans will complain about little incremental changes, but whatever. They’re fine. You shoot at the other guys and it makes a satisfying noise if you get them before they get you, and if you get enough guys then crazy shit flashes on the screen and tells you that you did a good job. As much as we may wish otherwise, that’s all a video game needs to do sometimes.