Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review :: Call of Duty 6: Modern Warfare 2

Some spoilers below.

After playing Call of Duty 6: Modern Warfare 2, I still feel the same amount of apathy that permeates the "Call of Duty Problem." (Go back! Read it! Shameless plug!) When I sit down, I know I'm about to enter a long, linear shooter that is going to thrust me through many 'exciting' environments in an effort to give me the 'coolest' experience possible. The more I play Call of Duty games, the more I'm convinced that they're not going to change. It's the same principle with the television show, '24:' watch one season, and you get the gist, the basic formula (and the enjoyment along the way). Watch any more seasons (or play any more games) and you're in for a downhill ride of repetitious scenarios that can never seem to match the original.

CoD6: MW2 is a game defined by context: the events which are going on around you. I think that's why the original Call of Duties were so successful: never before in a game did you feel so authentically like you were part of a larger-scale war. People weren't standing around like stick figures waiting for you to talk to them--in contrast, your comrades were ducking for cover, chucking grenades, pulling each other to safety, trying to advance without you. Something was always happening, independent of your actions, and that made the world feel so much more alive, the battles so much more authentic. It was new, it was fresh, and it was exciting. Flash forward to today, and Call of Duty 6 relies on the same principles, except perhaps even more so. CoD6 continually uses the same game mechanic (or rather, only game mechanic): run into an arena of enemies, tap zoom-in to auto-aim at the baddy (at least for the console version. Maybe I would've liked it if I played it on PC), press fire, then rinse and repeat for maximum fun. What changes throughout the game, however, is the context. You shoot bad guys in the same way, except you do it in different environments: in a helicopter circling a castle, in a raft roaring down a river, in a snowmobile jumping over a ravine.
Don't get me wrong, it's good to change the context--it provides variety, new environments to switch up the game mechanics in, and new scenarios to take part in. What's disappointing, for me, however, is that the designers seem to be so focused on what's going around you, rather than on what's going on because of you. They seem to be so concentrated on providing interesting settings and scenarios--icy cliffs, burning white houses, raging rapids--that what few actions you can perform no longer have as much meaning.
When you're with the terrorists who are shooting up an airport in Russia, you're not allowed to stop the attack, shoot back, or take action; you're only allowed to view the onslaught (or participate in it, for gosh's sake) until the mission is over.
When you are an astronaut in space, you can only view the impending explosion from your static viewpoint, not influence it or try to stop it.
These scenarios are interesting to be in, but you can't really participate in them. You are sitting, watching, viewing--and the only way you can participate in the scenario (if at all) is to shoot enemies until you clear a location so that the soldiers around you can hold your hand until the next story segment.

I want my actions in a game to have meaning. I want to influence the story, be a part of it, not be a passive viewer on the sidelines. I want to stop an assassination, kill an enemy leader, successfully break down an enemy outpost, and then see the repercussions of those actions. This happens in Call of Duty somewhat, but it seems to happen less and less, especially for the current game. So many things in CoD6 currently take place independently of your actions (the terrorist massacre, the EMP missile launch, the betrayal by a certain comrade), and because of that, you are reduced to more of a viewer than a participant.
Then again, that was part of the original point of the Call of Duty games: to make you feel as if you were a small piece of an ultimately larger and global conflict. It worked, in that respect, but it feels so scaled down currently, than any actions I make don't have any meaning at all--all I can do is just kill endless waves of enemies in confined and pre-determined locations, and then watch everyone else get to do the fun, important, plot-changing stuff.

The last scene in CoD6 exemplifies what Call of Duty has now become for me, in both scope and methodology. It doesn't take the game mechanics, make you exploit them in an innovative way, or challenge you to perform your best to finish the fight. Instead, you, the player, sit and watch, and watch as your ally fights the last boss as you are helpless to participate in the fight. The game restricts you to a dying position without any movement, then literally tells you to smash your SQUARE button endlessly as a quick-time gimmick. You don't have to think, strategize, or perform--you just do what the game tells you to do. After that, the game lets you aim at the final boss with virtually no chance of missing or losing. This isn't an exercise in gaming--it's an exercise in viewing and following instructions.

Games, as a medium, are different, important, fun--whatever adjective you want--because of one main element: interactivity. Without this, it becomes a passive medium, much in the same way of film or literature, which are enjoyable on their own right, but in a different manner. What makes interactivity interesting is in the ways in which (you think) you can directly impact the game world, however small or large. What Call of Duty has progressively shifted towards is a game with many moments of action, except you are not causing the action, you are viewing it. Moments like these are exciting to be in, but don't always work as a gaming experience because there is no interaction, no feedback from the player. If Call of Duty could keep the same moments, the same level of polish, but make you, the player, the instigator of the action, then it would be a much more enjoyable game.

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