// REVISED AND REVISITED
Only a little more than a month ago, Modern Warfare was dropped from Infinity Ward's humid womb and thrust into the online marketplace to dance for our amusement. Its legs still slick with placental fluid, I voiced my concern about the direction of the full release in a previous article.
I’ll link to that article here, but the long and short of it was that the Beta multiplayer suffered from laser-fast time to kill and inconsistent netcode, encouraging players to stay immobile and snipe from dark corners, which was only amplified by the crazy amounts of sightlines that were available from these locations. Not much has changed in that regard, so this revised review will only cover the most relevant topics that have changed since the Beta. It will also foray into the realm of industry commentary - but not too much.
In the time since the sloppy delivery of MW, there have been three (Nov. 21 draft) - now five - major patches, nerfs and buffs, spread and range adjustments, a DLC drop, and tons of small QOL updates with new challenges, new features, new levelling mechanics, the removal of Battle Chatter from ‘tactical’ modes, and countless video rants released on YouTube and elsewhere. Seeing as the 725, M4, and claymores are still as infuriating after being nerfed, I’m sure that many more will be coming down the line. After all, if a game is never truly finished, and therefore never truly reviewable in and of itself, it can never truly be judged.
Speak of the devil. Season 1 has just begun, and I need to download a 27.81 GIGABYTE update, as of Dec. 6. Taken with a phone camera, because my Xbox doesn't let me take screenshots of its menus...
Wrong - as soon as a product has been experienced, that product is open to being judged according to its merits, the context from which it emerged, and any attempts at or reasoning behind future updates.
To begin with, nothing has been done to fix the core multiplayer level design, as not much could realistically have been done in the amount of time since the Beta was closed. The levels that were present in the Beta are still weirdly segmented, with crossmap sightlines and incredibly fast TTK. Ground War is still a mess of an experience if you aren’t sniping or camping a staircase with claymores somewhere. The new GW map has flatness designed to contrast it from the other one, which makes for a very slightly different slog playing solo.
This is totally understandable, as most AAA games have levels completely blocked out and finalized long before the textures and art assets are fully plugged in. Asking a developer to completely change a suite of levels that have been polished for months by a team of a few dozen people is not a reasonable request at all. Especially when those levels are major sections of an in-universe Spec-Ops map, apparently tripling as a 200-player Battle Royale level, all of which is visible from the boundary sections of the various levels. The inclusion of the battle chatter mechanic, however, is not such a major feature, and could easily have been surgically removed, much like a useless organ, or a benign tumor.
Much like such growths, however, leaving it in only makes things worse.
One level was released that addressed the level design complaints head-on, however. Shoot House, released in the first free DLC drop, is a ‘traditional’ 3-lane CoD map, with bounded sightlines, paths between the clear-cut lanes, and some simple micro-pathing available to players willing to think a little bit more. It’s also a very small map, which means that players will always be near the action, no matter where they are. It plays completely differently from any of the other TDM/Domination levels currently available.
Unfortunately, the playability of the level is still heavily affected by the issues previously identified within the sandbox. Straight lanes are affected by the laser ARs and corner mounting - 9 semi-contained mini-arenas designed to allow a push into, holding, and a push out of become impenetrable fortresses because of the claymores and fast TTK - the four semi-symmetrical vertical positions at the corners of the central intersection are easily exploited by corner campers with shotguns or claymores - the main spawn zones are afflicted by both easy access and incredible control over the central lane thanks to the mounting mechanic and the long line of sight - windows are hard to see enemies in, and are easily defended by mounted players - sprinting around corners with a 725 or snakeshot magnum is a very viable option - spawning is even more dangerous because the level is so small relative to the speed of tactical sprint and the spread of solo-queue players around the level…
Interesting, I wonder what happens when you overlay the spawn and death maps...
What makes the level particularly infuriating to me, a Forge aficionado of the highest order, is that there are areas which appear accessible in one way or another, but which are not. Most of them involve implied verticality, sections of the level which could offer intriguing sightlines and clear counters, but which are teases at best, and actively blocked at worst. The clearest example is the helicopter displayed proudly in the loading screen view. It does not help that the dark body of the helicopter is also the most visually distinct object on the map, more than even the red crates at the center of the map. The troop doors are even lined in yellow tape, adding to the visual weight of the position. There are other strange artifacts - doors that are lazily blocked off with large sheets of plywood or green tarps, as if they were accessible at one point of the level’s development, but which were not clearly defined with lighting and smaller environmental cues as solid geometry. Similar issues exist on other maps like Piccadilly and Rammaza, where there are thin walls, staircases to nowhere, and blind corners into out-of-bounds spawn alleys.
I think this level was thrown together in haste - squared off, basic 3x3 layout, with reused assets from the available campaign files, and featuring some of the most infuriating spawning I’ve ever experienced this side of Shipment and Nuketown, especially considering the new overhead spawn camera. Now I can see the enemy players coming at me just before I spawn, and I can predict when I’ll be shot at after moving from the spawn point. Unfortunately, I still get killed because player models often are not centered where the player POV is located. I don’t know why this is, but it has been documented that players looking directly at the location of their killer are unable to see them, fully concealed behind thick cover, but are clearly visible on their killcam. It may have something to do with the player's location information lagging behind, and displaying both player and hitbox to other players a few milliseconds behind, allowing enemies to shoot at where you were in the past, killing you in the present.
All-in-all, it’s not so much the controlled chaos that proponents of the classic three-lane formula enjoy as it is constrained chaos. Less enjoyable, to be sure, but still far more manageable than the rest on offer in the core multiplayer playlists. And if the player response is anything to go by, Shoot House is a success.
It is therefore not too much of a surprise that the new Ground War map is also garnering praise for its flatter level design. Unfortunately, I can’t echo this praise. There are so many places to get shot from on this level, that even attempting to use the level’s open spaces is impossible. It once again boils down to a lot of hiding in corners - just with much longer sightlines - and a lot of running from airborne killstreaks and anti-personnel ground vehicles. Too bad that the buildings are so easy to shoot into with thermal scopes and with APC cannons. There’s no direction. It’s just chaos. There’s no communication. It’s just a lot of people running around alone together. It’s actually rather sad, and I can understand why there are so many content creators who are getting burned out playing these games day after day to generate income.
But if this is what garners high praise from the players of Modern Warfare, 3-by-3 level construction and lighting-fast lives, then I cannot blame Kojima for taking a jab at American gamers put off by Death Stranding's gameplay loop.
One more positive thing I have to say about the multiplayer is the inclusion of evolving challenges in the new "Trials" mode, and in the slightly more passively accomplished Missions. These actually let you work for unlocks, which makes them feel a little more valuable. It's not often in the age of microtransactions that a game actually lets players choose the rewards they want to work towards. This kind of design would be so much more interesting if it weren't for the fact that the multiplayer experience made some of these challenges near-impossible to complete
Oh, by the way, Crash is back again. If the last three games it was included in weren't enough to quench your thirst for tasteful verticality in a CoD game, then I guess this will have to do, for now. If only the already bad head-glitching spots along the longest sightline weren't made worse by the inclusion of the mounting mechanic. Oh, and if only the Crash-only 24/7 playlist didn't include the vanilla Battle Chatter for your character. I shouldn't be able to hear myself talking to myself as a harbinger of my own death.
Name a more iconic crashed troop transport - bet you can't!
The Campaign mode was genuinely pretty fun, and had some serious moments of brilliance. The one I think is most worthy of being singled out is the second-to last level which has you raiding the compound of weapons dealer at night, in order to free his captured family and gain access to the pipelines containing the chemical gas that is being funneled to some Russian proxy or another. The level features the most free-form, decision-based gameplay in the entire game, by mixing elements of stealth, lighting engine exploitation, and appropriate dynamic AI response to player actions.
Unfortunately, this moment shines so bright only because of the thick darkness surrounding it. It is the inevitable result of a glaring oversight earlier in the game. The level based in Piccadilly Circus is easily the most infuriating in the whole campaign. The player is given a clear line of sight into the rear of a terrorist van, and even the option to fire at the terrorists before they do anyhting. They are carrying weapons, in clear violation of British laws against the owning, sale, licensing, and carrying of arms, and the player is already part of a response team sent to handle the threat. The player is then given control of the character, and has a pistol in his hands - the clear thing to do is to shoot these people before they have a chance to shoot first. But that’s not allowed.
The ensuing attack is more annoying than anything else, because it’s so artificial. It is one thing to give the player a shot at stopping the attack - allowing the player to break the rules of engagement (which should not have even factored in, given the law had already been broken by the guys in the van with the machine guns) and have a separate van commit the attack, outside the reach of the player would effectively create the same sequence of events, and serve the same purpose. But to give the player the tools to stop such a terrible thing and punish them for attempting to do so is the kind of mindfuck that should be reserved for movies or unplayable cutscenes; a CO physically restraining the player from firing at the terrorists would create an antagonist, show the effect of international red tape on the protection of western cities, and justify the breaking off of Price and Gaz to eventually form 141 - a separate van on the other side of the Circus would show just how convicted the terrorists were as a unified force, and display to the player what kind of enemy and tactics they are truly up against.
It carried no weight in my experience, because I had to sit back and let it happen. I developed an active dissociation from the level, because I simply did not care anymore about it or its implications for the story. The attack happened, and I still had to mow down plainclothes terrorists in the street and chase after remaining attackers. If this was supposed to make a point about international rules of engagement and moral conviction, then point taken. The international rules of engagement are bullshit, and the politicians responsible for edifying them in the past are guilty of gross incompetence and possibly murder.
But to give you a gun, full access to the controls, a target, and an object to defend, and to kick you where it hurts for trying to use it?
The other super-duper dark and realistic levels also suffered from this story-driven staging, albeit in a slightly different way. A lot of noise was made about how the London townhouse raid was super dark, really edgy and mature. The level is constructed with four or five floors that need to be cleared of hostiles, and most rooms are too dark to see in without NVGs. Enemies make domestic noises, and the whole level has an intimate atmosphere, broken by the presence of the heavy weaponry and technology, and rendered further unsettling by the sounds of a baby crying, and mothers wailing. The gameplay has you following your squadmates very closely, tripping over their heels and bumping into every step up the stairs, and breaching many doors as you work your way up to the attic, where a woman attempts to set off a string of bombs somewhere in the city.
The gameplay and the mission design doesn’t really compliment the level design or the story/thematic beats the level lends itself to. In the name of realism, the game locks enemies in animations until they reach a set location, and then the regular AI takes over, assuming you miss the target the first time. But one thing that’s different is that some of the models are not armed, and are technically considered non-combatants. There are no unarmed men in this level, so that means women and children are on the safe list - most of the time. A few of the women will fire at you, but some will not, and some will be holding onto children. Shooting the child results in a mission fail state, which seriously lessens the impact of learning that that’s what you’ve done. It forcefully extracts you from the level and hides the consequences of your actions from you. The only time that doesn’t happen is if you shoot the mother of the child - which prompts a squadmate to gently place the infant in its crib. Unfortunately, you never have to actually witness this, because you can just move on up to the next room, and not see the result of your carelessness - and therefore not learn the real lesson you were supposed to about the horrors of war being brought into the domestic space.
It's sort of the opposite of the Piccadilly level, in that you are free to break the rules and really do some terrible things either by mistake or out of spite, but don't have to see the full consequences, especially when the issue of a child is involved. And I understand - this was likely done to make sure that the game didn't break any international rules about the depiction of violence against children in consumer entertainment, or banned in countries with a lot of regulations against this kind of thing. But later in the game, there are dead children - in fact, you are shown one being shot at (in a haze, so his death is obscured) in a scripted campaign level break - so it's a little difficult for me to square this circle. Maybe the idea was just to avoid controversy - but still, the game has those same elements present and on full display in other sections. Here's an idea - maybe if an achievement had been included - a "Mark of Shame", worth 0 points - for having killed non-combatants in the campaign? That way it's documented that you're either a terrible shot, or a really shitty person. Something similar is already in the game, which boots you out of the mission into the menu if you shoot the baby. That way the gameplay integrity is maintained, and maybe you are forced into a separate cutscene where Price or another CO confronts you, shaking you by the shoulders and yelling at you for doing something that awful...
Anyway... spilled milk...
The reason the Mansion Infiltration mission works so well, in contrast to these two other levels, is that it gives the player the access and tools to tackle the objectives in whatever order they so choose, using the entirety - or as close as they can come to it - of the sandbox as possible. And they’re almost entirely left to their own devices.
Players have to decide how they will tackle the three different hostage locations, as well as how they will move from objective to objective. Lights can be shot out, which cloaks the entire level in a thick darkness, hiding the eplayer from the enemy’s eyes. Or players can choose to go in guns blazing, and risk getting completely wrecked. No one approach is necessarily best, the player must decide how to approach the objectives, and must do the work to ensure that their approach works. It was a lot of fun trying to make sure I remained unseen, picking off every floodlight, hall light, and streetlamp around the complex, and genuinely challenging to ensure that once the alarm had been raised by gunfire I was positioned well enough to take out incoming enemies. It was also very satisfying to successfully complete a section of the level, exiting onto the street to watch as enemies walked past without noticing my presence, giving me an opportunity to move on to the next one.
No other level in the game provides this much freedom to make mistakes and clean them up - no other level offers so much choice and consequence to the player. A mistake is not the end of the world, however. Enemies will swarm the player, but are manageable if the player is skilled enough with his tools and aware of his environment. It is going to be a setback, but it will not be the end of the world. Because of this, it was more realistic of an experience than any of the other missions - less staged, and more engaging as a result.
This level is clearly based on the mission that really cemented the original Modern Warfare as an innovative and immersive shooter. Back in 2007, the original MW placed the player in the shoes of a young John Price, under the command of Captain Macmillan, with the objective of taking out the weapons dealer Zakhaev, while he was making a deal in Pripyat, Ukraine. Unearthly light broke through the clouds, casting an emaciated glow over the washed out grasses surrounding the player like a shroud, complementing the ghillie suits Price and Macmillan wear in the mission. Soldiers shuffle past him and Macmillan, tanks and APCs trundle past, barely missing you. By today’s standards, it’s a little hard to believe that these guys wouldn’t have seen you - it would be difficult for anyone to not notice a human-sized displacement in the grass at that range. Nevertheless, your stealth status provides the boundaries for the rest of the mission. If you get too close at the wrong time, if you shoot at an enemy when someone else is looking at him or too close by, if you run out of ammo and decide to use weapons without a suppressor, you will have a predictable and manageable enemy response: waves of hostiles who aren’t the best shots, but who are able to down you if you aren’t fast or confident enough with your own shooting.
This one level, and its inspiration contrast sharply with the multiplayer portion of the game. It gives the player time to think, and the ability to approach a threat from multiple angles without necessarily exposing themselves to other, unseen or numerous threats.
The story itself, similarities to the string of American and Russian incursions into the “intellectually barren soil” that is the middle eastern religious and clannish wars aside, is passable, especially for a game known mostly for its multiplayer. The characters are interesting, but their motivations are not always clear. Connections to the original MW plotlines are established through references in a similar style to the way the Star Wars franchise was able to generate an expanded universe, with mentions of characters and locations only found in those games. It was interesting to see a story about someone who is principled in their approach to conflicts and targets, who has only ever lived for one purpose, surrounded by characters who are learning the limits of the bureaucratic standards of modern warfare and social demoralization, which have led to so much strife and loss in their homes. Unfortunately, I think a lot more could have been done with the characters than what actually was done, and a lot more could have been done with the story as well.
So, I appreciate the work that was put into making the campaign so completely cinematic - but it falls somewhere in the uncanny valley, for a lot of reasons. The ease with which you can miss such an important lesson, and the lame finale, where the woman is so far away from the computer and detonator she was just sitting next to, just doesn’t make any sense, and once again lessens the overall impact of the raid. It just doesn’t make much sense that such a committed cell of terrorists would not have had a contingency plan in place where they would detonate the bombs they’d already planted - and it certainly doesn’t make sense that they would leave someone so conflicted and/or inept to guard it as a last resort. It actually makes the realism feel skin deep when played, and exposes just how artificial the encounters are. Watching it like a helmet cam is also slightly uncomfortable, as not much can accurately be identified in 720-1080p YouTube footage, and the movement is just too silky smooth for the gritty reality it is meant to depict.
// REALISM / NIGHT MODES
On that same topic, was Night Mode cut from multiplayer? No, not entirely - and it really, really sucks now, with the inclusion of the full weapons, perk, and equipment roster. It’s a gimmick, more than anything else, meant to flex the capabilities of the engine. Much like the rest of the game, a lot more could have been done with this mode - the level from the campaign I have already described used the NVG really well. Smaller, objective-based raid modes could have been implemented in the multiplayer, with stages in the raids, an objects to defend, and lights, backup generators, throwable flares, things like that which would make the mode more than just a cinematic gimmick.
As much fun as I had in the Beta with these modes - again, with caveats - I return to find nothing more than frustration, repetition, and the insane, chemically imbalanced insta-deaths that make the base game so frustrating to begin with. Only it’s 10 times worse, because Night Mode now features all the weapons in the game, thermal scopes included, and also the one-shot headshot kills with every single weapon - meaning that if you expect to survive long enough to land a hipfire kill on someone rushing past you in a doorway (unlikely as it is, since most engagements aren’t engagements, and rather a take on Duck Hunt), you’re very likely to end up dying to a single, random-spread bullet to the temple.
Not fun from a long-term gameplay perspective - I can understand why players cried out to have it removed from the core/TDM rotation.
// SPEC OPS
I admire the ambition, surely - to use the same map file in three separate game modes in order to save on developing bespoke levels for up to 200 players is pretty smart from a cost-cutting perspective and asset management perspective. But the execution just does not cut mustard. Or clarified butter, for that matter. I simply have no desire to be shot at by endless waves of ranged enemies and near-invincible anti-personnel vehicles, nor any desire to sit through the minutes-long respawn waiting screens, only to be forced into the same shitty position I already could not move from. One thing Chess gets right is the 'Stalemate': love it or hate it, it doesn't allow a no-win situation to continue longer than a couple moves. Spec Ops unfortunately allows for no-win situations to continue as long as there is one player in the party who has not been killed by the incessant, invisible LMG and mortar fire.
I struggle too to see how this mode fits the moniker of Spec Ops. The team size is small, yes, but it feels more like a Destiny or Anthem - or Fallout 76 - style raid, with asset flipped enemies you need to take out in an arbitrary order, in order to collect the necessary keycards, in a completely open field, with hundreds of enemy combatants. Instead of treating Spec Ops like a Time Trial mode, Spec Ops is like a hybrid of 6v6 TDM and PvE Ground War. There's none of the magic of the original Modern Warfare 2's Spec Ops missions, none of the pleasure obtained by completing a challenge that's just hard enough - and just guided enough - to encourage repeat plays. In fact, I only played it once. You could not pay me to play this mode more than once. It was not fun, and was not finished.
Respawn shooters have always benefited from the ability to jump back into the action with almost no delay. The original variety - Galaga, Contra, or Metal Slug, for example - were contingent on your wallet. Enough coins, and you could get back in the game and finish the fight. This puts your skin literally in the game - either you learn how to win and execute the level, or you lose another quarter, the equivalent of a call to a friend, a boss, or a significant other. Those are some relatively high stakes.
No such concrete stakes exist in the modern online respawn shooter, and Modern Warfare’s bread and butter multiplayer experience is the ultimate expression of this. You load up, you run around like a chicken with your head cut off, and you get killed by some bullshit or another, without any time to react - and then you’re right back in, without any time to let the stress hormones filter through your brain and metabolize. It’s like the whole thing never happened. One false alarm after another, and you never have to learn anything beyond where the spawns are and which areas might spit up an enemy for you to shoot at. You can quit the game, you can get right back into another queue, no questions asked, no effects on your matchmaking or standing in the servers. Either that, out you camp one particular sightline for a couple minutes, racking up kills, only to move onto another mounted position, racking up more kills, and watching the killfeed as players quit and join the game.
The Campaign also suffers from this lack of stakes, but there are moments like the ones I’ve described which show the stark contrast between gameplay designed around cheap life and gameplay designed around valuing your life.
The weird thing about Modern Warfare is that for all its lack of serious stakes, the only way to play is like a crocodile - waiting in the dark for an opportunity to snag a kill from an unsuspecting duck or goose - which requires you to value your life - but not your entire coterie of abilities. Obviously this doesn’t apply 100%, as the new Shoot House can be played with a run-and-gun approach, but it nevertheless applies to just about every other map and micro-arena in the game.
All that said, I have to say that I am having a lot of fun with the 2v2 Gunfight mode, only because I can play with a close friend and simulate the splitscreen days of old. The maps are easy to remember, the sightlines are manageable and can be countered, and the round-based, set-loadout approach allows for bite-sized gameplay and strategy, easily digested when playing with a teammate.
They’re all symmetrical and have limited, clearly defined callouts. Normally, I would not praise such level design, but given the nature of the gametype, the sandbox, and the rest of the multiplayer experience in Modern Warfare 2019, I must praise this simple, reductionist approach. The battles can lead to some really crazy map usage and clever plays, and satisfying round-winning trophy moments. Movement is actually somewhat encouraged, too, especially in maps like Docks, where you can have a lot of fun running through the sewer straight at unsuspecting enemies, flanking them right up the middle and flipping the tables.
It’s not perfect. Some maps have awful visibility because of excess foliage and a lack of defined environmental lighting, others suffer from head glitching opportunities and lazy cover placement, and still others suffer from the audio mixing and material footstep design - it’s not uncommon to hear footsteps coming from above and behind you, only to be shot from what used to be in front of you after you turn around to face that threat. It is also not uncommon to hear footsteps on wood, only to have an enemy run at you on a surface entirely made up of concrete. King, I’m looking at you. But they all allow the player to sit back and discuss the next round with their teammate, if they have one.
Let me be clear, however - my current enjoyment in no way contradicts the experience I had with the game type queueing solo in the Beta version, where weapons were picked up around the map and not part of set loadouts. That version was absolute dog.
That’s to say nothing of the numerous other dodgy features in the Multiplayer, like the ability to regenerate claymores, increase your damage dealt with them, and the fact that they are still so hard to dodge - or the continued presence of Battle Chatter in even a stripped-down form - or the use of side-mounted lasers over your chosen optics in Night Mode. The menus still boot me out of the Gunsmith menu when another screen loads in the background, hit detection is still ridiculously inconsistent and tied to what I call Packet Priority (shoot first, you get priority, because your input data is being sent to and from the server first), and I still consistently get shot in the ankle around corners - Realism and Night modes do not even factor in, anymore, because of the combination of crazy sightlines and the one-shot rule to the head with just about every weapon - I still can’t distinguish enemies from the environment, even on a large 4k monitor - claymore corners and just the sight of the word “Piccadilly” still make me want to uninstall - I still have not played a single match on the Euphrates Bridge map, even when filtering for 10v10 and 20v20 matches, a month after release. Ground War is still incredibly frustrating, and I can only enjoy it through YouTube compilations. The maps are even more difficult to traverse than the base 6v6-20v20 ones, and the player models are even more difficult to see because of the heavily taxed lighting system and framerate drops.
All told, it is a mess of different things. There’s nothing built in that encourages learning about the mechanics, or allows a mistake to be corrected. It actively encourages you to jump back in, without a single thought as to what happened and how to avoid it in the future. It lives on animalistic, chemically-induced reactions, the likes of which humanity has been working for millennia to rid itself of. That said, there are some gems to be found in the mess. I’ve had a lot of fun with the game - just under really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really specific conditions. All style, with the veneer of realism intruding in many places into the arcadey gameplay; the existing, individual ingredients could be used to create something really well-rounded and tasty, if they were identified and treated according to their nature.
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