The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Open Beta closed two weeks ago, which has given me a healthy chunk of time to digest my experience with it. What follows is an in-depth review of the various elements the open beta had on display. For reference, I was playing on the XBOX ONE S, and played enough to reach the Level 30 cap, max out available attachments on all the starter weapons, and try my hand at a number of the unlockable weapons.
// MENUS - UI - GUNSMITH
The first thing I noticed upon opening the game was the graphical fidelity - I'd say the game is on par with the last Battlefront game, in both visual and audio fidelity. The animations are smooth, naturalistic, and very convincing - as are the environments, utilizing unique color palettes and lighting angles to give each map a distinct feel and sense of place. The weapon and POV models are also impressive, as are the particle effects and dynamic lighting elements that bounce off them. The weapons, in particular, are quite detailed, with small scratches, grooves, patches of wear, exposed metal, and top-notch shading. This level of graphical polish is particularly important in the Realism and Night modes, given how these modes are meant to be so immersive.
The menus were relatively easy to navigate, if a little jarring in their transition from the main menu to the various different diorama screens for character outfits and weapon modifications. However, there were a couple annoyances: one, I would often get booted out of the gunsmith menu by a change of "screen" during the intermission lobby. I either had to quit a lobby to create a class, or sit at the beginning of a match for 15 seconds, frantically editing my attachments and perks and risk getting booted or killed. That, and the option to edit a class or weapon is not mapped to the A/X button, and instead has to be selected with the left thumbstick. Little frustrations like this build up over time.
The other was the inclusion of a looped, fully-rendered player character at center screen, endlessly stalking invisible enemies, through the misty grey infinity (ward). I admire the visual callbacks to Modern Warfare 2's menu screen, but this was really distracting and occasionally off-putting - I can only handle so many muzzle sweeps and so much anxious crouch-walking.
// GAMEPLAY - CORE
I should have considered the menu's stalking man as a kind of foreshadowing; this posture and body language came to define the winningest strategy for any player moving in any kind of sustained forward direction.
Most people who play CoD do so because they just want a fun game to play, and don’t have 8 hours a day to devote to perfecting their playstyle or map strategy. They just want to have a quick bit of fun at the end of the day, sit back with a beer and joke around with their friends online.
This kind of player - the main market for Call of Duty games - will be turned off by the absurd amount of angles he will have to cover, and the domination of the maps other, more dedicated or experienced players will be able to enforce - especially when it’s so easy to just super sprint your way around the map, and get killed by someone camping behind a piece of deployable cover. Either that, or he will only play a small fraction of the map, as will other players of his caliber and attention span. Add to this soft skill-based matchmaking, and most players will end up playing the same 15% of a massive level, reinforced by the inclusion of Tactical (Super) Sprint and weapon mounting to cover.
My experience with the Objective gametypes, especially Domination and Headquarters, confirmed this. In Domination, only one of the three objectives were ever contested, and the only times the spawn-area objectives were played were when spawns flipped. This is typical for public matchmaking, especially in Call of Duty. But it was incredibly frustrating, because the games boiled down to a mad dash towards the action, which stays in one or two areas near the center of the map, often interrupted by a player who has managed to post up somewhere with an LMG or Sniper and who can easily cover one of the two main routes from the spawns to that objective, benefiting greatly from the faster TTK and the incredibly sluggish transition from sprint to Aim Down Sight (ADS), as well as the increased rendering distance.
The game is incredibly complex - sightlines overlap to an absurd degree. Stepping into a courtyard, for example, exposes you to upwards of 10 different locations at a time. Meanwhile, taking a side route through a building can be just as dangerous, as you must contend with the possibility of CQC engagements or running into a claymore. This is made all the more daunting because many buildings have doors that must be breached in order to enter, and the lighting contrast makes it very difficult to see players crouching or lying prone with an SMG or Shotgun. The map Hackney, Yard, for example, has a number of buildings that can be explored, in which there are upwards of 5 places a player could be hiding - and vice versa, if you are hiding in these buildings, there are upwards of 5 places a player could challenge you from. Some buildings are also partially destroyed, which opens them up to multiple lines of sight - there are windows, doors, cave-ins, cutaways, scaffolding, and other tears in the structures which can open up a player to numerous angles of attack, most of which cannot be countered because of the fast Time To Kill (TTK).
// REALISM / NIGHT MODES
In Realism mode, the heavy lighting contrast forces you to face into the sun for an advantage in most cases, and the dark areas can easily be controlled by players jumping around corners or posting up on portable cover. Plus, spawns are easily broken because they’re proximity-based, which means your team can be daisy-chained at one spawn location, especially because it's hard to determine where your team is (or the other team), unless they are onscreen, helpfully overlaid with an immersion-breaking nameplate that IS NOT EVEN CENTERED OVER THE PLAYER MODEL. There is nothing more frustrating than firing under a bright red nameplate in a black void, only to watch your tracers fly past your killer's head in the killcam.
As a direct result of the confusion and hyperrealism, I’ve spawned into the line of fire a few times on the Cave map. This should never happen, especially considering how large that map is - but because the lack of onscreen prompts is anathema to the average CoD player, my team was scattered all over the map, and therefore not concentrated in any one area, which breaks the spawns, apparently. Not pictured are the 4 or 5 times I was spawned in the same location (southernmost Allegiance spawn zone) with half of the enemy team within my visibility.
In Night mode, the game plays with tunnel-vision, artificially reducing the sightline saturation through the use of ingenious lighting tricks, replacing it with a totally desaturated night vision landscape of pale greens and deep blacks. This is accomplished in such convincing detail by the rendering of Infrared light in-engine, so that your night vision goggles are actually picking up the "real" IR signatures bouncing around the map.
This actually makes the pathing easier to digest; your visible options are significantly reduced, as the eye is not drawn by natural light towards the next potential target. Instead, there are pockets of light near burning vehicles, in doorways, and near some light posts, which highlight a few places where a player may come through. The lack of a HUD helps emphasize motion past these light sources, but the low lighting and monochromatic display makes it hard to chase players who don’t run directly past your immediate vicinity. This spreads the concentration of action way out, which slows gameplay down significantly, unless you happen upon a firefight that’s already started. Unfortunately, however, this just makes it all that much easier to run past someone and not notice them - or get picked off by someone posted up in a makeshift crow's nest.
The complexity of the Core maps is offset by the small, simple layouts offered for the new 2v2 Gunfight mode. Unfortunately, this mode suffers from the same problems as the 6v6 and 10v10 games, only in a much more concentrated form.
The way this played in practice was like a very frantic and constricted form of BLOPS 4's Blackout. Depending on your connection and your dedication to this form of combat, your experience will differ. Mine was not overly positive, as I was often left to play alone after my teammate quit 2 rounds in, or sacrificed to the CoD gods by the spotty hit detection.
I eventually learned how easy it was to use one strategy to dominate play on one particular map.
But, because the maps are various forms of symmetrical environments, feature asymmetrically symmetrical weapon spawns, and the matchmaking process cannot guarantee communication between you and your teammate, these strategies relied entirely on my faith in RNGesus and my willingness to gamble away another 30 seconds of my life.
Keep in mind, the version I got to try of this did not offer players a starting weapon. This was infinitely more frustrating than anything I've ever played. Weapons were set at spawn points, equipment pickups were randomly cycled, and the 'hold X' prompt did not function consistently unless I slowed down to walking speed near a pickup.
Consider, then, that most of these pickups were placed either in highly contested, staged areas (except for the pistols), or in very enclosed areas. It felt a little bit like playing a sped up version of dodgeball, where a round is decided by the first player to grab a ball from the midfield line. Only in this game, some balls are clearly better than others, and if you want them you have to put yourself in an almost indefensible position.
The small scale of these maps, the fast TTK, and the high mix value of footsteps makes moving fast a problem, but also the only way to win. Each map differs slightly, but generally speaking, Sitting still and mounting your weapons is a recipe for death, as is stalking the enemy. Unfortunately, moving fast also makes the pickup prompt even less responsive, to the point where I had to backtrack to pick something up, taking twice as long to pick the damn things up. Last I checked, players don't hold X to reload, so why not reduce the amount of hold time necessary to pick up weapons?
I would often pick up a starter pistol, only to be picked off by a player who had already super sprinted to my flank, grabbing a shotgun or M4 along the side route, uncontested by my teammate, who had already died running straight at the middle of the map without a weapon. If I was not picked off, a comeback was extremely difficult, because you can't shoot at two enemies at once in CoD, and if you do get lucky and catch them doubled up, chances are they'll do enough combined damage to you before you can down either of them, especially if they've already picked up the weapons you'd need to do that kind of damage.
As a result, the gametype is hindered by not only the inherent imbalance of semi-variable, asymmetrical weapon pickups, but also by the fast TTK and extreme movement delta necessary for consistent accuracy. Rounds that last less than 30 seconds are more frantic than fun, and rounds that last more than a minute are excruciatingly stressful. Both kinds of matches also suffered from the long wait time between rounds, the jittery nature of the 3rd person death cam, and the extremely repetitive round-winning killcams.
And yet, it's possible to win a round of this game simply by taking advantage of the lighting, and manic repositioning of the other team, as evidenced by the time I idled for a good 20 seconds, only to see the enemy jump onto my screen, not notice me, allow me enough time to run up to him, without a weapon, and punch him to death, again, without knowing I was there.
Imagine an F1 race where every lap alternated between Green and Caution, and where there are no hard and fast rules on the displacement or aerodynamics. For only 10 laps. Get the picture?
// GROUND WAR
This was beyond a mess. No structure whatsoever. Avoid, unless you want to play a less fun, less polished, less understandable version of Battlefield.
// SANDBOX DESIGN
Every individual encounter lasts less than a second, and you never know when someone will super sprint around a corner with an MP7, or pick you off from a window you can't see without a 60-inch 4K TV and the in-game brightness turned up far beyond what's healthy. In a game that encourages such slow movement, but which has a staggering amount of variability in it's movement speeds, this is beyond frustrating.
It does not help MW’s case that the vast majority of, if not all, the weapons are hitscan laser beams. Leading the target is not necessary, which eliminates the kind of skill that would make faster TTKs manageable and a bit more rewarding.
Some of my best plays were made while moving slow and methodically, which is incredibly counter-intuitive in a game under the CoD banner. I think this mixed signal comes from the decision to go back to something more 'boots on the ground'. The community of CoD players out there had been clamoring for less complex movement, less cheap jumping and dropshotting, and less bouncing around the map. Unfortunately, somewhere the signals must have gotten scrambled. Sprinting is pre-loaded with risk vs reward design, as is the Hipfire/ADS split.
I do not suggest changing the formula for the Core gameplay options, it is far past the point where that's feasible before release. But if the idea is to offer a structured, competitive arena experience where players must weigh the risk of changing location with the reward of a potential score, players ought to spawn with a set loadout, weapons should not be randomized, and players should be bound to small ammo counts and given a severely restricted sandbox.
Here are some solutions I suggest, for Gunfight: Pistol starts, smoke and decoy grenades, Semi-Auto ARs placed on periphery paths, and foregripped, sightless SMGs placed in the map center, with and Molotov Cocktails enforced as the available pickups. This way, precision is encouraged, and area denial becomes a more passive strategy, allowing players to actually move through the map and fight on their feet. I would also remove the immediate elimination, offering teams up to 3 lives between them per round, and a squad-spawn mechanic that would spawn a player behind, or very near their teammate, in cover. This would encourage longer-term game strategy, and would keep players invested in the match - which would also allow for actual plays to be made, and lessen the frustration of losing a match. I'd even up the TTK, which would make the gunfights - eh? - a little bit more complex than just two people running straight at each other like runaway trains.
Oh, and random spread on semi-auto weapons should be heavily reduced at walking speed. You could even include hipfire while sprinting, if you want that increased spread, to give players an option to actually defend themselves while moving, but one that is realistically effective, and not deceptively ineffective. Frankly, this would be a good addition to the base sandbox, considering the realism IW is going for.
It's Call of Duty, so the main character is your chosen weapon. As I've mentioned, the weapon models were quite detailed. The staggering number of available attachments are all rendered to the same level of polish as the base weapons, and each provide a unique status effect on them. Red Dot sights, for example, allow for greater pinpoint accuracy and spatial awareness, whereas holographic sights offer a vignette sight picture, with a general idea of where your bullets will land - angled foregrips provide a little bit of aiming stability, and lightweight stocks/barrels visibly affect your movement speed, across all movement types. Laser pointers are particularly useful, as they paint your target with an angry red glow from the hip. Very useful on the MP5, so that will probably get nerfed.
As to the animations, these are really quite impressive, from a 'digital GoPro' perspective. Shotguns pack a massive punch, blasting backward with a flash of light, the Desert Eagle bounces around in your hands as you wrestle it back to the target, and even the movement of the character is reflected, with every change of direction accompanied by a somewhat elastic arm movement, no doubt intended to convey the weight of the weapon in your hands. Even sniper scopes refract and bend light in a realistic way, with the lenses blurring and distorting according to where the crosshairs are located.
Unfortunately, this level of realism is oftentimes distracting, or even detrimental to the gunplay - the sniper lens effect, the shotguns' incredible kick, and the various pistols' inability to sit still in your hands all can make it very hard to keep your weapon on target. Add to this the notoriously bad random spread on hip-fired weapons, and the inconsistent hit detection (especially on: pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, and marksman rifles) and you've a recipe for even more little frustrations. I suppose this is to be expected in CoD, but that is not meant as an excuse - rather, it ought to be considered a glaring condemnation of the developers' - and publisher's - lack of care for gameplay integrity.
// LEVEL DESIGN
The environments are as spectacularly rendered, and the way they are designed conveys a true sense of place. This does not prevent the environments from being readable, as the artists have done a pretty good job of making sure areas you can access are clearly defined when approaching them. Another cool detail is the way in which some maps offer players some platforming opportunities, and the way these alternate paths overlap with each other. Hackney Yard was the most notable example of this, with shipping containers placed just so in the central courtyard, and a dual-tiered workshop roof accessible to players who wanted a vertical advantage. These shipping containers double as cover for players on the ground floor, which lessens the advantage of such vertical positions, and makes players decide whether they will chase along the adjacent roof, or try something riskier, hopping from container to container.
That said, there are a few places where this is not so well done - one was a sheetmetal awning on Azhir Cave, between the catwalk bridge and the middle cave entrance, a position that would have offered an interesting sightline into he cave, towards the Coalition spawn.
Normally I would welcome this change from the tired 3-lane approach CoD has been using for the last seven (7) years, a formula that BLOPS4 deviated from a little bit - notably with Morocco, Icebreaker, Militia, Jungle, and Firing Range, two of which were lifted from the first Black Ops. I say that these maps deviate because they offer players more meaningful movement choices around the environment. Rather than just pushing straight up one lane to flip the spawns, you might have a choice of high or low ground. Rooms were sparse, but did not offer opportunities for corner camping. Sightlines were direct, but limited in their scope, power positions were accessible from one or two angles of attack, and grenades were effective area denial tools. Pathing branched off at predictable, well-paced intervals, but there were flanking paths with subtle changes in geometry and elevation, allowing players to be more thoughtful about their aggression, and more capable of fighting back if they were caught off guard.
Modern Warfare attempts this with its levels as well, offering maps that deviate in subtle ways from the 3-lane formula. Interiors were alternatively open and closed, environments are more vertically inclined, overlapping, and there are multiple ways to approach a firefight or hot zone - this gave many of the environments an organic, flowing feel to the progression through a level, making stops at clearly-defined minor arenas along the way. And with the simplified weapons and movement abilities, this makes a lot of sense. This added a layer of thought and strategic movement I really appreciated at times, but which I could not get engaged in long-term because of the need to speed up and slow down so much.
Even then, the maps do not deviate all that much from the 3-lane formula - instead of offering a suite of branching, but not necessarily intersecting paths with a smaller, more manageable number of sightlines to consider, the spaces between 'arenas' are saturated with sightlines, overlapping paths, hard, blind corners, equally-dispersed cover, and 'risk/reward' verticality.
Vertical positions tend to have NO cover, unless they are window positions. Windows are strengthened further by the fact they are always in shade, and do not make a player's presence readable at all. Even the ones that are open and lit, like on Hackney Yard or Azhir Cave, are incredibly difficult to see, because the lighting engine favors the brighter areas, in the name of photorealism. If a player is not playing extremely stealthily, peeking around corners, momentarily mounting their weapons on cover, checking their six, and sliding into the next piece of conveniently placed cover along a particular path, they will be pinged from somewhere totally unpredictable, and generally invisible until the killcam reveals the position. This is very frustrating on levels with so many overlapping lines of sight, and so many blind, tight corners.
There is one notable exception, where a vertical position does have some cover created by the integrated geometry/pathing, almost as if the level designer was unintentionally quoting a Halo map of old. Unfortunately, that position is nearly impossible to break because of the ability to go prone, the incredibly fast TTK, and the fact that it can control the entire central courtyard of the map by the mere suggestion that someone might be up there.
The above image is meant to highlight the 11 (count them, there may be more that I didn't include!) places the blue player choosing the middle path on Hackney Yard can expect to be shot at from off a respawn. The non-rectangular zones are spots a player can reasonably expect to either be mantled, or come super sprinting around without warning. There is also a closed door on the left side of the image, which can be used as a deterrent, or a dynamic piece of cover for players controlling that hallway. To players without a minimap, this area is a deathtrap. To players with a minimap, this area is a no-go zone. Maybe that's another layer of realism that was intended? I can't say for sure.
To that point, the replacement of the mini-map with the overhead compass wouldn’t have been an issue if the levels weren’t so ridiculously segmented and easy to control because of small spawn zones, relative to the rest of the map. I also don’t understand the claim that they aren’t 3-lane maps, they very clearly are, just with too many lines of sight to consider - or lines of sight you can’t consider, because of the contrast and deep shadows.
Here is a perfect example, taken from my own gameplay:
I was breaching the HQ by the Coalition spawn on Gun Runner. I began to take hits from my left-front, which I assumed to have come from beyond the barrels you can see - in an attempt to set up for the next encounter, and protect myself from further fire, I hid behind those barrels as I had not seen any bullets fly through them. But because of the lighting, again, I could not see that there was already someone there, who turned out to be the guy who had shot at me just prior. Totally invisible from 3rd person, but in is killcam, his hands are weapon were easily visible against the room.
Another fun example is the exposed studding in the upstairs hallway in Hackney Yard's green building. I should be able to bounce a cooked grenade off a wall down a staircase without it hitting a minuscule piece of geometry and bouncing back to kill me. Just as I should be able to open a door while cooking a grenade, without the "OPEN DOOR" prompt cancelling itself out, unprompted, while I still have the damn thing in my hand. Either that, or DON'T ALLOW PLAYERS COOKING A GRENADE TO OPEN DOORS.
Once again, the emphasis on realism gets in the way.
// IN TOTO
Encourage and condition for the spectacle of speed, make every moment a life or death struggle for control, but also set up the sandbox so that only the careful, slow players are able to achieve anything, and you'll get yourself a Hypertension Simulator.
Fundamentally, the issue with this game is that it is designed - intentionally, I think - so that every single decision you make is life or death. This is passable in social matches where there is so little at stake. But in ranked matchmaking lobbies and small scale encounters, which are the bread and butter of the old CoDs, the ball has been dropped. This the most frustrating CoD experience I’ve yet to have, and the campiest one, at that. Individual empowerment is meaningless if the power comes at the cost of its advantage. It's as if *any* kind of aggression was tossed out with the bathwater.
I will say, that if players are joined up in appropriate groups, this game’s current build could play really well, especially for eSports viewership considerations, with a free-floating spectator camera. A pro gaming audience, and the average bar audience with ESPN would eat it up, especially from a franchise that already has a pro circuit set up, with pro teams who get first looks, alpha testing access, who have a close relationship with developers, and a pre-existing fanbase.
Plus, there’s something really appealing about the extremely cinematic look, with an epic, crisp, widescreen quality I last saw in Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. The recent story trailer clearly attempts to emphasize this cinematic quality, and I expect the final product to blur the lines between game and film even further, at least in the campaign mode. But, whereas those are classic golden-age Hollywood films, with engaging plots, unique, goal-driven characters, incredible sets and cinematography, and thematic integration in the very specific visuals a director chooses for the audience, this is an interactive and dynamic piece of entertainment, built on the choices people make during the course of a match, and ultimately only as interesting as the gameplay on display; the spectacle of a film can only carry a bad plot so far.
I think I understand the thought behind the choices - Infinity Ward is trying to capture lightning in a bottle by attempting to replicate, on a much tighter scale and with far greater visual fidelity, the success of both a Battle Royale and the classic Search and Destroy, where players' limited lives add a layer of tension and skin in the game. The human response to such a sustained state of tension and a spike of adrenaline is certainly the stuff of spectacle, especially in the world of real sports.
But if every moment is unpredictable, life-or-death, without time for the adrenaline to actually kick in, the only thing you get in the long term is apathy. And for a franchise built on a yearly release model, this is only going to engender further loss of confidence in the brand.
Infinity Ward has few weeks before the full release of the game, so there’s still time to consider the feedback they receive from the general public, and implement a few changes they find most in line with their overall vision for the product, and what they've already built. Considering the recent news about SpecOps Survival being a PS4 exclusive, I hope that they consider this, and other voices that took the time to carefully digest their experience with the beta build; if they don’t make the game as tight as they possibly can, they will only add one more nail in the coffin of a once great franchise.
If I can offer one final bit of advice to the devs at Infinity Ward, and anyone from Activision's QA and executive departments: always check your premises. If you don't there's no telling what kind of jumbles you'll get yourself into, especially with something as complex and fine-tuned as an online PvP shooter, or even as simple as a pencil sharpener.
So, we’ll see what happens, come October 25th - there's a skeleton of a good game in there somewhere, but like a fat person in denial, those bones can't hold them up much longer.
Who the hell am I, anyway?
BA Philosophy / BA French Intellectual History
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