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Monday, December 28, 2009

Game Play: Modern Warfare 2 Single Player

I've blogged and tweeted on this quite a bit, so this will be the last word on it. I've been holding out until I could actually play the entire single player campaign and judge it as whole. After all, when the "No Russian" level was first leaked, Activision and Infinity Ward cried foul on the blogosphere because the scene wasn't being placed in context.

So now I have the context.

Let's get a few things out of the way. The single player campaign is fun in a virtual shooting gallery kind of way and has some of the best graphics put to pixels to date. Mechanics are pretty solid, though honestly the game's concept of cover is starting to feel quite dated.

Whether the single player is worth the price of admission is another story. The bottom line is that the game is a multiplayer game and if you aren't buying it for the online experience, don't buy it. Not only is the single player game incredibly short (less than a weekend easily), but it is deeply flawed. Without the multiplayer - which I can't even debate - this would be a rental at best.

The main problem is that Modern Warfare 2 is a product of Valve style storytelling - but it fails completely in actually telling a story (key problems I had with Half Life 2 I might add). It's like watching a bad Hollywood popcorn flick - you better be paying the ticket only to see the pretty explosions, because as a movie there's nothing really to see here.

Spoilers. Many of them. Beginning in ...

The rationale of every scene in the single player game is not to create a cohesive story, but to shove some kind of action sequence in front of the player. You've seen many of these by now - the vehicle chase scene, vehicle escape scene, run the gauntlet, protect the position, etc., etc., etc.

The controversial "No Russian" scene is actually quite a lynch pin moment in just how horrible the so-called storytelling of the game plays out. Army Ranger Allen is plucked from his normal duty and sent undercover to infiltrate Russian terrorist Makarov. Most readers know by now, but almost the entire mission is just watching (or participating) in a massive slaughter of civilian casualties. In the end, Makarov knew the player was a plant and shoots them for dead.

The "context" of this scene exists pretty much solely in the voice over introduction where it's explained that "you don't want to know what it took" to get the player close to Makarov. That's it. Before that, the character was in Afghanistan - and then bam ... you're shooting civilians in an airport.

What follows next is even more ridiculous. Russia invades the United States. How do people know that the shooter was an American? Nobody knows. How is it that Makarov himself isn't fingered even if the American in question was investigating him? Uh, we don't really know. What was the diplomacy following this attack? How is it the entire United States gets implicated for the actions of one guy? Never shown. How does Russia launch a massive surprise attack and becomes the first country to successfully invade U.S. soil since the Revolutionary War?

Oh, that they explain. They stole a chip.


A chip.

The thing is - No Russian is so emotionally draining that all of this nonsense weighs on the rest of the game. If Infinity Ward is going to have a plot where you watch a lot of innocent people get brutally murdered and then shoot you in the head ... is it really too much to ask to make it make sense? There's a lot of crap out there about how "emotionally powerful" or "deeply impactful" the scene is ... ignoring that if I snuck up behind you and beat you with a cricket bat that it would also be "emotionally powerful" and "deeply impactful" but I'm not exactly laying down a good narrative here.

Infinity Ward has a bizarre taste for the morbid, actually. I don't mean in that "Saving Private Ryan" way of showing that yes, Virginia, in a war people really do get their heads blown off. They kill off the player character not once, but twice - the second time is even more gruesome than the first. The game ends with what is a way way overwrought near death scene between three characters. The directing is very into the concept that death is edgy that much of it plays out like a film school dropout's last bad edit.

Bottom line: if you remove your frontal lobe, you might consider what happens in Modern Warfare 2 a story.

I could probably get away with this without a lobotomy if it weren't for the No Russian mission. It's not that the mission is simply offensive, which it is, rather it is that the mission is the reason for all the action that follows. So a big WTF echoes through the entire single player campaign. You can decide to not play the mission, but as I've mentioned before - this is a massive cop out on Infinity Ward's behalf. You can't have it both ways, where a scene sets up the reason for the plot and also have it be optional. Basically in an attempt to be controversial, Infinity Ward ruins what was already a pretty bad plot and in the process hangs such a large sign on how bad the plot is that it makes it pretty hard to ignore.

If you can manage to do this bit of cognitive dissonance, than yes - as I started with ... the single player is fun in a shooting gallery kind of way. It's sad that a game with a profile like this one couldn't even manage the poor storytelling which is industry standard, but rather steps all over itself just for the sake of being sensational.

Why I've made such a big deal out of this is because by largely giving Infinity Ward a pass on the single player, the gaming media has rubber stamped the myth that games can't be effective storytellers. Modern Warfare 2 embraces this notions, extends it and makes its own. Basically becoming the Microsoft of bad narratives - they've just lowered the bar for the entire genre.