Refinement in Modern Warfare 2

Video Games

Modern Warfare 2 Multiplayer

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a something of a sleeper hit for me. I had enjoyed the previous entries in the series, but only as World War 2 simulators with little lasting appeal. If it hadn’t been bundled economically with Assassin’s Creed1 at the time, I doubt I would have even bothered to check it out. It was therefore a complete surprise when Modern Warfare delivered a one-two punch: an exciting campaign with some truly memorable set-pieces and an addictive MMORPG-inspired multiplayer. I was absolutely floored, and have been an Infinity Ward adherent ever since.

Modern Warfare introduced an innovative multiplayer metagame: collecting experience persistently as you play, unlocking new guns and perks as you increased in level. Completing difficult gameplay challenges earned an experience bonus, while weapon-specific challenges unlocked useful attachments. Perks allowed the player to enhance their avatar with increased speed, greater damage, more ammunition, etc. These RPG-like mechanics gave players long term goals to pursue between matches, while the extensive customization allowed players to explore the endless permutations of combat style. Modern Warfare was the most popular game in Xbox Live for several months, and it’s easy to see why.

Modern Warfare 2 was released last month, the third game in recent years to be labelled “the largest entertainment launch ever”2. The critical discussion centered around the controversial “No Russian” level, where the player takes on the role of an undercover agent during an airport massacre. I think Mitch Krpata said it best; the level is “meaningless except in its capacity to shock”, and compares poorly to the AC-130 sequence from the first game that was “chilling in its clinical detachment”. While the recycled sequences are beginning to wear thin, the overall campaign was still excellent and very exciting.

However, like Michael Abbott’s students, I’m much more interested in talking about Modern Warfare 2‘s multiplayer, whose improvements deserve unconditional praise. Infinity Ward managed to simultaneously inject a cornucopia of new content while refining and perfecting existing systems. The result is game that supports a wide variety of play styles, and has a lot to offer both veterans and newcomers. I’d like to examine the small refinements Infinity Ward introduced to accomplish this.

One of the most obvious improvements is the deemphasis of frag grenades, a source of many frustrating deaths. The first Modern Warfare had a level 41 perk that tripled the number of grenades a player would spawn with. This perk became ubiquitous in multiplayer, as grenade spamming was an incredibly effective strategy. Players could haphazardly launch a barrage skyward to pick up a kill or two (particularly on small maps like “Wet Work”). In Modern Warfare 2, the grenade slot is renamed “equipment”, and players can only hold one grenade at a time. Furthermore, the range and damage of these grenades has been reduced. This quashes grenade spamming tactics and encourages players to explore other options for that slot (such as a Blast Shield or Tactical Insertion).

Another noticeable improvement is the addition of new secondary weapon types. In the first game, a pistol was the only sidearm option (unless you used the “Overkill” perk to spawn with two primary weapons). This made it difficult to justify choosing a sniper rifle or shotgun, as it left you extremely vulnerable in medium range confrontations. Modern Warfare 2 moved shotguns to the secondary weapon slot and introduced new machine pistols and rocket launchers. Improving the quality and variety of secondary weapons allows players to be more experimental with their primary weapon choice. For instance, submachine gun users can equip a Thumper to clear out rooms, while snipers can compete at medium range with a TMP machine pistol. Overall, this makes the multiplayer class customization much more creative and personal.

Modern Warfare 2 Multiplayer

On the topic of secondary weapons, the addition of lock-on rocket launchers provides a crucial counter-balance to the new killstreak rewards. While it was ostensibly possible to take down an attack helicopter with an RPG in Modern Warfare, it was extremely challenging to properly line up the shot. Thus, Infinity Ward introduced a number of launchers that sacrifice free-fire kills for the ability to lock on airborne targets. This gives a losing team some relief against helicopters and harriers, and even allows players to take out the other team’s UAV reconnaissance. To justify their high skill requirements, more advanced killstreaks (AC-130, Pave Low) are equipped with flares that can divert a limited number of seeker rockets. These mechanics add an interesting layer of strategy to the killstreak arms race.

While killstreak rewards provide positive feedback for the winning team, Modern Warfare is already highly skewed towards very strong players. Thus the addition of deathstreak rewards gives the losing team a fighting chance and makes the game much friendly for new players. Players who have died several times in a row can spawn with more health, drop a live grenade when they die, or make a last stand with their primary weapon. “Copycat”, the most interesting deathstreak reward, allows players to copy the loadout of the player who killed them, effectively giving new players early access to the more advanced weapons and perks. The introduction of this negative feedback system has a stabilizing effect on the game, and generally reduces the frustration of losing.

Finally, Modern Warfare 2 carefully rebalances and synthesizes the weaker perks3. This is accomplished in part by the addition of pro versions of each perk that are unlocked by completing specific challenges. These advanced perks provide a small secondary benefit, usually of little consequence, to the perk’s main function. For instance, the first game had a perk called “Dead Silence” that muffled the sound of that player’s footsteps. While theoretically useful for stealthy players, in practice it was easily outclassed by every other perk in that tier. In the sequel, silent footsteps became a secondary effect of the pro version of “Ninja” (invisibility to heartbeat sensors). Overall, the perk system has been rebalanced such that there are many useful options in each tier, greatly increasing the number of interesting loadout permutations.

While these changes may seem minor, they have a dramatic effect on the balance and flow of Modern Warfare 2‘s multiplayer. They greatly reduce the number of capricious deaths, somewhat levelling the playing field for new players. More importantly, the greater variety of weapons and perks allow players to capitalize on the spectrum of play styles that Modern Warfare 2 supports. Infinity Ward has skillfully iterated on their past success and created a multiplayer game that is superior in every way.

1 Ironically, I thought Assassin’s Creed was rather underwhelming.
2 Halo 3 was the “biggest launch ever” in 2007, Grand Theft Auto 4 in 2008.
3 However, I have no idea how SitRep got through playtesting. It’s useless.

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6 Responses to “Refinement in Modern Warfare 2”

  1. Simon Ferrari Says:
    December 23rd, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    SitRep is ridiculously useful on hardcore, where it’ll save you from running into the copious amount of claymores people lay to make up for how much grenades stink in that mode. It also allows you to shoot claymores through walls to kill people. But, yeah, otherwise all the other perks of that color are superior.

  2. Matthew Gallant Says:
    December 24th, 2009 at 4:57 am

    @Simon: Interesting tactic, I haven’t played much hardcore.

  3. rutherford Says:
    December 27th, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Can’t agree that this is an evolution. Weapons are merely fine tuning. It’s the glaring annoyances still present from the prequel that highlight how little IW have done to advance the franchise:

    – No change to the physics engine that stops you from climbing over certain single steps unless you take a run up. Don’t get me started on the stickiness of door frames and other edges.

    – automatic peer 2 peer server architecture. Depending on the time of day you connect and thus the likely locale of the ‘server’, the majority of games will be jerky & laggy.

    They did improve on one area – I haven’t had the unexplained timeouts trying to connect to the matchmaker that frequently occurred in CoD4.

    btw regarding grenade rebalancing, this is swings and roundabouts. noob tubers are far more powerful this time round for example, as are knifers and shotguns.

  4. Matthew Gallant Says:
    January 1st, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    @Rutherford: I guess I don’t see those as major problems, at least not for this game in particular. Many first person games have difficulty with knee-high objects, it’s an endemic problem. As for the server architecture, I haven’t noticed any problems personally.

    I agree that knifes/shotguns have become more powerful in MW2, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Those kind of tactics didn’t work well in COD4 because the perk system really only supported one kind of play (run-and-gun assault rifle). More varied perks means more varied tactics, close range Rambos included.

  5. newton64.ca :: Modern Warfare: what is it good forfare? Says:
    January 4th, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    […] and impressive polish. Now to find some time to play through the multiplayer, which has apparently done a few things right. Luckily, I’m already a frakking marksman online. 1 Kitten Cannon wasn’t enough? 2 […]

  6. Brian P Says:
    February 26th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Dead silence, and its MW2 companion, ninja pro, are useful. I tried even T3 perk in Cod4 and dead silence is the most useful. Combined with a silenced mp5 makes for quite the ninja class on many maps. Lots of people have surround sound and can hear you blundering up around them. I get tons of kills because people don’t realize running makes a ton of noise that can be pinpointed directionally.

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