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.
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.