Modern Warfare 2: Ignoring the Call of Duty

Last winter, I wrote about my serious problems with Modern Warfare 2 in stories that appeared in Maximum PC, Games, and the National Catholic Register. With Call of Duty: Black Ops set to kick up the violence yet another notch, it seemed worthwhile for me to republish my original Modern Warfare 2 comments. This version is closest to the one that appeared in the Register on December 4th, 2009. 

I should also point out that everything COD gets wrong in multiplayer, content, and gameplay is done right in Bad Company 2. It’s still a mature, violent, M-rated game, but it’s a good one. 

When Steven Spielberg collaborated on the creation of the first “Medal of Honor” game in 1999, he wanted to create an interactive analog to Saving Private Ryan.

It was something fresh and intense: an attempt to use all the tricks of game design — immersive sound, bobbing motion, layers of action, goal-oriented gameplay — to put you inside a war movie.

Activision and Infinity Ward followed with the “Call of Duty” series in 2003. Over the course of three games, “Call of Duty” developed the World War II theme while maintaining a “Teen” rating thanks to a minimal use of blood and foul language.

Multiplayer gameplay made the series popular with young gamers, and extensive historical context and period footage made them popular with parents. This was the way a new generation of boys “played war.”
Things started to shift with “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.” More intense modern firefights, increased blood and more mature language was used to evoke the modern battlefield, earning a “Mature” rating. Fair enough. It was a strong game, with heroic characters and a terrific multiplayer mode.

When the series returned to World War II for “Call of Duty: World at War,” the “Mature” rating came with it.

The blood and gore increased, and if parents happened to see an early scene of torture and murder, they might have wondered just what they’d let in their home.

But they didn’t. “Call of Duty” was a “safe” first-person shooter, wasn’t it? That “Mature” rating? Just a little bit more blood, their kids assured them.

And now we come to “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” the most intensely hyped game of the season, opening with the biggest launch of any entertainment product in history: It hauled in $310 million in 24 hours.

Now parents are faced with a game that turns all the dials up to 11 and blows out the speakers. The gameplay is a nonstop assault on the senses: gunfire, explosions, screams, blood spattering the screen, flying gore and convulsing bodies. This is to say nothing of the storyline and context, which are nihilistic, brutal, cynical, anti-American, antiheroic and antimilitary.

Bit by bit, parents were betrayed. They justified incremental increases in mature content by saying, “Well, it’s just a little bit more intense” until finally they walk in on their 11-year-old and witness this:

A group of men enter an airport where civilians are peacefully waiting for their flights. The image on the screen is the perspective of your character, gun in hand. Calmly, slowly, methodically, the men walk through two entire levels of the airport mowing down civilians. They scream, run and drag their wounded bodies through smears of their own blood until someone, perhaps you, puts a bullet in their heads. Scores of unarmed people are mowed down. At the very end, your character is shot in the head, left staring lifelessly at the ceiling as blood pools around him.

It is one of the ugliest and most disturbing things I have ever seen in a mainstream game. It leaves the gamer feeling brutalized and violated, or at least it should if he hasn’t already been numbed by a steady diet of violence.

The designers, no doubt, think they’re being very bold and mature in grinding their fans’ noses in the muck, but it’s hard to imagine a more complete betrayal of a franchise. Is the cold-blooded massacre of innocent civilians really an experience on the emotional spectrum that we need not only witness, but simulate?

The designers’ defense is that they warn you about a “disturbing” mission and allow you to skip it, but this is rank nonsense. People are so immune to “controversial” content warnings that, without specifics, they are unlikely to bypass part of the game. In fact, for the young people who most desperately need to skip this sequence, such a warning is pure catnip.

The rest of “Modern Warfare” never quite matches that level of ugly nihilism, but it still wallows in moral relativism. The airport sequence is there to tell you, quite plainly, that the designers see no difference between terrorists and U.S. Army Rangers. There are no good guys, only competing ideologies. This is a military game that hates the military, with Americans depicted as either dim grunts or lunatic cowboys with no regard for human life.

No doubt, the designers think they’re being very daring and mature: so daring that the bad guys are “Russian nationalists,” not jihadists. If Infinity Ward was really so committed to depicting the moral ambiguities and horrors of the modern battlefield, then “Modern Warfare 2” wouldn’t be so politically correct.

And for all this, the gameplay really isn’t all that spectacular. “Modern Warfare 2” is actually a pretty middling shooter with a decent multiplayer component. There’s no covering fire, enemy units seem to pop out of nowhere without any logic or consistency, and overwhelming opposition takes the place of sophisticated AI. The storyline is such gibberish that it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, and levels seem to have no clear purpose. You simply move forward on a roughly predetermined path until one level ends and the next begins. Multiplayer remains a strength of the series and will keep the game alive long after its execrable narrative campaign is forgotten.

If “Modern Warfare 2” proves anything, it’s that parents need to pay attention to ratings. They are there for a reason. If you wouldn’t let your children see an R-rated movie, then don’t let them play an M-rated game unless you have a comprehensive, direct understanding of its content. Eternal vigilance is the price of parenthood.

Lego Universe in Beta

We’ve been participating in the beta for the upcoming Lego Universe game, and it’s already looking spectacular. NetDevil is creating a massively multiplayer online game based on several of Legos product lines, such as city, pirate, space, and jungle, with more to come. So far, several worlds have been built around a core spaceport: Avant Gardens, Gnarled Forest, Pet Cove and Forbidden Valley. We probably won’t be seeing licensed lines like Star Wars, Batman, or Harry Potter (those gaming rights are owned by others), but all of Lego’s original lines should be grist for the mill.

Gamers begin in a spaceport, which acts as both hub and training ground. They learn the controls, assembled a rocket, and then blast off to explore worlds and have adventures. Because the game is not finished (and still not quite stable), we remain under press embargo. That means I can’t talk too much about our experience with the software, or run my own screen shots.

However, I can say that it’s already shaping up to be the most exciting PC release of the year.

Building will be a big part of the gameplay, with various options for adding things to the world. Universe will include the one-button “quick build” interface found in Lego video games, but it’s also promising more complex options. There will be not only building “choice,” in which you can modify and customize quick build models, but also a completely free-ranging custom build option where anything goes. Previous Lego design software has been fairly sophisticated, allowing users to build items brick by brick. If NetDevil finds a way to integrate these tools into a massively multiplayer online world, then they will succeed in making the most customizable online game ever.
Gameplay appears to be pretty far ranging, with multiple choices and paths to follow. Characters develop over time, advancing in levels as they achieve goals and earn treasure. The early previews depict a Lego version of classic co-op MMORPG gameplay. Characters group their minifigs into teams in order to complete adventures, with all the fighting taking place against a common foe. Gamers can fill various roles depending upon their preferences, whether that means being a fighter, builder, treasure hunter, or something else.
Lego also wants to become a social destination, however, which means that conversation, minigames, and non-combat competitions are also being planned. It become an effective “lobby” destination like Club Penguin, allowing younger gamers to pop in for some light gameplay without engaging in serious adventuring.  

My Lego-addicted son is absolutely quivering with anticipation based on his early time in the game world. I never, EVER participate in Betas, so you can tell how excited we are by this release. (Although I used to cover beta software in my early years with PC Gamer, I no longer have the desire or patience to mess about with unfinished code.)

When this thing is released in October, kids all over the world are going to be saying “Club What?” and leaving their virtual WebKinz pets to starve.

Actually, the prospect of a kiddie World of Warcraft may not be such a great thing after all. We have enough adult MMO gaming addicts already.

Definitions: Classic Games, American-style

I defined European-style games yesterday, so it seems fair to give “American-style” games a fair shake today. They go by a lot of names—mainstream games, classic games, family games—but they all have a few things in common.

1. Everyone knows their names. Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble, Yahtzee, Boggle, Battleship, Sorry, Trouble, Risk, Life, Uno, Stratego, and Trivial Pursuit. I could also probably add Candyland, Operation, Connect 4, and Twister. I’m sure I’m forgetting some others, but off the top of my head, those seem to be the big names we all know.

2. Almost all of them are from Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers, and both of those companies are now owned by Hasbro. This gives Hasbro an actual monopoly over classic games in America. Uncle Pennybags would be in awe.

3. They have been around fooorever. Of all those games, only one can be considered “modern,” and that’s Trivial Pursuit, invented about 30 years ago.

Not Good

4. They are endlessly malleable and can be jammed, crammed, folded, molded, spindled, and otherwise mutilated to fit any license. If someone is going to makes games to promote the latest Shrek, Toy Story, or Twilight movie, they’re going to make a version of one of these.

The other day I saw a “Shrek Operation” game in the store. No child should have the joy crushed from his soul by opening a birthday present only to find a “Shrek Operation” game inside. I don’t have solid proof, but I suspect this is what creates serial killers.
            I like to imagine what the product line meetings are like at Hasbro:
            “Hey Bob, I just landed the Twilight license.”
            “My MAN!” [High fives all around.]
            “Okay, take the afternoon and drag Twilight through the classic games backlist and see what sticks.”
            “You got it, Bob.”
            “I’m thinking Trivial Pursuit. We can come up with a lot of questions only obsessed 13-year-old goth girls could answer.”
            “I totally dig it, Bob.”
            “And maybe Stratego, with those werewolf things versus those vampire things.”
            “Consider it done.”
            “And Scrabble, where the only letters you have are BELLA and EDWARD.”
            “And Life! That one should be a snap! You go through the entire game, and to win you die and become a vampire.  We can have a ‘Bella gives birth’ card!”
            “And Twister! One of the spaces on the spinner can be ‘neck bite’.”
            “I think legal might object to that one.”
            “You’re starting to scare me, Bob.”
5. For most Americans, these games are bound up in memories our youth and our families. These are games we played when we were kids, and they often were the first board game we were given. They came out on rainy days. They came out in the evening when your parents decided it was a No-TV night. They came out when the relatives came over. They came out when you and your pals couldn’t think of anything else to do.
Gamers who move on to Eurogames often leave the classics behind with a sneer. I admit to a healthy hatred for several titles on that list (yeah, I’m looking in your direction, Risk, Sorry, and Trouble), but it’s silly to dismiss time-tested classics like these simply because they’re not the latest game from Bruno Faidutti. I would probably never pick Monopoly as my game of choice for an evening, but with the right group it’s still a great game, particularly if you avoid silly house rules. (The thing most people hate about Monopoly–its length–is largely a product of house rules that keep flushing extra money into the system.)
Classic American games still have a lot of kick left in them, and played correctly, they still make for an evening of fun with the greatest number of people. Most people who come over to your house already know how to play them, so there’s a shared understanding that goes back years.

The Very Stuff of Nightmares

Look, I played so many rounds of Candyland when my kids were young that Queen Frostine wound up haunting my dreams. This is not a pleasant thing, in case you’re wondering.

However, I would never, ever knock Candyland. It’s usually the first game anyone plays, and it teaches kids all the basic lessons of game-playing: taking turns, drawing cards, moving pieces, and using a marker to represent yourself on the board. These are not innate concepts: they have to be taught, and that’s what Candyland does.

And if God is merciful, I shall never, ever, ever do it again.

App O’ The Mornin’: Catan

Settlers of Catan is considered old hat by a lot of people who are passionate about games, follow all the latest releases, and are eager to debate the pros and cons of everything they play. Yet the game remains important for a few reasons.

  1. It’s a terrific design. Period. Spin it any way you like, make any kind of new version, and you still have a rock solid foundation of good design. (The randomness doesn’t bother me in the least. Don’t fear the dice, people.)
  2. It remains the only Eurogame with a fighting chance of breaking into the mainstream with titles like Monopoly and Scrabble. The other day I found a copy in Target. TARGET! Can Walmart be far behind?
  3. It’s still the single best gateway game to introduce people to Eurogaming. It’s easy to explain, very interactive, and a lot of fun.
  4. The majority of people in this country have never heard of it. My 9-year-old daughter is completely hooked on Settlers. Whole generations are still waiting to discover it. Everything is new to someone.

So, in keeping with the theme of this blog (“if it can be played, I’ll write about it”) I will be writing about Catan, even though it is about 15 years old by now. Just like I’ll be writing about Scrabble, Rummy, and anything else that can be played.

As for the Catan app, it’s simply magic. It was one of the first great conversions of a major design, and although we’ve seen others since then (Carcassonne, Roll Through The Ages, High Society, Money), it still holds its own.

Yes, it’s a simple conversion with meager graphics and only a few customization options. But it’s Catan! For iPhone/Touch! And it works great. Shrinking this masterpiece down to pocket size and still leaving it playable has taken some minor miracle of programming genius.

For those who’ve never played it before (and shame on you), the game is played on a board made of randomly assembled tiles, each representing a different resource: brick, wool, lumber, stone, and wheat. You use these resources to buy cards and build settlements and roads, which all add together to make a winning score. The map can be arranged in various ways, there’s an opportunity to bargain and trade with other players, and a bit of luck in the form of dice throwing.

The Catan app handles all this very well. The game autozooms when you need to place roads, settlements, and cities, but otherwise displays the full board (albeit one limited to a single shape). A simple control wheel pops up for trades and card purchase/play, and dice are rolled automatically at the beginning of each turn. A selection of AI opponents offer a diverse range of challenges, and a few rule customization options (start with one city, start with different resources, etc) mix up play a bit. You can also play against live opponents by passing the device around, although a true online version (using Bluetooth, internet, or WiFi) remains elusive.

This is portable Catan with a respectable AI and simple controls for $5, and that’s all most people will need to know.

UPDATE: Welcome Catan Facebook fans! This is a new blog which will cover all aspects of gaming, from beginner to advanced. Stick around, read some of the introductory posts, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter!

From the Vault: Autobridge

Autobridge Playing Board, circa 1938

From time to time, I may post some items from my game collection. First up is this exceptionally strange piece of cutting-edge solitaire bridge-playing technology, circa 1938.

You close the little sliders, then put the sheets under the frame. A sequence of numbers appear in a little window when all the sliders are in the start position. You open each door in number order, revealing the current card in play.

Each sheet even contains game commentary by Ely Culbertson.The whole item was manufactured of Textolite by General Electric, for Autobridge Inc. I don’t recall where I got this, but I think it came in a lot with some other games, perhaps from Sid Sackson’s collection. (Sid was a major game designer and collector.)

And if you think such technology is just a relic of the pre-computer age, you’d be wrong.