Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Praise and criticism where due

I was rather stunned when I watched a recent video on the Escapist entitled "Defending Call of Duty" by Jim Sterling, who apparently is a professional reviewer for destructoid (among other gaming credentials). For me, I consider the series a bit of a mixed bag. Call of Duty 2 and particularly 4 (aka Modern Warfare) both had some really great moments. However, Modern Warfare 2 represented a massive step backwards, and Treyarch never quite seem to be able to live up to the standard set by their Infinity Ward counterparts. I've attacked poor writing, design choices and sales practices of some of the games, but I don't go for the irrational hatred sometimes directed at the series. This irrational hatred is what Jim tries to address in this video, but in doing so does nothing more than come across as a one-eyed fan of the series with no objectivity, who lacks even the most basic understanding of game mechanics and design. (Warning: the video contains some profanity)

My first thought upon watching this video was "How does this guy get paid to do this?" Jim Sterling tries to address the preposterous nature of some of the Call of Duty hate through his "pseudo-intellectual parody" where he exaggerates criticisms to the point of ridiculousness. While exaggeration is a valid tactic for satire, such an approach undermines the validity of an argument when it fails to address strong criticisms of the series he is trying to defend. No one expects Call of Duty to be "art", and anyone who does has about as much critical credibility as Statler and Waldorf. His attack on this point appears to be an attempt at humour, but I'd say it falls well short of the mark.

His discussion of the perk system implemented by CoD is one area where his argument falls hideously flat. He covers some of the benefits of CoD's style of play compared to the Quake/UT, but fails wholeheartedly to even recognise that there are negatives. Declaring that there is no difference between a player who has learned the layout of a quake level to a player who has lots of perks in Modern Warfare demonstrates how oblivious he is to concepts of game design. In Quake, the disparity between players comes from the skill of using various weapons, knowing the layout of a level, and the tactics as a result of player movements, current weaponry and the flow of the game. All these factors apply equally to the Call of Duty series, but then players with more experience have the added advantage of having more powerful weapons available to them upon spawning, not to mention perks that enable them to do things like take more damage, move faster and carry more ammunition. To argue that this does not exacerbate the inherent disparity between old and new players is utterly ridiculous.

New player? Too bad, you can't have this

Jim also fails to recognise that Call of Duty's approach provides players rewards through perseverance rather than skill. If you play for long enough and rack up experience through kills, assists or other means, you will "level up" just like in an RPG and gain access to better weapons, perks and advantages over new players. Even taking the example of players who start at the same time, better players will raise in rank faster, thus giving them access to better gear over their less skilled adversaries, which will widen the gap further.  He even fails to address killing streak bonuses that further push the balance of the game in favour of the more skilled or winning player(s) during individual matches.

Even his primary argument against the Quake/UT style of play is steeped in ignorance. There are disadvantages to having everyone run to the same powerful weapon on a level, but the fact that he makes this argument shows that he does not realise that not all players will run for that one weapon. Any level designer with a modicum of talent for such games will make a level such that more powerful pickups are be balanced by having them placed in more precarious positions to retrieve. Not everyone runs for the rocket launcher, because others will run for the sniper rifle and pick off the people attempting to grab the rocket launcher.

If you want this, you're going to have to go somewhere dangerous

As for his opinions on the single player campaign, I couldn't disagree more. The criticisms of Modern Warfare's campaign are few and far between, and typically revolved around the mechanics issue of the player being forced to move forward with little to no support from their squad, and the never-ending stream of enemies should they fail to do so. However, these are perfectly valid issues to be raised as they were a cause of consternation for many players. But again, his failure to recognise the weakness of the subsequent two titles in comparison to Modern Warfare apart from saying "they get a little far fetched at times". To neglect the raft of weaknesses of Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops in comparison to Modern Warfare suggests that he doesn't even realise they exist.

The only real point that actually carries any sort of weight is the criticism directed at CoD players simply for being CoD players. Yet much like the "Call of Duty is not art" argument, this is so shallow and juvenile that it barely deserves the dignity of a response. Anyone making this argument is unlikely to possess the intellect or objectivity to actually listen to a reasoned rebuttal, and unfortunately for Jim, this is the only point of his video where he actually manages to do that, at least until he makes himself sound like something with a chip on his shoulder because he's been called a "CoD lover". At least he does express his disdain for the $15 map packs of the series.

Given that Jim Sterling apparently does work for a lot of game sites, maybe I'm picking a fight here that I shouldn't. But in this case, criticism where criticism is due, as he's not demonstrated even a basic level of understanding of FPS game mechanics. As far as I'm concerned, being unable to construct a solid argument on why CoD is a good series (which it is) shows an amazing lack of insight, and that's coming from someone who will happily declare that MW2 is one of the least inspiring and over-hyped FPS games delivered in the past few years. I'm beginning to think it's time I put in for a position to write articles or videos for the Escapist, Destructoid or other game websites.

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