Sunday, November 13, 2011

Michael-Bay Warfare 3

With the final installment of the series, Modern Warfare has finally given up all pretenses and shown the true colours of its campaign "story-driven" experience. This explosion-packed ride doesn't let up for the few hours it'll take you to finish it, and ultimately still ends up falling short of the heights of the original game. It is an improvement over the utterly ridiculous MW2, and I think a little bit longer, as I polished off the campaign of Modern Warfare 3 on normal difficulty in a little over 6 hours.

I have to say that it was an enjoyable ride, but at the same time you love it in the same way that you love a trashy blockbuster action movie. It's lightweight, plot-negligible, with one-dimensional explosion after chase after fight continuity... but provided you're willing to switch off your brain and just enjoy the ride, it'll be a lot of fun reaching the end. As the post title implies, it's like a Michael Bay movie presented as a video game.

I found there were a few things that grated on my nerves, which is the reason for this blog post. There won't be any real spoilers here, but if you really want to make sure you don't spoil anything (you don't really need to worry though), then you may want to stop reading here.

When MW3 doesn't know what to do, it puts another big explosion on screen. When there's lots of action, people will overlook the absence of a plot, right? There never feels like there's any continuinity in the plot and that the loosely constructed story is merely a contrivance simply to provide a vague means to justify having explosions around famous cities. There's even a Team America moment where America levels the city that they're supposed to be saving. I'm not joking here. In what was most likely meant to be a serious "wow" moment or have some sort of impact on the player, I was laughing uncontrollably and found myself singing the movie's theme song.

The issue here is pacing. MW3 has a frenzied pace that barely lets up for even a couple of minutes, and even the most avid UT2K3/UT2K4 speed adrenaline junkie will potentially find themselves feeling overwhelmed by the constant action. Worse still is that fact that because of this pacing (or lack thereof) those moments that should feel like an amazing high end up just feeling like a regular part of the experience because the player is never given a reprieve from the guns, bombs, exploding buildings and dying protagonists. This isn't to say that it needs to attempt the "lull" sections that felt quite forced in Gears of War 1 & 2 to provide this necessary respite, but MW3 sorely needed something to break it up.

Not what I should be reminded of in a "realistic" video game

Another death... who cares?
As we've come to expect from Modern Warfare, characters die. Not just enemies or allies, but the characters that the player is playing. Just like with Modern Warfare 2, this happens on a fairly regular basis. There are fewer instances where you "almost die", which plagued the second installment in the series like a bad smell, but again the variety of characters means that you never care about any of the people you're playing. They're just as emotionless, faceless and lacking in character as the hundreds of enemies you slaughter on your way to victory.

There is only one death that actually matters, but even while I was lamenting that particular character's death, I realised that the only reason that I cared about them was because of their presence in previous outings of the game. That's right, MW3 does effectively does nothing to make you care about previous characters - it just expects you to come along with an attitude of: "you care about that person because they were in the previous games".

There's even one character who exists for only a single mission, and to make things worse...

Expect more pointless protagonist deaths like in MW2

Failing an objective as part of the story
You hit the button to complete an objective, and before anything else happens, "Objective failed" pops up at the top of the screen. Instead of showing you what is going wrong, you're immediately and definitively told "A Bad Thing Happened". The simple axiom of "show, don't tell" could not be more apposite here. Don't tell the player with a simple message that something went wrong, show them with the cutscene which is shown right after that message. Get rid of the message entirely, and not only would nothing be lost, but the scene would be a lot more effective. You still wouldn't care about the character's inevitable death, but at least the sequence would have some impact instead of none.

Contrast this with a later situation where you're trying to retrieve someone, and you see them taken away on enemy helicopter just as you arrive. There's no "objective failed" message here, just the sequence where you can fire at a few guards and then get maybe one or two rushed pot-shots at the captors before it flies off. That actually made you care about it and felt like it gave you some freedom, even though it didn't have any more than the previous example. It's not about what happens, it's about how it's presented to the player.

In closing...
As I said at the start, MW3 is by no means a bad game. I'm sure thousands of people are diving into the spec ops and multiplayer (though I must confess they don't quite hold exactly the same appeal to me), but given the campaign was being billed as a great adventure, I can't help but feel like the second and third games came up well short in trying to live up to the success of the first. The series is good for what it is, but you can't help but feeling that with a little more understanding about pacing, emotion and how to write a plot that makes sense, that the campaign across the three games could have been excellent instead of merely an enjoyable action outlet.

I must confess that since finishing it, I've sunk far more hours into Skyrim... which I might provide a few thoughts on in my next post.

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