By: George Weidman
“How does it feel to suck so bad? How does it feel?”
These were some of the first words I heard upon starting up Modern Warfare 3. I heard them again and again.
“All of you suck. You’re bad. You’re all bad. How does it feel?”
He didn’t sound particularly energetic or boastful. In fact his voice was pretty flat, with a kind of drawling tedium to his trash talk that sounded deliberately monotone. He wanted to be stating a fact. He didn’t just want us to feel worse than him. He wanted to know that we were worse than him.
War for the Digital Age
Each year, Activision transforms war into a picture-perfect online bloodsport straight out of cyberpunk fiction. There’s an absolutely minuscule little single-player campaign tacked on to these games, but let’s face it: the single-player alone isn’t what sells gazillions of copies of every Call of Duty game. But despite their infamously short longevity, there’s nothing objectively “bad” about their single-player modes. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Infinity Ward’s games are whisky-smooth in their presentation, with the kind of meticulous polish and bombastic spectacle that only a decade of blockbusters of this magnitude can muster. Modern Warfare 3 is no exception. The whole thing is squeaky clean: you can feel the hundreds of hours of playtesting and programming labor that make it play so smooth. There isn’t one bug, glitch, or awkward-looking animation in sight. Mouse movement is captured perfectly, there are no unskippable company logos, and environments are filled with a dizzying amount of little details. The big elephant in the room is that these games treat their audience as viewers instead of players. The whole thing is an excessively linear and scripted corridor crawl, with no freedom for the player to venture off the path that is so delicately planned for them. Mechanically, this is reflected by the laser-accurate and overpowered guns, the ever-present floating waypoint markers, and the tendency for you to be following someone more important than you.
That’s the thing about these Call of Duty games, someone’s always more important than you. Online, a more experienced player is generally out-scoring you. Offline, you’re generally looking at some other soldier’s backside. Either way, you’re being forcefully arranged into some kind of pecking order of superiority. But if a game’s over-arching narrative is well-directed, energetic and daring enough to make following other people exciting, it can actually work (Metro 2033 and the previous Modern Warfare readily spring to mind as examples.) Unfortunately, Modern Warfare 3’s campaign just barely misses the mark. No moments compare to participating in that infamous airport massacre, or scouting around the city after an EMP attack, or seeing one of the most effective loading screens ever introduce the game’s too-ridiculous-to-not-be-awesome plot twist. Two years ago, climbing to the top of Burger King to fend off Russian invaders felt much more compelling than it had any right to be, and that genuinely surprised me.
In this game Russia’s invading just about everyone, and the sheer loudness of the ensuing World War 3 drowns out the edge of familiarity that made the last game shine. Locations are so bombed-out that they’re unrecognizable; the storyline is super-serious and predictable; and civilian life is generally forgotten in the militancy of it all. Pacing suffers as a result. It’s still a competent, spit-shined entry into the series, but the peak of the series happened years ago.
Another thing about these Call of Duty games: they’re relentlessly fast. Story elements are told by the second and are interrupted by shooting segments that last minutes. Online, the game turns into an absolutely brutal arena of fast reflexes and snap aiming. Split-second reaction times and an almost instinctive knowledge of game mechanics are required to play with these folks. There’s no trick to handling the guns. You just point and shoot at a faster pace than your opponents, and the maps are all too small for strategy. Take any longer than two seconds to think, and you’re dead. It’s all about a physiological bias that prefers raw reaction times and fast aiming, boiling all of its secondary mechanics down to a simple game of high-octane target shooting.
How Does it Feel?
“How does it feel to be so bad, huh? How does it feel? You all suck,” said our trash-talker again for the umpenteenth time.
“Remember this night. You played with one of the best Call of Duty players in the world… Remember my name, ‘cause I’m one of the best.”
Truth be told, he was winning this free-for-all by only a hair’s breadth. Other less-vocal players were quickly catching up to him.
As expected, Modern Warfare 3 has a billion or so extra weapons, gadgets, abilities and features to be unlocked if one is a dedicated player. One of the most bizarre is the “Callsign,” which is a colorful, customizable banner that goes underneath your screen name. Significant chunks of game time end up being devoted to unlocking cosmetic stickers and backgrounds for this thing, and they’re all macho and “xtreme” in a kind of offensive way. I didn’t want a skull lined with military hashes plastered next to my name, or a cracked-teeth background underneath it. Lighter-hearted options include backgrounds that looks like a spanking paddle, or monocled and mustached cats. Either way, there’s no avoiding this “tough guise,” this mightier-than-thou message that somehow comes with the ability to unlock stuff in Call of Duty.
“Oh, what? A level eight camping noob? You suck. You all suck.”
I was actually catching up to him through the luck of accidentally sneaking up on other player’s backsides. I ended up winning that match, but only because the trash-talker quietly left the game halfway through, leaving me with the undeserved first place.
Watching a garrulous victory animation appear complete with trumpeting fanfare, I suddenly realized something: this whole game is about social Darwinism. Captain Price says it himself during one of the cutscenes. “The duty of every soldier is to protect the innocent, and sometimes that means preserving the lie of good and evil— that war isn’t just natural selection played out on a grand scale,” he says, just before we shoot our way out of a crashing Russian airplane.
Think about that. If Infinity Ward truly interprets war as a naturally-occurring mechanism to preserve the fittest, then no wonder their virtual version of war is a physiologically demanding target-shooting sport filled with aggressively vocal players. After witnessing a mess of cheaters and horribly surreal trash-talkers, I didn’t blame these players for being so mad. The multiplayer game ultimately boils down to a contest of lightning-fast reaction times and split-second ingenuity, and despite the series’ massive popularity, it’s built to cater towards a very specific skill set. But it’s all so in-your-face, so “xtreme,” aggressive and macho that it appeals to a ubiquitous and unfortunate aspect of our culture’s version of masculinity: the destructive desire to dominate others. Proving oneself through a contest of skill has been a reliable outlet for a euphoric adrenaline rush for centuries. Nowadays, you can experience it through something as slovenly as winning a video game. It’s a philosophy that the trash-talker fervently believed in.
“How does it feel to be bad? To be worse than me? Huh?” I can finally answer him: it felt better. I eventually climbed the learning curve, increased my rank, unlocked a majority of the unlockables and won a few first-place matches here and there, but I never really felt good about it. The adrenaline high of victory lead to more negativity and frustration than it did genuine enjoyment, and I can’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t desperate for a meaningless feeling of superiority.
Days after my encounter with that trash-talker, I slowly noticed the game turning me into the same kind of bitter and angry sob that he was. I think it’s time I stopped.
Modern Warfare 3 Technical Summary:
- Time Played – 12 hours
- Widescreen – Yes
- 5.1 Audio – Yes
- Bugs – None encountered
- Control Scheme – Mouse & keyboard, gamepads currently unsupported
- DRM – Steamworks
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability – Steam, Direct2Drive, Retail
- Demo – None
- Review Specs – I7 860, Radeon 6800, 4GB RAM
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