FPS’s Suck and These are the Reasons Why
A Video Game Review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
By: Lawrence Napoli
How do I hate thee, FPS (First Person Shooter)? Let me count the ways: One, for the ignorant masses you attract like moths to the flame. Two, for your lack of innovation. Three, for the shameless way you “reward” twitch reflexes. Four, for your inability to inspire team tactics. Five, for the curious ways you make online matches. Six, for the fact your single player campaign is merely a dressed up tutorial. Seven, because everyone wants to be just like you. And eight, because no other genre reaffirms negative stereotypes in regards to video games and gamers in particular.
Now before I start getting angry e-mails from clans and pro leagues, let me say that Modern Warfare 3 is an excellent video game, capable of inspiring a great deal of fun. This isn’t political flip-flopping on my part (despite this article being about “curb-stomping the FPS genre”). It is a statement of fact because I have found the Modern Warfare series to be uniquely satisfying; so much so, that a non-FPS aficionado like myself has gotten around to platinum-ing Modern Warfare 2 and am VERY CLOSE to doing the same with MW3. Unfortunately, the thrill is already wearing thin, despite only owning this game for a month. In this regard, MW3 definitely feels like a one night stand rather than a more fulfilling and hour consuming relationship. Let’s face facts folks, gaming is not a cheap hobby to get into and it doesn’t look like we’ll ever see things getting better for the consumer, what with SOPA and the potential death of the used games market on the horizon (thank you Xbox 720). Most games that I purchase are due to an interest in the title that is independent of its overall popularity. I must admit that I bought MW3 (and MW2 before it) because EVERYONE was playing it, it was on sale for $40 and I am a shameless trophy whor. . . er. . . hunter. Having played through what will likely be the best selling game of all time in MW3, I can see why it wasn’t on anyone’s short list for game of the year in 2011.
MW3 appeals to the ignorant masses the same way Nintendo Wii appeals to non-gamers. It’s a numbers game and the video game industry is interested in one thing and one thing only: MONEY! Unlike the Wii, the FPS genre doesn’t attempt to shake down grandma and grandpa to buy into something for themselves that they’ll lose interest in a matter of weeks. In fact, all FPS’s have a history of appealing to hard core, serious gamers that have had enough of an interest in counter-culture to reap countless hours of pleasure by engaging in virtual, ballistic homicide. For a time, the FPS defined the very notion of counter-culture, but today, with this country’s ever growing comfort with violent imagery and the frequent video footage of US troops doing their duty in whatever foreign country happens to be the flavor of the week, everything about MW3 is as conventional as video games can deliver. I don’t have a particular problem with this kind of shift to the mainstream so long as it doesn’t affect the quality of the product and unfortunately it has – cue MW3’s multiplayer mode and the knuckleheads that populate it. Online competitive and cooperative modes to MW3 represent the majority of time that any player will spend on MW3, and if it’s one thing that can be assured about playing online, you will have to deal with people who don’t know how to play, show no willingness to learn, will cry like little girls every time they die and may get so frustrated that they’ll sabotage their own team just for kicks. This is what happens when an overabundance of 10 year old boys con their relatives into buying them M-rated games like MW3 and that ruins a gaming experience. It’s not like Activision can plead ignorance in reference to this point because this game’s major commercial partnership to promote its release was with Mountain Dew. How many pre-teens drink that legalized crack cocaine like water?
The lack of innovation in the FPS has been one of this genre’s calling cards recently, but it is especially true with MW3. My day job is in retail. and I cannot tell you how many complaints I’ve heard from customers about this game specifically being “an expansion pack to MW2.” It is a valid argument to make: interfaces are the same, game play is the same, game modes are the same. The game is just newer with some more diverse environments and tries to trick you into believing they are interactive environments when they are merely fancy commencements to the beginnings of stages. There are some improvements to make note of like the inclusion of survival mode (which is really a remix of zombie mode from Black Ops) and new kill streak bonuses like “becoming a juggernaut,” one of the iconic staples for this franchise. Unfortunately, there have been a couple of issues regarding the level of “invincibility” the player is afforded once he or she dons the tactical armor suit. First it’s too weak, then it’s too strong and each time there were patches to “fix” it. I do not understand why such a minor alteration to game play wasn’t planned, programmed and play tested prior to release, but then Call of Duty desires to become the Madden of FPS’s: a new title every year that requires minimal effort while yielding maximum profit.
MW3 “rewards” twitch reflexes more so than any other FPS in history to my recollection. “Well no duh!” says the FPS fan, “that’s what shooters do.” I fully understand that the player’s ability to identify a threat on the screen, aim at said target and dispatch with extreme prejudice is what separates the bad from the good from the great from the pros. This is what is considered to have excellent twitch reflexes. My major criticism of this fact is that MW3 does not require prolonged marksmanship in order to take down targets (unlike the higher difficulties of campaign mode), making the initial “twitch” of snapping to a target much more than half the battle. It may be less realistic, but games incorporate a shield/armor/protection system to impose a prolonged marksmanship standard in order to counter common exploits in multiplayer competitive formats like: camping out respawn points, differences in individual ping rates and server/user lag. Challenging the player with not just making your first shot count, but the ten that follow it allows those targeted to at least have a fighting chance to counter. MW3 clearly values the realism of the preemptive strike over anything else which is great for the virtual training of real world soldiers, but not a very effective form of entertainment.
Despite this dedication to “realism,” MW3 doesn’t reward the individual that employs team tactics and actually inspires players to run around like loose cannons to advance in level more quickly so as to unlock a more powerful arsenal. It’s all about accumulating that kill count and no one likes their kills to be “stolen” by one’s teammates firing on the same target as you. What better way to assure an individual’s performance by running off on your own? The only problem with that is that those considered to be “great” players and 100% of pro’s ALWAYS use team tactics, thus making the rogue trooper a glutton for 2, 3 (or more) on one’s – which always results in death. How about bonuses for combo kills when the whole squad empties rounds into a single target? This frustration is only amplified in survival mode when the name of the game is SURVIVAL, which means that being in close proximity to your 1 squad-mate if he or she gets downed is necessary to revive them quickly. Squatting at opposite ends of the map is a strategy for imbeciles yet is a common occurrence in this game mode.
Match making in MW3’s multiplayer modes is somewhat of a mystery to me. It may be a little old school of me to say this, but I miss the old days of lobbies that waited to be filled. These lobbies would be a little more descriptive of the type of match you were going to join as well as the other players that were going to play, and if you didn’t like the layout, you weren’t committed to that match. MW3 (and just about every other FPS out there) has evolved past this archaic method in favor of blind server match ups which really speeds up the process of going from match to match with minimal down time (server permitting, of course). Unfortunately, the player has no control over the matches he or she is getting into which means there is a chance (more like a certainty) that you could wind up in a game with nothing but pre-pubescence or a high level clan that takes pride in noob hunting – neither of which is very enjoyable which could be corrected with a more comprehensive and structured match making system that takes player choice into consideration. Match making in Survival or Spec Ops is outright broken. One in ten player match ups results in a pairing that is productive for me. The rest of the time, the other player is AFK, a stupid child or a knucklehead that begins the match by knifing me in the back only to revive me and then knife me once again.
There once was a time (not so long ago) when FPS’s were singular experiences. Where you turned something on and a challenge was beset before an individual and it was only the virtual environment itself that stood between the player and the goal. The dawn of the multiplayer experience has brought the ever adapting challenge of human competition, and many regard this type of game as the true mark of accomplishment and advancement because software behaves in defined patterns, and all the player has to do is “learn the trick” to beat the computer. Unfortunately for the FPS, this has led to an unbalanced shift in attention to online formats which has sacrificed the quality of single player modes with the exception of the BioShock franchise (an FPS still dedicated to story, character and drama above all else – none of which you get by running around trying to shoot people in the head, akin to death match). MW3 is no exception despite the fact that its single player campaign produces an infinitely practical and somewhat plausible series of fictional events. It is important to note how the FPS format leaves character identification, relation and development at a severe disadvantage to the player because the player never sees what his or her character looks like. MW3 is so shameless about the player assuming the role of “some guy” that the player jumps to and from multiple faceless names on various fronts during the global conflict it depicts. This kind of disconnection between character and player takes the concept of story and relegates it to second class citizenship. Thus, the single player campaign degenerates into little more than a prolonged tutorial that gets the player acclimated with the basics of control and nothing more.
As the Modern Warfare franchise happens to be the gold standard of the FPS genre, every other game out there so desperately attempts to emulate (if not outright copy) elements of its game play and graphics so as to duplicate equally impressive sales numbers. The one benefit to this has become somewhat of a standardization of button layouts: left shoulder buttons aim, right shoulder buttons fire, analog sticks navigate and so on and so forth. Even if one is unfamiliar to FPS controls, learning it once will give you the skills and comfort to slide into any future FPS game. The bad part about being the coolest kid on campus is that copycats like you so much that stark deviations from the formula are looked upon as undesirable, thus feeding back into the whole “lack of innovation” problem I mentioned earlier. Other FPS’s distinguish themselves in subtle differences such as the inclusion of vehicles, larger maps, different terrain, but the lynch pins of these games don’t really change. The player is a member of some kind of army, the standard array of realistic shotguns, side arms, assault and sniper rifles are available, the bad guys are Russians, Nazis or terrorists, movement is rarely more dynamic than running, health regenerates if you can find cover and head shots are inconsistently reliable against AI and human opposition. Does all of this sound familiar to you? It should, you’ve only been there and done that a hundred times.
Finally, I must make note of the negative connotation that is attracted to the gaming community as a result of the shear presence of FPS’s and Modern Warfare in general. True gamers know there is a difference between themselves and the knuckleheads that pop in a disk every once in a while. The true gamer is interested in playing many if not all game types, thus exposing the individual to more than the concept of “shoot the bad guy in the face to win.” Coincidentally, these individuals tend to have been exposed to better education and life experiences to develop the intelligence and intrigue to be interested in gaming variety in the first place. These factors also trend against this kind of individual being a racist, bigot, sexist or general malcontent, i.e. the “knuckleheads” I specifically refer to that make all gamers look bad. You know them as the jerks that cross the line of simple trash talk into the realm of verbal abuse in online gaming. Guess what kind of game the knuckleheads all but exclusively play? FPS’s and every iteration of Call of Duty.
Obviously, these cretins do not compose the majority of gamers, but the rest of society has specific phenomena to create their own generalizations about the connection between human behavior and video games. How many trucks carrying copies of MW3 were hijacked in France last year? What FPS game was credited with inspiring Columbine? What kind of war game does the military use in training? These kinds of stories hit the main stream media like an uppercut from Ali and the opinionated fallout is impossible to curtail. To suggest that FPS’s (or video games in general) were the direct cause of these events would be irresponsible, but to suggest they have absolutely nothing to do with the equation would be dumb. MW3 and FPS’s in and of themselves are not the problem and I do applaud their efforts in addressing the toxic online environment by being more vigilant in the banning of abusive users, but until problematic players become better people, the stigma will remain. This last point I make about FPS’s is less of a criticism and more of an observation, but it doesn’t make the situation “suck” any less and ought to be discussed because awareness can hopefully inspire enlightenment.