/Modern Warfare 2: design, aesthetics, and conflict

A “No Russian”-fueled media frenzy accompanied the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 this time last year. Screeds and diatribes of varying quality were slung with fervor, sussing out the various political and moral implications of the game, sometimes escalating to that perennial industry bugbear — “Are games art?” (Or as Matthew Burns might ask, “Are games ert? And are they fon?”).

This is no such salvo.

A few weeks ago, I played through the single-player campaign — twice actually, and that second run is really what drives my opinion of the game. I don’t mean to suggest that game criticism shouldn’t be social and political, but with so much of the discourse hitherto focused on “No Russian,” I don’t get the impression that anyone has taken too close a look at Modern Warfare 2 in and of itself.

I tried to do just that during Episode 19 of The Electric Hydra, but that only lasted for, like, five seconds.

On the smallest, granular level, MW2 just feels good. This is probably because Infinity Ward tuned and tweaked the auto-aim to a razor-fine point, a welcome complement to the analog sticks with which (and I’m guessing here) most people  played the game.

And what better way to build on solid shooting mechanics with level design that is constantly dynamic and engaging? It’s certainly true that MW2, structurally and otherwise, is a strikingly linear game, but its individual levels seem to subvert that aesthetic. Yes, most levels are a series of corridors, but those corridors branch and split and turn several times before bottlenecking in ways that seem natural and organic. It’s, admittedly, smoke and mirrors, creating an illusion of agency and split-second decision making, but the entire package stands up to scrutiny.

The first favela level is a good example — I got separated from, and lost track of, my two AI companions fairly early. I soldiered on (hah!), exploring the labyrinthine favela, checking my corners, getting ambushed, and generally prairie-dogging my way in and out of cover. Check points and intermittent radio barks from Soap and Ghost gently nudged me in the right direction, although that direction never seemed particularly clear to me as I doubled back down alleys and explored rooftop apartments. I never re-grouped with my two squad-mates; they were presumably gunned down.

Michael Licht, a level designer at LucasArts, compares modern FPS design to jazz: “When a Jazz musician plays, he has to follow the song as it is written for the most part. This is called ‘staying in the groove’ and it’s what gives identity to the piece. But during the song there are certain opportunities for that artist to express himself through solos. This allows for variation in the piece without a complete departure from the overall song and keeps things from getting too repetitive or predictable.”

Getting lost in the favela, choosing between three different sets of alleys — each branching with stair cases, walkways, ladders — those branching opportunities pepper each level, and they’re the soli to whatever fucking terror-jazz MW2 is.

Good level design aside, what struck me most about the levels in MW2 is the extent to which each level is a function of geography, and to which each geographical location is a function of an overall narrative arc. Now, that narrative arc is ham-fisted, bullheaded jingoism to be sure, but in the sense that it dictates the rest of the game’s design, from the top down, it’s well crafted jingoism.

Por ejemplo, an early level puts Roach and Soap on some God-forsaken mountain in order to retrieve some top secret NORAD information stolen by the Rus … never mind. What’s important is the way that Infinity Ward used the geography — a blizzard, really — to incorporate an entire stealth mission. There are no stealth mechanics per se, but the level designers at IW capitalized on some absurd plot point to create an entire mission structure that holistically expands the range of MW2‘s mechanics without feeling tacked-on or arbitrary.

Unfortunately, those same plot points are also a source of constant disorientation, which — in a terrible example of ludonarrative harmonyextends down to the micro level. As quickly as MW2-at-large jumps from Iraq to Moscow to Washington D.C., Private Ramirez is also expected to be in about four places at once.

My first experience with the game, and with war games generally, is confusion — there’s a bunch of shit on the HUD; a voice is yelling vague directions at me (which alley should I run to? Didn’t I already explain that there are three?); and there are explosions everywhere. For a clearer example of how muddled the user’s experience can be, keep in mind that long-winded and inane plot exposition routinely occurs in the middle of heated firefights.

I first played MW2 on its “Normal” difficulty — and this is crucial — in which the operative verb seemed to be run, rather than shoot (or more importantly, think). When Shinji Mikami said that he wanted Vanquish to appeal to Westerners, perhaps this is what he had in mind.

MW2 is, if nothing else, frenetic and quick, a trait exacerbated by how brutally effective your AI squadmates are. With my squad leader yelling frantic instructions and my AI partners killing off most resistance, it’s very easy to get caught up in MW2‘s sheer velocity, without actually contributing to it in any meaningful way.

And that — shocking thematic overlay aside — is what makes “No Russian” such a radical departure from the rest of the game. It’s deliberate, it’s calmly executed, it’s slow — the player-character is restricted to a walk for the majority of the level. No more maze-like routes and strategies: follow and shoot are your only options. It’s the most explicitly linear and controlled level in the game — the level opens with a direct order, “No Russian,” and you literally follow the leader throughout. Without delving too much into the issues raised by “No Russian” — player agency, the dynamics of authority — it’s important to notice the way the level design and mechanics are restricted and the extent to which it puts the rest of the game in sharp relief.

(And, really, you should be reading G. C. Williams for a far more interesting analysis.)

But, back to MW2‘s constant motion — it’s modeled on some platonic ideal of the oeuvre of Michael Bay. It’s too easy to stumble, by the seat of your pants, through the campaign, aided and abetted by super-human teammates and your ability to absorb an obscene amount of bullets. MW2 looks cool (I guess), but it rarely feels that way because the stakes are never high enough to make my success important. Success in MW2 feels deterministic or pre-supposed.

My initial experience with MW2 was, I think, in keeping with Infinity Ward’s design ethic. Every rung of MW2 — its narrative structure, its level design, its presentation layer — is designed to be breathtaking! setpieces! explosions! go! Go! GO!

But playing that way isn’t particularly engaging:  like I explained, most of MW2 just happened, despite my presence. And that’s really the problem with MW2: buying into Infinity Ward’s aesthetic strips the player of agency, of ludic conflict, of any tension or catharsis.

Of course, the easiest way to mitigate that is to ramp up the difficulty level, in my case to “Veteran.” This has its own ramifications. (Natch.)

As far as I can tell, “Veteran” difficulty simply neuters your AI squad, brings your own health into one-shot territory, and improves enemy pathfinding and accuracy.  Once steamrolling your way through hordes of Russians ceases to be an option, MW2 suddenly becomes a tighter, more tactical game. You are forced to take cover, to shoot accurately, to know when and how to rely on your teammates, to be brutally efficient with your movements and actions. MW2 can be a very deliberate and methodical and satisfying game, but the onus is firmly on the player to make it that way.

At this point, though, MW2 falls into the same trap that Gears of War 2 fell into: a narrative arc that demands aggression and speed pulling against mechanical systems that are best used slowly and deliberately. MW2 absolutely hates it when players try to slow their pace — if you stay behind cover too long, or if you’re blowing Russians away too slowly, or if you’re not completing objectives fast enough, your squad leader is more than happy to constantly shout petulant reminders of what you ought to be doing. The level design suggests a certain amount of autonomy, but fuck you if you try to take advantage of it.

For the most part, this dichotomy is easy to ignore, but it comes to a head late in the game, in a level titled “Loose Ends.” It begins innocuously enough — storm a cabin, steal a computer, and set up a perimeter defense while you download the contents of said computer. The climax, though, highlights very clearly MW2‘s instability, and the game as a whole is worse after its inclusion.

After downloading the entire internet to a harddrive, Roach and Ghost make a mad dash down a hill to a waiting helicopter. This helicopter has inexplicably landed behind several dozen well-armed Russians and seems content to let them blow Ghost and Roach the fuck up with mortar fire. There’s no cover, and the pair are vastly outnumbered, making your hitherto-successful tactics — taking cover and being smart and careful — impossible. Instead, you’re forced to run.

“Loose Ends” breaks all of Modern Warfare‘s rules and sells the player to Hollywood for thirty silvers. The idea is that two men running for their lives (into, I remind you, a bunch of enemies with mortars) might make for a dramatic finish. And on the Regular difficulty, it does; on Veteran, the game falls apart because the mechanics simply cannot bolster up the platonic ideal of Michael Bay. With the difficulty cranked up, player-characters simply don’t have enough HP to make it through the free-for-all in front of them; the game crumples under its own filmic ambition. Instead of being breathtaking — Infinity Ward’s ultimate goal, I think, with the MW2 campaign — it’s simply frustrating.

It’s true that without the guys with rocket launchers, “Loose Ends” would lose some of its drama, but it would also be a lot more playable and enjoyable. And that’s really the core of Modern Warfare 2‘s problems: Infinity Ward demands — through the HUD, through the narrative arc, through the mission structure, through the level design — that you fly by the seat of your pants, that you subscribe to their ethic of speed; however, they do so at the expense of thinking critically and strategically, of the possibility for a player to study and master the game’s mechanics.

Infinity Ward issued an ultimatum: My way or the highway. That’s a tough sell for any medium, but given that Modern Warfare 2 is, first and foremost, a game … well I already made my choice. I chose to up the difficulty level, to make the game engaging and tactical and tense, but Infinity Ward fought me tooth and nail, every step of the way.

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