Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
In the immediate aftermath of E3, Activision seemed like the most cynical, money-hungry company in the entire industry. Granted, the imminent arrival of two-dozen Guitar Hero sequels seeded the thought long before the doors of the LA Convention Center opened to the press and public, but Bobby Kotick and friends had a busy week offending gamers’ sensibilities.
At the thin end was the great DJ Hero swindle: a cunning ploy from Activision, who didn’t make the game available to play to anyone but E3 judges; in other words, the people who decide the ‘best in show’ nominations. In addition to this, the judges were made to sign non-disclosure agreements guaranteeing that they wouldn’t publish a single word about what the experience was actually like. DJ Hero was the only game of the whole show to be entered for a prize without also being available to play for the press, but that’s another exclusive cover for Activision later in the year.
Slightly more pregnant with corruption was the lawsuit filed against crowd favourite Brütal Legend. Activision abandoned the game after the merger with Vivendi due to its lack of sequel and earning potential, but now the buzz had started things looked somewhat different. The fact that the suit was issued on the very day the show-floor opened only underlines how unsavoury Activision’s motives are, and the outside chance that Tim Schaeffer’s metal opus will be delayed is a bitter pill to swallow. If it’s never released, we’re posting dog-droppings to Kotick’s house.
Last, but by no means least, are our good friend Bobby Kotick’s recent swipes at the price of our beloved and really rather excellent value PlayStation 3. Evidently he was disappointed that Sony didn’t announce a price-cut, and the billions of dollars flowing through his company didn’t quite stretch to consoles with less than 30 million installed units. “No price-cut; no support,” said the man who priced Tony Hawk: Ride at $130.
As we said, Activision has been busy, and gamers have been only too happy to crown the mega-publisher as ‘The New EA’. Ouch. Yet just as we were ready to wash our hands of Kotick and crew, we saw the Modern Warfare 2 demo and were reluctantly blown away. Moving from glacially paced climbing and stealth sections to run-and-gun action and a staggering, climactic snowmobile chase; it was a welcome reminder of why Infinity Ward is the current master of pitch-perfect action.
More to the point, it made the upside of Activision’s vast wealth abundantly clear; it allows game design of this skill and polish to be released in record time, and there’s a small, reluctant part of our brains that is thankful for it. When you see this running at 1080p and 60 flawless frames per second, yours will be too.
In Modern Warfare 2, you play as Sgt Gary ‘Roach’ Sanderson, a member of the elite, multinational Task Force 141, which was specially assembled to neutralise the Russian Ultranationalist threat. The character you played in the first game, ‘Soap’ MacTavish, returns as your Captain, and will be by your side for most of the missions. Infinity Ward is keen to point out that this is a direct sequel to Modern Warfare in terms of story, and the entire game is being built around the narrative and its events. When asked about Modern Warfare 2’s potential length, the team remains tight-lipped. The plot, not a number, dictates the missions and if any of them don’t reach the studio’s exacting standards, they might just be banished to the game’s new ‘Special Ops’ mode (see boxout).
Not that the average gamer will be disappointed with Modern Warfare 2’s length, of course. In a world overflowing with five-hour wonders, the original’s substantial and peerlessly epic campaign left few feeling short-changed. But the snow-bound mission Infinity Ward paraded at E3 inspired us to use our brains and do a little logical deduction.
Here goes: once it all kicks off after the long, measured build-up, the action spills out onto a vast airfield. The bullets scream in from enemies to the front, rear and side, planes in the middle distance explode in wonderfully authentic fireballs, and the cumulative feeling is of scale; a scale larger, and more sweeping than the vast majority of Modern Warfare. This is confirmed by the team at Infinity Ward, who claims that the gameplay will feature a number of these sandbox-style segments, though only when it makes sense in the context of an environment. Our conclusion? Bigger levels mean a longer game. Remember, you heard it here first.
We can already hear the clamour of fanatical purists reminding us that Infinity Ward is a master of the art of downtime. Yet if anything, the Modern Warfare 2 E3 demo can be seen as evidence of an even more diverse and refined toolbox when it comes to the calm before the storm.
It begins with a substantial ice-climbing sequence, as Sgt Roach scales a wind-lashed rock-face with Cpt ‘Soap’. He digs his axes into the ice and rock one at a time, first the left trigger, then the right. There’s a timely slip, a duo of passing jet-fighters, and it finishes with a brave, death-defying leap. The sense of drama is palpable, and it can be easy to forget the quite astonishing amount of detail in the image, or neglect the sophistication of the movement animations. This is one in the eye for all those who think audio-visual fidelity adds little to the experience – it’s a huge part of the appeal with Modern Warfare 2.
With the cliff successfully climbed, Sgt. Roach and Cpt Soap cross a wide, open area that is made to feel small by the oppressive weather affects. To assist him with his murderous duties, Roach has a gun equipped with a heartbeat sensor that highlights every enemy in the immediate area. Soap offers to provide cover, and takes his sniper rifle to higher ground. What follows is a long stretch of stealth gameplay, with Roach silently shooting or stabbing the unwitting enemy soldiers. Every time things get tense, one of Soap’s bullets comes to the rescue.
That’s where it kicks off; triggering the airfield section we described earlier, which finishes with Soap and Roach entering a high-speed snowmobile chase, hotly pursued by an enemy helicopter. The fluid change in gameplay is fascinating to watch, and Infinity Ward is aiming to fill every mission with that sense of the unexpected.
We are given the example of a gun battle in a busy favela in Rio de Janeiro. The streets are crowded, and when the firing starts the people scatter, but to avoid civilian casualties you have to pick your shots with painstaking care. This kind of reactive, multi-layered encounter is made more intense by the improved AI, which will enable NPCs to use the (considerably larger) space to execute more sophisticated tactics. Enemy soldiers won’t just pick a barrel and sit behind it; they know the position of every barrel, sandbag and low-wall in the area, and will deftly move between them.
From the 30 minutes of gameplay shown at E3, it’s obvious that Infinity Ward is embracing the spectacular moments of its fiction to a degree the original never dared. In Modern Warfare, there was a definite sense of being part of a larger battle, with soldiers firing and killing enemy soldiers independent of where you were and what you were doing. With the sequel, the bustling activity in the corners of your vision is more dynamic, and more interesting.
Soap isn’t just shooting the bad guys; he’s flipping them over his shoulder before driving a knife into their chest. In one particularly memorable moment, Soap positions himself flat against the front wall of a cabin, before spinning out and stabbing his axe into a passing snowmobile rider with surgical precision and timing. We’re told of a set piece in one of the snow-bound missions still in development, where you’re fighting an APC on a high-ridge. The constant trading of fire unseats the APC; it begins to lose traction on the ground, and starts sliding down the icy surface of the ridge towards you, firing as it goes. We haven’t seen it, but we can imagine it, and we can’t help but think that Infinity Ward is now approximately 6 billion times better at his kind of thing than Michael Bay.
Activision will probably become hundreds of millions richer on the strength of this, but if the rest of it is as good as the demo we won’t begrudge it that. In the context of the medium, it will be richly deserved. Now, about that Brütal Legend lawsuit…