Modern Warfare 2 and the Hypocrisy of the Gaming Media

An Editorial  Rant by Figboy

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As usual, I find myself on my soap box ranting about the gaming media. I can’t help it, with each and every bit of media being released by the gaming press this generation, the more fuel they add to the fire in regards to their complete lack of objectivity, consistency, and above all else, journalistic standards.

I’m not a journalists, nor do I consider myself to be one. I’m simply a guy that loves his video games, and loves talking video games with like minded gamers.

Last night, I got a chance to spend a good 3 hours with Modern Warfare 2, the latest FPS title from developer Infinity Ward, and publisher Activision. I don’t fall for hype, but it has to be noted that, considering that Call of Duty 4, Modern Warfare was one of the biggest games of 2007, it’s sequel has garnered a fare bit of attention from the gaming media.

Many an outlet couldn’t contain the hyperbole in declaring MW2 the best shooter of 2009, 6-12 months BEFORE it’s actual release.

It also must be noted that 2009 saw the release of another rather huge FPS title; Killzone 2, an exclusive title for the Playstation 3. Killzone 2’s history is not as rosy as Modern Warfare 2’s and while I won’t go into too much detail, Killzone 2 was shown in CGI Target Render form that was too good to be true at an E3 many years ago. The gaming media and the gaming community alike did not believe the actual Killzone 2 game would look as good as the CG. In short, it DID, and a lot of people’s feelings were hurt. They tried to attack the gameplay, nitpicking things like controls, the war torn color palette, and the “meatheads with guns” protagonists. Despite all that, Killzone 2 is quite possibly the best FPS to release this generation. The multi-player component was also top notch, expanding upon elements introduced in FPS titles like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Team Fortress 2, and adding it’s own unique spin to it (like being able to cross-class your soldier, a Valor Points system, and more).

Other FPS titles, like Operation Flashpoint 2, were talked up before their release, but quickly pushed under the rug when their game play failed to surpass Killzone 2 and the upcoming Modern Warfare 2.

Well, now, Modern Warfare 2 is on the store shelves, the reviews are flooding in, and they are more than positive. They are glowing. The praise for the title is unending, despite some poor PR from Activision and Infinity Ward, as well as some questionable design decisions that have soured the mood a bit (ie, pairing down MP from 32 players to 18, and removing dedicated servers from the PC version of the game).

The reviewers are quick to praise Modern Warfare 2 for it’s gritty presentation, robust multi-player,  tense game play, and amazing graphics that rival the recently released Uncharted 2.

After last night’s session with the game, I can’t help but think I’m playing a totally different game.

I’ll leave Uncharted 2 out of this, and stick with addressing FPS vs FPS, but I have to say I walked away from Modern Warfare 2 very underwhelmed.

The first thing you notice about the game is the rather poor voice-acting. I’ve played many a game with terrible voice acting, and Modern Warfare 2 certainly isn’t the worst, but I found the narrator’s attempts at a tough-sounding, gravelly voiced hardened soldier more comical than intense. The chatter from squad mates is pretty much relegated to mission only (which I assume keeps it realistic). The dialogue isn’t very inspired either, and lacks any and all characterization. It’s pretty much dialogue that sets up  your next mission, or, in game, points you to your next objective.

But I’m not one to get hung up on dialogue and voice acting, so I easily shrugged it off, given that the game is about war, where keeping to the task at hand is more important than witty banter. After the initial cutscenes (which were just flashy images of a satellite view of the Earth and the names and logos of characters and battalions), I was really eager to get into the game and see the visuals that I had been assured were “amazing,” and “rivaled” games like Killzone 2 and Uncharted 2.

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First, the good. The guns in the game look fantastic, with a great attention to detail, and are overall the high point of the visuals. I’m playing the game on a 40″ 720p Samsung, and while the graphics are sharp and clear and crisp, it only serves to highlight one of the game’s most glaring visual issues: poor quality textures.

Character models look good when observed from far away, but when you get up close and scrutinize them, they lack any real attention to detail. The faces are flat, with little to no real detail in their expressions. Their uniform details are flat as well, with all of the clothing looking like molded plastic with a little bump mapping thrown in to try and make it look like it has depth.

This lack of real detail is also evident in the environments. Like the character models, when viewed from a distance, the environments look rather good. When up close they are just as bland and flat as everything else. There is also very little real ambient details present that sell an environment as a believable place. There is some debris here and there that floats across the map, or snow flurries, or dust blowing across your vision, but because they opted to make the image super sharp and clear, it looks…fake. Which is a rather silly thing to say when talking about an environment in a video game, but it’s the truth. The environments just don’t feel like real locations. They feel like multi-player maps tied to a very flimsy story (there isn’t really anything in the way of story cutscenes, just briefings for the next mission, then off you go).

There are certainly uglier games out there, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Modern Warfare 2 is an ugly game, far from it, it looks rather good in HD, and visual effects like how the screen splatters with your blood when you are taking damage are solid, but when the gaming media is comparing it to, hands down, the two best looking console titles on the market in Killzone 2 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, well, you can’t blame anyone for having rather high expectations. Modern Warfare 2, in it’s own right, is a visually good game. It just simply doesn’t compare to Killzone 2 and Uncharted 2.

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Beyond the visuals, which, again, I can brush off (it’s not like it looks like Legendary: The Box, or Conflict: Denied Ops; not even; Modern Warfare 2 DESTROYS those games hands down), I was then eager to play the game and get a feel for what has been talked up as the best FPS experience out there.

The first thing I noticed were the controls. They feel like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and most other FPS titles out there that try to emulate the smooth, “twitchy” controls of a keyboard and mouse. So, while Modern Warfare 2 certainly has smooth, responsive controls, it still feels like you are controlling a floating gun, instead of an actual human being moving about and grounded to his environment. I really liked the iron sight lock on, trick, which has players bringing up iron sights with the L1 button, and having it immediately “lock on” to the nearest enemy.

Which brings me to the actual game play of Modern Warfare 2. I can overlook a lack of interesting characters, or a deep, complex plot. I can even overlook visuals that are by no means ugly, but not the top of the industry as many have stated. But what surprised and disappointed me the most about Modern Warfare 2 was how completely uninteresting and uninspired the game play was.

It was almost as if the single player campaign was created using the Big Book of FPS Design Cliches. Even the open streets of Afghanistan amounted to nothing more than a corridor shooting gallery. I was willing to accept the more realistic take on warfare that MW2 was selling, until I had to flee enemies on a snowmobile in something that seemed ripped out of a James Bond flick, and very out of place for a game that, initially, was attempting to be a very grounded, realistic shooter. The moment that I managed to jump a 200 foot gap on my snowmobile is the moment my suspension of disbelief snapped.

The weapons in the game are standard FPS fare, so no complaints there. I mean, there are only so many weapons you can have in an FPS before it starts to feel samey (although the PS3 exclusive Resistance franchise is known for having unique weapons, like guns that can shoot through walls, put up force fields, and fire off tags that cause subsequent shots to flock to the tagged enemy; and yet Resistance is often called generic, bringing nothing new or interesting to the FPS genre…).

But I found the level design to be rather uninspired. It’s literally a by the book shooter. Even a segment that has your character deep undercover, and working with some Russian terrorists who are casually strolling through an airport, slaughtering innocent civilians by the boatload it seems felt like it was on rails and heavily scripted. Not to mention incredibly over the top for a game praised for it’s realism. The gunfights in the game are fast, as I imagine they are in real life, but they don’t have an impact on the player. I never felt white-knuckled, like I was getting by by the skin of my teeth, or that I was actually a part of a real war, with comrades fighting and dying beside me.

I can’t help but feel that Modern Warfare 2 and it’s flaws are given a free pass from the media. After all, the game has a 5 hour single player campaign. Multi-player, while still relatively the same as the first, has been paired down from 32 players to 18. Beyond new maps, there really isn’t much that Modern Warfare 2 is offering that you can’t get in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and yet the game is getting universal praise and adoration from the gaming media.

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This is the same gaming media that called Killzone 2 generic, uninspired, with a weak cast of characters and excellent online. Killzone 2 is hard sci fi, with a deep, complex world, which is, unfortunately, barely skimmed in the narrative of the story. The main cast is most certainly weak, but no different than the “meatheads with guns” cast that is in Gears of War, and certainly more than the non-characters in Modern Warfare 2. The narrative is interesting enough, following a squad of soldiers on a mission to capture the Helghan Prime Minister Skolar Visari. They discover a few Helghan secrets, and the game ends on a rather ominous, if not thought-provoking note. Nothing so deep as Saving Private Ryan, but it’s more than just, “here’s your next mission kid, go get em!” like in the presentation of MW2.

Game play wise, Killzone 2 is hectic. Waves of Helghast soldiers try and take you down, using incredible AI and tactics that I haven’t seen in a console FPS game. The first person cover system (something new to the FPS genre, conveniently overlooked by the gaming media that harasses Killzone 2 for not bringing anything fresh or innovative) is surprisingly useful and well implemented, and the environments, despite being confined to the Helghan home planet, range from large, wide open bridges and valleys, to small corridors and rooms and factories. The single player campaign will also clock in at a good 10-12 hours. Over twice as long as Modern Warfare 2’s single player. The controls were also rather unconventional for an FPS, with characters and weapons having a heft  and weight to them that had many people complaining about “sluggish” controls, when it was  a design decision intended to increase immersion in the game’s highly detailed environment. It succeeded, but due to a bitter and jaded press, developer Guerrilla Games ended up issuing a patch that allowed gamers to adjust the controls to a more Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare style sensitivity.

The multi-player in Killzone 2 also supports up to 32 players (unlike Modern Warfare 2’s 18), and a class system that allows players to earn badges, which in turn can be used to customize a character more to their play style. For example, it’s possible to mix the Saboteur’s Primary Badge with the Scout’s Secondary Badge, and get a player that can disguise himself as the other team, and use the Scout’s scan ability to reveal the enemy team’s positions to his own team. Being able to mix and match the Primary and Secondary badges of the 6 classes was a unique feature for console FPSes, and yet it also went ignored or downplayed by the media. Killzone 2 also included “Skirmish mode,” which allowed players to seamlessly segue from one gameplay mode into the other without having to quit out into the lobby. For instance, transitioning from Team Deathmatch to Assassination to Search and Destroy was done in game, with no break in the game play. This forced players to think on their feet, and adjust their tactics to the new game mode on the fly. It made the online battles that much more exciting and unpredictable, but this was also ignored and downplayed by the press.

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So, here, we have Modern Warfare 2 which barely iterates over the original release, has just as short of a single player campaign, and scaled back Multi-player, with bland, uninteresting level designs and characters, getting no shortage of praise and worship from the gaming media.

And on the other hand, we have Killzone 2, which defied all expectations, set a new bar for visuals in the console FPS market, and actually added to, and improved upon standard MP features by adding it’s own twist, and it was called everything from uninspired to generic.

There are media outlets that claim to value “originality,” and “innovation” in games when scoring it high marks, giving PS3 exclusives like Ratchet and Clank and Uncharted 2 lower marks for lack of originality and innovation, and yet those same outlets have scored near perfect scores to Modern Warfare 2, despite it’s lack of originality and innovation.

This isn’t a call out of Modern Warfare 2. Far from it. The game is most certainly a solid FPS title, despite it’s shortcomings. This is calling out the gaming media for being hypocrites and completely discrediting themselves and the review system with their double standards.

If you are going to call out a game for being “generic,” or “unoriginal,” or “uninspired,” then do the same for ALL games, and not just games you have a bone to pick with. Don’t give Modern Warfare 2 free passes on short length, downscaled multi-player, and uneven game design, but tear apart a game like Killzone 2, which features a long campaign, fully featured multi-player, and rock solid, tense game design, just because you have a soft spot for Modern Warfare.

This does more damage than good, because it encourages a lack of progress in the industry, while punishing the developers out there willing to try and do something new and different to help push the industry forward and keep it from stagnating.

There is room for FPS games like Modern Warfare 2 AND Killzone 2. They are different sides to the same coin, and both have their merits. You don’t have to tear one down to build up the other. No, Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t have to match Killzone 2 in graphics to be a good game, nor does Killzone 2 have to have the same exact controls as Modern Warfare 2 to be a good game.

Unfortunately, baiting the reader garners hits on their websites, so they continue to do it. They continue to build up hype for games, by calling them a “insert popular franchise here Killer,” and talking up unreleased games to the point where the gaming community is willing to believe what they have read and heard, without experiencing the games for themselves.

I had heard so much overwhelming praise and hyperbole for Modern Warfare 2, that my experience with the game was marred. I usually don’t take such hyperbole to heart, but when the review scores and statements from the  press are saying a game surpasses another in all areas, you will most certainly go into the experience with a bit more expectation than usual.

I miss the days where there was less fanboyism in the gaming media, and more genuine gamers that were able to report on the games as they are, not as what they could, should, or would be if something or other had been done instead.

As it stands, I think they are doing a great injustice to Modern Warfare 2, as well as Killzone 2 with their questionable tactics, double standards, and outright hypocrisy. The fact that they don’t even seem to realize that they are doing it is the worst injustice of it all.

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6 Responses to “Modern Warfare 2 and the Hypocrisy of the Gaming Media”

  1. Wow. Nice, detailed post. I think you have a point about the amount of fanboyism in the media… we all really just need to calm down a bit.

    Mattou
    DieganSquared.com

    • thanks! i didn’t want it to seem like i was ragging on Modern Warfare 2, it’s just that this is probably one of the more blatant examples of the gaming media completely forgetting their standards when handing out 9/10 and 10/10 scores.

      they’ll dock a game like Killzone 2 and Uncharted 2 for lack of originality and innovation, but Modern Warfare 2, a sequel to CoD4 will not get docked for lack of originality and innovation.

      it’s not that the games aren’t fun. they most assuredly are, it’s just the review system is broken, and they don’t even seem to realize it.

  2. OMG figboy, you just dissed lance henriksen’s voice acting talent 🙂

  3. You’ve confirmed my suspicions about MW2. I watched the videos, read a few reviews and it seems to me that MW2 is essentially CoD:MW but wrapped up in a different but only slightly prettier package.

    It doesn’t suck by any means but I don’t think it’s the Godsend of FPS games that a lot of people are making it out to be.

    Flash over substance. I’d be truly shocked if MW2 gets awarded GOTY.

    The review system is definitely broken. Game developers and publishers have the gaming media on puppet strings. While each and every one of them will steadfastly deny that they exercise any favoritism, merely their ability to tug on those puppet strings causes game review sites to tow the company line. And they know this.

    Something as simple as developers “mistakenly” delaying the delivery of an internal review copy or a press interview date with company staff by a day or two can put a review site at a significant disadvantage with competing sites. Game review sites an ill afford to harbour true objectivity.

    When there’s millions of dollars invested and possibly tens of millions in sales dollars at stake, it’s almost assured that any publisher/game dev would not hesitate to play hardball and yank those strings if push came to shove.

    Eidos/Gamespot/Gertsmann: I rest my case. 😉

    It’s this current gaming media environment that makes blogs like Select Start Games and other grass roots journalism efforts even more valuable to the public.

    • thanks for the compliment, and i agree 100%.

      the gaming media has forgotten WHY it got into gaming journalism in the first place: to cover video games honestly and fairly, and sure, make a living from it too.

      i started select/start games because i love gaming, and i wanted to have a forum where myself and others could talk about gaming without pressure from developers and publishers and hidden agendas.

      i value fairness and honesty when talking about games, and i don’t view my opinion as the law, but at the least, i’ll be forthright in my opinion of the games i play, and i try to be as detailed and informative as i can.

      i want the gaming industry to grow and improve, but some of the sites out there and gaming publications are doing more harm than good with their double standards, hypocrisy, and blatant bias.

      i used to fear calling out publications, but not anymore.

      sites like Eurogamer and Edge, which consistently give nearly EVERY PS3 exclusive 7/10 and below scores (with only 3 PS3 exclusives getting above an 8/10), even when the average score is 2 points or more higher, while giving 9/10 or higher scores to nearly EVERY Xbox 360 exclusive (barring 3 games), are causing incredible damage to the gaming community with their slanted views and bias.

      i may prefer Playstation, but i certainly don’t want Nintendo or Microsoft to fail or go away in what they are doing. i won’t shy away from criticizing all three when they mess up, but there’s been a terrible imbalance in how all three platforms are covered by the gaming press, and i try to, in my little corner of the internet, make it a bit more balanced and fair.

  4. that was lance henriksen??

    he’s a badass, but damn, he’s not doing a good job in MW2! lol. maybe it’s the script or something. lol

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