At a press event last week, the developers of Modern Warfare 3 showcased the game’s first two campaign missions, and after a standard, raucous round of applause, Vice President and General Manager of Sledgehammer Games, Glen Schofield, came on stage and made quite the proclamation: “And later this year, when we reveal multiplayer with Elite, our fans will really see what innovation means with Call of Duty. The opportunity to bring millions of Call of Duty gamers together in all new ways is something that we believe will change how people think of multiplayer.”
That got me to thinking, how do we think of multiplayer? In a decade that has been dominated by the concept of rankings and experience points, no other game has been at the forefront more often than the Call of Duty series. Does multiplayer as we once knew it even exist in this day and age? Recent years have transformed the term “multiplayer” into more of a solo experience over Xbox Live or PSN and it has become one that is so focused on “leveling up” and gaining XP that many gamers have lost sight of what the concept of multiplayer was once all about.
Go back to 2001. Halo: CE had just been released and was beginning its journey as a gaming behemoth that would eventually blow the top off of the entertainment industry. Many critics to this day still claim that while Halo was an instant classic, it didn’t revolutionize the FPS genre as it took its inspiration from FPS classics such as Doom that had come well before it. I respectfully disagree. Halo created the staple for what was possible for a First Person Shooter on a console system. It opened the door for the surplus of console shooters that would follow in the coming years — none of which had as much to offer as the Master Chief himself. The game perfected all the aspects attempted by every FPS that had come before it. Everything from the intriguing plot and the balance and variety of weapons, to the array of intelligent, respondent enemies and bad-ass super-soldier protagonist without a face, Halo’s single player alone was enough to go out and purchase an Xbox. The slow, progressing drums into the now infamous riffs of the game’s iconic theme still gives me chills to this day. But like any game of the past 15 years, the lasting appeal was only as good as the game’s multiplayer, and boy was Halo’s fun.
Ah, the immeasurable sleepless nights my friends and I had while playing that game, and to think that it took the bulky load of two Xbox’s and a system link just to get a game of 4v4 going. Man, have times changed. At this point in time, “customization” of one’s character, a feature that has become so prominent in FPS games today, was pretty nonexistent. Customization in Halo was mainly limited to the choice of your Spartan’s suit in Free-For-All. I can’t tell you the amount of times I heard the question: “What the hell color is Cyan?” and the response: “I don’t know, but it looks cool.”
One of the reasons as to why it was so fun though, firstly stemmed from the love that players had of the campaign. See, in those days, being good at single player actually had some sort of merit. Nothing made better target practice with a scoped pistol than a dodgy Elite. If you could bag one of those in about five headshots, it made killing your buddies that much easier. Being a good campaign player bettered your chances of being deadly in deathmatch in turn. Nowadays, the campaign is not even necessary to learn the ins and outs of the multiplayer mode. In fact, for most modern shooters, playing online like you would in the campaign would probably get you killed – quickly – countless times. For that reason, today’s popular shooters have created a sort of disconnect between the single and multiplayer modes. Instead of the two being integrated, each one operates completely differently and independent of themselves.
When Halo 2 arrived in 2004, it had something that Halo: CE was unable to provide the first time around: the ability to play online through Xbox Live. Even so, the game did not ditch the mechanics that made its predecessor so popular. It simply expanded them ever so slightly. The game featured a ranking system built around the only thing that should matter – winning matches. It didn’t matter how many hours you put into the game. Win, and your rank increased, lose, and you could actually go down a level. Much different from the shooters today that reward players simply for logging game hours. The only incentive I needed to play online during the days of H2 was to pull off a “BXR” that would make Walshy and the Ogre twins proud. Weapon and character rewards were never a factor.
Then, in November of 2007, the FPS genre and gaming industry as a whole would be forever transformed with the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The game truly was revolutionary as it provided the recipe for the key to an addicting and engaging multiplayer. A player’s performance is tracked with experience points, which can be earned by killing opposing players, completing challenges, completing objectives, or just by completing a round or match. As the player gains XP, they advance in level, unlocking new weapons, perks, challenges, and gameplay modes. When the player reaches the highest level, they have the option to enter “Prestige” mode, which returns their level to one and removes everything they’ve unlocked so far. As the player advances in level, they earn the ability to customize their classes which includes selecting their main weapon, side arm and special grenade type. Additionally, the player can select 3 perks, extra ammunition, becoming undetectable from enemy radar, or the brilliant idea of dropping a live grenade when the player is killed (Pretty sure about 90% of players had that perk equipped at one time or another, turning the map into an active minefield).
Thus, multiplayer as we knew it before had been forever changed. The idea of “multiplayer” became less about playing with friends and more about gaining a higher rank with a better character customization. Yes, XP had in fact been introduced long before MW, and nowhere was it more prominent than in World of Warcraft. Arguably, Activision took Blizzard’s perfection of XP and the notion of “classes” and expanded upon it. But even WoW had a teamwork aspect that made it so appealing to millions of gamers. Most of the more challenging quests are in fact designed in a way that they can only be overcome while in a group.
If LAN Centers were dying before, the concept of XP as an incentive to play a game may as well have buried them. Gone are the fond days of playing games simply for the fun of the gameplay, not for the customization aspects. I can still remember playing Unreal Tournament 2004 at LAN parties and having an absolute blast. Similarly, was there anything more fun than getting together a small group to pilot a chopper in Battlefield 2 and providing air support for teammates attempting to capture a point? Even the Call of Duty series was at one time a game that featured no customization, perks, or XP. Shocking, I know, but Call of Duty 2 was an immensely popular PC game that was a favorite among FPS enthusiasts and their only motivation was to be the top scorer at the end of every match.
The epitome of the “teamwork” concept in gaming has always been present in Counter-Strike, and it’s no surprise that it remains to this day as one of the most popular online games over a decade after its release, as well as having one of the largest professional followings. CS is a game that doesn’t just encourage teammate cooperation, but requires it. It requires you to be communicating incessantly with the members of your team. Calling out strats and enemy positions as well as holding key areas of the map are absolutely essential to any CS match. Running around solo like we do in most of the popular modern shooters will earn you a one-way ticket to spectate mode. It’s the entire teamwork idea that is being emphasized less and less in today’s FPS’s.
Of course, you can still play today’s shooters online with a friend, even on the same TV. Playing with your pals is not what has changed. What has changed however, is the reason behind the play time. XP is too often what motivates gamers into playing a particular game. They might hate it, but if they’re one match away from getting a new weapon or class unlocked, then you can bet they’ll tough it out. A personal case-in-point for me was Crysis 2. In my opinion, a game that had all the potential in the world ended up being an above-average shooter with a tedious plot (didn’t sci-fi authors Richard Morgan and Peter Watts write the story? Yikes.) and laughably bad AI. The graphics and attention to detail was spectacular though and I’ll admit, I did enjoy the multiplayer – for a while. The Nanosuit was certainly innovative and it was fun to mess around with the different capabilities and how each one would give you an advantage online. Just like most other modern FPS’s, the same formulaic XP system is featured in the game. Get XP for matches and earn better upgrades and weapons. After a couple of weeks, I started to get bored. The game just did not engross me like the shooters of the CoD and Halo franchises. Nevertheless, I continued to play well after the game got old for me. Why? Solely for the chance to upgrade my Nanosuit and kill the noobs who were just starting out. Hey, at least I’m being honest, and I know for a fact that many gamers did the same as I was getting killed by faster, more heavily protected Nanosuits in my first outing.
So there it is. I played a game I didn’t like simply for the opportunity to get bigger weapons and more advanced upgrades. I openly admit that I’ve taken part in the annoying trend that is becoming ever-apparent in today’s gaming industry. Adding to it is the idea of the “double XP weekend.” Why don’t developers just rename it “play our game tomorrow not because you want to but because you can get better stuff faster if you do, weekend.” A fantastic game with absorbing and gripping gameplay should be the only motivation I need to lie to my Aunt about not being able to go to the family reunion. The last thing we want to be doing is playing a game for the purpose of getting better customization options and checking our phones every 10 minutes to see how much longer the double XP weekend lasts so we can finally turn the game off.
What’s worse is that Activision has confirmed there will be no Co-op for MW3 (https://aotf.com/news/modern-warfare-3-co-op-would-take-away-from-the-experience/). Really Mr. Bowling? You feel that something is lost when a second player joins? When has a game ever been WORSE as a result of a Co-op mode? Sure, there are bad games with cooperative modes, but never has the Co-op itself turned what could have been a good campaign into a poor one. It simply doesn’t work that way. The truth is that nothing is lost when adding a second player but there are a heck of a lot of things that are added. Fun, teamwork, shared experiences that last long after the console is off to name a few. There are certain titles that operate better without Co-op, but Call of Duty isn’t one of them. If Valve can create a tremendous Co-op mode with Portal 2, there is no reason that Activison can’t with MW3.
I assure you, I’m no Call of Duty hater and I’ve played more than my share of hours with Black Ops and undoubtedly will with Modern Warfare 3 as well. What the Modern Warfare franchise has done for this industry is beyond measure. It has made gaming, not just specifically shooters, more popular and mainstream as a whole and we have Activision/Infinity Ward/Treyarch to thank for that. Clearly, the XP formula is proven to be successful. Hell, even Bungie included the customization aspect in Halo: Reach. I’m just a gamer who is concerned about the future evolution of the FPS genre as the features that have made the series so popular have gradually detracted from the whole idea of “multiplayer” and the camaraderie between gamers that used to exist as a result of playing a game for the game itself. It was once that essence of the multiplayer experience that made players become closer as friends, not just gamers, after the controllers had been put down and the PC’s turned off. The MW formula has clearly had a long and successful run as the pinnacle of the customizable online multiplayer, but it’s one that is increasingly becoming stale. Please Activision, give us the CoD experience that we know and love with all the customization, upgrades, and perks, but revitalize it with a system that is not so heavily reliant on the XP of the individual.
Hopefully, the developers will come through on their promise to “change how people think of multiplayer.” Activision has revolutionized the FPS genre and the gaming industry once before. Here’s hoping that they can do it again.