My experience with online multiplayer games, especially shooters, has been what I’d describe as uneven. I enjoy playing the games and while the irritating people who populate… well, the world, if you want to get right down to it—they annoy me but no more than the folks at, say, the grocery store annoy me. What stumps me is that while I adored Counter-Strike and Unreal Tournament, since then I’ve had a hard time enjoying that type of experience for any sort of prolonged period. Sure, I enjoyed Halo 2 for a while and I had some fun with CS on the original Xbox then more recently I’ve put some time in on Halo 3 and a touch of Gears but by and large despite the fact that I play quite a few shooters, I tend to avoid the online modes.
My reasons for this aren’t well-defined, but it has something to do with intimidation coupled with a general lack of skill and an odd quirk of my patience that provides a near indefatigable capacity for refining my play as I progress through a story mode but a quick onset of boredom if I don’t accelerate through the n00b-to-vet transition online readily. Somehow it seems a certain game needed to come along that fit my mindset completely and I’m now wondering if Call of Duty 4′s curious blend of role-playing and online shooter is not exactly that game.
Read on for more thoughts on CoD4 plus some achievement chasing/score padding and a few other odds and ends.
Charlie Oscar Delta
I think in part the modern setting helps. Call of Duty, as a World War II shooter, was a fine game and I even enjoyed the Treyarch-developed CoD3. But CoD has a certain sensibility to it: A pacing that is frantic and toes that line between game and authenticity so carefully that it is possible in the campaign mode to break the carefully concocted spell if you do the kind of thing that some other game designers occasionally encourage: Explore, stretch the game’s world to its limits, etc.
But if you follow along with Infinity Ward’s methodically designed set-piece based flow, there is an experience to be had that lives up to the pedigree instituted by genre greats like Half-Life. Add to that the overwhelming nature of the attention to visual detail—I mean, this game is as gorgeous as any realistic game I’ve seen, and I’m including Gears of War in that category—plus a serious plot (which unfolds via some awe-inspiring moments) that outclasses anything done by a game bearing Tom Clancy’s name and you have a very impressive bit of entertainment for your $60.
The campaign is short, there’s no doubt. Ratcheting up the difficulty prolongs the experience but perhaps not for the best. One can begin to feel as if they (the player) are being asked to fight these trained soldiers rather than your supposedly competent avatar when the frustration rises due to the difficulty level. Playing at a less demanding challenge level might do better to enhance the illusion that you exist in this world as not a superhero but at least a seasoned soldier. Playing at Hardened, which is one notch shy of the epic Veteran difficulty whose brutal and unflinching demand for excellence if not flat-out perfection represents the greatest risk and reward, I found my patience tested but never broken. Consider this with the knowledge that my skill is that of a mildly retarded lemur, at least as far as FPS games are concerned.
In the realm of foraging for grubs, I don’t even rate on the scale.
What’s really remarkable is that after the single-player game has concluded you may scan the list of achievements and note with some curiosity that they are entirely dependent on that solo mode. Unlike most shooters, there is not a compliment of multiplayer-based points which I always view as “unlikely” but instead the online mode has its own internal set of rewards which translate directly into in-game benefits. I adore this system despite the ever-so-minor disappointment that I feel considering I might actually earn some gamerscore points from playing this game online (unlike so many others). But by making the online mode an entity unto itself they have created a game that is addictive—earning XP in CoD4 multiplayer is nearly as compelling as earning achievement points if you can believe it—and unburdened by the sort of point-padding chicanery that plagues most games which feature external rewards for arbitrary actions. It’s something that beckons you to play and the deliberate pacing with which it doles out tangible trinkets that inexplicably do not unbalance the game is capable of warping time such that hours melt away like sherbet in June.
The other game I played through this weekend was much lighter, a gamerscore-obsessed loser’s delight for the ease with which it yields its precious 1,000 points: TMNT.
Now, I could try and defend myself and say that I obtained the game via Goozex because I have a long-standing appreciation for the titular heroes on a half-shell—something that is completely true—but the truth is that I picked it up for the same reason I rented King Kong: To up my score by 1,000 with minimal effort.
I hoped that, like Kong, TMNT would provide a surprisingly well-crafted experience to offset my strange guilt over playing something I’d otherwise avoid just to see my score rise a few points. I can’t say it was exactly that, but I can say that TMNT isn’t entirely without merit. The story is standard Turtles fare, lifted from a graphic novel or early series in the books which deals with emo-turtle Raphael learning a valuable lesson about teamwork. It’s the same source material as the first live-action movie only done in a (much improved) stylized CG format. Here they add some later lunacy involving an ancient curse and a misunderstood billionaire… the whole thing is muddled and poorly executed at best. But somewhere in there you get to play as the turtles which we’ve done before dating back to the NES game, the arcade classic and onward to varying degrees of success.
Here the game is a basic platformer with lots of running and jumping over literally identical urban environments with a few sewer locations and a couple of jungle-like levels. When I say lots of running and jumping what I mean is that long, expansive stretches of the game are nothing but minor obstacles posing no imminent threat which you must run to and then jump over. Sometimes they add a trap or a cliff or two, but the design doesn’t always make clear when a drop is fatal and when it is acceptable so the game involves mostly you running, jumping and occasionally dying which will then require you to start a few steps back at the most recent liberally offered checkpoint to try again, at no penalty.
There is also some fighting that is peppered throughout but it’s boring and repetitive, though fortunately always easy. They try from time to time to add an interesting game mechanic which usually incorporates the teamwork aspect of having you play as a single turtle but enable you to switch between them (as usual they are almost interchangeable and their individual special abilities don’t make enough of a difference to matter). Since the game’s plot involves one of the turtles being taught the value of teamwork, the game surprisingly discards the whole conceit more often than not and by the time it becomes pivotal the game is 90% over. In a week following my time spent with Platforming Done Right via Psychonauts, it hurts to play a “next gen” game that fails completely to learn from what has come before.
The good news is that it takes a handful of hours to finish at best. And you need only one run-through and then a revisit to a single level to earn all 1,000 points. I suppose it becomes a matter of whether your gamerscore plus 1000 is worth three or four hours of your life and maybe the $5 it costs to rent it for a night.
The Rest of the Weekend
I didn’t have loads of time to play other than Thursday when I was sick but spent most of the day buried in CoD4 and a late night on Friday when I wrapped up TMNT, but there were a few other morsels during the week.
- Planet Puzzle League – I’ve been playing the Daily Play modes fairly consistently all week, usually in the can, and find them to be enthralling but I get agitated by the brevity of experience they represent. I also hopped online for the first time ever (probably sparked by my recent ventures on Xbox Live with Call of Duty) and won a few matches, but so far I find the lack of chat and any sort of matchmaking to make it fundamentally no better than offline vs. the cpu.
- Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass – I’ve heard a lot of backhanded compliments about this game—and some outright negativity—none of which I can understand. I’m having so much fun with this game and the way it cleverly utilizes the DS in its entirety is phenomenal. I’ve had more of those moments of awed delight stemming from the fourth-wall crushing puzzles while playing this game than I’ve had since Metal Gear Solid and I think games need more of that. People who dislike Wind Waker just for the graphics are heartless, people who dislike Phantom Hourglass for its simplicity… well, I question the presence of their soul, let’s leave it at that.
- Beautiful Katamari – I’ve been trying to decide which game to trade in to GameStop in a couple of weeks to help offset the cost of Mass Effect and I identified Katamari as one of the options because even though I enjoyed it, once I finished unlocking all the levels I found myself uninterested in really returning to the game. Somehow I find myself liking the game less the more I play it. I think it may be that I can see the original game having a curious style and quirkiness finds just enough of an audience at just the right time to become a sort of cultural phenomenon. But after four games I can’t help but feel like the absurdity is measured and deliberate which destroys its credibility in some unexpected fashion. As a core gameplay mechanic Katamari has something fun for an afternoon or two but even at its budget price, Beautiful Katamari is too expensive for what you get. I haven’t settled on this game as the trade-in, but I can’t think of anything in my library I’d rather part with.
- Haunting Ground – On the strength of a review/dissection I read I decided to throw this on the Gameznflix queue. The lack of an in-game tutorial or any clear indication of motivation or even options led me to a lengthy build up to my first encounter that resulted in me having to choose between restarting the game from the beginning or pack it up and send it back. I dropped it in the mail less than twelve hours after I received it.
I tried a couple of XBLA games this week, but I wasn’t expecting much from them and didn’t get any surprises. Word Puzzle is a dull little Boggle-clone; Mutant Storm Empire is a dual-stick shooter with some promise but not enough compelling about it to make me switch from GeoWars and Switchball is Marble Madness with power-ups and cool graphics. I’d potentially consider purchasing Switchball if it wasn’t $10; it’s good but not worth that big of a hit to my budget so I’ll settle for watching in case it goes on sale later.
Off the Screen
In a rare twist it seems my 40K Tournament actually calls for my participation this month, and when it rains it pours. I have three matches to play (and more importantly, to coordinate) so I’m hoping I can knock out one or two next weekend and maybe find a wormhole to assist with whatever I can’t get to then. It occurs to me now that I may also want to try to acquire the newest Chaos Codex beforehand so I can take advantage of whatever it offers but that leads down a path that involves opening paints and working on my models which any sane man will tell you ends in utter ruin.