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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why COD4 and BF2 Are the Best Online Shooters Ever (And Why Bad Company Doesn't Cut It) 

There are many, many games you can play online – some would say too many. However, most of them fall far short of their true potential. Two First-Person Shooter (FPS) games stand out for the sheer enjoyability of online play: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. (Sadly, no one really plays BF2 online anymore, so I mostly speak about it in the past tense.) While other FPSes have done a fine job of keeping the player entertained (Star Wars: Battlefront, SOCOM, Rainbow Six: Vegas, etc), none of them match COD4 and BF2 in nearly-unadulterated fun.

Here's why:
  1. Precision and fairness. I get frustrated when I play these games, sure – but I generally feel that the game deals fairly with the mechanics of the players. When I get killed, it's because I'm being careless or I miss. I can feel myself get stronger with time, and it's a pretty speedy learning process. (Other games like Halo 3, for example, are mostly a matter of finding the right weapon; in BF2 and COD4, you can fight with a style that suits you.) I joke about the game "cheating", but it's usually tongue-in-cheek.

  2. Flexibility. Most FPSes allow you to choose the "class" you'd like to use (sniper, machine-gunner, shotgunner, etc), but it's a special game that balances these out. In some games, the sniper will dominate the field in certain maps. In others, the shotgunner simply can't be beaten. In COD4 and BF2, however, they're pretty evenly matched – which makes it all into a matter of skill (and some luck). I've even found myself sliding a bit away from my usual machine gun favorite (since I don't have time to aim carefully) and use more stealthy techniques in COD4.

  3. Quality game modes. COD4 is really only useful to me for Team Deathmatch (12 players are split into two teams, who try to eliminate each other). But there are many other modes for people who prefer Attack & Defend or .. I don't even know what the others are, heh. COD4 even tries out some unusual modes like Hardcore and OldSchool, with various tweaks to the way the game is played. Maybe these are great, maybe they suck – it doesn't even matter. Simply including them means that players who prefer those can play them, and the rest of us can stick to Team Deathmatch. BF2 also had two really good modes: Conquest and Capture the Flag. In conquest, two teams try to capture and hold five positions – indicated with flags – around the map while also shooting each other. It was the style that defined the Battlefield series until they screwed it all up (more in a minute). I didn't play much CTF, but it was nice to have it available.
Battlefield 2: Modern Combat – Strategy Matters

In addition to the above, there are some specific things that make each of these games so dear to my heart. In the case of BF2:
  1. Multiple intelligences. (This is actually an education buzzphrase, but it sorta fits here.) In Team Deathmatches, one skill is required: Kill the enemy. That's it. In BF2 conquest, however, I could prove myself useful by capturing flags, which was especially nice if I could do it without having to fight anyone (especially since this wasn't always my strong suit). Even if I was having a crappy game in terms of shooting the enemy, I could make up for it by snatching some flags.

  2. Strategic machinations. The flags your team controlled in BF2 conquest mattered. Your enemy could only spawn at the flags they held. If you got them all except one, they were all coming from the same spot. (This meant that sometimes one team would get all of them except one, and it would become a hideous massacre – fun if you're on the dominating team but not so much fun for the dominated.) It wasn't enough to just run around willy-nilly and shoot everything that moves. A team that communicated could really be more effective.

  3. The Airstrike. A typical BF2 conquest game lasted 20 minutes or so. Every five minutes, a special air strike opportunity made itself available at a certain spot on the map; the first person to get to it could drop a huge load of bombs on the enemy. It was great to have that sort of community free-for-all spot which suddenly became important, and completely irrelevant just as suddenly. Some people sat around at the spot waiting for it to go online, but that was usually too boring for words, so instead you saw people engaged in firefights, then suddenly all scrambling to reach the airstrike first (sort of like how we ran for the ice cream truck when we were kids, but with more gunfire). If you reached the airstrike first, you had to pick a good spot with lots of enemies on which to drop it – but you couldn't spend too much time figuring it out, since there might be someone with a shotgun behind you about to take aim, and you'd have no idea s/he was there.

  4. Take that, chopper-man! In many FPSes with vehicles (like SOCOM for example), a single fighter is useless against, say, a tank or a helicopter. But in BF2 I could – and often did, with great joy – use my machine gun to take down a whirlybird. It took a while, and often I'd get bombed to crud in the attempt (or an enemy foot soldier would take me out as I fired wildly into the sky). But it was so incredibly satisfying. (The only thing better was if you fired a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) and managed to hit the freakin' thing.) COD4 has choppers, but they're drones and you don't get any points for taking them down (except for the first time you do it; it's a "challenge", which we'll explain soon). The points I got in BF2 for taking down a chopper were actually less satisfying than seeing actual virtual people get blown up when their chopper exploded. (Sometimes three or four people would pile in and you could destroy them all.)

  5. The Parachute. This one really needs to show up in another game, soon. In BF2, when in mid-air, you could activate a parachute which would allow you to glide slowly to the ground. This meant you could, for example, jump out of the helicopter. Or go to the top of a building and get down with great ease. It allowed for a versatility that really mixed things up.
Call of Duty 4: Finally, It's Not WWII!

Most (all?) of the other Call of Duty games have been – and apparently #5 will be, too – set in World War II. Well, call me prejudiced, but I just can't stand using muskets and cannons. (I know they didn't actually use muskets and cannons in WWII, but that's how it feels in the game.) I need my red dots and RPGs. Fortunately, COD4 is Modern Warfare, and it comes with some pretty cool features of its own:
  1. The Killcam: Wha' happened!? When you're killed in COD4, you have the option of watching a three-second clip of what your enemy saw as they killed you. It was weird at first, but now when I play another FPS, I keep expecting to see what my enemy did, where they were, etc. Sometimes the footage is really nifty – following a random grenade over two buildings to land at your feet is often fun enough to cure my anger at being killed by a random grenade. The Killcam can also help you figure out where the perpetrator is going next (which helps with revenge plans).

  2. Challenges. COD4 features a wide variety of different challenges, such as: "Kill two enemies with one grenade" and "Destroy five cars". Some people actually try to achieve these, but there is enough variety – and they reward things that I usually do anyway – that I prefer to just play and let them happen. They're nice little perks along the way; as mentioned, the Take down the Chopper challenge is the only reward I ever get for destroying helicopters (which I continue to do, just because I'm good at it and it means less deaths for my team).

    Although they're not technically challenges, you can also get little bonuses for killing multiple opponents without dying: Three down and you can all in the UAV (I have no idea what it stands for, and can't find it online), which shows the enemy as red dots on the map. Kill five enemies without dying, and you get to activate an airstrike (sort of like the one in BF2, but anyone can use it after five kills, and it's much less powerful). Put seven enemies down and you get to call in the aforementioned helicopter. (Often you can kill the last two enemies with your airstrike, so when launching the airstrike, players often pray loudly for those last two kills.) If you die before the seventh kill, obviously, it's goodbye chopper – thus the frequent shouts of agony when a player is defeated after the sixth kill.

  3. Ranking, especially Prestige Mode. There are 55 ranks in COD4, and you move through them by acquiring points – which you get mostly by killing enemies, but also for calling in a UAV, completing challenges, etc. You can move through the early ranks quickly, which is great – new players feel like they're accomplishing something even though they're only learning the ropes (and dying a lot, which happens whenever anyone starts playing any new game online – regardless of the untrue bragging you'll hear from "gamerz" about how they start "pwning n00bz" as soon as they start a new FPS). The BF2 ranking system was one of that game's serious flaws – you had to achieve special challenges to rank up at all, but they weren't varied, simple, or fun like the COD4 challenges; they were really tough. Eventually I just got sick of it and resigned myself to always being a private in BF2.

    When you ascend all 55 ranks in COD4, however, you have the option of moving on to Prestige Mode, which basically sends you back to the lowest rank (all of the specialized weapons and perks you've earned are taken away) – but you have a special icon indicating it's your second time around (or third, or – in my case at the moment, fifth). The "no lifers" have the gold cross indicating their tenth Prestige cycle. I expect to have one before the end of 2008. This system is nice because it gives the player something to work toward, rather than just killing enemies on the same maps over and over.

  4. Perks. COD4 also features a variety of perks, like Martyrdom (you drop a grenade when you die, which might kill the person who killed you) and UAV Jammer (you don't show up as a red dot when the enemy calls in a UAV). You get to choose one in each of three categories. Most people choose some of the same perks (Deep Impact makes it easier to kill the enemy, so 80% of people use it), while others will make you the object of ridicule among other players. (This is so common that I'm not even going to say which perk I'm referring to – those who play already know what I'm talking about, and everyone else will just have to aks somebody.) The perks allow the player to tweak the experience to his/her particular style. You can even set up multiple "loadouts" with different perks, so that you can pick a different style of play in the middle of a game. (For example, I have a "silent martyr" loadout with UAV Jammer and a silenced weapon, which I can use to sneak around and steathily kill the bad guys. When this isn't working, I'll whip out the "machinist" and lay waste to everything in sight with my machine gun.)
Bad Company: Good, but Not Good Enough

This year, the people who made BF2 released its long-awaited sequel, Battlefield: Bad Company. As a fanatical devotee of BF2, I was very excited. (It's one of the only games I've bought new for the XBox360.) Although the singleplayer campaign was lots of fun, the online mode really falls short of its potential, and here's why:
  1. Squint city. This game is clearly designed for people with enormous high-definition TVs. I, however, have not bought into the Hype Definition bandwagon, and continue to play games on my normal human-sized television. Thus, I'm at a tremendous disadvantage here. COD4 did the right thing by making the type big and the enemies a recognizable size on any screen. (I actually think, as video game populations get older, producers will have to include Large Print options, but that's a story for another post.) Bad Company requires too much squinting, and it's pretty danged hard to tell whether the thing way in the distance is an enemy or a shrub. (I complained about this sort of thing when I started with BF2 also, but it's worse in BC.)

  2. Lag! Every online FPS is bound to have a little bit of lag – that slight delay between when you shot an enemy and s/he drops. Not everyone has the same speed of internet connection, and with all the different things happening on the screen, it's bound to show up once in a while. But in Bad Company it's just ridiculous. Players often complain – loudly, through the headset – that they put an entire clip into an enemy but still didn't get the kill. (This happens too often in Halo3, too, but in that case it's a matter of using a gun that's too weak, which is a stupid thing in an FPS.) What happens in BC is that the effect of one's bullets take a half- or full second to register on the server. It's disorienting and – although it seems like not much of a big deal – makes the game much less fun.

  3. No more 'chutes. They took out the parachute. No more jumping out of the chopper; you're in it 'til you die or the pilot lands. Grr!

  4. You must do the cool new thing! Bad Company has destructible environments – which means you can blast away part of a house, as seen in the screenshot above. This is pretty dang nifty (although Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction was really where I got my first taste), but what's not nifty (and in fact sucks quite a bit) is that the game's designers have filled each map with loads of buildings which must be destroyed or else slithered through. You can't open doors, and the windows are too small – you have to blast your way in or out. While this makes for funny jokes, it gets old after five games. Give us options, people! Moving around in BF2 was fluid and smooth; I was able to develop a definite rhythm while playing. BC movement is jerky and constantly interrupted by the need to switch to a grenade, or figuring out how to get where I want to go.

  5. Our new mode is so fabulous that we're not giving you the thing you figured you'd always get since it's the thing that made us famous! Bad Company initially suffered from New Coke syndrome: Conquest mode was great and everyone loved it, so it wasn't included. Instead, the only game mode available at first was "Gold Rush", which was a standard (boring and annoying) Attack & Defend mode, whereby one team tried to destroy some gold crates, and the other team defended them. Some people probably love this and – although conquest is now available – continue to play Gold Rush. Those people are idiots. I hate A&D, so although I got BC the day it was released, I barely played it for over a month. Although there are problems with conquest, chances are I'd have sold Bad Company if it weren't available. Give us options, people!

Okay, I know probably no one is going to read this whole thing. But it's been in my brain for a while, and it feels good to get it down on virtual paper. The last thing I want to do with my blog is advertise for corporate America, but I do want to indicate to anyone who'll listen (both of you) about what really works in FPSes. I don't have any illusions that my feedback will be heard by the designers of future games, but the intense popularity of COD4, I hope, will have an impact of its own – and I believe it's largely due to the features I've described here.

Dangit, I was supposed to work on Wikipedia today. Now I'm all video-gamed-up. Maybe I can force myself to do some work before putting in some time on my fifth Prestige.


Here's the trailer for Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. Seeing all these scenes from that great game makes me woefully nostalgic. How sad that they missed the mark so wildly with Bad Company. (I can recognize each shot – which map it's on, where it is, what I usually did in that situation – how sad is that?)

Today I'm listening to: The Cool Kids!