Modern Warfare 3: Leveling Like Fiends

So. Modern Warfare 3.

(So this is the WordPress site. And this is the new entry.)

I was really impressed when Steam made the offer for people to try the multiplayer bit of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for free this weekend. I hadn’t bought the game, nor was I really interested in doing so. I’d always sorta thought that I should play it, though, if only to know what the big deal is. I’ve had much the same reaction to Skyrim, and the fact that I really didn’t understand the Elder Scrolls enough was one of the big reasons why I decided to play through them, and why I’m doing the #CraigPlaysArena thing. I’ll probably be starting Skyrim as soon as I finish Arena, and play through Daggerfall at the same time as I’m playing Skyrim.

(Might actually do some comparisons there, come to think of it; Oblivion and Skyrim are an easy comparison, but Daggerfall and Skyrim? Now that’s interesting.)

Besides, jokes about modern multiplayer military manshoots aside, I don’t actually have anything against military FPSes. I enjoyed the first Modern Warfare’s single-player campaign enough, and the Battlefield 3 demo was pretty compelling. So why not try Modern Warfare 3 out? It was free, and it seems like people find it pretty compelling. And they’re right. It is compelling, but not for the reasons you might think. (More on this later.)

You’ve almost certainly already read all the reviews, and picked up on the basic setup. They’re basically accurate. You’ve got a bunch of people running around, generally in teams, shooting guns at each other, getting points when they shoot someone and respawning when they get shot. Unlike older shooters or more abstracted games like Team Fortress 2, guns tend to be extremely lethal in MW3. You just can’t soak that much damage. If anybody gets the drop on you for more than a second or so, you’re probably done.

That’s the first thing I noticed about MW3: getting shot just isn’t a big deal. Unlike games like TF2 or Counterstrike, you respawn almost immediately. You have a bit of time to watch a replay of the other guy taking you down, but you don’t need to do it. You can just push the “f” key and get immediately back into the action. You respawn so quickly that there really doesn’t feel like there’s much of a penalty for dying at all. At first you’re cautious, but you soon shrug it off.

Granted, the old Modern Warfare games had “killstreaks” as incentives to try to protect your sorry hide. The more opponents you dropped without dying, the more neat toys you could play with: missile strikes, gunship attacks, and even tactical nuclear strikes that kill everybody in the level at once. And, yes, that does still exist in MW3. But, as the other reviews have pointed out, you don’t need to worry about that if you don’t want to; you can just pick a different “package” of streaks that don’t reset on death, and you can run merrily into the streams of bullets without a care in the world.

Running back into the fight isn’t a disincentive for playing bullet sponge either. The multiplayer maps in MW3 aretiny. Insanely tiny. It’s hard to convey just how small they really are. The typical TF2 map is gigantic in comparison, and as for Battlefield 3 maps…well, there just isn’t a comparison to be made. BF3 deliberately builds its gameplay around managing players’ time spent travelling to the fight. MW3 doesn’t do any of that. Getting back to the fight and mixing it up again takes, literally, maybe 15 seconds or so.

The only thing that might slow you down is that there are tons of little nooks and crannies and turns in the map that have to be navigated, but even those seem custom-designed to make players constantly encounter each other, often by accident. Since the guns are so lethal, I quickly learned that taking these twisty little corridors without constantly checking corners will likely get me ventilated. I still had to do it at speed, though; unlike the more deliberate pace of a Counterstrike or Battlefield, slowing down in MW3 seemed to be foolhardy at best. The spawn points for players seemed to be constantly moving, too, making it far more likely that a “lane” of conflict was going to change over time, and increasing the number of these near-immediate surprise encounters.

Put all that together, and you have near-constant engagement, without the peaks and valleys of tension and engagement that you normally get with this sort of game. It’s fine, it’s definitely a design choice, but it does mean that long-range weapons just don’t seem to have much of a point. The best weapon setup doesn’t seem to be an assault rifle at all, but a pair of machine pistols. Sure, they’re inaccurate at range, but proper play of MW3 seems to avoid engaging at range. There aren’t even a lot of “ranges” to do it in.

The various game modes do mix it up a bit. There are a lot of them, to MW3’s credit. Most really do boil down to some variation on “hunt opponents and destroy them” or “take and hold territory”, though. I didn’t play all of them, granted, but the ones I played all revolved around that theme, and the focus is clearly on a mix of team deathmatches, “domination” matches (territory-holding) and the new mode “kill confirmed”. Everything else feels like a bit of an afterthought.

It’s this latter mode, Kill Confirmed, that really stands out. The premise is fairly simple: if you shoot someone, they drop a pair of easily-visible dogtags. You don’t score the kill until you “confirm” it by getting the tags. If someone on the other team gets their ally’s tags, they “deny” you your team’s kill and the points that come from it. Whoever is first to collecting about 75 or so of these tags wins. Sounds simple enough.

Thing is, that slight change really does improve the game. You can’t just sit there and shoot people. It doesn’thelp. You have to go in there and take a risk to get the tags, and you can be damned sure that any teammates of the guy you just shot are going to be going for those tags too. You can and do end up with clusters of these tags from BOTH sides, as players rush up and get cut down trying to pick them up.

KC encourages a sort of “cover-and-retrieve” style where players try to cover each other and suppress the other side so that they can get in there and grab the tags. It practically mandates teamwork and staying together, because a “lone wolf” can and will get cut down before he can grab the tags. It discourages fixed standoffs and favors group mobility.

It’s the best mode in MW3 by such a huge margin that I found myself not wanting to bother with the other ones. Even Domination, a mode that’s quite similar to the sort of attack-and-hold gameplay that I like in competitive multiplayer and TRULY enjoyed in the latter days of the Battlefield demo, just didn’t really feel as alive as Kill Confirmed. If other designers have any sense, they’ll be adopting something like it for their own games. It was compelling enough to want to keep coming back to, even if other modes might give out more experience.

Ah. Yes. Experience. Now we get to the tricky part. What most reviews of MW3 don’t mention is that the game features a LOT of RPG-style leveling. You raise your own “rank” (read: level) which gets you access to more weapons and more game modes. It gets to the point where you hit max level (rank 80), gain a “prestige” point, spend it, and then do it all over again. I’m not making this up. Modern Warfare encourages you to level up over, and over, and over again. I saw people with ten Prestiges. Warcraft players don’t level that much.

You level up all of your weapons, too, which adds various skills and attachments that make the weapons more valuable. DRASTICALLY more valuable, in fact: a lot of weapons start off practically unusable, and become incredibly powerful over time as you improve them. Assault Rifles that start off being usable at best become death lasers with infrared sights. Machine pistols that start out as suboptimal to the point of being frustrating become so enormously lethal that you get the sensation that you broke the game when you level them up and start dual-wielding them. It’s almost disappointing, to be honest. I didn’t feel like I was really getting better at the game; I felt like the game was just MAKING me better.

The “perks” are the worst of this. Yes, they’d been around before, but I’d never really experienced this aspect of Modern Warfare. Get perks, and you can run longer, shoot straighter, shrug off grenades, be invisible on maps, call in more airstrikes, and pretty much everything else you can think of. Most are “utility” abilities and not direct damage boosts, but the game is lethal enough that you don’t need damage boosts. These “utility” abilities are what keep you from getting shot, or get you to shoot more of the other guy. They boost your kills, and boost your scoring, and damned if I didn’t feel like I was cheating when I went up against people who didn’t have as high a rank as I did.

(I hit level 40, by the by.)

You get XP by winning matches, by losing matches and making it close, by completing objectives…but, mostly, you get XP from achievements. All that gamerscore stuff that most people ignore? Well, in Modern Warfare, that all feeds into your rank, and therefore your effectiveness. I found myself quite literally grinding achievements because I wanted to have a high enough level to get a more effective gun. Then I grinded out kills on the gun so that I could get decent attachments for it. (Then I went back to using Akimbo machine pistols because it was more effective anyway.) The careful, careful weapon balance in a game like Team Fortress 2, the kind that ensures that the “vanilla” weapons are just as effective as anything else, the kind that just makes the other weapons fun instead of required….yeah, that ain’t what Modern Warfare 3 is about at all. Later weapons are strictly superior. Later perks are strictly superior. Older players are strictly superior. They’re basically forced to be.

I wanted to know what made Modern Warfare 3 so compelling. I found my answer. It’s the compulsion of rpg-style leveling. It’s getting just a little more XP on that bar. It’s that rush where you get a “ding” for getting a new level and feel like you’ve accomplished something. (In MW3, it’s more of a rock riff, but close enough.) It’s the desire to get just one more level so that you can open up that new gameplay mode, or area, or weapon, or ability. And once you’ve opened them all up, it’s about returning back to the bottom and doing it all over again.

I’m not sure if that counts as an extrinsic or intrinsic motivator, since these things DO feed back into gameplay. I’m also not sure if it really counts as an RPG, since it doesn’t feel like there’s any real element of differentiating between player and character skill; it’s just that players are temporarily crippled until they put in their time. I might return to that idea later.

I had been really compelled by MW3 this weekend. It mystified me. I played a ton of it, and while I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it. Once I realized what WAS compelling me, though, it stopped just as mysteriously as it started. Sure, I’ll miss some really fun bits, like playing Kill Confirmed on some of the better-designed maps, and at least now I know what the fuss is about. But the compulsion is gone, and I already have enough RPGs to play.

If I want to grind, I’ll grind something with a story.

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One thought on “Modern Warfare 3: Leveling Like Fiends

  1. TinyLittleTimmy says:

    I’ve been playing the series for a couple months.
    The 3 main flaws in Call of Duty series remain in this version as well.

    1. People re-spawn behind you and kill you instantly. Like magic, POOF! You’re dead! It shouldn’t be so hard to randomly spawn them far away especially if you just killed them 12 feet away! Also, they should make you wait 7 seconds to re-spawn!

    2. Leveled up players always get to kill you because all new player’s guns/perks suck making skill completely unimportant! Squeakers reach 80 and sit there, never using a reset token just so they can kill you easily, yet have no skill, often don’t even move?… A PRESTIGE SHOULD BE FORCED AFTER 250,000 XP GAINED! (or faster by use of a token) but allow unlimited prestige’s only for bragging rights say up to level 9999 prestige, after which it still keeps resetting!!! This would actually make us want to get better, and cherish our time at 80th helping others with objectives, avoiding kills/levels rather than hogging all the kills at level 80!!!!!!!!!!!!

    3. LAG! I never fail to be amused at how every 2 out of 3 rounds I have to empty the full clip of 40 bullets into player, hear them all connect, yet they live, only to see in the kill cam that not 1 bullet connected, nor did I even shoot at all according to their view. The same goes for running around a corner, turning, laying down, then dying a full 2 seconds later, only to see that on their kill cam apparently I was still standing completely still in the wide open looking the other direction??! (I have 30Meg Down / 3Meg up, cat6e 1GB extreme router, 8.8.8.8 wide open, so no reason at all for this!) Other people CHOP CHOP right out of the entire game, yet I never get to keep host, craziness! (I won’t even elaborate on all the easy hacks either, nor how easy it would be to give them all a permanent ban…)

    All of these things could be easily fixed with a few lines of code, instead they wrote a whole new game and didn’t fix a thing. The biggest difference I could see in this version is, YOU RUN REALLY SLOW! The only time I can move fast enough to my liking (after playing BLOPS) is if I have Juiced! (however the player controls appear slightly better at this slower pace)

    That about sums up every COD game, I know because I have max prestiged in each MW. It is fun sometimes, I just wish your skills actually made a difference in the game, unfortunately your prestige+K/D tell nothing about your skills at all, in the end it is ‘just a game’ nothing more.

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