You can tell it’s November when the big games come out just at the right time stores can knock a few dollars off the price as a Black Friday “discount”; indeed, over the past six weeks, we’ve seen new games for Battlefield, Sonic the Hedgehog, Uncharted, The Elder Scrolls, Arkham (as in Asylum), Saints Row and, of course, our yearly instalments of Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty. The finale of the Modern Warfare franchise got rave reviews from the professional critics but got a raft of zeros from the public. It’s not escaped notice, and among other people, the ever incorrigible Jim Sterling posted a bit about it here, and you know what? He’s right.
If you look at the negative Metacritic reviews, there’s a distinct trend in them. The most obvious? Battlefield 3. In the run-up to what the indie-game-developer-cum-internet-celebrity Yahtzee Croshaw described as “Shooter Season 2011”, and perhaps before that, EA stoked a rivalry between the two franchises that probably existed anyway, especially seeing as they’re both born from critically acclaimed first-person shooters set during World War II. And here it’s where two hundred and fifty users, over the space of two weeks, not-at-all-suspiciously posted glowing reviews of one game and scathing reviews of the other (with Battlefield getting most of the love). Some users even posted two reviews, either confirming that they’re trolls or that they’re stupid for throwing £85 away on two copies of a game they don’t like.
If we were to entertain the criticism as wholly legitimate, it instantly fails under its own spurious arguments. The main argument is that each game gets released too quickly; indeed, we’ve had eight Call of Duty games in eight years. But also, four Assassin’s Creed games in four years and nine (major) Battlefield games in ten years. There’s two schools of though here: the sudden jump approach, where longer games with big changes come out every four or five years with expansions to fill the gaps (e.g. Grand Theft Auto) or the incrementalist approach, where shorter games with small changes come out more often (e.g. Assassin’s Creed). And the granddaddy of the incrementalist school is surely EA, who have released FIFA and Madden games annually, without fail, since 1993.
Indeed, EA and Activision are more alike than fans of either franchise would like to admit. There is the classic capitalist excuse for the incrementalist school: profit. Even with Modern Warfare, the casual player could get at least ten hours of enjoyment. Not as long as some people would like, especially when that week also saw the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which, like all Elder Scrolls games before it, has hundreds of hours of playtime in it. And it’s from this aim for profit comes the reputation of both companies as, well, arseholes. Activision had the Infinity Ward scandal, EA had the overworking scandal. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, the two companies seem to take turns being the Evil Empire of gaming. Remember when EA packaged restrictive DRM that ran the risk of bricking DVD drives?
The criticism continues that it’s effectively an expansion pack, a map-pack, or a reskin of Modern Warfare 3. This, of course, does have a bit of traction, because, as a contemporary war game with a semblance of realism, the series is limited in how it can change the key mechanic of an FPS: the weaponry. There’s no gravity gun or plasmids, just rifles, shotguns, pistols, and grenades, and the occasional rocket launcher. But even so, the multiplayer game has changed in a few ways: there are different match types, different perks, a change to the “killstreak” system, et cetera. Adding in a new (somewhat short) single-player campaign, and a few changes to local multiplayer, it’s not really just a “map pack”. Changing the multiplayer game is, though, is a risky business. If you update the multiplayer with no obvious changes, and expect people to pay for it, the fanbase will not be pleased. Ask Valve, who released Left 4 Dead 2 only a year after its predecessor. And actually changing the mechanics of weaponry or map design is risky too. There’s a huge demand in “balance”, so you can’t lay waste to a map with an assault rifle, or tilt a map heavily in the favour of one team.
The main problem with user reviews, though, is the culture of handing out ridiculously high or low scores to games that are nowhere deserving of them. It’s a weird sibling of the professional circuit, where a poor game will still get a 6. But user reviewers aren’t beholden to publishers, so can give a poor game a 3 or a 4. A zero, really, should be reserved for buggy games that don’t work at all, or games are so bad in quality that anyone who plays it for thirty minutes would return it. And really, Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t deserve a 0. Maybe a 4 if you’re feeling harsh, but by most peoples’ imaginations, it’s not bad; it’s mediocre at worst. And conversely, not every game deserves a 9 or a 10. Take the original Uncharted, for example. It’s a good game, but it has noticeable flaws, and I’d probably give it a 8/10 at best. 9s and 10s should be reserved for games that push the envelope, whether it be by storytelling, such as Metal Gear Solid 3 and 4, action, such as Half-Life 2, a mixture of both elements, such as Grand Theft Auto IV, or even innovative gameplay, such as Portal 1 and 2.
And personally? I didn’t mind Modern Warfare 3. I got what I paid for, really: a cheesy, film-style war game with a fun but short single-player campaign with a large competitive multiplayer mode. I don’t think anyone would buy the game without knowing that’s what it is, as it’s a franchise that’s entered the public consciousness as such. You don’t buy a Sonic game and act surprised when you get a platformer. As Roger Ebert famously said, “it’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it”. It’s what makes 2012 such a good film to watch: a disaster movie is not supposed to be deep or make the audience think; it’s there for the eye candy and for the silly plot. And much like 2012, Modern Warfare 3 isn’t looking to become anything more than the gaming equivalent of the summer blockbuster, and it arguably does that, and does it well.