Why Modern Warfare 3 Doesn’t Live Up to the Call of Duty Name

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I’m going to preface all this by saying that it is really hard to quantify what makes things like map design and gun balance good or bad.  They are very subjective things that can only really be understood by experiencing them.  So if you take issue with something I say here, try playing MW3 for an hour or two then playing a different CoD title and forming a basis for comparison.  It is my opinion that MW3 is the second-worst CoD title and that aside from MW2, when compared to any other CoD title, it doesn’t shape up very well.

Before we get into this discussion I want to make a few things crystal clear.  I am not a fanboy of any game, console, developer, community or other entity.  I am a gamer with A LOT (as in from the NES days) of experience with gaming and I’ve played on EVERY console released by Sony and Nintendo (including handheld devices).  I’ve been playing FPS games since DOOM (I did miss out on Counter Strike until recently though).  So when I say I’m speaking from a place of experience and understanding, you can have faith that I’m not spewing baloney.  Do I know how to make a videogame?  Of course not.  But does that mean I can’t objectively talk about what makes games good or bad?  Of course not.  Do you really think the writers at IGN or Kotaku know how to make a videogame?  If so, lolz bro, lolz (I’m sure some of them might, but the idea is that they aren’t out making games, they’re playing and reviewing them).  So what’s about to follow is an analytical breakdown of the qualities that make MW3 a sub-par videogame, and in my opinion, the second-worst CoD ever released behind MW2 (though MW2 is still a better game in many regards), a breakdown that comes from years of gaming experience and history.

I’d also like to add that MW3 isn’t a wholly bad game.  It’s not an absolute distaster or the signaling of the destruction of a franchise that I have greatly enjoyed.  Like any decent game, CoD or otherwise, MW3 has good attributes that make it fun and interesting, but sometimes the bad just simply taints the good and you can’t shake the feeling that something just ain’t right.  I will credit Infinity Ward (greatly) with being able to design, release, and support a game of MW3’s stature in as good a condition as MW3 was in on release day.  It takes A LOT of time, money, and effort on the part of hundreds of hard working people to make a CoD title and they deserve all the credit for MW3’s successes.  Despite legal battles, intense deadlines, a community that favors ranting and raving over intelligent discourse (not always, but you know what I mean), and the pressure of knowing what happens if the game is a flop, Infinity Ward delivered a lot of bang for the buck in MW3.  Do I feel it was worth the $60 I paid for it?  In hindsight, a little, yes.  For $60 I got a refreshed version of one of the best FPS games ever made.  Whether you like CoD or not, I think it’s safe to admit that the franchise has done a lot of good for the FPS genre and that we wouldn’t have nearly as much diversity and exposure as we do today in gaming if it weren’t CoD.  Infinity Ward and CoD have proven the value of a well-made game (a multi-billon-dollar-franchise for starters).  Sure they might stumble and make a few mistakes here or there, but who hasn’t?  So why write this article in the first place?  Well, as I mentioned before, people would rather yell than talk about CoD most of the time and I think the development team over at Infinity Ward and the execs over at Activision will appreciate someone taking the time to sit down and write over 5,000 words about their product.  Hopefully, someone with some push or pull will read this and say to themselves, “you know, this guy isn’t out to make me look like a dick, he cares, he has valid points, and he’s the kind of person I want to make games for.”  However, I hope even more that that someone will read what you all have to say in the comments of this article.  I’m just one guy who plays a lot of FPS games, you are thousands of gamers from all over the world.  You’re the people that should be voicing your concerns and being heard by Infinity Ward and Activision.  You’re the people that should be helping shape the way these games are produced and distributed.  If I can help you all get heard, it’s enough for me to feel like I did something worthwhile.  I love gaming, and I think you do too.  I also think you have something to say that’s worth listening to if you say it in an indoor voice and without being mean or hostile.

So take a deep breath, and here, we, go.

Rewarding Bad Players

This is MW3’s biggest shortcoming.  The other issues are very much a big deal, but as a competitive player that wants to play against people that take and play this game seriously, MW3 really disappointed me.

If the feedback from COD4 and MW2 wasn’t enough to convince Infinity Ward that deathstreaks need to not exist, I don’t know what is.  When they announced that deathstreaks would be part of MW3, I threw my hands up and yelled “WTF!” right at my computer for about 20 minutes.  Robert Bowling tipped the glass when he said “no second chance and of course, we got “final stand.”  Seriously yo?  Like, for real?  You remove something after it gets shafted by the community for 2 whole titles and fail to connect the dots to something that’s basically identical (and also worse)? Then, you put basically the Javalin glitch (dead mans hands) in as a playable game mechanic?  Are you serious?!?

Rant aside, what makes Deathsteaks the waste of disk space and offense to the community that they are?  Well, in brief, it’s cheating good players out of what they earned to reward or “help” bad players get better.  The problem is, they don’t help bad players get better.  When you reward a string of deaths with a free kill, you’re telling the player that gets that free kill “don’t worry about getting kills, we’ll always give you one for free.”  People are always going to use what helps them get kills the easiest (hence noob tubing in MW2), so of course everyone is going to use Dead Man’s Hands.  Add to that the lethal range (pre patch) of DMHs being basically the equivalent of a Predator Missile  and you get some seriously frustrated players (which is something else I’ll be discussing here).  To back me up on that, check out Drift0r’s breakdown of the explosives in MW3 here.

The bottom line is that deathstreaks are killstreaks that reward players for dying.  Dying is supposed to be a penalty for failure.  When you remove the penalty of  death, it stops mattering and people stop playing seriously or at the very least lose the incentive to do well.

Now add to that the Support Strike Package and you can see how detrimental an idea rewarding or not penalizing players for dying in an FPS game can be.  We have all been killed by someone’s Stealth Bomber only to check their score and find out they’re going 18-30.  That player is beyond reasonable doubt doing poorly.  They are losing gunfights more often then they are winning them.  While an argument could be made that a lot of those deaths are from killstreaks or tactics (camping, spawn trapping, etc) that they can’t defend themselves from, when you boil it down, what you’re left with is a player that is losing.  So the fact that despite them getting bested, they can call in basically a guaranteed multi-kill, should indicate that something is fundamentally flawed with the Support streaks.  Killstreaks are rewards for people that win gunfights and do well in a game.  Killstreaks are rewarding because they get you more kills.  Giving more kills to players that haven’t earned them is, again, detrimental to the overall competitive nature of FPS online gaming.  And this isn’t even getting into UAV and EMP spamming, which is equally bad but for slightly different reasons.

Now I get that CoD, in an ideal world, would fun for everyone, but not everyone can have fun doing the same thing.  CoD isn’t for everyone.  FPS gaming isn’t for everyone.  So CoD shouldn’t be made to cater to all players good and bad.  A balanced CoD or FPS game rewards players that do well, penalizes those that don’t, and helps those that want to get better with skill-based learning experiences and matchmaking (Halo matchmaking, BO1 Combat Training, unranked lobbies for those that want to play more casually, etc.).  Any deviation from that mentality and you frustrate good players, make bad players feel like they’re doing good, and in general cause a lot of aggravation and stress for anyone that tries to take these games seriously.

What this leads to is corner camping, people running around with akimbo FMG9s, players that never leave their spawn area, and a general lack of, well, “give a shit” for the outcome of each game they play, among a lot of other BS.  As time goes on, people are going to be less likely to buy CoD games because they know that even if they do exceptionally well, they’re still going to lose games because of constant enemy UAVs, bad players getting lethal killstreaks, and having to constantly deal with teammates that just don’t give a damn.

Balance: Guns, Perks, Spawn System, and Map Design

To their credit, IW has done an admirable job of balancing out the weapons in MW3 post-release. The problem is they’re all OP.  Kills happen way too fast in MW3.  In fact, MW3 is probably the only CoD I’ve played where I  accidentally kill players without noticing until the killfeed updates.  So what’s the issue?  Aren’t kills being quick and clean a good thing?  Not always.  Being able to evade an enemy is part of what made BO1 interesting.  If you didn’t like the situation you were in and you missed the first shot, you could start running away knowing you had enough health to at least make a dash for safety without knowing you would always get away.  MW3 upped the weapon damage to Stopping Power-level (and removed the much bemoaned perk, a step in the right direction for real balance) and threw in guns with fast fire rates (700-1000RPM) with basically no recoil (ACR, MP7, G36C, etc).  The end result is you die, fast.  So fast in fact, you typically don’t have any time to react once an enemy starts shooting at you before you’re watching a killcam and wondering WTF just happened for the millionth time.  The point is, the only guns that should kill instantly are shotguns and sniper rifle and those guns should have a slightly higher level of difficulty that comes with them.

As much as I enjoy quick/no-scoping players left and right, I hate being killed in the middle of streak by a player that doesn’t even aim their weapon purposely.  Quickscoping and doing well don’t inherently go hand in hand, and in some cases it’s a valuable option, but it leads to a lot more frustration on the receiving end than it needs to.   In my opinion, sniper rifles should do 90% damage unless they are fully scoped (~0.25 seconds after the scope becomes visible on-screen), which makes only headshots/upper body shots OHKs when quick/no-scoping (factoring in the typical 1.5x headshot and 1.2-4 bodyshot multipliers).  This way, quickscopers can still get by if they’re accurate  but their victims know at the very least that it took some kill and a lot less luck to land that shot.   But Infinity Ward made the mistake of making basically every gun a laser accurate, 0.10 seconds-TTK death canon.  I get the notion that fast killing guns mean fast gameplay, but considering we’re talking about a game played online, there’s a limit to how fast guns can kill and latency compensation can keep up with them.

The express playlist in BO1, for instance, plays very quickly and every kill in BO1 takes slightly longer to achieve than in MW3.  Could the kills in BO1 be a bit faster?  Maybe.  But would you rather deal with the need to fire an extra shot than have to deal with really agressive latency compensation and dying almost instantly all the time?  Simply put, the guns in MW3 are too lethal.  They make kills too easy.  Everything from the SMGs to the Sniper Rifles feel less rewarding to get kills with because we know that as long as we get the first shot, we’ve already won the gunfight.  That mystery of not always knowing you’re going to win a head-on gunfight is what makes every kill in BO1 feel so justly earned.  You had to work for kills in BO1 and because of that, they felt more worthwhile and a lot less cheap.  I’m not saying BO1’s weapon balance was perfect (we know it wasn’t).  What I’m saying is that winning gunfights in BO1 felt more challenging and that MW3 cheapens the thrill a little, which hurts my enjoyment of the overall experience.  A kill in MW3 just feels like “yeah, I knew that was going to go that way,” and deaths feel like “even though I was on target, I fired second, therefore I lose.”

That said, the guns in MW3 aren’t the only major imbalance.  The perk system in MW3 is designed so that each playstyle, whether it be rushing, camping, stealth, etc., has its own perk in each tier.  That’s an idea I somewhat agree with, but the stealth perks in MW3 are severely overpowered.  In fact, I made an entire video about it once.  To sum up my points from the video, essentially, the Blind Eye > Assassin > Dead Silence combination of perks makes you entirely invisible to anything and everything the enemy team has at their disposal.  In and of themselves, the perks aren’t too bad, but the fact that you can run all three at once is totally imbalanced.  When something in a game lacks a counter it is inherently imbalanced.  There is no wholly effective way to combat stealth players in MW3 short of using Recon, which is still only as effective as your ability to find campers without being killed by them first.  What has come as a result of this imbalance is an epidemic of camping players, which slows games down, makes players think being stationary is better than moving, and encourages players to avoid playing the objective to maintain their invisibility advantage.  The Support Strike Package basically guarentees a constant enemy UAV will be online, so if you want to stay alive, you have to run the stealth perks.  Otherwise, you are going to get constantly swarmed by enemies looking for an easy kill.  In fact, I will go as far as to say that if I want to do well, all I have to do is run the stealth perks and I will automatically be able to command how well I do, assuming I’m not constantly getting spawned on…

Death should always be a penalty.  It’s supposed to mean you got beat.  But when you get killed and respawn with a better map position or within close proximity to an enemy, you’re being rewarded for failure.  Demolition is probably the easiest example I can think of.   In every COD before MW3, the spawns in Demolition are essentially fixed so that you are always going to spawn as far away from the objective as possible (your starting spawn point) and the same goes for the other team.  This gives both sides a fair shot at playing the objective and rewards players that can effectively play the objective and stay alive near it via wins.  But in MW3, the spawn system will literally spawn players right around the bomb site.

I’ve seen it time after time.  My team will move in on a bomb site, kill off the enemy team, start planting, and then everyone we just killed will respawn in our spawn and kill us from behind.  Why that’s imbalanced is really simple.  My team earned that map position by killing the enemy team, we won our gunfights, they didn’t.  When the enemy team respawns, they get excellent map position because of their failure, which they shouldn’t because that would have already had it if they were the better team.

While I agree that MW3’s spawn system is simply trying to get you into the action as quickly as possible, the way it does that is very imbalanced.  If you get killed while trying to cap a flag in domination, you don’t deserve that map position anymore.  You lost it, now you have to earn it back by at least killing the player that killed you.  That’s fair, that’s balanced.  An eye for eye as they say.  But MW3 says “You lost that gunfight, but it’s cool.  You’ll just get spawned halfway between your original spawn point and where you died, even though your team doesn’t have possession of that area of the map.”

You see this all the time in Free For All as well.  How many times have you spawned and been instantly shot by someone in FFA because you spawned right in front of them?  How many times have you gotten a revenge kill because you spawned right around the corner from the player that killed you?  I’m going to guess it happens a lot, and probably more than you even realize.

But the logic behind the spawn system isn’t it’s only flaw.  The way the maps in MW3 are designed is to ensure that there as few linear lanes of traffic as possible. Maps like Arkaden, Dome, and Hardhat all suffer from being totally circular in their navigational design.  From any 1 point on those maps you have multiple ways of getting to almost any other point.  I agree that every map having 3 primary lanes of traffic makes the game feel overly linear (BO1 suffered from this), but replacing that design mentality with maps that have multiple intersecting lanes of traffic is messy and chaotic.  What made a non-linear/non-symetrical map like BO1’s Firing Range great was that despite it being small, it had power points (with equally powerful counter points), it had safe spawn zones, but most importantly, it was well organized.  Even though there are at least 5 ways to get to the B flag on Domination, you always had a pretty good idea which way the enemy team would be coming from if you were trying to cap it.

Let’s say you hold the C and B flags on Arkaden and you move in to cap the A flag from the enemy team for better map position (pro-tip: always secure the A flag on Arkaden).  Where is the enemy team’s spawn going to flip to?  Where are they going to be coming from?  On a map like Firing Range, you knew that if you started capping A, the enemy team was going to spawn as far aways as possible wherever your team isn’t (typically around the trailer, in the firing range, or on the C flag itself if you pushed hard enough).  But on Arkaden, you have to wonder if the game is going to spawn the enemy team at C, or in the construction room, or the bar, or near Burger Town, or near the B flag.  Additionally, because all those spawns are basically going to always be right around the corner from your teammates, it creates chaos and routinely un-safe spawns (spawn, take a step, get mowed down, repeat).  In BO1, that wasn’t the case 80% of the time.  In fact, you typically were either 3 seconds or beyond the range of a grenade toss away from their nearest enemy.  This gave you options and a notion of security.

While some might argue that more open/non-linear map design makes you rely more on your skills and map knowledge than linear maps do (and I agree), I think MW3 did a very poor job of it.  Good map design gives both teams and all players a fair chance.  A well made map plays in a way that’s predictable without being boring or unfair.  MW3 maps mostly play like chaotic FFA-focused maps.  Even maps like Village and Mission play poorly because the spawn system is always placing players as close as possible to the enemy team. This results in lots of deaths from behind or players being near objectives even though they shouldn’t be, instead of on the edges of the map away from the enemy team and the objective.

The bottom line is that a good map has definable routes running through it, power points with equally powerful counter points, and enough room and cover to provide everyone with a safe place to spawn.  MW3 maps are uneven clusterfucks that lack symmetry or balance.  You are constantly being spawned “in the action” instead of having to work your way back to it (typically a pretty safe and quick journey in most CoD games).  What happens as a result is large maps like Village see 70% of all gunfights happening on 1/3 of the total map (2/3 of unused map is a waste of a map… Berlin Wall anyone?).  Small maps suffer from consistently bad spawns and imbalanced objective opportunities for both teams (that don’t cancel each other out).  All this leads to frustration and ultimately boredom.  What’s the point of navigating a map intelligently or knowing the map well if I’m going to be at the mercy of a revenge-based spawn system and knowing that chances are I’m going to run into a newly flipped spawn point that the entire enemy team will be spilling out of, despite their being no logic to the point being used (Liberation’s B flag spawn in the bunker)?

Latency Compensation

The overall MW3 experience is frustrating and very hard to enjoy.  A good game doesn’t have “bad maps.”  A good game is a game that plays consistently and that’s something MW3 doesn’t do well.

A big part of that shortcoming is how MW3 deals with networking.  At this point, I think we can all agree that MW3 feels like it’s constantly lagging you behind other players.  This is because the latency compensation (lag comp) doesn’t work well.  Why it doesn’t work well is something I can’t explain because I simply don’t know.  It’s a complicated piece of software that does A LOT of good for the online experience.  The fact that it even works as well as it does is a miracle considering the disparity inherent to global internet connections.   But when you compare the online experience of MW3 to MW2 or BO1, you start to see a pattern of something not working right.  Watch your killcams.  They are recorded by the host and are a more accurate depiction of what actually happened according to the game.  Before you die it feels like you got at least 4 or 5 shots down range sometimes but in the killcam, you die without even firing a single shot.  In a nutshell, that’s lag compensation at work.

It’s true that this is a problem in every COD (and mostly every online game), but MW3 just feels worse.  Maybe we’re getting so experienced with how these games should play in an ideal world that every little problem seems even worse than it really is.  But I genuinely feel like MW3 is doing something wrong with it’s latency compensation.  I’ve also played on two separate internet connections through MW3’s lifecycle, one was slow (5-7 down, 0.5 up, 35ms ping) and my current one is fast (25 down, 5 up ~15-20ms ping), so it’s not like it’s JUST my internet connection.  I will say that it seems like I’m playing ahead of other players on the faster connection though.  On the slow connection it always felt like enemies were engaging me as soon as we saw each other.  Now it feels like there’s a very (and I mean very) slight delay before they realize I’m there.

Bottom line is despite it’s balance issues, MW2 was the smoothest playing CoD title that’s been released thus far and MW3 feels like its fat uncle that has to catch his breath every time he walks up a flight of stairs.  Granted, there’s a lot more going on in MW3.   There are more killstreaks and they are acquired in very new ways to the CoD experience (capturing flags, destroying enemy equipment, etc).  The Specialist Strike Package is obviously very fundamental to the coding of the game in that it changes your player’s attributes in-game without you changing your class (a relative “frist” in CoD history)  Overall in fact, a lot of good could be said for the additionally features built into MW3 by Infinity Ward.  It’s obvious that Infinty Ward pushed what the CoD engine could do closer to the edge than ever have.  But instead of the end result being a finely pollished product, MW3 is a messy and bloated game.  When you play it, you can literally feel the engine straining to keep up with everything that’s going on (hardware is a big factor, the current consoles are old as dirt in computer years).  So it’s no surprise that the network coding struggles to maintain a consistent experience.  MW3 is simply pushing too much time-sensitive data for today’s internet connection disparities to handle.

If everyone had perfect internet that was equally fast and equally good (packet loss, jitter, ping, etc.), latency compensation would be a fairly simple piece of software that works more as error correction than quality control.  Maybe more horsepower in the consoles will help with “lag” in the future, but I’ve heard some very ugly stuff about MW3 on the PC.  So my guess is that it’s the coding and optimization of the game itself, and not just the hardware or connectivity of that hardware that’s at fault.  Consider Infinity Ward has admitted to trying to improve the latency compensation software that CoD runs, I think it’s entirely safe to say that what they did didn’t work out as well as intended.  MW2 ran nearly perfect 75% of the time for me.  I would have been happy with MW3 if they didn’t add all the nifty bells and whistles and just made a more balanced version of MW2 with new maps and weapons, but that’s not what MW3 is (despite what a lot of people might argue).  The problem is MW3 just doesn’t run that well in consistency terms.  Combine that with the above, and you can see why my experiences have led me to deem MW3 a sub-par entry in the CoD franchise and an overall frustrating game.

If you think my sample size is too small or my opinion is biased, just know that I have over 17 days played online on MW3 and that a lot has been said that agrees with me by a lot of intelligent people and Infinity Ward themselves (patches and tuning are inherently an admission of failure, compromise, or hindsight in some way).  So I’m not just saying this stuff because I don’t like getting killed in MW3.  I have a genuinely valid point that “lag” is an issue for a majority of players in MW3 and that it’s because they did something different that didn’t work.  I’m not saying they royally screwed up or that they didn’t help advance the technology behind the idea, simply that what they did was detrimental to the MW3 experience and that it’s a pity nothing can be done about it now as it really holds the game back overall.

Summary

MW3 is not the worst online FPS game ever made.  It’s not a steaming pile of shit.  Overall, it’s at best kinda just, meh.  By CoD standards it’s a bad game.  It doesn’t do well what past CoD titles have gotten right and in a lot of cases made some things that were wrong with previous CoD titles worse.  As a guy that’s been playing CoD since it was cool (CoD4/WAW) I am wholly disappointed by the experience MW3 offers.  Even when things are going my way, it feels like I’m rolling a rock uphill.  However, I still give a lot of praise and credit to Infinity Ward for overcoming a lot of adversity and challenges to produce a product that is technically superior to a lot of the games being released these days.  Sure MW3 still doesn’t look as good as BF3 or other, more modern shooters.  Sure it isn’t a masterpiece of balanced design like Counter Strike is.  And of course it’s never going to be a deep and emotionally involving epic shooter game like Alan Wake or Half Life.  But despite all that, MW3 has entertained millions of people for nearly an entire year.  Despite it’s shortcomings, it’s still a massive success in many ways.

We feel statisfaction when we succeed.  We learn how to succeed better when we fail.  MW3 has proven that Infinity Ward can adequately support a game as big as CoD post-release.  It has reinforced the importance of listening to your customers and applying their feedback to your design and support.  But most importantly, it has helped to clarify the highly subjective things that make a game good or bad.  Yes, we can all spot glitches and bugs.  We all know when something is obviously broken.  But MW3 has given us greater insight into how important things like recoil patterns and character abilities are to the balance of game.  Granted we knew a lot before MW3 was made, we still wouldn’t know as much now as if it hadn’t been released.  Hopefully, Infinity Ward will use MW3 as a learning experience to make a better game than they ever have before.  Is it unfortunate that we pay to be guinea pigs every year in a way?  My answer would be no, but I guess the answer depends on whether or not the research pays off next time.

That’s not to say that failure is excusable.  In fact, MW3’s failures have really tested my faith in Infinity Ward (again).  I won’t be preordering their next game and I remain highly sceptical of them despite the strides they’ve made in improving their customer service and support.  Consumers shouldn’t be guinea pigs, we should be getting a quality product that’s worth its asking price.  That said, none of the CoD games have ever been perfect from day 1.  Video games are a very subjective form of media.  As consumers, we have to assume some risk in buying a product on faith.  However, that’s a topic for another time.

As for Treyarch and BOII, hopefully they will be able to do better what MW3 got right without getting tripped up by what it got wrong.

Please leave your thoughts and feedback below.

Thank you for reading.

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