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Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Campaign Playthrough Notes

Friday, February 6th, 2009

I know this game is not a recent release, but it just happens to be what I have been playing a lot of lately. So I decided to dig up my hand written notes and type them up and in the process organize them a bit better. I structured the notes off of the levels this time around. Hopefully it will be easier to follow. As always there will be spoilers, so stop reading if you have not played through the game.

F.N.G. (Fucking New Guy)
F.N.G. is the tutorial level of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. You play as Soap MacTavish, a member of the British S.A.S. The tutorial is very good at teaching you the necessary basics to play the game in a mostly non-contrived manner. The only exception is the tutorial on melee, which involved using your knife to slash a watermelon. The developers seriously couldn’t hang a target dummy on a post somewhere for the player to learn to melee attack?

One of the first elements of the tutorial happens when the player is looking down a gun range and an audio cue to “look up” plays. Whichever way the thumbstick is moved by the player determines whether you were an inverted player or not. That is if you looked up by pressing up on the controller the game automatically sets your controls to non-inverted and if you pressed down on the stick to look up the game sets it to inverted. I have always like this mechanic in shooters as it ensures players have the correct controls before the action gets started.

Once all the basics have been learned, the tutorial then has the player practice by stringing all the skills together in a competitive timed training course that simulates the layout of the next level. The player is encouraged to repeat the training course to beat their previous times. Repeated playthroughs really familiarizes the player with Call of Duty 4’s controls and shooting mechanics.

F.N.G. is a very fun and effective tutorial. The only thing that struck me was that the dark confined rooms of this introductory level really do not do the rest of Call of Duty 4’s beautiful graphics and environments justice. The first level of any game is the most important and the setting is not the most ideal choice to introduce an audience to your game. Thankfully, the gameplay in F.N.G. carries players through.

Crew Expendable
After completing the tutorial level the player and his team begin a mission to infiltrate a cargo ship on the high seas. The S.A.S. team arrives by way of helicopter and fast ropes onto the deck of the ship, mirroring the tutorial’s training course. The crew of the ship is caught unawares and the first few crewmen are taken care of quickly by your team whether you participate or not. Several of the highlights of this level are the AI that seemingly have lives instead of waiting around for the player to kill them. One of the ship’s crew is drunkenly wandering the ships hallway with a bottle in his hand and two others are sleeping in their bunks. You almost feel bad for killing them, but the level is called Crew Expendable for a reason. More games need to do this, having AI that are going about their lives before the player arrives creates the illusion of a living world.

The mission is punctuated early on with a nice scripted event of your friendly helicopter laying into the enemy crew, who have an elevated position over you, with gunfire.

I also really like the gating mechanism used where the friendly AI “stack up” at the door before they open the “gate” to allow you to proceed to the next area. The animations look very realistic and the stacking up really shows them off in a good light. The rest of the mission proceeds with combat, which leads up to a harrowing escape from the sinking ship. This was exciting as you watched the ship sway from side to side and water pouring in, but it was also frustrating as there are several wrong turns that can be taken resulting in a fail condition and a reload back to the last checkpoint.

Crew Expendable is a good mission, my largest problem with it is where it is placed in the game. It is the first real mission experienced by the player and I could not think of a worst level to start new players in than Crew Expendable. The constantly rocking and swaying ship is disorienting and the crosshairs on your gun are affected by this, making the shooting frustrating. This level would have been better placed somewhere in the middle of the game, where its unique setting could have served as a breather for the visual fatigue caused by the constant urban street fighting and similar color pallets that marked the middle portion of the game.

The Coup
The Coup begins with a pair of men dragging you into a car. You have control over the camera, but are unable to move. The .50 caliber round hanging from the car’s rearview mirror made me chuckle. You are then driven through the streets of a Middle Eastern city and along the way are presented with scripted gun battles, executions and even a man running from a dog. There are also caged chickens lining the streets. I wonder why these art assets were not used elsewhere in the campaign. I would have loved to have had a firefight with some caged chickens running and flapping around. You arrive at your final destination and are then promptly executed by Khaled Al-Asad. Only in the next cinema is it made clear that you were seeing the world through the eyes of the now dead president of that country.

With as many gun battles as are happening along the path of the car and general chaos, I would have thought a high profile target like a presidential hostage would have a larger escort than a driver and one armed passenger. The Coup serves as a player camera controlled cinema that introduces the player to one of the game’s antagonists, Al-Asad. While this is enjoyable, it is offbeat and I was surprised at how front-loaded Call of Duty 4 is with unique experiences. It is not until Blackout, the fourth mission, that the player really dives into what I consider classic Call of Duty gameplay.

What I mean when I call Blackout classic Call of Duty gameplay is that it is sustained combat over solid ground with some nice scripted moments and multiple objectives strung together. There are a good mix of objectives and mechanics introduced, including planting claymores, sniping, rappelling, shooting through walls and using the grenade launcher. All the teaching is done while playing and nothing is forced. The swamp where you are inserted is beautiful looking. A really awesome moment was when the Russian loyalists standup and remove their perfect camouflage from the tall grass right in front of you.

Blackout also makes good use of the Call of Duty staple of having AI waiting to show the player the way to go. While I loved Half-Life 2, I got frustratingly lost on multiple occasions. Valve could learn a thing or two from Infinity Ward on techniques to lead your player through the level.

Charlie Don’t Surf
You now switch perspective away from Soap to Sergeant Paul Jackson to take on Charlie Don’t Surf. You arrive into the level via a lengthy helicopter ride with the requisite insurgents firing upon you with RPGs.

What is interesting is that the AI have leans and blind firing animations. It did not sit right with me that I, as the player, was limited in this regard.

As soon as you fast rope down you see some marines cordon off the operation area with razor wire. This struck me as very realistic and smart to both prevent the target’s escape as well as a counter-attack by insurgents on the marines. This made the mission feel that much more realistic.

The Bog
This mission begins with your team going through enemy lines to meet up and defend a stranded Abrams tank. This level also introduced the Javelin missile weapon. During my playthrough of the level I could not find the Javelin. The VO kept calling out “get the Javelin”, but I had a hard time locating it. The CO kept screaming the same two non-descript VO lines about the Javelin and it got annoying after a while. The VO lines could have called out the location of the Javelin better “it is in the courtyard” or something to that effect.

The behavior of the Javelin was very interesting. As soon as a lock was achieved the javelin would fire upwards into the sky and unerringly strike its target. It is too bad that this weapon did not make it into the multiplayer in some form.

Air support helicopters blowing up the building and taking out the enemies was a good way to end the level on a high-note.

For Hunted, the player is put back in the shoes of Soap. Your chopper is shot down and you must evade detection by the enemy helicopter.

At one point you had to go under the bridge to avoid the helicopter flying by overhead. That to me was the most memorable event of the level.

Death from Above
In Death From Above, you take over the guns of an AC-130. Using the AC-130’s arsenal, you must fly escort for your friendlies on the ground. The gameplay of this level and the top-down camera really started to remind me of a god game or Real-Time-Strategy game. You wiped out the enemies while your friends gained territory and traveled through the map.

The disinterested voice of the spotter calling out targets was awesome. To have that type of power in your hands and snuffing out the enemy felt great.

Death From Above really helped with the pacing and was a much-needed breather from the last four ground missions.

War Pig
War Pig switches your perspective back to Jackson. The mission is to escort the Abrams tank back to the highway.

One of the best openings of a gated area in the game happens in this level when the Abrams runs over a car that previously blocked the player’s path.

In addition there was a really nice moment when friendly marines move a dumpster forward to advance on the enemy behind cover. I was really impressed by this and the only negative is that I would have liked to see this mechanic used more throughout the rest of the game. Unfortunately this was not the case.

Infinity Ward accurately recreated the scene of ground troops cheering when close air support comes to the rescue as can be seen on this video.

Another memorable scene was when the Abrams tank shoots through the wall to take out the Russian made tank.

Shock and Awe
Shock and Awe is a mix of rail shooting out of a chopper and some on-foot street battles through a Middle Eastern city. There is a large statue reminiscent of Saddam Hussein that just begs to be shot at during one of the rail shooting segments and if shot, it falls in a satisfying way. It is always nice to be rewarded for shooting stuff.

Another scripted event of a Cobra crashing happens when you are locked into the chopper’s turret that conveniently forces you to witness the scene. First-person-shooters have to rely on these types of techniques to ensure player’s cameras are pointed in the correct direction for an in-game scripted sequence.

The plot twist that occurs in this level is that Al-Asad sets off a nuke and blows up the city. I thought for sure Sergeant Jackson was going to live through it with only a few scratches to show for it, but I was in disbelief the moment he died. That makes for two player controlled characters dead and we’re only halfway through the game.

All Ghillied Up & One Shot One Kill
I am going to group these two flashback levels together because they are a continuation of each other. These two levels were by far my favorite missions of the game. Chernobyl is a really good setting and a great excuse to have a city without civilians around.

Having a friendly AI lead the player through the level was a brilliant way to avoid the general frustrations and problems of a stealth mission placed in a more run and gun game like Call of Duty 4. The friendly AI gives constant feedback and instruction and shows you the best path through the mission. Following the friendly AI and narrowly avoiding detection by the dozens of enemies on patrol was exhilarating. The vignette of crawling underneath the truck as the overwhelming number of enemies walked all around you was one of my favorite moments in all of gaming.

While I cannot remember this happening anywhere else in the rest of the game, there was a moment as you escape after having blown off Zakheav’s arm with a .50 cal, where just before you enter into a hallway enemy shadows cross in front of the light ahead alerting you of their presence. This is a simple forewarning mechanic that few games take advantage of.

The helicopter turning sideways and crashing towards you blades first and injuring your fellow sniper was visually impressive and exciting.

For the rest of the level your injured friendly AI is unable to walk and must be carried. While carrying your friend you are unable to fire, but you can drop him down in tactically advantageous positions where he will become what is essentially a turret. The sheer variety of gameplay and water cooler moments made these missions stand out from the rest of CoD 4’s excellent levels.

In Heat you are back in the perspective of Soap MacTavish. The mission starts with waves of enemies attacking your position and you and your team must organize a fighting withdraw. Having to fall back as a game objective is difficult to pull off, but the developers did it well. The more memorable moments in this level were the use of a downed helicopter’s turret to fend off waves of enemies and having to fight your way through the defenses of waves of insurgents as you raced against a four minute clock down the hill to your extraction point.

Sins of the Father
In this mission you ambush Zakheav’s son. The ambush fails and Zakheav’s son manages to flee the scene on foot. You and your team give chase.

The easiest (laziest) way to make a chase and how a lot of games default is to have a cut scene just as the player rounds the corner to show the person that is being chased leaving to the next area just out reach. Cut scenes break up the flow of the level and I hate having control wrested away from me. Thankfully Infinity Ward does not take the easy route. When I think about designing a chase in a first-person-shooter without the use of cutscenes the two solutions that immediately come to mind are (1) make the Zakheav’s son invulnerable or (2) fail the player if they kill the target. The developers opt for the later, making this a capture mission. While the level is well executed, the chase ends up masking what is just more urban combat.

In Ultimatum you and your squad must find and free SSgt Griggs and kill the power to the ICBM launch facility.

This level brings back the too long missing “enemy AIs with lives outside of waiting for the player to show up” with an enemy AI sitting in a chair with his back to you and his legs propped up on a table.

When you find Griggs, he is tied to a flimsy wooden chair with his gun placed not 2 feet away from him. I found that to be a little too convenient. Having a member of your squad toss him a pistol to get him rearmed would have been a lot more realistic.

The destructible cars in the level were really good looking when they were destroyed. The wheels would fall off and roll around and they would be cool to look at. The problem with them are that they are the equivalent of explosive barrels and should not be used as cover under any circumstance until they are in their destroyed state. This went against my natural tendencies.

Also frustrating in this level is watching your friendly AI take cover right behind red exploding barrels and the aforementioned cars and promptly dying. It really made the otherwise mostly smart AI look bad.

All In
All In is more standard shooting gameplay. Here you must breach the defenses of and get inside the ICBM launch facility.

Upon reaching the facility you must wait for your squad to create an entrance with electric handsaws. It seemed like a missed opportunity, while the guys are cutting the vent to not have to have to defend them from enemies. Instead it is just a matter of waiting until they cut through.

This marks the fourth mission in a row with standard combat and the pacing starts to really suffer as a result. Another AC-130 mission or moving the Crew Expendable mission into this spot would have been ideal to inject some variety into this portion of the game.

No Fighting in the War Room
In No Fighting in the War Room the player must navigate air ducts and tight corridors to reach the control room and abort the nukes.

The level felt very cramped and there were no opportunities to flank the enemy. The only option was to barrel head on ahead through waves of enemy soldiers.

I also got a progression-stopping bug on this level in the PC version where Captain Price would sit at the door waving for me to enter the room even through I was already in the room. I had to restart the level in order bypass the bug. The gameplay was very similar to the last four missions in that it was your garden variety Call of Duty 4 combat, only this time with tighter corridors and ICBM base interior art.

Game Over
Game Over is a rail shooter on the back of a jeep escaping from the ICBM facility. You are equipped with an M4, which is annoying because of how often you have to reload. A light machine gun would have been a much better choice of armament.

Partway through you are also given a RPG in which to shoot down the enemy helicopter with. I could never hit the damn chopper despite three playthroughs. Since there is an achievement for this I will keep trying until I get it. Infinity Ward did a great job developing the player’s antagonism toward Zakheav through the story and the depictions of his despicable actions. As a result finally killing Zakheav was incredibly satisfying.

Instead of having a video of the AC-130 in action, it would have been nice to let the player actually play the AC-130 while the credits rolled. Although I do not know if there is some crazy patent that prevents this, similar to Namco’s silly patent of playing mini-games during loading screens.

If you are interested in further reading about Gameplay Patents, I would suggest reading Ernest Adams’ The Designer’s Notebook: Damn All Gameplay Patents!

The rap song at the end is comical and it reminded me of the Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace. The documentary’s soundtrack was almost entirely composed of rap songs and poetry performed by the soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery.

Bonus Mission: Mile High Club
I missed this mission entirely on my first playthrough of the game on the Xbox 360 as I usually turn off games instead of watching the credits (a bad habit I know). It was not until I played through the campaign again on the PC and left it running that I found out that there was a bonus mission.

The Mile High Club consists of a mission where you must race to the clock to save a VIP aboard an in-flight passenger airline. The amount of time to complete the mission varies depending on the difficulty chosen.

There is a moment during this mission where the airplane is breached with a giant hole. It would have been awesome to see all the oxygen masks in the plane fall down when this breach occurs. The luggage and other dynamic objects being pulled through the cavity was cool though.

As I attempted to beat this final mission on Veteran, it made me realize that I really miss the multiplayer camera switch that happens after a death to show me how I died each time that I did. I have spent several hours already attempting to beat this level on Veteran and I am very close to achieving it. This achievement is popularly considered one of the toughest achievements to get on the Xbox 360. If you feel like tackling a challenge, as a guide writer called it, “created by Satan himself” I would recommend trying your hand at it. I’ll let you know when I finally do get it. It is only a matter of time now.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of my favorite games in recent years. It is certainly one of the games I have devoted the most time to. While some of my comments may sound nitpicky (they probably are), the game as a whole is a masterpiece. Despite the single-player campaign falling on the short side, it was an incredible experience. I have been steadily climbing levels in the Multiplayer. Despite being out well over a year now and having a direct sequel in Call of Duty: World at War, Call of Duty 4 still draws 100,000 people nightly over Xbox Live. That speaks to how good the Multiplayer portion of the game is. Expect a write up on the Multiplayer portion of Call of Duty 4 as well as a direct comparison between Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Treyarch’s Call of Duty: World at War shortly.

See my other related articles:
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time

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Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Some of you may have heard about Roger Ebert’s disparaging comments about video games. If not, I will sum it up for you here.

“The nature of the medium [video games] prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship [however elegant or sophisticated] to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. For most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” – Roger Ebert

Later, Ebert updated his opinions that games are art, just not high art.

“A year or so ago, I rashly wrote that video games could not be art. That inspired a firestorm among gamers, who wrote me countless messages explaining why I was wrong, and urging me to play their favorite games. Of course, I was asking for it. Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell’s soup. What I should have said is that games could not be high art…” – Roger Ebert

This may sound blasphemous, but in a way, I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment of our industry. Video games are currently not high art and they are an inferior medium to film and literature. I am not saying that video games can never be “high art,” it is that games have not yet reached that point. Video games have many challenges that other mediums do not have. Video games are a relatively young art form, are difficult to create, have to be “fun” and mass-market games have spiraling budgets, which cause a reluctance to experiment. If we are able to move past the video game industry’s self-imposed limitations, games have the potential to be the most powerful and important art form we have. In this article I will define what I believe “high art” is and discuss the challenges that the gaming industry faces to attain this important recognition.

Other gamers may challenge what I am saying by pointing to games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, or Okami as “high art.” I would disagree. Stylized graphics do not make a game high art. High art is a work of importance. Works of importance are pieces of art that have cultural significance that include social commentary. Games as a whole are missing these key ingredients. Where are our games that deal head-on with themes like religious fanaticism, racism or the holocaust? While there are hundreds of films and books dealing with these topics, video games in the pursuit of fun and sales, avoid these touchy subjects at all costs.

Shadow of the Colossus Picture.

Games = Fun
If you look at all the end of the year best of video games lists, what one word determines the placement of these games on those lists? Fun. If you peruse the talk schedule of the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), it seems every other talk is based on how to make games fun. Being a game designer, the main discussion point in every game mechanic meeting is how to get the section of gameplay to be fun. Maybe all of this focus on fun is a bad thing. That possibility is just what Warren Spector discusses in his article; “Fun” is a Four-Letter Word.

But, the word “fun” has other problems. It kind of locks us into a “games are for kids” mentality. It implies that games are good for just one thing: passing time in an enjoyable manner, for want of a better definition.

And perhaps most damning to me is that all this focus on passing time puts a ceiling, of sorts, above us that separates us from other media, media that are allowed to strive for something other than simple “fun-ness.”

Movies, books, musical compositions and so on are – or can be – fun to watch/read/listen to, but there’s nothing in the definition or judgment of those other media that requires fun. We’re the only medium that says to itself, “This is what you must be and all you will ever be.”
Warren Spector

The mandatory “fun” is what pigeonholes the video game medium into a escapist distraction and puts a self-imposed limitation on video games that prevents it from reaching the high art plateau. I recently watched the movie The Terrorist and asked myself the question, was that movie fun? The film was thought provoking, sad and even disturbing, but can hardly be described as fun. What separates films from games as a medium is film’s willingness to tackle difficult subject matter. In the case of The Terrorist, it chronicles the life of a pregnant female suicide bomber leading up to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. It is hard to imagine a video game based on the same subject matter. This drives home how mature an art form film is and how much further video games have to go to be considered high art. If we do not limit ourselves to games = fun, we could one day see video games encompass so much more. Perhaps video games could be relabeled as interactive media and we could then see games be on equal footing as films. We could have games that genuinely explore and tackle real cultural and societal issues.

Budgets and Sales: Willingness to Experiment
The reality we live with right now is that fun blockbuster video games receive all the press, accolades and most importantly, sales. Publishers make games to sell and games that tackle societal ills or are not “fun” are unproven. Game budgets are now commonly soaring into and beyond the 20 million dollar range and as games get more expensive, publishers are becoming less and less willing to take chances. It is difficult for game developers to tackle difficult subjects that may alienate or divide their intended audience of Western males age 12 to 35.

Here is an example of a game developer’s willingness to make decisions based off of sales. Seth Schiesel of the New York Times wrote an article questioning the Ubisoft Montreal’s decision to Anglicize the main character of the Prince of Persia.

“What are we to make of a “Prince of Persia” who talks and behaves like a 17-year-old American mall rat? A “Prince of Persia” with blue eyes, fully Anglicized facial features and what looks like a tan he picked up on spring break? Is it taking a video game too seriously to shrink in distaste from such characterizations?”

It was no mistake that the Prince of Persia is Anglicized. This was done to not alienate the developer’s intended Western audience. Yet the game gets a pass for blatantly disregarding reality, simply because it is a game. If we want games to be viewed as high art, we have to look more closely at our games and not take the approach that all that matters is sales.

It is this sales driven mentality and unwillingness to take chances that have placed a ceiling above this industry’s head and stymied the growth and acceptance of games by the mainstream. If we do not occasionally move away from the big-action-summer style of games, we will never reach that pervasive mainstream audience. Games may be expensive to produce, but so are movies and even large budget movies do not shy away from socially important issues.

The first step to having games be accepted as high art is to be willing to take on criticism and be held accountable for our decisions. We can no longer fall back on the excuse, “It is just a game.”

Complexity in Games
One of the major disadvantages of the video games medium is that games are very complex and difficult to produce. In order to create a mass-market game, it can take team sizes in excess of 100+ developers, each specializing in one of these four disciplines: programming, design, animators and artists well over two years. To a certain degree, independent filmmakers are on an even playing field with bigger budget film projects. The differences between a low budget independent film and a big budget film are much less discernable from the audience’s perspective than an independent video game and a big budget blockbuster video game. With film, anybody can pick up a camera and with post-production and editing software readily available, can make a highly polished mass-marketable film. This is not the case with the complexity required to bring a polished video game to market. It is much more difficult for smaller budget and more experimental games to gain acceptance by wide audiences because the production values between these types of games and games with much larger budgets are so wide and easily noticeable to even a casual observer.

Just as technology has made the independent filmmaker more on par with a studio production, I am hopeful that the day comes when technology closes the gap between independent games and big budget games. There are signs that this movement is already in progress with game development suites like Adobe Flash and Microsoft’s XNA studio. When independent gamemakers are able to remove the disparity between their products they will be more able to compete for the consumers’ dollars and it will empower our industry to push and experiment with new social themes and genres.

Video Games are a Young Industry
When film first took form, few would have called it a “high art” form. It took over a hundred years before it gained that distinction. Many parallels can be drawn from when film was in its infancy to video games of today. When film first appeared on the scene it was a spectacle, but frowned on as not comparable to live theater. The same can be said of games in comparison to films today. It heartens me that the video game industry has come so far and so fast on the technology front, but we cannot neglect our responsibility to our audience to move them to think. We cannot simply dismiss Roger Ebert’s criticism, but instead we need to take it as a challenge and use our medium to make our audience more “cultured, civilized and empathetic”. By doing so we elevate video games as a whole into the realm of high art. Games are a young form of media and in the years to come we will be given the opportunity to answer our critics and gain the respect of the mainstream, let us not waste it.

We are at a crossroads and must confront the self-imposed limitations we have placed on ourselves and start viewing video games as something more than mere escapist fare. It as a challenge to our industry as a whole to produce games that tackle difficult themes and strive for more than simple “fun.” Video games have boundless possibilities and are uniquely suited to surpass any other mediums that currently exist because there is a level of connectivity through open-ended and collaborative interactivity that no other media can hope to match. If we are willing to take head-on serious societal themes and not shirk our responsibilities, I believe we will see the day that the video game is looked upon as more than a way to mindlessly pass time, but as deeply important and socially relevant.

I would like to thank Amadeo Plaza for our discussions on this topic.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Gears of War 2 Box Cover

I finally made time to play through the campaign of developer Epic’s Gears of War 2 and wanted to share my thoughts on the game. I will begin by saying that this post is not so much a review of the game as a slightly more organized version of my notes taken while I was playing the game. With that being said, there will be spoilers. Continue reading at your own risk.

Gears of War 2 continues the nearly non-existent story of Gears of War. The Locust horde has been sinking entire cities and steadily pushing humanity back. The game begins with humanity clinging to their last stronghold of Jacinto and the Gears setting out on a counter-offensive to prevent their last bastion from being undermined.

In the following sections I will outline the aspects, levels and events in the game that left a more lasting impression on me.

A nice lengthy starting video helps to catch the player up on the setting and events. This video is something I felt was missing from the original Gears of War and does a great job in establishing the setting.

After the video, the player gains control of the protagonist Marcus Fenix and can choose to go through training or skip it entirely. Training is handled in a very novel way. Fenix takes on the training of a rookie recruit. The player, as Fenix, orders the rookie to perform each of the game’s mechanics, before the player performs the actions himself. The advantage of this is twofold. The first is that it maintains that Marcus Fenix, being a badass veteran, does not need training.

The second is that as Fenix orders the rookie around, the rookie AI shows the player the action before the player has to perform it himself. For example, Fenix will bark out, “show me how to take cover rook!” The AI takes cover and the player is shown how it is done, before he performs the maneuver himself. If you want to see another great tutorial that uses the AI to show the player the mechanics and controls of the game, look at Lost Planet.

The first real level of the game takes place in a hospital and starts out fairly slowly on the action quotient. The interior corridor setting does do the job of familiarizing the player to the basic cover mechanics without a lot of distractions. The developers placed dynamic flat panel monitors on top of the desks used for cover. The well-placed monitors were often shot off during the firefights and gave the action sequences more movement. The other thing that I noticed was when certain events occurred that would bring you closer to an accumulation achievement, such as performing 30 Active Reloads, the game would display a progress indicator to show you how far you are along to gaining the achievement. While I generally do not go out of my way for achievements, I found that these indicators would dictate the way I played the game. I would purposely keep specific weapons in order to get the achievements. I have a feeling this will not be the last time we see this mechanic used in other games. Epic also replaced their collectible dog tag system from the original Gears of War with a journal collection that serves the same function as dog tags, but they also give the player additional back-story in text format.

The one great bane of developers in first and third person shooters is that when we place down scripted events, we can never guarantee the player will witness the moment because we have no control over where the player’s camera is facing. Gears of War got around this problem by inventing the third-person-look-at (Y button) mechanic. This ensured that players knew where to go and are able to witness the scripted events that the developers spent so much time implementing.

One of the moments that are keyed off of Epic’s camera look-at-system is later in the mission when the action moves to the exterior. Locusts have taken over the high ground and are bunkered in on a turret. The turret is just out of the range of the weapons you have been introduced to at that point in the game. Just when the hail of fire from the enemy turret becomes frustrating a friendly helicopter flies in and takes out the enemy turret. The Y Button pops up on the screen during the event and when pressed by the player moves your camera to frame the event ensuring that none of the action is missed.

Another annoying thing about having friendly units with the player in other shooters is that when they run in front of your gunfire, they always scream at you like it is your fault for hitting them. This is different in Gears of War 2 in that when Marcus Fenix shoots his friends he is the one that screams, “Would you get the fuck out of the way please.” This really makes the player feel more like the hero.

Later in the game there is a sniper mini-game that was so well executed you just had to smile as you played it. There is a squad of Locusts who are moving and at range. A conveniently placed sniper rifle allows you to pick them off. Once you start firing, the surviving Locusts run off the screen out of your line of sight, which adds a timed element to the mini-game. Marcus counts out each kill with the sniper rifle. This mini-game did not have any bearing on the story, but it was just a simple moment that tests your sniping skills and was fun. More games need to add moments like these.

The next fun scene was when you are approaching a shut door and without cutting to a cinema the door opens on its own with a loud audio stinger and a bunch of creepers burst out of it rushing the player. This is one of those surprise moments that make you immediately slam down on the gun trigger and flail your weapon around spraying everything. Experiences like these remind me why I am a gamer.

The tank level had the player driving through a dark tunnel with the only illumination coming from the tank’s headlights. After landing the tank from a steep drop, the tank’s engines and lights malfunction and shut off. For several moments the only things you can hear are Locusts and then you begin to see the iridescent glow coming off their carapaces creeping closer. Meanwhile the tank’s crew is frantically trying to repair the tank. This was a suspenseful moment and was just awesome when the tank crew manages to fix the tank just in time.

During the locust queen’s castle mission you enter into a room where the enemies are not yet aware of your presence. There is a flamethrower-wielding locust on the bridge with his back turned to you. Since the player has already run into these locusts prior to this moment they have already been taught that these locusts carry flammable fuel in their backpacks for the flamethrowers that blow up if shot. In this case, if you shoot his pack he blows up and the bridge he is standing on collapses in glorious fashion with him. Having cool stuff happen when the player shoots is great because it almost guarantees that the player will see it.

There are a lot of different enemies in Gears of War 2. They vary greatly from one another in both their silhouettes and sizes, making them easy to differentiate from the varying types of enemies. The lesson here is that when each enemy type is dramatically different in size and silhouette it helps players quickly assess the threat of the situation and decide how to tackle the different scenarios designers create.

Chapter four of the last act is one of the most enjoyable levels because of how ridiculous everything is. As the game progresses the action continues to ramp up and by the end it is just out of control. This level has you falling through the floors of a building. You survive another falling building, which lands on its side and then you ride an elevator sideways through the building. It is so crazy, but you are having so much fun it that it does not even matter. The level ends with you and Dom commandeering a giant Brumak and using him as a mobile weapons platform to wreak havoc on the Locust hordes. It is just the absurd fun you can only have in a videogame.

The overall design theme of Gears of War 2 was unique and fun ways to introduce and use cover. This is a list of the different ways that I can remember that Epic introduced or had the player interact with cover.

The sheer number of different locales and art pieces for the game are also amazing. Just off the top of my head.

All of the settings were very different and distinguishable from the others. The amount of art required to pull this off makes my head hurt. The artists at Epic are simply on another level.

The gameplay pacing was excellent. There was an incredible amount of gameplay variety and the designers constantly mixed things up so you never did anything for too long. There were on-foot segments, various vehicles that felt really different from each other, and rail shooting.

As I mentioned already, Gears of War 2 keeps outdoing itself over and over and reaches a great crescendo. The gameplay is lengthy and there was more than one time where I thought I was nearing the end of the game only to find the story twisted and offered so much more. The greatest accomplishment for this sequel was that I actually found myself caring about and getting involved with the story, which is really amazing considering how little I cared about the original Gears of War story.

Finally, it is very fitting that Gears of War 2 was EPIC. There are explosions, buildings collapsing and helicopters flying overhead everywhere you looked. You felt like you were part of a bigger war.

Issues I saw and improvements I would have liked to see in the game:

1. Bugs:

2. When you are alone, which happens very often in the game, the reviving mechanic does not work. In these segments, when you are injured, very often the enemy AI will ignore you after you have fallen and you are forced to wait until you bleed out and die before you are able to play again. This is very annoying. A very simple solution would have been to kill the player outright if there is no partner in the vicinity to rescue them.

3. Having the pick up a downed enemy to use as a human shield and the dive for cover move on the same button is just frustrating; especially when you accidentally do the opposite of what you intend to. The controller mapping on this is just bad. When an enemy is downed X, Y, and B buttons essentially have the same effect (different ways of killing the enemy). The only different option is on the A button (same button as dive), which picks up the downed enemy to use as a human shield. Having 3 options doing the same thing is redundant. Drop one of these killing moves and replace the button press with the human shield option. This would prevent the player from mistakenly diving when they mean to pick up a human shield or vice versa by only having the A button for dives.

4. Seeing the scene through Dom’s eyes as he is reunited with his wife is very jarring as the rest of the game is told through Marcus’ perspective. When telling a story, you have to be careful of not breaking the perspective from which the game is told.

5. The voice acting fluctuates in the game from bad to good. The voice actors for Dom and Carmine are noticeably worse than the rest of the cast.

6. Lastly, how does your robotic companion Jack just appear and disappear into and out of thin air like that?

I have to say that I am more than impressed by the game. Epic really outdid themselves on this title. The scope of the game and the variety of gameplay in Gears of War 2 is mind-boggling. I do not say this of many games, but the sheer amount of content in the campaign alone makes this game worth the $60.

My thoughts and impressions of the game were based off of a play through of the single-player campaign at the Casual difficulty.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
TapDefense Reviewed Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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TapDefense Reviewed Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

As I was stepping on the plane for a holiday visit to San Diego, I went on the Apple App Store on my iPhone and downloaded the free game TapDefense. As a rule I generally do not expect much from free games, especially for the iPhone and just got the game because it was high on the popularity list and to waste some time on my four-hour flight. I was very surprised by how good this unassumingly named game was. The game itself is a tower defense strategy game that is surprisingly deep.

TapDefense Title Picture

The Premise
Your job is to defend the gates of heaven from 41 waves of invading demon hordes through the strategic placement of a variety of different defensive towers. There are three different difficulty levels in the game and the only difference (and it is an important one) between easy, medium and hard is the path the demons take to the gate. Easy mode’s path is very circuitous and the map provides a number of great choke points to place towers, while medium mode has fewer turns and a more direct path to the gate and hard mode is nearly a direct path. At the start of every level the player may place towers without the threat of the demons. The player may also pause the action in the game at any point and upgrade existing towers or place additional towers.

TapDefense Tower Placement Picture

The Gameplay Mechanics
As I play games I am always analyzing the gameplay mechanics and boiling it down to a few tenants of game design that I believe the developers had in mind when creating the game. The game mechanics are designed to work in a certain way to encourage the player to play in a certain manner. Here are the two game design tenants that I see the game mechanics supporting.

1) The first tenant is that the player must strategically place towers and properly allocate resources.

2) The second game design tenant is that the player must utilize a variety of towers.

These game design tenants in TapDefense keep the gameplay interesting and varied. So based off of the design tenants the key to winning is the proper allocation of resources to maximize effectiveness and the use of a variety of towers.

Tower Variety
I will list out the various towers the game has available. TapDefense begins with the player only having access to the Arrow Tower, Bomb Tower and Water Tower. Additional towers are unlocked through the use of Halos, which are earned at predetermined level intervals.

Arrow Tower

    These are cheapest towers to place and upgrade. They have good range and have a fast firing rate.

Bomb Tower

    These towers are more expensive than the Arrow towers and have a slower firing rate and range, but more than make up for it by doing very good area effect damage.

Water Tower

    This tower slows enemy movement and when fully upgrade does decent direct damage.

Storm Tower

    These towers have short range, but they take off a percentage of a demon’s life. Storm towers scale incredibly well. While these towers are not useful early on, since most of the enemies do not have a high health total, in later waves when enemies have outrageous hit points these towers become essential to victory.

Ice Tower

    This tower slows down entire enemy groups.

Magic Tower

    This in my opinion is the most important tower to have during the higher waves. The Magic tower has a high rate of fire, the best range in the game and when fully upgraded do very good area of effect damage.

Earthquake Tower

    This tower has decent range and causes very good damage, but it takes up the equivalent space of four towers. The Earthquake Tower is also special in that it is the only tower that requires the player to manually operate it by shaking the iPhone.

TapDefense Towers Picture

Problems I would like to see addressed in the game

1. Occasionally the game will stall and not load

    This issue was not just isolated to only my iPhone as my girlfriend’s phone had similar issues with the game.

2. Frame Rate Issues

    When there are a lot of demons on the screen and lots of towers shooting at them, the frame rate can drop very significantly. This can hurt the game to the point where the game will not respond to your command to pause.

3. The sell tower button is in the same spot as the pause button

    Since the pause button is such an important button (used frequently to assess the situation), the UI choice to place the sell tower button in the same spot with no confirmation leads to some very unhappy accidents. Selling a tower only recoups a small fraction of the cost to build the tower so this is simply unforgivable.

4. No Undo

    If you do manage to sell a tower or place a tower down by accident, there is no undo button. Not a killer, but occasionally annoying.

5. Add a level rewind feature

    As far as I could tell there was no level save feature, even if they had this feature it would not resolve the issues, because mistakes early in the game ripple throughout the rest of the game. I would suggest the inclusion of a per level rewind feature to go back in time to the spot where the mistake occurred. Currently, in order to atone for mistakes the game must be restarted from the beginning.

TapDefense is an ad-supported game and there are ads after every level played. They are small and out of the way though and really never bothered me. If we can have more high quality games like TapDefense made free through ads, I am all for it.

If you have an iPhone, you should download TapDefense. The gameplay is addictive and provided me with hours of entertainment. It is free so what have you got to lose?

See my other related articles also:
The iPhone 3G & AT&T Service Review
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay
My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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The iPhone 3G & AT&T Service Review

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Having owned and used the iPhone for several months now, I feel I can make a much more accurate assessment of the device.

Let me begin by saying that I have never had a smartphone before my iPhone. My previous phone had no special features other than it was supernaturally durable and reliable enough to take 6 years of abuse at my hands and would have easily have taken another 6 years had I not replaced it with the iPhone. My previous phone would get signal anywhere even in elevators and underground in both San Diego as well as Chicago. Over the course of six years, I can count the number of dropped calls on one hand.

When the original iPhone came out and I got a chance to play around with it in the Apple store it was amazing, but I would be buying the phone as primarily a mobile internet device and without 3G, I could resist its siren call. When the 3G iPhone came out I had no more excuses and my girlfriend and I braved the long lines on opening weekend and got our phones after a 6-hour wait.

The Service
AT&T inadvertently signed us up for two separate family plans instead of one. After I got the bill and saw the discrepancy I called up AT&T. After a 10 minute wait I finally got on the phone with a real person and after some explaining they assured me that everything was cleared up and I paid the single family plan bill. Two weeks later I found out things were not cleared up when, without warning, my phone service and data for the internet on the phone were both deactivated. I called AT&T up again and they wanted to charge me for both family plans as well as a reactivation fee. I again explained the situation to an incredibly rude phone operator and got objection after objection. I then had to use actual math on her and detailed out the bill for her before my logic actually took hold. She half apologized (being clearly wrong) for her mistake and reduced the amount to the correct amount I had stepped her through. It was an incredibly frustrating process and needless to say I am not happy with AT&T’s customer service.

The service for the iPhone itself is not great, but passable. I get service in most places, but not underground or in elevators anymore. Drop calls are infrequent, but happen enough to be annoying. The 3G coverage for Chicago has been good, but you will occasionally enter into areas only covered by the much slower Edge network and in these areas you might as give up on the internet.

Enough about the service let’s dive into the device.

The Device
The iPhone has become such a large part of my life now that I do not know how I got by without it before. The phone is one of those things that you didn’t know you needed until after you have it. Since getting the iPhone, I have been significantly more productive. Every single blog post I have written at has been written largely, if not entirely through the iPhone. My 20-minute commutes on the bus in the morning and evening have turned into the most productive time of the day for me. I check the weather and e-mail in the morning while getting ready for work on the iPhone. It has really been a dramatic change in my routine.

The screen is bright and beautiful. The touch interface is where the iPhone really shines. It is so far ahead of anything else I have seen on the market. It is very intuitive, double tapping to zoom along with the pinching works great. After experiencing the iPhone, I cannot imagine using nav keys or a stylus. The keyboard takes some getting used to, but once I did, I have grown to like it. After writing so much with the keyboard my speed has become surprisingly fast with it.

The 3G internet connection is just fast enough that surfing the internet is not annoying. The browsing of full (non-mobilized) websites is simply amazing. The ability to watch Youtube videos is incredible. The Safari browser was much less reliable early on and would consistently crash, however several updates have made it a much more stable and dependable browser. The iPhone also provides full e-mails, PDF, word document and excel file browsing.

The GPS along with Google maps is great especially for somebody with bad direction sense like myself. I do wish that the phone had a built in application or somebody would make an app for the App Store that gave you voice directions for the occasions when you cannot look down at the device without endangering yourself, like while you are in a car.

Battery life is not awful, especially if you set your e-mail updating to manual, turn off auto-brightness and lower the default brightness down a touch. I use mine almost the entire day for music, browsing the internet and blog writing, yet the battery does not have trouble keeping up.

To top all this off, the crowning achievement of the iPhone is undoubtedly the Apple App Store.

At the time of this writing there are over 10,000 Apps currently available for download on the store. Many of the apps take full advantage of the GPS and tilt functionality of the iPhone. I will list out a few of my favorite Apps.

Pandora Radio
Pandora Radio functions exactly like the desktop version, but for the iPhone. You simply type in an artist or song you like and it plays it for you. It creates a song list of similar artists for you to listen to, hopefully introducing you to some new music. Buying a song is as simple as a few clicks and you are ready to download.


This is a pretty fun little game that has you moving a metal ball barring through a maze with holes that the ball can fall into. The movement of the metal ball is controlled by the way you tilt the phone and controls very realistically.

Urbanspoon uses the GPS to find a restaurant near you that matches 3 different criteria. The criteria are location, type of food and price. You can lock in any of these three criteria or none of them and then shake your iPhone and it will give you a suggestion. It’s been great for finding new eateries in a big city like Chicago.

AIM, just on your iPhone

This is decent for keeping up on your stocks.

The iPhone has a few negatives also.

No copy paste functionality.
Not having a copy paste feature is really annoying.

No Undo function
This is particularly irritating when combined with the backspace lock bug.

Backspace lock
Occasionally, while hitting the backspace the button the phone will become locked and will continue deleting everything you have written at an incredibly rate. You have to react quickly to stop the locked backspace by pressing another button. For this reason I back up what I am writing by e-mail it to myself every so often to prevent this from happening.

No video recording or video conferencing
You have a 2-megapixel camera and an 8 or 16 gigabyte HD built into each iPhone, yet it does not have video recording. That does not make sense. Come to think of it, why doesn’t this thing have video conferencing?

Monetary Cost
The monthly cost of an iPhone service plan is nearly twice as expensive as my old phone. However, this cost has been more than justified by how much more productive I have been with iPhone.

AT&T customer service
As I previously stated after my experience with the ineptitude that is AT&T customer service I am looking forward to the day when I can leave them. For now they are a monopoly and I have little choice after signing a mandatory 2-year service contract with them.

All in all, the iPhone is an amazing phone tied down by a monopolistic terrible company in AT&T. Despite this, I would still highly recommend the phone for the amazing UI, 3G speed of the internet and Apple App store.

See my other related articles:
TapDefense Reviewed Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

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