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What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer?

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Xbox Cover Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare PS3 Cover Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare PC Cover


Sorry for the delay in posting this article. It ballooned into a much more in depth game design critique than I had originally planned. I hope you enjoy it.

Despite the fact that Call of Duty 4 has been out for well over a year and has a clear sequel in Call of Duty: World at War, over one hundred thousand players continue to log in every evening on Xbox Live. If you think Infinity Ward must be doing something right, you would be correct. Read my other article about what they are doing right also if you are interested I wrote up my campaign playthrough notes in a previous post. However this article is not about what Call of Duty 4 has done right, it is about what Call of Duty 4 does wrong.

The Bad
At the start the player’s options are very limited and new players are thrown right into the fray against rank 55 opponents to be endlessly slaughtered. Which brings me to what I consider to be the biggest flaw to the multiplayer design.

Call of Duty 4 Does Not Do Enough to Protect New Users
The first few sessions of multiplayer gaming for a new player are the most important and a game should go out of its way to ease these new players in and provide them with the best experience possible. By allowing new players to acclimate slowly, the game does not alienate new players and can keep its player base higher for longer. New players in Call of Duty 4 are punished. As mentioned earlier, brand new players are matched against experienced players from the start. In Call of Duty 4, experienced players not only have better map knowledge and mechanic knowledge (handicaps common to new players in other shooter games), but they also have better weapons and perk options. The results are ugly.

My experience with first-person-shooters is extensive and I consider myself much better than the average shooter player. The first few matches I entered I was killed endlessly by the much more experienced and better equipped players and had horrific kill to death ratios. I would be running along and instantly die from airstrikes and helicopters and have no clue how to prevent them or what was happening. It was a very frustrating experience. It is a good thing that I had the perseverance to continue to keep playing and took the necessary lumps to finally have success and fun with the game. Not everybody is as willing to continue playing despite constantly dying and having a frustrating experience. Call of Duty: World at War partially solves this problem by having game playlists that are only open to players of rank 1 through 10. This keeps the rank 11 – 55 players from destroying new players over and over and ruining their experience.

M16 is not for n00bs
New players are given the choice of five distinct weapon choices at the start. At the top of the menu of choices is the M16. The problem with this is that since the M16 is at the top of the menu and is highlighted by the cursor when the selection screen appears on the console versions, it is the gun that most beginners will select and use first. The M16 is not a beginner friendly weapon. The M16 has a three-round burst shot that has a low rate of fire that requires successive trigger pulls to fire. This all adds up to a weapon that has an unfamiliar mechanic and requires precision to use effectively. This makes the M16 a terrible weapon for a new player to begin with and one that very few will find success without extensive practice. Fortunately there is an easy fix for this problem. The MP5 is a fully-automatic weapon that shoots out 800 rounds per minute. The MP5 is better suited towards new players as they can hold down the trigger to fire and the massive number of rounds fired mitigates the need for pinpoint accuracy. The fix is to replace the positioning on the menus of the M16 and the MP5 respectively.

Some of the Maps are Not Beginner Friendly
To be beginner friendly a map should have easily recognizable landmarks to orient players so that they do not become lost. One of my favorite maps of all time is Zanzibar in Halo 2. That map has a giant windmill in the center that makes it very easy for players to use as a landmark. Another benefit to having easily distinguishable landmarks is that it aids in effective teamwork and communication. A level designer can facilitate this by creating distinctive environment geometry that will allow players to communicate their opponent’s locations to each other effectively. Using Halo 2’s Zanzibar map as an example: “There’s a guy on top of the Windmill!” Everybody on the team will instantly know where that is because the environment geometry is so distinctive. Most of the maps in Call of Duty 4 do this very effectively. Crash is another example of map with the downed helicopter serving as an effective landmark. The maps in Call of Duty 4 that do not do a great job are Backlot, Crossfire and District. While these maps do have subtle recognizable differences to orient you, these subtleties are lost on new players. The first few times I played on these maps I could not tell where I was and become lost on a number of occasions. The labyrinthine streets all look very similar and there is nothing obvious to orient new players.

Call of Duty 4’s Slippery Slope
Once a team starts losing in Call of Duty 4 it is extremely difficult to come back to win. There are fewer comebacks and more lopsided victories in Call of Duty 4 than in any other first-person-shooter that I have ever played. The reason for this is the respawning system, rewards for kill streaks and territorial control.

The Respawning System
The respawn system in Call of Duty 4 is one of the most complained about systems by the Call of Duty community because players are often killed immediately upon respawning. So how does this system work and why is it failing?

C_Stick of the Gamespot forums theorizes that the respawn system “waits for an enemy airstrike, or puts you in an open area under an enemy chopper, or in the middle of two enemy run-and-gunners, or right where you get sniped if you take three steps in any direction.” That may not be far from the truth.

From studying respawning patterns in the game, my best guess at how the respawn system works in Call of Duty 4 is that it respawns players near a teammate furthest from the enemy. This seems like a logical system in theory, but in practice it does not work. As players die and are respawned next to each other they have a tendency to get increasingly clumped together. The situation gets worse when the teams that are dying are surrounded by the enemy and are forced back and contained by the other team into small pieces of territory. This can be seen on any of Call of Duty 4’s maps, but it tends to happen most often around the airplane hangars in Countdown and various corners of the Backlot map.

Containment generally happens in areas that have islands of cover (a space with lots of cover, but surrounded with open no-man’s land) or corners of maps because teams can be pinned down in these areas and it is difficult to leave without exposing yourself to enemy fire.

This is disastrous to contained teams because when clumped together their firing lanes are limited and they become much more susceptible to area of effect attacks like grenades and airstrikes. This leads to waves of people dying over and over just as they spawn in and games that become lopsided and out of reach quickly. The only way to end this negative feedback loop is to have a player escape from the enclosed enemy lines to start the team respawning elsewhere. So how do we fix this? There are two problems here, the first problem is map design and the second is the respawn algorithm itself. I will address map design first.

Map Design
Map designers need to pay attention to map flow. Map flow is what paths players generally take through a map defined by firing lanes, available paths through the level and cover placement. Maps should always have multiple (at least 2, but more is preferable) protected routes from any place on the map. Careful attention needs to always be paid to map corner boundaries because these areas are restricted by the edges of the map. There should be no islands of cover that are hard to leave without dying. These islands typically force players to linger in these places because they cannot leave without exposing themselves and the longer players stay in these islands the more likely teammates will begin to spawn next to them and be trapped in the same situation.

[Countdown Example]

Call of Duty 4 - Countdown Map topdown overhead

The above image shows the locations on Call of Duty 4’s Countdown map where teams are often isolated and become bunched up.

Call of Duty 4: Countdown Map No Man's Land

Notice that there are no viable exits from the hangar that do not expose the players to enemy fire. Also note, the amount of space that the no man’s land takes up in front of the hangars.

Call of Duty 4: Countdown Map cut door

For this particular example, I would recommend cutting entry holes through the hangars at both ends and placing additional cover at these entrances to allow for better map flow.

Respawn Algorithm
A suggestion for the respawn algorithm could be to have a player occasionally respawn furthest away from the enemy regardless of whether an ally is close or not. This suggestion is not without its own tradeoffs in that players may complain that they are spawned way off from the action and alone. Another possible solution could be a player chosen respawn system similar to Battlefield: Bad Company. Whatever the ultimate solution, this should be at the top of the priority list of must fix items for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Kills Streaks
In Call of Duty 4 players are rewarded for kill streaks. The player is given a UAV reconnaissance that reveals the location of all enemies on the mini-map for their entire team at three kills, three large area of effect bombs dropped from an airstrike at five kills and a support helicopter that comes equipped with a very damaging machine gun at seven kills. While the positive feedback given from the UAV, airstrike and helicopter rewards the player that achieves a kill streak, it makes it very difficult for the opposing team to come back. The kill streak mechanic rewards players and teams that are already winning and gives them an even greater advantage. This is like giving a team that scores in basketball possession of the ball again so they can score again. The argument can be made that a member of the losing team can have a five and seven kill streak and bring a helicopter in to help their team make a come back, but the losing team is less likely to be able to do this considering the winning team’s control over any non-covered territory with their previous airstrike and helicopter and the aforementioned respawn killing issue. I am not saying that the losing team cannot achieve the same, only that it is harder for them and that this mechanic can make teams that are already winning by a slight margin completely out of reach.

What is the best way to fix this problem? I have a few suggestions that involve slightly lowering the advantage given by the kill streak rewards and making the rewards harder to achieve. Here is a rundown of the rewards and suggested modifications.

UAV Reconnaissance
This is powerful, but it is mostly ok in its current form. It might be useful for the development team to explore with a smaller localized reconnaissance effect for it, centered on the person who triggered it. I say explore because there are a number of risks involved with this change that would be impossible to foretell without rigorous play testing. Foremost would be how to communicate (UI elements) what the size of the reconnaissance effect is to players.

Airstrike
The airstrike itself is bad. It is very frustrating to be killed via airstrike. You are given little to no warning and then you are dead. Not to mention the huge framerate hits (on the Xbox 360 version) when it occurs. The current implementation of the airstrike does not enhance gameplay. Thinking about gameplay as a “series of interesting choices” what are your choices as a player being airstriked? There are no choices, because you instantly die without warning. The only gameplay choices happen before the airstrike. The player has is to prevent the opposing team from ever achieving a five kill streak (not like you are not trying already) or fight entirely from under covered buildings on the off-chance that an airstrike might happen.

As the player who calls in the airstrike, there is a risk element in that you must bring up a map that covers the entire screen in order to call it in leaving the player unaware of their surroundings. This gives the airstrike a slight risk versus reward to its use and this risk element should be preserved in any change that is made.

My suggestion is to change the airstrike to a laser designated airstrike that must be equipped, aimed and fired. This would be a similar mechanic to the airstrikes during the Heat level in the single-player campaign of Call of Duty 4. This would also limit airstrikes to within line of sight of the player and prevent airstrikes from ignoring battlelines and gut enemy positions. To address the framerate issues, limit the airstrike to a single bomb so that the framerate hit is not as prolonged. Lastly, there should be a voice over warning for the airstrike and a slight delay before the airstrike occurs. With the warning the player would at least get a chance to run to cover to avoid the airstrike instead of just randomly dying.

Helicopter Support
The Helicopter is pretty close to where it should be. My suggestions are for just a few minor changes. Raise the kill streak necessary for the helicopter support up to eight from seven. With airstrike kills counting towards achieving the seven kill streak necessary for the helicopter, the helicopter is very easy to get. My second suggestion is to have the helicopter give 10 experience points for killing it. This small reward will prompt more people to shoot at it instead of ignoring the helicopter and allowing it to roam around picking them off and eventually flying away. My third suggestion is to make the RPG a HARD counter for the helicopter. Currently the RPG does not kill the helicopter outright. It requires a RPG attack and a little more. I would propose that the RPG should kill the helicopter in one hit. Let’s look at the RPG as a weapon.

Call of Duty 4 - RPG silhouette

This is why they should do an extra hundred damage on a direct hit and kill the helicopter outright.

While I am on the topic of what to have in the sequel to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I had a few more quick suggestions.

As a caveat, my suggestions may change as I put in more time with the game and discover more of Call of Duty 4’s intricacies. This is only a snapshot in time.

Conclusion
The bottom line is if you can get past Call of Duty 4 multiplayer’s initial frustrations, it becomes very addictive and fun. If, like me, you are one of those willing to pay the steep price of entry, there is a lot about Call of Duty 4’s multiplayer that will keep you coming back for more.

See my other related articles:
What’s Good About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Campaign Playthrough Notes
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
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time


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