It was both disappointing and amusing when, after finally receiving my copy of Black Ops 2 in the post, I started going over the feature list and began wondering what kind of competitive life it would have.
The original Black Ops was heavily anticipated around the world, in part thanks to the massive backlash against Modern Warfare 2 and the lack of dedicated servers, a console and other simple features (like not being matched up with gamers in the United States).
People were hoping that it would have been a return to old, something that might finally unify and supplant the original Modern Warfare. I am, of course, talking about the state of things on PC. The console community has grown into a beast of its own, although their hand is often forced. They don’t have the luxury of remaking maps from other games, adding new textures or rewriting balance with mods.
But the difference between the needs of the developer and that of a vibrant competitive scene are often at odds. The latter requires continuity and time: a commodity that many studios can ill afford or tolerate.
Free-to-play business models are starting to change that equation, but even then the environment is tightly controlled and too reliant on their owners’ graciousness.
This was the great disappointment of Black Ops. Treyarch threw enough ingredients into the pot for a truly delicious recipe, but left it sitting for far too long, with full mod support only eventuating a year after release.
To fully understand the effects of this, you need to go back and look at the differences between the second and third Modern Warfare games. Despite the myriad of problems with the consolification of what began as a PC franchise, the game was still perfectly functional as a competitive game.
But what made it work was the fact that you had enough variety across the different maps and modes that it wasn’t a big deal if one or two levels didn’t work. It wasn’t game-breaking if there was a gun or an item that didn’t quite fit; you could easily regulate around that.
My major problem with MW3 was that the entire experience was homogenised to a series of close to medium-range battles, excluding some of the more expansive maps that you’d traditionally see in, well, any shooter.
Size doesn’t mean you can’t make an amazingly memorable map. To this day, I still think Backlot is one of the most well designed levels in any FPS ever made. It’s small and has all those pokey fights but enough variety in the angles to allow for snipers and long-range players to make space for themselves.
Larger maps force you to play differently, and that’s why developers usually offer a mixed bag so that everyone gets something to their taste. Compare Afghan with Terminal from Modern Warfare 2. Or de_nuke with de_train from Counter-Strike (de_cbble being an even more apt comparison).
When everything is shrunk down, so is the distance from one spawn location to another — even more so when playing modes that routinely rotate spawns, like Domination. Now this naturally brings the fight to your doorstep a lot sooner, something Activision is obviously targeting because it appeals to the twitch-frenzied teenagers that make up the Call of Duty market.
But it’s downright awful from a competitive aspect — because it limits the amount of downtime between each actual firefight, which in turn hamstrings the time either side has to strategise.
Downtime is important, for several reasons
Part of the fun of a scrim (or a war or a prac; scrim being more common in North America, while the latter was more local terminology) was adapting to the situation as a team, working through your opponents and playing out the rest of the match in your head while you waited to respawn.
If you’re playing something like Capture the Flag or Domination, there’s less time and complication mid-game. It doesn’t also play out quite as excitingly for the spectators, save for those rare moments at the end where a flag’s about to be capped on the last second.
Most matches are decided well before the last thirty seconds though, especially in the case of Domination where the end is often like reading the last rites before putting the wounded out of his misery. Search and Destroy is more volatile, depending on the score, although the suspense builds up much more slowly and therefore lasts much longer when a comeback is on the cards.
It creates stories. It makes stories that are unfolding that much better. It gives team leaders a chance to second-guess themselves and a chance for the underlings to bite back and fight. And if you’re sitting at home or spectating live at the venue, you get to watch this all unfold in a myriad of consequences, missed shots, bizarre movements and various nervy responses.
Why would you want to compress all of this action out of the game?
The simple reason is that Black Ops 2 and MW3 before it are symptomatic of a philosophy that is completely adrenaline-focused, one that finds any lull in the action not related to the deployment of some overpowered helicopter or death robot to be coma-inducing and antiquated.
Instead of being a well-rounded tale of battle — and an engaging, entertaining match should unfold like a story, with teams pulling each other forth and back and big individual plays settling the score — what we’re left with is more like a Michael Bay movie, a never-ending collection of explosions, headshots and gunfire.
If you’re happy to load up a game in a public server and play for an hour or two until you’re exhausted — which is literally the case for a lot of people, so much so that it has turned people off the franchise altogether — then that’s fine.
But I want my stories back. I want my developing narrative that ebbs and flows throughout the course of my game. I want the time to sit back and ponder how the next three or four rounds will play out. I want to picture my enemy’s response, read it completely and have ten or twenty seconds the next round to enjoy the moment. Because that’s what really keeps eSports going: the memories and the stories you tell with your friends that make every game different and that make it not only worth playing, but worth watching.
Right now, it’s more like two seconds. And that’s not enough.