Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has attracted near-universal critical acclaim. It is a slick, well-constructed and generously proportioned instalment in one of the most revered military shooter franchises in history. There is just one problem. Everyone on the internet hates it.
Soon after the game’s release on Tuesday, savage user reviews began to appear on score aggregation site, Metacritic. A flood of 0/10s outnumbered ecstatic 10s and considered 7s and 8s by a dramatic margin. Currently, for the Xbox 360 version of the title, the average user score for one of the biggest entertainment releases of the year stands at a wretched 3.0. On PC it’s 1.7.
So what is happening?
The first point, of course, is that it’s dangerous to think of these outbursts as being in anyway representative of the majority opinion. “On day one or two, you are going to get a vocal minority who take to the forums on Metacritic and use them as a soap box to vent their rage about the series,” says Daniel Krupa, a writer at games site, IGN.
“Most of the millions of people who bought the game are actually playing it and enjoying it. A similar thing happened with Portal 2 back in April. It’s one of the most critically appreciated games of the year, but on the day of release, people were on Metacritic criticising it for lots of reasons. Since then, the rating has risen and there’s now parity between the critical and the user scores. I imagine something similar will happen with MW3 over time.”
But for a moment, let’s consider the objections being raised. Reading through the usually short, often apoplectic review comments on Metacritic, one objection is raised over and over again: Modern Warfare 3 is basically Modern Warfare 2 again; it is a map pack, adding nothing new or innovative to the series. One reasonably representative review states:
Don’t believe the marketing hype, this is the same product rebundled let it die and show investors we’re not interested in being sold the same product year after year, the cash cow needs to starve.
This represents an interesting reversal of the usual critic/public relationship. Often, it is the paid reviewer who despairs at the lack of originality in mainstream entertainment, while paying customers accept the formulaic in their droves. Let’s face it, Hangover 2 is basically a map pack for the first movie, yet it grossed almost $140m in its opening weekend and at 5.7 its Metacritic user review average is higher than the critical metascore. As human beings we enjoy systems and repetition – our brains actively seek them out; it is a survival instinct that has morphed into an unconscious entertainment preference. Hence, the vital role of the catchphrase in comedy; hence, the predictable conventions of our favourite horror flicks. The notion of the sequel is based on the usually accurate construct that we like to relive enjoyable experiences. Modern Warfare 3 gives us more of what we liked, because we generally like more of what we like.
But is this game just too similar to previous iterations? Certainly, there are a lot of familiar weapons, and a lot of perks and killstreak rewards that we’ve all seen before – yet similar criticisms could be levelled at the inventories of, say, Mass Effect 2 or Gears of War 2, and elements like the new strike packages do add a significant tactical thrust to the action.
Elsewhere, there are complaints that the campaign is based around the same old linear action and explosive set-pieces as its predecessors. But then, what did everyone think was going to happen?
“Nobody should go in there expecting My Little Pony or Animal Crossing,” says PC Gamer editor Tim Edwards. “If you turn up for a big James Bond-style action sequence that lasts for five hours and a multiplayer game with perks in it, that’s what you’re going to get. That’s fine – nobody can be disappointed that they bought the game and that’s what’s in it.”Jon Hicks, editor of the Official Xbox Magazine, makes the interesting point that we may be thinking about Call of Duty in the wrong way by comparing it to other action games such as Batman or Uncharted. As a vast annual franchise designed to appease millions of mainstream consumers, there are more relevant points of reference:
“I think ultimately Modern Warfare 3 should be ranked alongside Fifa and other sports games in as much as, it’s better than last years, but it will deliver a very similar experience. People say they want innovation and change and difference, but in the same way that Fifa can’t break out of the fact that it’s a game of football, CoD is so successful now, it can’t really break out of its model, it is constrained by its very form. If you consider it as a sports game it becomes more logical.
“You and I both know that if they did an Alien 3 with Modern Warfare – if it became entirely different and passive, and suddenly you’re fighting with sticks, the outcry would make the current one pale into insignificance. If you look through the annals of gaming history the titles that do change significantly year on year are the ones that get quite heavily punished. People like to demand change, but increasingly they then don’t buy it.”
Rivalry has also played a part in the tribalism of the user reviews. EA has pitched its Battlefield 3 title very much against Modern Warfare, both in its advertising and in some barbed pre-release interviews – and this has fostered a factional atmosphere: gamers love a platform battle.
“EA deliberately picked a fight this year,” agrees Edwards. “They’ve really gone after Call of Duty in their community. Battlefield 3 is a phenomenal game but I’m a little bit sad that the PR for it has been at the expense of another brilliant title. It’s not great that we’re back to the old Sega v Nintendo situation.”
And here we unearth a more insidious undercurrent: Activision (NSDQ: ATVI) is being actively punished. Last year, the co-founders of Infinity Ward, Jason West and Vince Zampella, were sacked for breaches of contract and “insubordination”. The duo immediately sued the publisher, claiming that millions in royalties were being withheld from Infinity Ward staff.Activision later counter-sued suggesting that West and Zampella were using the company’s IP to broker a development deal with a rival company. Later, the dismissed twosome set up Respawn Entertainment and announced a publishing contract with EA, Activision’s main rival.Now, I’ve read through the papers submitted by both parties. They make complex claims and counter claims and it looks as though it is going to take many months for a US court to get to the bottom of what is an intricate corporate law case. The point is, as it stands, no one outside of the Infinity Ward or Activision knows what happened. No one, that is, except for the internet, which has sided with West and Zampella against Activision.
“[Modern Warfare 3 is] being published by Bobby Kotick, AKA ‘the devil from Activision Blizzard who eats game developers for breakfast’, so I subtracted points for that,” wrote one Metacritic reviewer, who gave the game 0/10.
The idea of a couple of creative “Davids” taking on the Goliath of Activision is an attractive one, but it is also deeply flawed. “The fall out from the Infinity Ward debacle was horrendous,” notes Edwards, “but the thing about that is, West and Zampella are multi-millionaires: this is two sets of incredibly rich people shouting at each other.”
“Activision hasn’t helped itself through the statements that its made,” he continues. “Bobby Kotick famously said he wanted the industry to work more like supermarkets. Well, talking about an entertainment form with millions of passionate fans as a packaged goods industry isn’t great – and irony doesn’t work well on the internet.”
Even if something dark and unjust did happen at Infinity Ward, we enter troubling critical territory when the wrongs of the author, the studio or the distributor are visited upon the appraisal of their work. Movie history is littered with despicable characters who have made astonishing films; is Melancholia any less of a work because Lars von Trier claimed to be a Nazi during his Cannes press conference? And let’s not get started on Roman Polanski, Elia Kazan or Walt Disney.
Tying in with the contempt for Activision is a distrust for the reviewers themselves. Several comments beneath my own review for Modern Warfare 3 had to be removed because they were essentially libellous.
“I think it’s representative of a wider distrust of corporations,” says Hicks. “There’s a cultural suspicion of large companies and manipulation. And this has happened hand-in-hand with the rise of the internet and the democratisation of opinion.
“Whereas once people would have kept their opinions to themselves now you’re actively encouraged to jump on the internet and shout about them. The louder you shout the more kudos you get and no matter what your opinion, someone else on the internet will agree with you – and you get a boost from that. It encourages people to think, ‘I am correct, it’s self-evident that I’m right, therefore the reviewer must be subject to bribery.’ I don’t think gaming is unique in this.”
It’s something of a farcical accusation. As one reviewer tweeted last night, games publishers barely trust us to take our own screenshots any more let alone keep quiet a widescale attempt to fraudulently secure favourable review scores. Furthermore, Call of Duty is perhaps the one entertainment brand in the world that doesn’t need critical acclaim to ensure success.
Clearly, though, the 0/10s are a protest against something because these comments do not function as criticism. “This game is average at best,” writes one Metacritic user before awarding MW3 1/10. That’s a quite staggering mathematical failure.
But like other reviewers, I suspect, I wrestled with how to score Modern Warfare 3. It isn’t innovative, it isn’t original, but it is ruthlessly compelling and packed with content. I am thoroughly enjoying it.
Perhaps, however, we need to think about the critical criteria we use. “I do wonder whether we should be scoring games more on innovation than we do,” says IGN reviews editor Keza MacDonald. “Usually when you get something particularly innovative you’re tempted to give it an extra point, to reward it for what it’s trying to do – that hardly ever works in reverse.”
Her colleague Daniel Krupa agrees. “This is a problem that the movie industry is facing. Once upon a time, blockbuster movies had critical merit too – the likes of Jaws and Star Wars, for example. But now you get these behemoths like Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers and they are just explosion and spectacle. Most people will defend them by saying it doesn’t matter, they’re just about fun. Maybe we’re falling into that trap with Call of Duty. Perhaps we should expect more from our games.”
I am curiously heartened by this. I’ve contributed toward the problem, of course, by awarding Modern Warfare five stars – a decision I stand by. But I am also a huge fan of indie and art games; I was transfixed by Robin Hunickie’s explanation of thatgamecompany’s beautifully strange Journey at GameCity just a week before I reviewed MW3.
I want new, innovative games too. It could be that gamers are undergoing a process of genre fatigue; it might be something to do with this console life cycle coming to an end. A sort of fin de siècle ennui.
“People are looking for someone to revitalise the FPS genre,” says MacDonald. “There was a hope that, because this was another Infinity Ward title, MW3 might go further, like the first game – but it didn’t. And although it’s a pleasing game and critically it’s great, it’s solid, there’s a feeling of disappointment that it’s not more than we expected. Someone will be looking to step into this space – it should have been Battlefield really, but someone is surely looking to please these people who are so fed up with Modern Warfare.”
At the very least, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is out on Friday. A vast, ambitious RPG that seeks to create an infinite number of quests, which will embrace every individual gamer. Is it sufficiently different from Elder Scrolls IV? Does that matter when ambition and scale are such a major part of the package? How do we approach that paradigm as reviewers?
One thing there mustn’t be is an irreparable disconnect between game journalists and game buyers. We should be in this together – if we’re not communicating about games in the same way, something quietly terrible has happened.
This article originally appeared in Guardian.co.uk.