Let me tell you how it used to go down in Wetwork on Veteran in Modern Warfare 2. Materialising conveniently on the oil rig, we’d breach the first room and save the first set of hostages. Then we’d gun into easeful death the gang of enemies outside, duck back into the room to pick up a Stinger, cap some more guys coming round the corner, and daintily deploy a lot of claymores around the bottom of the stairs. We’d go up the stairs and dash to cover under a tempest of bullets. I’d missile the helicopter in its searchlighty face, then we’d sprint back downstairs, luring our silly gun-toting pursuers through what we came to fondly call ‘Claymore Village’, chuckling at the soft booms of mines going off. And that was just the beginning of an elaborate plan. My comrade had a penchant for accidentally shooting hostages in the terrified eyes during the very last breach, which meant dozens of replays of the mission, each lasting half an hour. But we didn’t mind, because within the basic structure of our plan things would play out differently, and it would always be enjoyable to improvise a solution.
Or take Wardriving: once we’d sanitised the suburban street with the help of the lovably named Honey Badger tiny tank, it was all about setting up a defence in each house before starting the download that would trigger hordes of uncivil aggressors. What guns should we choose? Where should we put the claymores? How best to deploy the sentry guns? (Ah, I did love my turrets. A few months ago I passed a house in Spain with a ground-floor garage, and my first thought was: ‘Good place to put a sentry gun.’)
Some of the tensest moments, leading to the sweetest victories, were the finite wave-defence missions, such as Sniper Fi and Homeland Security. We had all the toys (thermal scopes, turrets and the Predator), and just needed to hunker down and survive a set number of increasingly ferocious killstorms. Getting to the ten-second period of downtime before the final wave, and wondering if we could do it, induced real adrenaline-pumping suspense.
And then Modern Warfare 3 gaily ballsed it up. All the wave-defence missions have been shunted into the new Spec Ops Survival mode and made unwinnable, because there are theoretically infinitely many waves. This rips all the suspense out of them, and makes them profoundly boring. (If you’re going to go infinite-unwinnable like a ’70s arcade game, it doesn’t make any sense to call it a ‘mission’, which implies that success is at least possible. If there is zero possibility of survival, be frank and call it ‘Suicide Ops’.) And the regular missions are tear-jerkingly devoid of turrets, while offering just five claymores on a single mission (Server Crash), whose defend-the-basement moment is the last vestigial remnant of what was so enjoyable in MW2. Essentially, the whole idea of inventive defence has been thrown out of the window.
Some reviewers of MW3 declared, mysteriously, that the Spec Ops mode had been ‘improved’. I guess they were just impressed by the shiny yet superficial ‘feature’ improvements, such as a new mode or the increase in vehicular pandemonium, and didn’t have the time to devote dozens of hours to co-op play to discover that it is more shallow. There are still gorgeous killspree moments, of course: the submarine assault, Over Reactor, is moodily frantic enough to justify (for once) a time limit; while Flood The Market, an attack on the New York Stock Exchange, is glass-shatteringly thrilling – and an amusingly explosive literalisation of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Nonetheless, overall MW3 does something instructively wrong. Whereas I have previously sneered at modern games’ ambition to become circus-like aggregators, bundling disparate game styles into one desperate-to-entertain campaign, MW3’s mistake in Spec Ops is exactly the opposite. It has disaggregated the various modes of strategic and tactical combat – the alternating rhythms of attacking gunplay, downtime, planning and just barely bloody hanging on – that were fused in its predecessor’s best missions, and quarantined them into modes, one of which is pointless except for the consumerist purpose of levelling up.
In sum, MW3 leaves less room for tactical creativity, which is just what its forebear’s missions encouraged: designing the joyfully fatal architecture of Claymore Village; curating optimal turret placements in Wardriving or Body Count; and, just for kicks, winning the we’ll-be-like-ghosts-in-this-blizzard Acceptable Losses in two ways, with perfect stealth and by murdering every last snow-suited fool in the whole airbase. (Plus, for good measure, smashing up the planes.) I fondly hope MW3 might give us more of what we want in DLC, but at the moment it is just less interested in our tactical creativity. The sad consequence, as for any game that restricts the player’s range of expression, is that we are less interested in it. In the meantime, in rosy memory I hear the sweet echo of my own hoarsely hysterical scream, which never alerted a single enemy soldier: “Planting claymore!”
Illustration: Marsh Davies