Why Modern Warfare 3 Remains An Un-Game

Why Modern Warfare 3 Remains An Un-Game

Republished from Rock, Paper Shotgun.

Last Wednesday Kotaku republished (with permission, of course) my review of Modern Warfare 3′s single player campaign. A review in which I described it as an “un-game with a core of nastiness”. This caught the attention of Kill Screen’s Brendan Keogh, who wrote a riposte to my piece on the Australian K, in which he called me, in the nicest possible way, an “un-player”, and detailed why he believed my article was incorrect. He perhaps slightly misunderstood, so here is my reply:

Dear Brendan,

Indeed, I don’t think we’ve talked, but I’m sure you’re super-lovely. High five! Also, I agree that I’m endlessly awesome! But let’s not get distracted. To the matter in hand. I’m not sure you really noticed what I wrote in my review, and thus have missed why I am criticising Modern Warfare 3. Let me explain again exactly what is wrong with the un-game.

The core of your response is to explain that I was wrong to demand more freedom from a game such as Call Of Duty, that I condemned linearity, refused to cooperate with it, and that I therefore played the game wrong(ly). The problem is, I didn’t say any such thing at any point. In fact, the words “freedom” and “linear” don’t appear in the entire two thousand words.

The nub of the core of my problems with Modern Warfare 3 have nothing to do with desiring open-world freedom nor railing (geddit) against linearity, hence my mentioning neither. They have to do with that it’s barely a game. It is, as you suggest, a rollercoaster. Except I would qualify this and say it is more like one of those water rides, where you sit in the slowly drifting boat as it wends its way past a series of animated dioramas, please keep your arms and legs inside the boat at all times. No standing. Apart from when you should.

Where you recognise the game’s successes, I do too. Repeatedly I celebrate the skill with which the sheer scale and volume are delivered. We do not seem to be in disagreement about the exceptionally high standards of the show we’re sat still, watching. I happened not to enjoy the show, which I found wearyingly bombastic and hollow, all style and a void of substance. Where I contend the game falls short is in actually being a game. I’m fascinated to learn what it might have been that you actually enjoyed doing.

If spectacle is what you wanted from MW3, then clearly you would have been delighted with the result. Spectacle, as the name suggests, being something you stare at in a non-participatory way. Which, I would suggest, is the very definition of my newly coined term (that I now fully expect to see appearing in one of those end-of-year Times articles that lists the new words in the parlance), un-game.

My issue here has nothing whatsoever to do with having my freedom restricted. In fact, in a narrative FPS the very last thing I want is abundant freedom. While I express my frustration in my review of not being able to choose where next to go (and I concede the word “where” is ambiguous), I do not mean choose from passage A, B or C, nor want to tramp off over the barren countryside, but merely wish to be able to choose to walk forward. Corridor shooters have been one of gaming’s greatest genres in all its lifetime, from the joy of realising it was a possibility in mazes like Wolf 3D, to the spectacular fixed-rail rollercoaster rides of the Half-Life Episodes. Not having a choice about which direction to go in is never a problem when there’s only one direction you want to go in.

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You raise that I expect to be in a more significant position when playing a game. So it is that I make the point that MW3 not only doesn’t cast you as the hero in the game, but the lowliest of grunts, who is given the minimal amount to do after the NPCs have had the real fun. It is argued by many that not every game has to make you the hero, and that following orders is not necessarily an anathema to enjoyable gaming. I agree. But if you are not allowed to live out that fantasy of being the spectacular hero in spectacular circumstances, then there should be something else in place to ensure that you’re having an entertaining time. (Let me stress that “entertaining” does not mean “fun” or “happy” — it can just as easily be “heart-breaking” or “shocking”.) In Modern Warfare 3 there is not. You follow those who are actually playing, and sweep up after them. It’s the gaming equivalent of being a janitor, and while I’m in no doubt that an obscure German developer is currently working on Advanced Janitor Simulator, it’s not exactly what I seek when wanting to play something.

And here’s the thing. Here’s the massively overriding, all-destroying, critique-exploding thing: Modern Warfare 3 is a game that even stops your progression through the corridor. It is an un-game in which a closed door means you must stand still. An un-game in which it is not possible to head down the only available route until the rest of your squad has been through that tunnel first. It is a series of visible and invisible walls, that you incessantly bang your nose against, because you haven’t stood still and watched. I’m not arguing for the freedom to explore a procedurally generated expanse of Paris. I’m asking for the ability to walk in the straight line it’s pretending to offer. In this game, even this isn’t available.

Let alone that the un-game constantly contradicts itself. This is extremely serious, and I believe emblematic of the game’s poor design. There is a serious lack of consistency about the rules it wants you to obey, and as such if there was any contravention of the game’s rules on my part, it was only because I was trying to obey them. I made the point about “follow” because of its constant fixture on your screen. It so gallingly underlines just what a subservient role you’re in — and it’s not a subservience to the game’s plot or characters, but to the code of the game itself. Don’t play, just follow. Except for when it wants you to ignore the “follow”, and take a step forward so it can trigger the next event. I can think of no better example of that than here. Apologies, Brendan, that my voice is so quiet behind the game’s shouting.

(Yes, it says to follow the tanks, but it also says to stay close, and since in 90% of the game your wandering ahead means instant death, I was waiting for my team to take their usual lead. And clearly I meant Society, not Species.)

So rather than walk onto the foot-to-ball pitch with a cricket bat, I walked into an FPS expecting the basics of what the FPS offered for decades, and lamented that MW3 appears to have taken the degradation of player involvement that such games have experienced in recent years, and for majority of the game reduced it to the point where I’m not sure the word “game” is any longer appropriate. It’s the Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Show. Please turn your mouse for alternative views.

I at no point wished for “emergent gameplay” or whatever other terms one might suggest. I never believed that I should be able to wander to the left instead of the right, unless the left was presented to me as an open route. I never asked the game to offer me more than a corridor and a role to play, and it so frequently offered me neither. And that is why Modern Warfare 3 is an un-game, and why I absolutely did not play it incorrectly. I think we can agree that I certainly did not use “freedom as a metric for a game’s quality”, since I never mentioned freedom, nor argued for it. Instead, I did not find buildings repeatedly falling over a large enough distraction to disguise the fact that I was barely playing. I was not refusing to cooperate with it. It was refusing to let me play it. And I believe that noise and explosions are not a substitute for player involvement. You may keep your Professor Burp’s Bubbleworks games, but I would like to argue for better.

Yours sincerely,

John Walker

John Walker is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world’s best sites for PC gaming news. John is Britain’s leading adventure gaming specialist. Follow him on Twitter.
Republished with permission.


  • He’s spot on. This game leaves so much to be desired, and is a side-step, if not a step backwards in fps gaming.

    • And my frustration for the game can be summed up by the number of times I “did something wrong” in the games eyes which would result in me instantly dying or the AI pushing me out of the way and me replying with a swift “Hey, F— you!”

      Or the number of times I mentally noted “Ooo look, they want me to open the door, time for another shitty slow-motion breach”

        • You think MW3 singleplayer was bad? It’s an absolute gem compared to BF3’s singleplayer.

          Back on topic:
          Most of the things he talks about stem from having a team to follow. I don’t see how this game is any different from something like Half Life (except the puzzles) or FEAR or bioshock. Yes they have differnt styles but they are all based around walking forward killing things then opening the next door.
          So would the author’s problems dissapear if he was playing solo without a team or if he was leading the team?
          Where is the arbitrary line that distinguishes a game from a cutscene?
          In the end its the nature of the beast – you either have scripted events or an endless uninterupted corridor of enemies.
          Maybe we can stop refering to them as games and more as entertainment experiences. Would that help?
          What I dont get is why COD is being singled out for this un-game distinction when almost every other FPS in the last few years does something similar.
          Seems to me like the author just doesn’t like being told what to do.

          • BF3’s single-player campaign was actually a nice refreshing change from what MW2/3’s campaigns have become. It had a slower pace, fewer waves of respawning enemies, less scripted sequences, better AI, more realistic shooting mechanics, better sound, better graphics, and it was more down-to-earth in general. It had a few rough-spots with enemies that could kill me too quickly, but that’s the only thing that bothered me.

            IMO. 🙂

          • Totally. The MW3 gun models and shooting mechanics made me cringe. I tried playing the co-op mode and the entire game looks like a cell-shaded khaki dog shit compared to BF3. There is NO recoil on guns what so ever.

            The game is designed to make the player feel like an absolute indestructable hero – I guess this is why it is popular. I bet players just sit there, staring blankly at the Michael Bay unrealistic multiplayer and probably wouldn’t even notice a big 4 foot double ender being inserted into them.

          • Hah no way Half Life and Bioshock were infinitely better SP experiences than CoD. In Bioshock the variation came in the way you approached each fight, set traps for people, hack bots etc. There is just no room to breath in MW3 and BF3’s campaigns. I want to take a minute to relax ya know.

          • Your team in cod are just indestructable actors. Maybe it could be less of an un game (yes feeding writers ego) if you actually had to make decisions to save team mates in the action and your skill to do so would be rewarded with their help later in the game. situations/dialogue changing based on who is left in your squad etc. Just saying…

        • I loved SP, it was one of the best SP-FPS experiences. compared to BF it was light years ahead. short but fun and exiting missions.

          • I agree with the sound. And the graphics are a given I guess. However I found the campain to be just as scripted (more in some parts, less in others) and the AI just as stupid. I find scripted sequences better than scripted enemies.
            I played both on PC btw if that matters.
            I gave up on BF3’s campain during Operation Guilloteen where I had to run through a small opening between rocks (there was nowhere else to go) and neither friendly or enemy NPCs would advance. And since i was playing on Hard running out into the open ment near instant death since the enemies never miss.
            after about 30min of trying to pass that portion of the level I gave up. As far as i remeber there wasnt even a “reduce difficulty” button in the menu. And i sure as hell couldnt be bothered doing the annyoing jet fighter level again.
            Basically i found BF3 was trying to be MW3 and failing. It wasnt exciting and it wasnt fun.
            Multiplayer is of course a different story and it’s really where these games become very different.

          • My issue with BF3 was that it was almost too hard at times. Like, you start off from transitions with guys right in front of you already shooting at you with the potential to die very quickly. It was kinda frustrating. That said, who expected much..? Some of it was cool, like the scene in the F/A-18, which was pretty much that – a scene – but it looked cool and was slightly tense. I also wish they had a training mode for vehicle operation, which you’re just expected to try and fail in multi player. Behh, haven’t yet played MW3 but I get the criticisms totally, though I think there’s nothing wrong with watching some garbage from time to time.

    • And Keogh’s piece didnt come across as a ‘Nuh-uh!” to you?

      All good back and forth, mind you, but its just a “Yeah-huh” to a “Nuh-uh”

      Cawadooty PC masterrace butterfeld: free Skyrim, etc.

        • Keoghs piece barely responded to the criticisms in the original article. The author was their forced to restate their position. Not a nuh uh so much as a call to actually respod to what was said.

          • +1 Keogh having to resort to an ad-hominen attack is not just lazy but indicative of most of his work, his reads as though he just wanted a platform to yell from and this was suitable enough. Then again it seems like both of them are on their soapbox just crying out for attention. lulz

          • This.
            I understood his points the first time around and after reading the counter-argument-article I was left thinking “wait… what article is he responding to here?”

            I think this follow up/explanation is probably more clear, but people will still likely not pay close enough attention to what is said but instead will either say “YEAH MW3 Sux!” or “You guise R just HATERZ” 😛

  • While I can see where he’s coming from, I feel as though a lot of what he’s commenting on can also be directed at every other corridor shooter ever made. It’s an interesting dilemma that’s articulated quite well here – how to really differentiate the game experience from a more passive one?

    I’m not sure if I completely agree with what he’s saying. But it’s still good to have someone say it.

  • Arguments aside, I don’t like the tone of this.
    Keogh’s article made a point to disagree with Walker in what seemed like the nicest way possible, and Walker responds by throwing that back in his face with an extra helping of snark and indignation.
    I read this and I see Walker just being angry at Keogh for writing a public rebuttal to his original article. (How dare he!)

    If Walker feels like he needs to say more to reinforce his argument against the game than he has every right to do so, but there’s no need to be so nasty about it, especially towards a colleague.

    Respect is a two-way street, John Walker.

    • I didn’t think it was nasty at all. He refuted Brendan’s arguments, backed up his own, and most importantly didn’t call Brendan anything. Unlike Brendan, who called John an unplayer.

      I don’t know where everyone is reading the snark from.

  • All this wank. It’s just a game. It’s not the worlds best game, but it’s a decent shooter. It’s not Half Life 2, but it’s a game. It’s not an un-game. So much unnecessary hate for CoD, which is ridiculous.

  • In your review you say: “In fact Modern Warfare 3 seems to make special effort, more-so than ever before, to literally shove you out of the way if you ever get ideas above your station.”

    And then you contradict that by saying: “[I agree that] that not every game has to make you the hero, and that following orders is not necessarily an anathema to enjoyable gaming.”

    I also think you’re forgetting the biggest thing about Modern Warfare 3 in your review: the shooting! You say you don’t have the ability to walk in a straight line, but you act as if you don’t aim either. Sure, if you don’t shoot, I could see the merit in the term ‘un-game’, but the fact is you do, and you do find enemies to shoot.

    Not to mention that you’re treating the single-player as representative of the whole game. Even if the single-player mode was just one continuous cut-scene, that doesn’t make the game an un-game. By that logic Team Fortress isn’t a game.

    • If the single player was one cut-scene, it wouldn’t be a game. It wouldn’t be a cut-scene; it would be a movie.

      Team Fortress is a game.

      • Why, yes, the single-player would be a movie, but the /multi-player mode would still exist/.

        Say there are two games, A and B. Both games have equal quality multiplayer – but game A has a movie for a single-player mode and game B has only a multiplayer mode. Game A is still a game though, because it has a multi-player mode! You can’t say something isn’t a game by only playing part of it.

        Another example: if I only watch cutscenes in a Tekken game, I don’t get any free roam. But it’s still a game!

  • I can think of a gaming situation that a lot of us may have experienced that would translate his message for those still not grappling with it:

    Remember that game from like last generation you know PS2, XBOX era and so on… It’s an action game, a pretty decent one too. Eventually you get to the ‘stealth level’ where instead of just shooting everybody you now have to avoid enemies to pass the mission. You think “cool they’re changing things up” But after a while the level becomes dull and frustrating, not because it’s stealth in an action game, but because what amounts to stealth in this level is for you to do everything exactly as before, only in a certain order, which by coincidence makes you unseen, and a few more lose scenarios thrown in.

    That’s what he’s talking about. You can run around and shoot and yell and pretend to be a guy in a global war, but as soon as you would do something that wasn’t what the developers thought you would do, it tries to bump along like a play when the actor forgets his lines.

  • John should play it on veteran then see how much of a corridor it is.

    If you suck at FPS and you play on recruit or regular (which I’m assuming he did) you’re invincible. You kill everything and wait for your team to catch you.

    Play on a more realistic difficulty setting and then see how much you’re waiting for the game, and how much the game is waiting for you.

    He is still an un-gamer.

    • Don’t get too excited about any of CoD games on veteran – it’s not that hard. It’s just a matter of patience. You crouch behind cover more often, and for a little longer. Stand up, shoot, get hit, duck, wait, stand up, shoot, etc.

    • There is a lot more to gameplay than difficulty. The capability by which somebody can shoot the enemy doesn’t change how the game itself is played, you simply now need to have quicker reactions and a better self-awareness.

      Demon’s Souls isn’t good because it’s hard, it’s because it’s challenging.
      A proper Chess game played by the rules is no less a game if the players are amateurs, nor are these amateurs not chess players.

      The writer and many others here are comparing MW’s single-player to watching a movie. I’d go further… It’s a toy, a fun toy, but as with almost every toy: You’re playing with it, it doesn’t play back.

  • Sounds like the piss-poor rantings of another elitist wanker that can’t enjoy a game unless they can practically live a double life in it.

  • I followed this exchange from early its life. I can respect Johns views, though I don’t necessarily agree with them. I also thought Brendan’s rebuttal was respectful and well executed. Where I started to have a problem was when the community from RPS seemed to dismiss Keoghs article in order to ‘look after their own’. Johns re-rebuttal, comes off as snarky, which wasn’t warranted. It also emits a certain aura of damaged pride.

  • Gotta agree with him as well.

    For the most part, yes it’s balls out spectacle, and that may very well appeal to those players who need nothing more than something to look at while they obediently follow the game’s narrative. But what about the player actually doing something other than following along to mop up the baddies?

    Just like Black Ops, MW3 is a bland ass game which holds little appeal for me personally. If you like it then fair enough. Play it.

    For the record I enjoyed Battlefield 3’s campaign. It wasn’t so over stated. Or at least the way it developed came across as a little understated. I liked that. It was fun.

    I suppose I may now be a little biased towards DICE’s brilliant creation, given that I enjoy both the campaign and multiplayer of both immensely. Yet I’ve played CoD’s from way back when until now and to be quite honest, Modern Warfare (CoD 4) and World @ War are probably the only two modern iterations I found playable. The rest – Meh.

  • You know, lack of freedom in a game and linearity are reasonable complaints, when we’re talking about a 3D environment that the game is meant to simulate and represent.

    Whether or not you said so, the lack of choices inherent in a Wait-in-Line shooter game like MW3 is anathema to strategy. Railshooters are exciting detours for 20 minutes, but who wants a 12 hour rail-shooter? MW3 is more or less built like a railshooter with no score bonus and no jump-in features.

    Even when a game IS purely on rails as, say, House of the Dead or Maximum Force, you’re not left in the lurch trying to pick up the game’s awkward cues about when to move forward or not – you’re left to look for enemies attacking in creative and sudden ways and to look for openings to grab extra items as a pure action routine. Asking players to press a button to move forward is just giving them control over a pointless feature that impacts actual player engagement in the smallest degree imaginable.

    • A rail shooter is still a game. A rail shooter with stunning scenery is an even better one. Calling it an un-game isnt a criticism of the gameplay, it is saying that there is no gameplay there. Thats (for the lack of a better term) retarded. Thats like calling a politician with bad policies an un-politician, or food that isnt to your tastes un-food. Its meaningless and stupid. Is pong a game? What about mario? i preferred the gameplay in MW3 to pong does that make pong an un-game? What about the rest of the CoD games? They were all similarly built (shoot some guys, advance, plant bomb on something, watch it explode) are all CoD’s un-games? ARMA has a follow point on the ground for you to remain in formation, it is a military simulation after all. Where does he draw the line? You have to stop to breach doors in SWAT4, it must be an ungame too? How many fantastic games do exactly what he accuses this supposed un-game of doing?

      Can someone point this out to the fellow? Or revoke his blogging license?

  • Yeah, I see where he’s coming from. I think the problem with the COD franchise is that it became more about spectacle than gameplay (excluding the fairly tight multiplayer, of course – but really this hasn’t changed much since the first MW).

    They’ve been trying their best to rail people down hallways – and it’s not something exclusive to COD – it’s just that they’d started putting more value in designing the explosions rather than designing the game world.

    People who say otherwise should play Half-Life 2 (and ep.1 & 2) with the developer commentary on to get an insight on how meaningful design choices are made, and the thought that goes into giving a player a carefully disguised corridor instead of a blatantly obvious one.

    And imho, I think Dead Space 2 did a far better job of linking epic set pieces together in a tightly scripted corridor shooter than the last few COD games I’ve played.

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