Modern Warfare 3: Can a video game be both rote and tasteless?

Modern Warfare 3 feels both rote and tasteless.

My kids, Charlie? What about my kids? (Right now, I am picturing you dressed as Doc Brown from Back to the Future, stuffing trash into a Mr. Fusion.) I have a 17-month-old daughter, and we’re trying not to let her watch TV until she’s 2, so I haven’t really thought much about this question yet, other than the general hope that 1) we’ll limit her screen time somewhat and 2) that she and I will play video games together someday. But right now I’m more concerned about alphabetical literacy than gaming literacy.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. © 2011 Activision Publishing, Inc. Activision, Call of Duty, and Modern Warfare are registered trademarks of Activision Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

But you can count me as the third vote for Batman: Arkham City as the probable “best” (or most perfect, or well-made) game of 2011. But I haven’t finished it yet, nor have I finished Skyrim, so I reserve the right to change my mind. The annual glut of pre-Christmas releases, which Michael mentioned, is the biggest reason it is so difficult to assess these games every December. A journalist once explained the problem to me this way (I think he was channeling someone in the industry, but I can’t say for sure): Game publishers have a Hasbro mentality instead of a Paramount mentality. Like toymakers, they push to publish everything in the few weeks before Christmas, instead of staking out “tent-pole weekends” throughout the calendar for their big franchises. That’s changing, but it’s not changing fast enough. (Put another way, David Denby’s problems are nothing compared with Seth Schiesel’s.)

So I’ll answer Tom’s question about the best-made game with a bit of a dodge (though to be fair, he dodged it himself, by picking two games). Here’s my list.

Favorite game: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Broken but gorgeous and full of surprises.

“Best” game: Arkham City or Skyrim. Get back to me in 2014 when I’ve finished them both.

Most important game: L.A. Noire. Just as Heavy Rain was probably the most important—but not the best—game of 2010, L.A. Noire is the most important game of 2011, because of its use of the facial recognition software that Michael and Charlie mentioned. It’s worth noting that the actors’ facial expressions were recorded, using a system similar to motion capture, rather than drawn by animators. My understanding is that the system, at this early stage, required a sort of theatrical overdoing it on the part of the actors, who weren’t able to deliver truly realistic (or cinematic) performances. But for the first time in any game, L.A. Noire delivered believable nonverbal acting. That’s just as important as better script writing. In L.A. Noire, characters don’t have to say anything to get their point across. This is a major achievement, one that will change video games forever.

(And Charlie, it’s not your low emotional intelligence that made you struggle with the interrogations. They just don’t work. It’s as simple as that.)

Most disappointing game: Uncharted 3. The shipwreck level inspired by The Poseidon Adventure might have been my favorite gaming experience of the year, but on the whole, the series went off the rails this time (and not “in service of beauty,” as Michael so nicely described El Shaddai). It’s always been an overstatement to describe Uncharted as the Raiders of the Lost Ark of video games. It’s closer to National Treasure. And this is what National Treasure 3 would look like, had they made it. I wish I had taken notes about all the game’s head-shaking moments of plotting, dialogue, and characterization. The one that sticks with me the most is the scene in which Our Gang escapes the latest Band of Thousands of Henchmen merely by getting into a waiting bus. In the end, Uncharted 3 is enjoyable despite itself—beautifully shot but fundamentally stupid.

What other loose threads do we have to tie up? Michael asked about Nintendo. Like Tom, I have to plead ignorance. I own a Wii, but I rarely touch it. Skyward Sword piqued my interest, but Mitch Krpata—a Gaming Club alumnus who is, for the record, right about nearly everything—scared me off. (He suggests that it takes at least six hours for the game to get good.) I promise I’ll give it a shot eventually. Super Mario 3D Land, too.

But not before I finish Shadows of the Damned, which I started today based on Tom’s recommendation. Now there’s a game that knows how to grab you in the first 15 minutes.

Should we say anything about Modern Warfare 3? It is, as expected, the most popular entertainment product in history, as measured by non-inflation-adjusted dollars. I suppose it’s up to me, as the defender of Modern Warfare 2, to stand up for it, if anyone is going to. But MW3’s opening scenes—a firefight involving a Delta Force unit in Lower Manhattan—managed to feel both rote and tasteless, if such a thing is possible. (Yes, I am aware the game may have suffered because Jason West and Vince Zampella left Infinity Ward for Respawn.)

That’s all I’ve got, gentlemen. I’ll see you all at MMMGIRL 2012!