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Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Reflex

6:00 PM on 11.16.2009 // Jonathan Holmes

I don't generally like wartime FPSes. In fact, I'd say that the "normal guy with guns shooting other normal guys with guns" genre is my least favorite in all of videogame-dom, starting with GoldenEye on up. I understand their appeal, but on the whole, games like this lack the many things I love in a videogame (character graphic design, creative power-ups, boss fights, item-based puzzle solving, obstacle course-style level design, surrealism, comedy, horror, etc.) and in their place are the trappings of "mainstream" entertainment that I turn to videogames to avoid (Hollywood action movie logic, explosions for the sake of explosions, attempts to turn real-life tragedies into entertainment, reliance on team-based competitiveness, etc.).

So if I'm such a non-fan of the series, why am I the one to review Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Reflex? Well, because this version of the game was made specifically for people like me -- people who aren't already fans of this subset of the FPS genre. If you are a fan of the Call of Duty games, then you bought Modern Warfare on one of the HD consoles two years ago, and are likely knee-deep in Modern Warfare 2 as we speak. No, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Reflex isn't for preexisting Call of Duty fans; it's for fans-to-be (at least, from Activision's perspective).

Hit the jump to see if the game succeeded in making a Call of Duty-loving man out of me.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Reflex (Wii)
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
MSRP: $49.99

I'll come clean: I haven't played a lot of the original release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. I gave the game a shot shortly after release, like I do every hugely popular, highly praised game. Sadly, I didn't have any fun. I got shot a lot, and I shot some other guys too, but I was bored. I didn't care if I won or lost, or about the fake war I saw on the screen. I could tell that the game was well-made, but it definitely wasn't made for me.

Modern Warfare Reflex isn't much of a change from the original, but there is some new stuff here that makes the game a little more palatable to me. There are also some losses that will make this version of the game worse for existing fans of the series. Overall, though, this is my preferred version of Modern Warfare, but not by a lot.

One of the things that both games have in common is their storyline, or lack thereof. Maybe I zoned out or something, but the plot to this game seemed to be completely missing. Sure, major stuff happens, but it doesn't seem to mean anything. There are a few recurring characters, and some events definitely tie together in some way, but by and large, there are no relationships, themes, or ideas here; just a series of narrative justifications for shooting people and seeing stuff blow up. The game has a lot to do with nuclear war and international power struggles. I assumed before playing that this may lead to some Metal Gear Solid-style intrigue and character development. Instead, I got a bunch of cookie-cutter "death before dishonor" soldier stereotypes, foreign terrorists, and... yeah, that's about it. It's almost like Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer made this game.

Thankfully, that's a connection that cuts both ways. Like in a vapid Bay film, the paper-thin plot manages to take the player to some truly interesting-looking places. Russian countrysides, Middle Eastern cities, abandoned amusement parks, moving helicopters, war-torn highways, empty apartment buildings, and active television studios are just a few of the places you'll go on your non-stop killing spree. Missions usually require you to rescue someone, kill someone, snipe something, or just move from point A to point B, but there are quite a few surprising variations on those themes. The game's characters and story may be generic, but the actually follow-through is anything but. There are some things done here with playable character death and wholesale destruction that will definitely make you stand up and take notice. You may not particularly care about anyone in the world of Modern Warfare, but that doesn't make the world any less entertaining.

Sound enough like 2012 yet? Well, it gets better (or worse, depending on your perspective). Like in most box-office blockbusters, death in Modern Warfare Reflex is a completely abstract, non-threatening issue. In a move that has become commonplace in games like this, the traditional videogame life bar has been replaced with an HUD death-detector system. If you are getting shot, a little red crescent will show up on-screen, indicating where you're getting shot from. If the screen really starts to turn red (like, all bloodshot and filled with veins), then you're really close to death. No big deal, though, as every playable character in Modern Warfare has an unexplained, illogical healing factor. Just get yourself to a safe place and don't get shot for a few seconds, and you'll be back to full health. John McClane and Wolverine ain't got nothing on these indestructible bastards.

Yeah, playable characters in Modern Warfare are pretty tough (until their scripted deaths, that is), but NPCs drop like flies. The first few missions of the game involve the player working with a squad of five to ten friendly NPCs, whom you are not allowed to murder. I'd say that at least two-thirds of my "deaths" on these early missions came from shooting a "friendly" character who, from a distance, looked exactly like an enemy soldier. I guess one could say that kind of problem adds to the "realism" of the game, but that would just be making excuses. In real life, you don't instantly die if you accidentally shoot your friend. I never saw it happen to a Hollywood action hero, either. Then again, who cares? Like all deaths in the game, death by bad karma just leads to re-spawning twenty or so feet from where you died. Like I've been telling you, nothing can really kill the playable characters of Modern Warfare. To them, death is just a minor inconvenience.

It can be annoying to die over and over again in the same place, though, which generally only happened to me when I stopped being creative in my exploration of the environment. Ah, and what great environments they are, with tons of horizontal and vertical exploration to spare. Modern Warfare's maps are expertly crafted, and as such, being in the right place at the right time means everything. Initially, I was put off by the game's lack of enemy variety (soldiers, dogs, and the occasional helicopter or tank make up most of the opposing forces), but that was before I figured out that the terrain is the design variable here. Finding how to make the map work for you is always a deciding factor in the game's hundreds of battles.

This emphasis on map design and rapid respawn/health regeneration, and de-emphasis on enemy variety and serious storytelling are all connected. The thing that unifies them is the truth about the modern Western FPS: these games are all about multiplayer. Why bother developing your characters or designing a bunch of different enemies when the real point of the game is to hop online and kill other people? If that's all your game is about, all you need are some beautifully structured maps and a way to keep players in the action (instead of hunting around for health replenishing items). Give everybody healing factors and get that bandwidth paid for, and you're good to go.

Modern Warfare Reflex is well aware of the importance of its online capabilities, and as such, it delivers arguably the most well-rounded online FPS experience on the Wii. Even for a non-fan like myself, Modern Warfare Reflex's online can be extremely addicting. If you suck at the game at first, that's okay; you'll still gather enough experience points after a few fights to increase your rank. Pull off a kill streak, and you're rewarded with even more points. There are multiple in-game perks for killing more than you're killed, both in-game and out-game. Sure, death isn't a big deal in the world of Modern Warfare, but building your rank is, and death is a major detriment to that. You may not care at all how many times you die in campaign mode, but in multiplayer, staying alive and pulling up your rank can start to mean everything to you.

In a weird move, this Wii port of the game lacks the ability to chat with other players via the Wii Speak peripheral. This won't mean a lot to people who are only in it for deathmatch, but for gamers who want to team up with friends online who don't have with Skype or another means to chat with friends while gaming, the lack of in-game chat could be a deal-breaker.

Perhaps to make up for this glaring omission, Modern Warfare Reflex allows for more in the way of local co-op than the original game did. In the campaign mode, a second player can pick up a Wii Remote at any time and join in on the violence with their own set of crosshairs. This gives player two the feeling of playing an on-rails shooter, while player one maintains total control over character movement. For "pro-social" living room gamers who can't be hogging the family TV with their gaming habits, this mode could make all the difference. It's not always easy to get the father/mother/husband/wife in your life to okay a new game purchase, and being able to say "I promise I won't play it online all night, Dad/Mom/Honey! This is a game we can play together!" might just be enough to sway a disinterested family member towards making this game an exception.

Co-op actually did make a big difference in my enjoyment of the game. Being able to play a game simultaneously with my significant other is a must sometimes in adult life, especially when you only have one TV in the house. That, along with my preference for IR-controlled aiming over analog stick aiming, is the reason I can see myself coming back to Modern Warfare Reflex periodically. Still, those features didn't do enough to turn me into a full-fledged fan of the genre, and it's hard to imagine that pre-existing Call of Duty fans wouldn't be happier with a game that had in-game voice chat and HD graphics.

Basically, Wii owners who have the same taste in games as I do will like Modern Warfare Reflex more than most "regular" Modern Warfare fans would, but not by that much. Other than the SD graphics, variations on multiplayer, and pointer controls, this is still Modern Warfare. It's still the first game in the most popular series that this particular genre has ever seen. Not enough has changed about the game, for better or worse, to make a dent in that.

Score: 8.0 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)

Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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