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There’s no “Me” in “Kill Streaks”, but there should be

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

For a multiplayer game that offers so many game modes centered around the conceit of teams battling teams, some of Call of Duty‘s kill streak rewards  since the first Modern Warfare are very odd beasts in regards to what they’re meant to accomplish and what they incentivize. One could argue that Call of Duty‘s kill streak rewards were never meant to incentivize anything but player performance. In theory, these rewards are ultimately a useful motivator because veteran players attain that quick moment of satisfaction, and newer and more unexperienced players use the frequency of kill streaks they rack up as both a short-term goal to achieve and as moment-to-moment skill gauge.

 

 

I’m not saying all of Black Ops’ rewards are odd. I’ve always liked the UAV (Spy Plane in this one) reward because it provided a beneficial effect to the player’s team that was never felt too overpowered. Also, the latest addition of the SR-71 reward is great, in my opinion. The potentially destructive power bestowed by the SR-71 in locating all enemies at all times is still bottlenecked by the skill of the team exploiting the SR-71 to actually hunt down and eliminate their targets. These rewards don’t just generously affect the player’s entire team, they also emphasize and promote teamwork, providing cover fire, and mitigation of attrition.

The Tactical Nuke of Modern Warfare 2 is long gone (the total elasped time of one year feels like an entire generation when measured against the timeframe of the series’ prolific output), but the specter of what it entailed is still apparent in streak rewards like Chopper Gunner, Attack Dogs, and Gunship. Namely, the three kill streak rewards that rest at the top of reward list. It stands to reason that the only players who are able to hit the 9, 11, and 11 kill streaks, respectively, in order to unlock the reward’s effect are the most skilled in the match, and they attain these streaks by eliminating lesser skilled players.

Whenever I’ve racked up the 8 kills required (Hardline, thanks) to pilot a Chopper Gunner, my initial giddiness will always sour as I realize what I’m doing requires zero skill; enemies are painted in helpful red on the map, and it helps that the mounted machine gun never overheats, spits out insane rounds per second, and can shoot through just about any non-brick surface on the map. What I’m essentially doing is creating an un-level playing field, that, judging by the relative ease with which I obtained such a power, was never level to begin with. I’m in effect punishing the other team for not being as good of a player as I am. The last time I checked, something like this doesn’t fall under good sportsmanship; in real-life terms, this is akin to bullying.

 

 

While these rewards don’t exactly compare with the Tactical Nuke’s ridiculously arbitrary power, they still serve to promote that atmosphere of mean-spiritedness that I feel games like Call of Duty and its inevitable clones have co-opted and relied on more and more with each iteration. As a fan of most first-person shooters, including Call of Duty, I’m not sure I like the overall tone and identity competitive games such as Black Ops are assuming. More worrisome to me is the  selfish, insular psychology that kill streak rewards such as the ones I’ve listed encourages in players. For all the myriad team-based game modes Black Ops offers, there’s very little incentive for players to actually function as a team and coordinate tactics. The “Avenger” experience bonus is awarded only when you kill an enemy after he’s slain one of your teammates and minimal points are given for providing assists. True, there are point boosts for saving a wounded teammate, but that’s the extent of how deep these boosts get; there’s nothing that simultaneously rewards me for blinding an enemy with a flashbang and my teammate for then scoring a kill on him. It gets to a point that I’m not just locked in competition with the enemy team, but also with my teammates. I can safely say that I’m not a bad person for using the Chopper Gunner kill streak, and I’m also not petty for yelling at the teammate who just “stole” my kill, thus reducing my chance to unlock my reward. I use the Chopper Gunner because everyone’s using it, and while I may get additional points for damage inflicted, that stolen kill is one less notch on my KDR belt. And I can justify all of this because team-based game modes are ultimately about attrition, and by dealing out the amount of death I’ve thus created, I’m ultimately helping my team. Or at least, that’s one potential justification.

Please keep in mind that I’m not proposing some kind of egalitarian multiplayer system that rubber-bands the competition and handicaps accurate and strategic players for being “too good”, or however the game might define that within it’s parameters. While writing this, I’m aware of the fact that there will always be a rift between good and bad players, talented and less talented individuals. This is an unavoidable truth affixed to the societal and biological glue that holds our society together. I’m not discounting that. Rather, I’m in favor of more good ideas like the SR-71 that feel rewarding, promote a healthier playing field, and rely on skill to make full effect of. Without getting too political, I think games such as Call of Duty and its ilk have huge educational potential in not so much hard data and facts, but addressing the burgeoning social skills and interactions in younger players and cementing as well as affirming these skills in older, more mature players. Call of Duty and games like it do not need to tone or dumb down its violent subject matter; in the hands of a responsible parent, a first-person shooter has much an averse affect on a child’s development as any R-rated or TV-MA designated show the child will inevitably come across. All I’m saying is that this subject matter needs to be presented with a higher degree of responsibility and good taste. War may tap into some of mankind’s darker aspects, but games, even those based on war, shouldn’t have to.

Modern Warfare 2 already left a bad taste in my mouth by offering the player the “No Russian” stage, which promised thoughtful controversy but only mustered half-postured hand-wringing in the single player campaign, and then allowing the player to have clever tags such as “Joint Operations” and “Blunt Force Trauma” in the multiplayer. Not exactly the apex of the series’ finest moments. Black Ops‘ multiplayer is not so much an improvement over Modern Warfare 2‘s as it is a step backward and then two more steps in a separate direction (almost forgot to mention the Commando perk, which turned even the mousiest of players into Chow Yun-Fat). I like Black Ops, and I’ll continue playing with the Chopper Gunner and “Me versus them” attitude in tow. I just wish there was some way for me to get that lingering bad taste out of my mouth.