Modern Warfare: Developer Showdown

Again, this originally provoked a number of heated responses (apologies for minor grammatical inconsistencies):

I was recently discussing the merits of the two development studios with a Kombo colleague, and to my surprise he disagreed with what I assumed was common knowledge, that Treyarch does a poor job of emulating Infinity Ward's quality in the Call of Duty series. Further research has led me to discover that he is not alone in triumphing the game-creating skills of Treyarch, and I have had to reconsider my opinion of the outfit. Even our very own EIC Ken Cauley found it a tough call to make. For me however, the choice is obvious.

As an owner of every major console Call of Duty release, I feel equipped to judge the differences between the games and the qualities inherent within them. I loved the bombastic mayhem of the original Call of Duty, and at the time I believed was the closest approximation of the chaotic destruction of war I had played. The sequel, an Xbox 360 launch title, was equally impressive, though this was likely in part thanks to the new hardware capabilities and the obvious gulf in technical strength from its predecessor.

So far, so good. These titles were developed by Infinity Ward, a studio that had by now established itself as a premier FPS developer. Call of Duty 3 however, was not to be developed by them; rather it was to be produced by Treyarch, and only partially supervised by Infinity Ward. For many including myself, COD3 represented the first signs of stagnation in the series and my already adjusted expectations for the game were still unfulfilled. The online multiplayer and the linear but competent single-player were ambitious and good enough for a lot of gamers, although critically and commercially the game fell way short of the high benchmark set by the first two games.

Next up was the hugely successful COD4: Modern Warfare, returning to the capable hands of Infinity Ward. The game blew me away and won a number of awards, and it is almost always in the top five most played online console games even now, nearly two years after its original release. The game featured one of the tightest control mechanics on a console FPS and set a precedent in graphics, multiplayer and DLC.

Treyarch was again tasked with following up an Infinity Ward effort, with their 2008 effort COD: World at War. Having been shown how online multiplayer and other innovations could be so seemingly easily implemented (which in my opinion they failed to do so in COD3), I thought perhaps they could meet the challenge. With a new (old?) setting in the form of World War II, Treyarch had plenty of scope for innovation and ways to differentiate the game from COD4. They were even given the excellent Infinity Ward-created COD4 engine to use in the game. Early news and screenshots promised a new focus on fire, vehicles in multiplayer and other interesting ideas, so I eagerly anticipated the release.

When the reviews came flooding in, they were mixed at best. Some reviewers (such as here at Kombo) were forgiving of the game's pitfalls and dished out scores in the region of 90%, while many others were harsher, such as Edge magazine's scathing 6/10 review. The new ideas were poorly implemented, such as the fire and vehicle use, and the game was overall much sloppier and badly-designed than COD4. Indeed, most of what can be praised in COD:WAW can be attributed to Infinity Ward and the high volume of sales also were also likely linked to COD4.

Or so I thought. I had considered elements such as the flawed but fun Nazi Zombies mode as tacked-on and an interesting afterthought to the otherwise boring, broken and underplayed cooperative mission play. I had dismissed the flamethrower and vehicles to the popular but less-appealing world of "normal" online play, while I stuck to the more traditional hardcore mode. I ditched the veteran campaign after the 1000th concurrent grenade was thrown by enemy soldiers, chastising the crude manner in which the difficulty is ramped up. Given that all of the tough stuff had already been done for them, such as gun balancing, control tuning and the bulk of the core back-end programming, I expected that Treyarch's second major attempt at a COD sequel would throw up something better.

I have since been persuaded that through the format of DLC, the COD: WAW experience has been enhanced. By acknowledging that Nazi Zombies was not only broken, but had been criminally overlooked and was deep down bags of fun to play, Treyarch catered to the habit's of gamers and have provided them with glitch-fixing patches and 3 new Zombie maps to play. The terrible co-op play has been largely unsupported, and the Zombie mode has even been promoted to the main menu. Annoyingly, players must buy each map as part of a pack including regular multiplayer maps but nonetheless I am impressed how much DLC can modify a game from an underwhelming, innovation-free cash-in to a game I personally spend a fair amount of time playing. Similarly, by ditching the vehicles in Hardcore mode shortly after release via patch, Treyarch have again listened to the community and addressed a game-changing issue, transforming the game into a decent enough shooter, regardless of the influences and reasons for this success.

While I still look forward to Infinity Ward's releases over those of Treyarch's, (as I firmly believe that Infinity Ward is responsible for the true quality and innovation in the series) with heavy use of gamer-assessed DLC, increased focus on the better innovative aspects (read 'zombies') and more borrowing from Infinity Ward then Treyarch can close the gap in class between the two, and hopefully someday have the confidence to make their own, original 10/10 game. So, does anyone care to convince me further that Treyarch isn't as bad as I first thought, or am I right in thinking that Infinity Ward reigns supreme over the average Treyarch?

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