Why I think Treyarch gets an unfair rap.


I'll admit, I write this because of what I perceive to be the Messiah complex the FPS community bestows upon the (former) Infinity Ward team. But, I genuinely think that the bad reputation Treyarch gets from the gaming community is largely undeserved.

 
As I'm sure you all know, Treyarch has constantly been labeled as "the B team" of the Call of Duty franchise, the breadwinners for Activision's FPS department in the lull between Infinity Ward releases. However, if one actually looks at the review scores objectively, they didn't release outright terrible games, save for their Minority Report adaptation, which to be fair, was par for the course as far as movie adaptations go. That said, Treyarch went way beyond the call of duty (no pun intended) when they made Spiderman 2, which introduced an open-world mechanic that was a breath of fresh air into the superhero game formula that was sorely needed. And imagine my surprise while researching for writing this I learned that despite Call of Duty 3 almost being universally considered an abysmal game, the game press at large thought otherwise, with review aggregates at GameFAQ and Metacritic at 8.8 (X360 version) and 82 respectively (then again, it IS Metacritic, so make of it what you will). What's even more surprising is that the reader average score for the 360 version was an 8.5. Granted, this isn't as high as Infinity Ward's offerings, but my point stands that for the most part, Treyarch's games aren't the critical piles of shit most people make them out to be.

But enough of that, I'm turning this into numbers game. Since people are more partial to qualitative arguments rather than quantitative, I'm going to take this out of review score territory if you don't mind. As we all know, Infinity Ward originates from 2015, the team behind Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (little-known fact: Console cheats were enabled in the ONLINE portion of the initial retail release of the game, which led to a rather hilarious situation where everyone was shooting at each other to no effect due to god mode being enabled). Since then, the leading creative forces went on to develop Call of Duty 1 and 2 proper as well as the two critically acclaimed Modern Warfare games.

Now I'll go on record, I thoroughly enjoyed Call of Duty 4. The game has a fantastic first impression on people, whether it be from trailers or picking it up for the first time and its presentation values are top-notch. However, that's the most praise the game will ever get out of me, as it will never be on my pantheon of "greatest games ever" which includes the Half-Life series, Homeworld, Company of Heroes, and Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear. When I first played the campaign of Call of Duty 4, I genuinely had a good time. But, after subsequent playthroughs (and the last stand portion of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Snipers of Chernorbyl... ahem... One Shot, One Kill on hardened difficulty) the gameplay flaws of the game became glaringly apparent. The biggest issue of which was the fact that CoD4 was the exact same game as Call of Duty 2 and 3; the MP-40 might as well have been a reskinned M4A1 (and this goes out to Respawn Entertainment, if I have to deal with another guy I shot who pulled out his pistol with his last breath and quick-time dogs in another one of your games, I swear to god, Encino is a 20 minute drive from where I live...). Another problem of CoD4 arose from the fact that the game was painfully linear, which is what we come to expect from a Sci-fi or WWII shooter, but with modern day shooters like Rainbow Six, ArmA II, and Battlefield, we've come to expect a much more free-form approach to level design and encounters.

That in mind, people often underestimate the pedigree of the Treyarch roster. Treyarch today is actually the result of a merger between the company and Gray Matter Interactive, the folks behind the competent expansion to CoD1, United Offensive, and... *drum-roll* the fantastic single-player portion of Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

So is Treyarch a "great" developer up there with the likes of Valve, Relic, Blizzard, Bioware, and Irrational?" Well, no. But then again, Infinity Ward really isn't either if you cut even deeper into things. But my point is that Treyarch isn't getting the confidence and kudos it deserves. From what I've seen of Black Ops, the game could be a rental or a purchase on Steam when its on sale for $40 (though Kotick would likely say: "Good luck with that."), which is more than I could say for Modern Warfare 2, of which the most exposure I've had with it is me watching my friend play it whilst the two of us commented on the completely bullshit plot and general sameness between it and Infinity Ward's previous games.    

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1993-2004: Chronicles and Musings of a PC Gamer


One gets the sense that the stereotype of the core PC gamer is something that resembles that of an elderly man, a prickly sort that yells at children to get off of his lawn and spends his free time looking off into the distance with a faint smile, reminiscing of better days. In a sense, that is true; your typical PC gaming hold-out might go to great lengths to educate others on the virtues of the platform, and admittedly, though people might be inclined to agree wholeheartedly, the advocates do frequently come off as elitists. To be fair to us, we have good reason to be alarmed by the state of gaming. The combined efforts of Activision, with the omisssion of dedicated servers and mod support from Modern Warfare 2 and, Blizzard, with the elimination of local area play, seek to make the differences between playing on a PC and on a console transparent. All three first-party developers, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, continually make additions to their consoles' respective software that blur the line between their machines and your typical family desktop or personal internet accessible device (the totally superfluous addition of Twitter to Xbox Live and Playstation Network notwithstanding). Whereas before, a developer's biggest challenge to port a game was to condense and compact the complexity of a PC game into a console, at the turn of the centry, they realized they could do it the other way around and now the battle was to develop the most sophisticated and effective DRM for a PC port (which mind you, is a battle they are losing). Other developers, who in a perfect world ought to have their creativity flow freely, have been forced to make harsh design choices in their games to make them accessible and thereby, competitive in the market. All of these developments were dark omens for a new era that would herald the perceived dumbing down of games and the pulling back of the reins on creativity and innovation.

Your typical pre-teen to post-pubescent player of Modern Warfare 2 and Guitar Hero (insert any number between 1 through 10 billion here) would be unlikely to ask this of me, now in the middle of his college career, what were the early days like. But let's assume that he or she does; my story would be this:

Back in 1993, the number of owners of a personal computational device world-wide would seem catastrophically small compared today. And even smaller proportion of those were connected to the internet (then reliant on the same device you used to call your relatives on the other coast) and even that was for the most part restricted to BBS chat rooms. Though computers were first made to help with fire-control systems aboard naval cruisers and make rudimentary long-division calculations for universities, the 90's would prove to be the true genesis of the definition of a computer today.

It was then that my dad, an owner of a store that not only sold parts for, but also built and repaired computers, and my mom, a graphic designer, would introduce me to the hobby that I enjoy to this day. We had three desktops in our house, so I also had my own computer with which I could chat with my tech-savvy friends. It also helped that I had relatives who had the right idea and thought that "there was something in this new-fangled computational business" and I could even connect with cousins who lived miles away. Occasionally, my mother would bring me with her to her workplace, where I would spend hours bored out of my mind and crying for her to take me home. Eventually, she asked one of her co-workers if he had something to keep me occupied, and in fact, he did, a copy of Wolfenstein 3D he brought to work and would clandestinely sneak in a few minutes with when there were no pryng eyes. Instantly, I was enamoured with this virtual world, emptying my clips not only into Waffen Schutzstaffel thugs and Nazi-trained Dobermans, but also into Swastika emblazened flags and portraits of Hitler.

A glance of this game on Youtube would make some gamers look on in shock and marvel at how far we had come in the design of games, and they might be equally shocked that back then, gaming on a Macintosh was equally as viable as it was on Windows. The grand-daddy of point-and-click, pixel hunting adventure games, Myst, would originate on this platform, and it would be in '94 when what was then the most cutting-edge first-person-shouter, Marathon, would be released. Even the casual gamer can tell that Marathon was leaps and bounds ahead of Wolfenstein (or the following Doom) in terms of innovation and technology. Gameplay-wise, it differed in one critical aspect where the player also had to aim up and down and strafe, rather than merely looking side to side. The game also introduced a basic physics engine that was revolutionary at the time (and you thought rocket jumping was something from the last generation). And although it lacked any meaningful voice-acting (aside from "They're everywhere" or "Frogblast the ventcore!" in Marathon 2) or even FMV cutscenes, much like Myst Marathon delivered a sophisticated, complex, and elegant storyline. Perhaps even more perplexing to the modern gamer was that this Macintosh gem was developed by what is now one of the stalwarts of Microsoft, Bungie.

First-person-shooters continue to exist, and much more importantly, thrive to this day, but one genre merely subsists: Combat simulators.

Combat simulators as a viable genre began in earnest in the early part of the 90's with Wing Commander and Mechwarrior (which admittedly didn't catch on with me until Mechwarrior 3), which although was integral to the development of the genre, seemed antiquated in a short space of time. However, the mention of Star Wars: TIE Fighter will undoubtedly be like a pair of shock-paddles to the chest for any PC gamer who had the pleasure of virtually strapping into an Assault Gunboat or a TIE Defender. One of the most important aspects was that along with X-Wing that preceded it, it was probably the first game to feature 3-D graphics as we know them now (not 2D sprites used in Doom and Marathon). Equally important was the fact that it delivered a level of narrative complexity that was absent from the original Star Wars trilogy. This was reflected in the audio presentation, when your fellow wingmen would yell shouts of victory after disentegrating a Rebel scum X-Wing or cry out in distress when they started taking hits. Yet this was only one facet of sim games in that era. The other side of that same coin was that of the hyper-realistic combat simulator. One of the first big and notable examples in the 90's being Falcon 3.0. Released a year after Wing Commander, it admittedly looked only marginally better, but it would set into motion the aspect of PC gaming that would lead the charge of graphical innovation. Some gamers today might know the name "Commanche," developed by Novalogic, who revolutionized game graphics through the use of voxels. However, there is one name that is today all but forgotten, but remains whispered in hushed reverential tones in certain circles, a name that was once the biggest in the business of sims: Jane's Combat Simulations.

Some people who take a glance at the Jane's catalogue and might observe: "You know, for a girl, Jane seem's awfully interested in stuff that seems more like Tom Clancy's speed." Indeed, JCS (a subsidary of Jane's Information Group, which provides technical reference for everyone from DOD to techno-thriller writers) was dedicated to the most realistic gaming experience possible. That however, required new technology, and so, JCS would be the king of graphical innovation in the gaming world (strangely enough, Electronic Arts, who now owns the company that currently holds that honor, Cryetek, had a controlling interest in JCS). In fact, the original Longbow was probably the first game that forced me to do a complete ground-up upgrade. Longbow was punishingly difficult, but not for the same reasons TIE Fighter was. The design of the missions were sound, provided the player had a grasp of the control mechanics. In fact, that was the difficulty: the game was hideously complex and technical just to play. Even now, Longbow (but more so in Longbow 2) is frighteningly close to what it's like to piloting a real AH-64D Longbow Apache or OH-58D Kiowa warrior. Later, the company would release what is still the undisputed king of the ultra-realistic combat flight simulator, F-15, which featured the "E" fighter-attack Strike version of the venerable air-superiority fighter. Though a jet was considerably easier to fly than an attack helicopter, it was just as impenetrable, as you were put through the real TOP GUN school, learning the High and Low Yo-yo's, the Vertical Scissors, and the Split-S. Just as complex was learning the mechanics of the AN/APG-70 radar suite for BVR (Beyond Visual Range) air-to-air engagements and the utilization of the various air to ground weapons systems (know your AGM-65's and HARM's from your JDAM's and Paveways). I remember when I first bought this game, I imagined I would be soaring through the skies, Maverick and Goose style, like nobody's business, only to be splashed by an SU-27 Flanker within minutes. Yet, there was no greater sense of accomplishment than actually figuring out where you went wrong and going that much further, just like getting through that next stage of Ikaruga or DoDonPachi without a continue. Though I imagine John Riccitiello probably doesn't even remember the company is in EA's holdings, Jane's swansong and the sequel to F-15, F/A-18, continues to be updated by a mod community that would make Half-Life proud. Jane's didn't stop at flight simulators either, as the complexity of these games yet paled in comparison to the nuclear sub sim, 688(i): Hunter Killer (don't even get me started on de-modulating the broadband passive signature of a Russian Akula!) In fact, compared to the work of JCS, the research Infinity Ward put into Modern Warfare 2 is a goddamn joke.

Of course who can speak of PC gaming without talking about strategy games. Thankfully, the likes of Starcraft and Warcraft continue to live on in popular memory, but the contributions of a few groundbreaking games remain dismissed or forgotten. At the same time as Warcraft II, the genius of Chris Taylor brought a scale to real-time strategy games that Blizzard couldn't even touch (and don't even dream to accomplish to this day) with Total Annihilation. Just as innovative was Homeworld, which was in every sense of the term, a 3D RTS, where units were not only rendered in polygons (as opposed to sprites in Warcraft II and Starcraft), but could be manuvered on an XYZ plane. Homeworld also had one of the best stories of any RTS out there, which though it lacked the established lore of Warcraft, was well told thanks to the game's art-direction (facilitated through its jaw-droppingly good graphics and intricately hand-drawn animated cutscenes), sound design and score, and last but certainly not least, its emotional impact. Who couldn't help but cry at least a tear as the crew of the Mothership watched Kharak burn as Adagio for Strings played in the background?

Back to first-person shooters, the FPS as we know it can be owed to Quake. Developed by the same minds behind Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, it not only brought about the advent of online FPSes but also the famous WASD control scheme that permeate PC shooters today. These days, when playing a new first-person shooter, a PC gamer can automatically deduce the basic controls without even looking at the manual, Ctrl for crouch, R for reload, and Spacebar to jump. Even more paramount than these developments was what it brought about, the biggest champion of PC gaming today, Valve, and it's magnum opus, Half-Life. Using a modified Quake II engine, GoldSrc, Valve was not content with imitating the efforts of John Carmack and Id Software. Half-Life would set a new standard for presentation in games that would continue to have a resounding impact today. The player was totally immersed in the game world, never once getting taken out of the shoes of Gordon Freeman (though you could hop into the shoes of the Marines you fought in Gearbox's equally competent Opposing Force), and scripted sequences made a point that games could have a narrative presentation that would give the garish scenes of a Michael Bay film a run for it's money. A look at Modern Warfare 2 and you can see the influence Half-Life had on the efforts of Infinity Ward, but even they couldn't come close to capturing the magic and essence that made Half-Life go down in the annals of gaming history. Above all, the gameplay and level design was a deliberate affair: Considerations were made on what nooks and crannies the player could use to their advantage, weapons and enemies were intricately balanced and tweaked, and distinctions were made between harsh, but fair and frustrating. Perhaps more importantly, it created the game development landscape that exists today. With basically the same tools Valve used to make Half-Life, ordinary players could make their own tweaks to the game they loved or make entire different games over them which were accessible to everyone. And unlike other developers and publishers today, Valve not only permitted it, but nurtured it, knowing that these were it's roots as well. But like sims, there was another side to that coin of FPSes. The same sim-heads who enjoyed Commanche could also venture into the first three iterations of Rainbow Six and Operation Flashpoint. While the players of Duke Nukem and Unreal could wear body-armour made of depleted uranium sans Gulf War Syndrome-like symptoms, one could always rely on the offerings of Red Storm and Bohemia Interactive to sober us up and remind us that if we actually went to war, we'd be just as useless and incompetent as we were in their games. A segment of gamers today would believe that the lack of regenerating health in an FPS is a design fault, but back in the day, one-shot one-kill lethality was a big selling point. Like Jane's Combat Simulations, an immense sense of achievement came from finally mastering even the tiniest aspects of these games. In addition, I've been more scared scanning for hostiles over the horizon in Operation Flashpoint than I've ever been in any survival horror game, knowing that a single 7.62mm round to the center-mass could be lethal (and believe me, my heart always skips a beat when that happens). Developers to this day attempt to imitate the type of experience from a Rainbow Six game (to varying degrees of success), as you can plainly hear from the immortal words that were first uttered in 1998: "Tango down!"

Alongside RTSes, role-playing games played an integral part in the painting of the picture of PC gaming in the 90's through the early part of the following decade. Much like their Japanese counterparts, these games were for their early years restricted to top-down isometric views, which left something to be desired in their visual representations outside of pre-rendered cutscenes or FMV's. So, they remedied this through two ways, compelling and challenging gameplay and narrative. With the original Baldur's Gate, the doctors of BioWare understood the importance of great writing in lieu of totally cutting-edge technology at their disposal, and thereby crafted a cracking good yarn that made it unique for a genre of story that was to certain extents ridiculed because of its established conventions. The fine folks of Black Isle also understood the importance of good story-telling (even if it did compromise actual game stability), making a world that was startingly bleak as it was darkly comical.

Yet my story was only one of many. Just like the stories of our grand-dads who fought in the Second World War, ask what it was like back then from any PC gamer stalwart and you could find yourself more entertained than you would have thought.

Almost every PC gamer could claim that the games above represented happy days, when the hottest word was "innovation." But in a post-Halo world, can that tradition survive?

To be continued...    
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