“The Elder Scrolls Online” (Xbox One) Review

(originally published 7/22/15)

The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited attempts to combine the accessible action-RPG elements of the Elder Scrolls series with traditional MMO mechanics, many of which may be new to the series’ console fanbase. The result is an experience that can be grindy and repetitive, but is a worthy time sink for Elder Scrolls fans.

Taking place 1000 years before the events of Skyrim, there are two overarching stories in ESO. The first involves your individual quest to recover your soul from Molag Bal, whom you’ve been sacrificed to. You soon become wrapped up in a quest to foil his plans to meld the realms of the human world of Tamriel and his Coldharbour, while recruiting allies to aid you along the way. This storyline has plenty of potential on paper, but is incredibly uninteresting. Most of these missions take place in the dreary, unappealing world of Coldharbour, and the expository dialogue does a poor job of explaining what the hell is actually going on.

However, the second questline is much more interesting. Three alliances across Tamriel (the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonheart Pact and the Aldmeri Dominion) have united the various provinces and their races to fight for the central land of Cyrodiil. Whichever race you pick at the beginning of the game (barring an expansion pack allow unrestricted alliance/race mixing) determines which faction you’ll be fighting for. This also dictates which side of Tamriel you’ll be starting on, the characters you’ll bring for your fight against Molag Bal, and most importantly, who you’ll be representing in the game’s PvP.

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The single-player questing boils down to completing a set of quests in every single area of every single zone of your alliance. There are some side quests and delves to tackle along the way, but they’re pretty ancillary to someone who isn’t a completionist. This grind is where the ESO experience begins to appeal more to a player’s obsessive-compulsive desire to complete things rather than their excitement for going on new and exciting missions.

While the amount of lore and detail in the fully-voiced quests is admirable, they lack the intrigue that stops players from skipping through conversations as fast as they can. It’s possible to become emotionally invested in quests that you pay attention to, but in an MMO that’s meant to be played communally with friends, it’s difficult to maintain that level of focus.

Despite the quests themselves being lackluster, the sheer size of the explorable world is enough to tolerate the grindy missions as an excuse to delve deeper into the humongous playspace. Almost every province of Elder Scrolls lore is represented and playable to some degree. To fans who have dreamt of journeying around Tamriel with their friends for years, there is a huge amount of real estate available for the game’s initial release.

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The combat in ESO is an attempt at mixing Elder Scrolls action with the stat-based combat and ability bars of a traditional MMO. And the result is… an uncomfortable mix.

It’s not bad, but with only two readily available ability bars to utilize, combat can become extremely mundane past level 25. Few enemies need to be tackled with unique strategies, so you’ll find yourself using the same combination of hacking and spell casting for every daedra you face.

Some of this monotony can be levied by playing with friends. And while this makes combat a little more interesting, ESO does a poor job of making players who’re questing together feel part of a team. It seems more like you and your friends are doing the same quest alongside each other, rather than tackling it together as a group.

This problem is negated somewhat by the group dungeons which realistically require a team of four to complete, but the non-veteran dungeons still don’t do much to challenge teams who communicate on a minimal level.

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The character building in ESO is freeform and unrestrictive for an MMORPG. Players can spec from four initial classes each resembling the standard tank, DPS, rouge and healer MMO archetypes. However, it’s possible to create any type of character build with each of these four classes.

Along with class abilities, every class can use every weapon and armor type. This allows for an insane amount of character freedom via the various skill trees. It’s possible to create any type of build you can imagine, from a simple Breton super-healer to an Orc healer-firemage with a bow.

The crafting is another element that ESO brings from its previous single-player games. Alchemy, enchanting, provisioning, etc. are back and are fun professions to pursue as you gather materials from your journey. Being able to make a good meal or craft a quality suit of armor can give you and your guild a good edge on your competition, and the pursuit of ingredients or other materials adds another layer of texture to exploration.

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While a vast amount of effort is put into PvE questing, in most MMOs, it’s more of a means to an end, which is the PvP. ESO is no different, and its versus mode offers one of the most one-of-a-kind gameplay experiences I’ve had in years.

In the context of the story, Cyrodiil is landlocked between each of the three alliances. This middle ground is heavily coveted, and players are sent to conquer the various castles and fortifications in the name of their alliance. Along the way, you’ll lay siege to enemy strongholds, fight hordes of player-controlled enemies in open combat, and capture elder scrolls to give your army stat bonuses.

The campaigns in Cyrodiil are unforgiving. Wit and good strategy will get you decently far, but nothing beats sheer numbers. There are no mechanics that benefit struggling alliances in campaigns where they’re losing ground. The dominant armies stay dominant, and while this can be frustrating to overcome without dozens of other players ready to raid, it makes actually taking enemy forts feel that much more gratifying when you fight for them tooth and nail.

Representing and fighting for a faction also gives you a sense of pride. While the initial choice of which faction you’ll fight for seems trivial, after spending hours conquering forts for your alliance and fighting against enemy forces, it makes you feel a part of something. Great games are able to draw out real emotions for something fictional, which is what ESO emphatically accomplishes.

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If nothing else, The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited is a great time-sink. After well over 100 hours, I’ve finally finished the main quest and am still ready for more. The shallow combat can make PvE questing a monotonous chore, but it all pays off when you’re laying siege across Cyrodiil in the name of your alliance.

 

“Halo 3: ODST” Review

(originally published 6/6/15)

Almost 6 years after its initial release, Halo 3: ODST was re-released as free apology DLC to Master Chief Collection owners who purchased the buggy, dysfunctional, 65+ GB hard drive memory void. Naturally, given 343 Industries‘ track record of fan service, the re-release did not include ODST‘s popular Firefight mode. So fans must settle with reveling in ODST‘s thrilling campaign, or returning to the all-but-extinct MCC multiplayer community. Or just play a different game altogether. But I digress.

I saw this as an opportunity to revisit a game which I had strongly disliked, but seemed to be critically well-received. Back in 2009, I thought of ODST as a money-grab, and a failure as a Halo game and an independent video game in its own right. But having an excuse to replay it now, I wanted to see if my perception of it had changed with time.

In short: No, it didn’t.

While there are definitely worse games out there, there are a few key things which cause this ambitious departure from traditional series conventions to fall flat on its face.

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ODST‘s biggest issue is its story. At every turn, the game fails to make you care about what’s happening, which makes the already forgettable action and gunfights even less engaging.

At its core, the story of ODST is a tale of an elite squadron of soldiers who are separated, and must reunite and escape New Mombasa before the Covenant gets to them. Now on paper, this could easily make for an interesting story. But as was evident in 2010’s Halo: Reach, Bungie has a difficult time with the squad dynamic in stories. While Noble Six’s squadmates were at least definable soldier archetypes, there is nothing noticeably special or unique about any of the characters in ODST.

Personally, I could not find one unique personality trait among any of the ODSTs. Least of which The Rookie, who in-between revealing flashbacks is who the player controls looking for clues through the streets of New Mombasa. The “silent protagonist” can work in some stories to help the viewer put themselves in the shoes of the main character. But within the context of a tightly-knit unit of soldiers who are looking out for one another, playing as someone who shows no emotion or care for what’s happening makes it difficult for the player to care as well.

The dialogue doesn’t help either, and can be insufferable at times. Every character speaks in that “marine talk” that was so popular in shooters last generation. For example, take this actual dialogue exchange between two of the characters in ODST, whose personalities are too similar to deserve attribution:

“Thanks for picking such a tall building. I’m really digging all these stairs.”

“Do you ever get tired of bitching?”

“You ever get tired of busting my balls?”

“Point taken.”

Everyone in your squad talks like an obnoxious super-marine, which even further dehumanizes these one-dimensional characters, and makes it impossible to care when bad things happen to them.

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Another ineffective, albeit unique, element to ODST is the stealth/sleuth portions of the game which take place in New Mombasa with The Rookie. Bungie stressed that when designing the game, they wanted to make it apparent that ODSTs are considerably weaker than Master Chief, so things like dual-wielding would be taken away and players were given a finite health bar along with their stamina-shields. The thought of not being a powerful spartan and just a vulnerable footsoldier could have been an interesting new twist on the tired Halo formula. But again, it’s not executed well.

The game lets the player know that “stealth” is a viable option, and gives them a silenced pistol and SMG. But what ODST considers picking and choosing engagements and sneaking around simply boils down to running through a level while the Covenant shoots you in the back. It’s not fun, and it’s almost always impractical to avoid enemies instead of just shooting them outright.

During ODST‘s promotion, I specifically remember the words “mystery” and “sleuth” being used to describe what you do. Those words are incredibly inaccurate and misrepresent what comes down to running around a defined area, looking for a contextual action to trigger a campaign mission. Maybe if there were a series of clues you needed to follow before finding the mission trigger, the term “mystery” would be more apt. But following a waypoint and using your enhanced visor to spot an illuminated sniper rifle hung from a wire does not constitute a “detective” mechanic.

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One more element of ODST that I see people praise is the atmosphere. I assume the atmosphere they’re talking about is in the sections in the New Mombasa streets. Critics compliment the ambiance of the desolate city, which calls to the isolation of The Rookie in this dark, dreary environment, filled with dangerous Covenant at every turn. To me, it seems like people think these New Mombasa sections are much more artistically complicated than they really are.

One area I will give credit to with regards to how the tone for these sections is created is the score. Marty O’Donnell does a great job of mixing the iconic sound of Halo with piano and jazz instrumentation to make the city feel empty and isolating. But music is not enough to create the tone that Bungie was going for.

Visually, New Mombasa is simply dark and frustrating. There are few distinct landmarks that separate one section of the small city from another. Also, it’s hard to even focus on the atmosphere when you’re just trying to find out how to navigate around a locked gate that’s blocking you from your next waypoint.

But the primary reason why the mood that’s trying to be established in these section fails to grasp the player’s attention is because so little of the game is spent in the dark New Mombasa. I think fans of this game have this notion that most of the game takes place in these street sections. But most of the action and story takes place during the vibrant, populated flashback missions, which makes the Rookie sections feel like more of a means to an end.

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Ultimately, I think ODST is simply style with no substance. And shitty, ineffective style at that. Yes, a somber and vulnerable mood is trying to be established, but that doesn’t mean it works. Maybe it’s just my tastes, but I can’t understand how anyone can be that engrossed in a campaign with such a lacking ambiance and poorly written characters who have zero distinguishing traits.

If you bought The Master Chief Collection, you’re entitled to a free download of ODST, so if you’re looking for an excuse to play some Halo, go for it. But if you’re considering buying this separately and looking for a compelling story and gameplay that goes above the standard FPS formula, then you’ll have better luck elsewhere.

 

“Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” Review

The final chapter of Nathan Drake’s story is the culmination of one of last generation’s most iconic new IPs and developer Naughty Dog‘s mastery of cinematic storytelling.

Following Drake on his last adventure through the jungles of Madagascar and rolling hills of Scotland, it’s easy to get swept up in the stunning vistas and lose sight of those elements that make Uncharted 4 a great video game, rather than just an entrancing playable movie.

And truthfully, although the “video game” aspects aren’t as groundbreaking as the game’s visuals, A Thief’s End is worthy of its spot in nearly everyone’s Game of the Year rankings.uncharted4review8

Taking place three years after Uncharted 3A Thief’s End begins with Drake living a comfortable but unsatisfying life in suburbia with Elena. Drake longs for his days of thieving and exploring, but has grown to accept the mundane safety of the American rat race for the sake of his new wife.

But Drake’s new life is interrupted by his brother Sam, who had been assumed dead following a partially successful prison escape. Sam explains that Drake must help him find the lost treasure of pirate Henry Avery to repay a debt he owes the Panamanian mob. Drake (not-so-reluctantly) agrees, and gets pulled back into the treasure hunting game for one last job to save his brother.

The story centers around the tension of Drake having to choose between risking his life on another potentially fatal adventure for his brother and giving up his aspirations for the sake of Elena. A Thief’s End is the most thematically complicated of any of the Uncharted series, but it still maintains the fun levity of the series’ past.

Superb voice acting from series regulars Nolan North and Emily Rose is no surprise, but it’s Troy Baker as Sam who completely steals the show. Baker’s delivery of Sam’s emotionally complicated dialogue showcases his range as a voice actor, and he’s the center of nearly every scene he’s in.

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In-between the first rate cut-scenes, the skirmishes are a mixed bad. The shooting’s responsive and the cover system’s competent. There’s a certain weight to combat that feels leftover from The Last of Us, and it fits comfortably into Uncharted’s realistic aesthetic.

But while most everything in Uncharted 4 feels like a step forward for the series, the melee combat will feel like a remission for Uncharted veterans. In Uncharted 3, hand-to-hand felt intuitive, and there was a seamless transition from shooting to melee. Fighting someone with your fists in Uncharted 4 feels clunky, and it’s usually a better idea to shoot an enemy outright than to struggle with the controls.

Stealth is another sore spot; it’s something that each Uncharted game has struggled with, and although this is the best it’s ever been in the series, that’s not saying much. The inclusion of an awareness meter and the ability to mark enemies helps a bit, but there are no additional stealth techniques to help make sneaking easier. There’s no way to call out to guards, no long-distance takedowns, or any other viable strategies besides just patiently waiting for guards to turn around and snapping their necks. It turns sneaking into a chore that you’re better off skipping by just shooting your way through stealth sections.

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While the quality of the combat is inconsistent, the exploration sections are solid, mostly due to some of the new mechanics added to change up what was becoming a tired aspect of Uncharted. The new grappling hook opens up some interesting puzzle opportunities, and gives Drake a quick way to escape danger during firefights (although the gag of “sliding down a hill and having to grapple something at the last second” wears thin by the third act).

The gigantic puzzles also do not disappoint, as Uncharted 4 takes full advantage of this entry appearing on the PlayStation 4. There aren’t any brainbusters, but the level design of some of the large-scale set pieces is awe-inspiring. Particularly memorable is the clock tower puzzle, which, as is tradition in the Uncharted series, gets climatically destroyed after Drake solves it.

And also like the other Uncharted games, the multiplayer in A Theif’s End feels like a tacked-on afterthought to add a perceived amount of value that would have been lost on an exclusively singleplayer game. There are no stand-out modes or features in Uncharted 4‘s multiplayer. It’s essentially just the combat framework of the campaign ripped out and thrown into an online setting. It’s functional, but there’s nothing remarkable to get excited about either. It’s hard to imagine any player developing an attachment to such a mediocre multiplayer, as it’s likely that the only people playing Uncharted 4 online regularly are the people who don’t have any other games to play on PS4.

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While the footage of this game speaks for itself, it has to be noted how incredible Uncharted 4 looks. The cuts and scratches that cover Nathan Drake’s face add that much more believably to Nolan North’s already remarkable performance. You can almost feel how slick the rain-covered cliffs of the Madagascan jungle are as Drake slips and falls onto the hard rock bed. Sand pours from piles of shrinking sandbags that you’re using as temporary cover.

Simply put, Uncharted 4 is one of the best looking console games ever made. This is the kind of game your dad stops you to talk about on Christmas morning. It’s one of the first major steps forward for graphics this console generation, and it’s going to be a treat seeing the next thing Naughty Dog’s in-house engine cooks up.

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Although A Thief’s End is a better film than it is a video game, it’s still a really damn good game. It showcases the magic that happens when the best of the two mediums collide. Uncharted 4 is the new benchmark for cinematic games, and for that, it’s a standout in what has been an excellent year for AAA video games.

Gears of War 4 Beta Overview and Takeaways

“Playing it safe.”

After roughly 2 weeks of activity, the Gears 4 beta concluded Sunday evening. It gave players a glimpse of what to expect this October, and aimed to sway the fans who remained skeptical of the thought of a new Gears of War.

From my time playing the beta, my overall feeling is that Gears 4 is 100% classic Gears, for better or for worse. Everything felt familiar, which is also my biggest gripe with how the game is shaping up.

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To start positively, by far my favorite change in the entire game is how Gears 4 handles active reloads. By Gears 3, pre-activing (active reloading your weapon to get a damage boost before you even get in an engagement) had ruined what was such an innovative mechanic in the original Gears. One of the few good changes in Gears: Judgment was removing the damage boost altogether so players couldn’t abuse it, but it still didn’t feel quite right. Now, players can active their weapons at any time, but the active reload is a resource that needs to recharge after it’s used. This is a fantastic compromise, and maintains the significance of a perfect active reload while ensuring that it’s not abused.

As for other new additions, the Dropshot is a new explosive weapon that is a vast improvement over the Digger; whereas the Digger was slow and gave a loud audio cue to warn enemies, the Dropshot is quick and silent. It forces players to move from where they’re comfortable, and it fulfills a role that the Boomshot does not. Given that it’s so similar to the Digger, it’s not a new weapon that had me overly excited to use, but it’s a welcome addition.

The new game mode, Dodgeball, is a really smart addition to the cannon of Gears gametypes which mixes elements of Warzone with Team Deathmatch. Players have one life. If they kill an enemy, they bring back a dead teammate, and the momentum of the match shifts. It’s a fun, different mode for the series that I’m surprised hadn’t been thought of before.

The three maps, Harbour, Foundation and Dam speak to Gears 4‘s commitment to honoring the series’ past. All three were symmetrical, and within my first match, I intuitively knew exactly where each power weapon was located, what position to defend, and where to flank. For longtime fans, these maps will just make sense, and I have a feeling that most of the other maps will be consistent with this symmetrical design.

One thing that stands out about Gears 4 in comparison to the other titles is the cover movement, which is as good as it’s ever been. With each Gears installment, there are tweaks to the cover system, and Gears 4 is no exception. It’s the first Gears where when I attempted a cover maneuver, I almost always ended up exactly where I intended. However, this is one of the only aspects of the core Gears 4 gameplay that felt ostensibly new.

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As for what didn’t work, the yank is a new mechanic that I was worried would break multiplayer, but it ended up being neutered to the point of hardly being useful. In order to pull it off, your target has to be in a highly specific location opposite side of the cover you’re on. If you actually manage to grab him, you can either just shoot him outright or try to go for a knife kill which can be countered by your target. So the yank is incredibly situational, and I wasn’t even able to pull it off once (although I was yanked upon).

While the yank doesn’t really hurt the game, in general Gears 4 just made me feel underwhelmed for the first time in my Gears history. When I was playing the beta, I felt like I had played what I was playing before, which is what I was ultimately most disappointed with. The first time I played Gears 2, it felt like I was playing a new and improved Gears. And when I first played the Gears 3 beta, I was blown away by how far the series had come since Gears 1. But after a few hours with Gears 4, I felt like I had my fill, and there was nothing new there that I hadn’t experienced before.

The Coalition definitely played it safe, which I understand given that Microsoft wants to revitalize the franchise. If Gears 4 would have been too off-the-wall, it would never have been accepted and the series would have died off. I get the situation the game is in, but it shouldn’t be given a free pass either.

I don’t think the graphics help the game feel any more fresh either. The Coalition’s Gears: Ultimate looked like a game that could have only been run on a current-generation system, whereas Gears 4 looks like it could run on an Xbox 360. You could say that it was only the beta and that it’ll look better in the final build, but I can’t think of any recent examples of games which significantly improved their visuals from beta to release. Graphics don’t make a game, but when your core game already feels a little stale, having it look dated doesn’t do it any favors.

That being said, I had fun on the Gears 4 beta, albeit it was the same fun I’d have if I was playing a Gears game that’s already out. I’ll probably still put a ton of time into the multiplayer, it’s just unfortunate that The Coalition stayed so conservative for the first game in this new era of Gears.

6 Maps to Cut From Call of Duty 4 Remaster

“Vote to Skip.”

Call of Duty 4, arguably the single most influential game of last generation, is getting a remaster for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. It will be bundled with all special editions of the new Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, starting at $80.

The remaster will include both the campaign and the multiplayer, and Activision says that multiplayer features like XP, Prestige and killstreaks will be brought back.

However, this is not a one-to-one recreation of the original, as there will only be 10 multiplayer maps in the remaster. The original had 16 at launch, so that means that six have to go. But in a multiplayer as iconic as COD 4, how could you stand to cut anything? Well, I bit the bullet and listed my picks for what I would choose to remove, in ascending order of reluctance.

Five of the ten (Backlot, Crash, Crossfire, Overgrown and Bog) have already been revealed, and I doubt Raven Software will include any maps from the lackluster Variety Map Pack. So these are just going to be the runts of the litter from the original 16.

Bloc

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I never liked Bloc. It was certainly unique, but I always felt like I could only walk around the 30% of the map that was inside of the hotel, for fear of snipers. The namesake block in the center of the map was a death trap, which I guess was the point. But still, I never felt like I had anywhere to go.

It’s awkward in Team Deathmatch, and its openness makes objective games frustrating. There’s nothing wrong with sniper maps, but compared to the maps it’s up against, Bloc is easily the weakest link.

District

Cod4_map_districtLike the others on this list, District is not a bad map. But it’s just not memorable. To me, District is the poor man’s Crossfire. There are some neat sections, like the market in the north, but everything that District does well, other maps do better.

It’s also not just not pretty. It’s not a visually exciting OpFor map like Showdown, and it looks drabs. As far as Middle Eastern maps go, District is pretty forgettable.

Vacant

Cod4_map_vacantI like Vacant, but it’s a little out of control. There’s little cover, and I always felt like I was getting shot every which way. Almost all of the action was centralized in that main hallway, and the surrounding areas like the warehouse were practically barren.

Infinity Ward regarded it well enough to bring the map back in a Modern Warfare 2 DLC, so this map has a better chance of reappearing than the others on this list. I recognize that it’s a solid objective map, but again, there’s other maps that do it better.

Downpour

Bare_Load_Screen_Downpour_CoD4Visually, Downpour is unique. The rain creates low visibility, and the tall grass and greenhouses make stealth a viable option. The vacant houses provided some memorable close-quarters encounters, and the useless mounted LMG is a classic COD 4 staple.

But in comparison to its sister map Overgrown, Overgrown just does the things that Downpour does but better. It’s a superior objective map, it’s set in the same grassy Russian farmland, and it too has a useless LMG. So given that Overgrown was announced to be included in the remaster, I think this lowers the likelihood for Downpour’s inclusion significantly.

Countdown

Bare_Load_Screen_Countdown_CoD4Another sniper map, Countdown takes place during the climax of the campaign at the Russian military base. Players use long lines of site to take out enemies from across the compound, while avoiding pitfalls into cavernous missile silos. While smoke obscures the battlefield and there’s bits of cover scattered around the map, Countdown just felt like a free-for-all as far as strategy was concerned.

While not as extreme as Bloc, Countdown’s design favored players who preferred to hide on the grassy knoll and take potshots. And while that’s not a bad thing, it wasn’t always fun to run around in the center of the map, praying you didn’t get picked off.

Wet Work

Cod4_map_wetworkThis one was probably the most difficult to put on this list… The campaign level which inspires Wet Work is arguably the most iconic moment in all of the original Modern Warfare. It’s the only map where the night vision feature is potentially useful, and its symmetrical design lends itself to objective gametypes. It’s one of the most unique maps in the game, but it just doesn’t cut it.

I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly doesn’t work here, but Wet Work is one of those maps where the novelty of the setting on the cargoship is more exciting than the map itself. It’s a “line-in-the-sand” sort of map where both teams clearly control one half of the ship, and I just don’t think that works in Call of Duty’s multiplayer. It pains me to say it, but Wet Work doesn’t belong in the final remaster.

 

While I may have sounded overly negative, I think all of these picks are solid maps at least. However, I think in comparison to the other incredible maps in the original Modern Warfare, these ones are either too similar to superior maps or just don’t work as well as the Pipelines or the Backlots.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t be upset if any of these ended up in the remaster. It sucks that something has to be cut for this remaster, but we’re fortunate that the multiplayer is even being brought back at all. Look forward to more details about the Call of Duty 4 remake this June at E3.