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A Videogame Was Released Today

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You might have noticed. You might have queued up at silly o’clock to get a copy. You might even have got some sort of tattoo to commemorate how excited you are about the prospect of shooting virtual men of assorted ethnic origins. Aye, today was Modern Warfare 2 day – a game that, for a lot of the industry and its consumers, has managed to become pretty much the only game of the year. I was at the UK launch last night – some thoughts on that and some of the rolling PC version problems follow.

I wasn’t at the pre-launch party, the one held in a Leicester Square cinema, because a quiet pint with chums seemed infinitely more appealing than braving the crowds and listening to Vernon Kaye pretend he’s a geek, but I did pop along to the big booze up afterwards, which covered the two and half hour run up to midnight, when the vaunted FPS became available. A funny affair – clearly an awful lot of money was poured into the giant countdown screen, the glut of student barstaff dressed in fatigues and a few dudes dressed as snow terrorists. A few celebrities showed up and were quickly ushered off to a special pen – the thin one from Gavin & Stacy, some Radio 1 DJs and Dizzee Rascal, who played a short set just before the witching hour. But mostly, it was a big warehouse with free booze, a few Xboxes and lots of people standing around trying not to stare unblinkingly at the enormous timer on the wall.

It wasn’t bad, not by any measure (and I’d be an awful churl to say it was, as I had a pleasant enough time), but there was an unavoidably awkward, how-do-we-do-this air to the proceedings. I say this not to mock it, because it doesn’t deserve to be mocked, but instead because it was arrestingly incongrous with MW2’s enormous profile so far. Honestly – I’m not bitching, I’m just fascinated by how new and strange a thing it is to put a videogame on the same level as a movie premiere or royal visit. It’s one of the biggest entertainment properties of the year (wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being the biggest): this is as good as it’s ever got for games. Perhaps the best it will get for the next couple of years, until something else achieves this degree of critical mass. It could have been, perhaps should have been, the launch party to end all launch parties – but instead it was a demonstration that for, for all the recent rush of success they’ve experienced, games are still in their infancy in a lot of ways.

No-one, it seems, quite knows how to make a game about repeatedly shooting dudes as glitzy as a red carpet affair – it all gets a bit unsure, a bit wobbly once it’s moved beyond showing footage and trailers. Games aren’t films, and one of the many side-effects of this is that celebrating them with pomp and ceremony isn’t easy, regardless of how much money the thing’s going to rake in. It’ll be interesting to see how that develops over time, as we (presumably) get more games with this degree of crossover appeal, and there’s more of an effort and an understanding of how to Go Big, to make it a bona fide cultural event as well as a gamer’s event. We’ve hit a new age in terms of public awareness of games in the last few years, and that’s going to bring interesting changes.

This struggle for glitz and glamour also hints at a certain hollowness at the heart of what Modern Warfare 2 really is. It’s certainly an incredibly accomplished first-person shooter and deserves success, but it’s still Put The Cursor Over The Man’s Face. it’s not doing anything to make anyone who wasn’t already going to buy it believe videogames are capable of a greatness nothing else can do. I understand why it’s “the most anticipated game of the decade”, to quote one of its marketing lines, but I can’t help but feel a little sad about that. Can’t we have a weirder, cheerier figurehead? Hey, it’d even help with launch parties – surrealistic colour and alien shapes would have brought that warehouse to life far more than all the frowning guys with fake AK-47s in the world ever could.

Still, I went home with a copy of the game, which was jolly nice. Except it was on Xbox, which wasn’t. I want to play the thing on PC, but I’m stuck with a Steam preorder. Which brings me to the latest in MW2’s litany of PC screwups. If you bought the thing via Steam, retailer appeasement nonsense means it doesn’t unlock for another two days yet. Buy a boxed copy instead and you’re laughing right away, even though it nonetheless requires Steam (and immediately downloads a 1.3Gb patch, a chum claims). So, a whole flock of people are being punished for buying the game up-front.

If you’re mad/desperate enough to go buy a boxed copy as well as having the Steam version, you’ll still be locked out, as the preorder version keeps priority – so setup a second Steam account if you plan to do that. Clearly, I’m not quite sure who’s to blame for this open stupidity, but it’s a sorry state of affairs – red tape and back-scratching holding PC gaming back from its present and its future, miring it bloody-mindedly in the past of plastic discs. What’s been achieved by doing this, apart from pissing off a bunch of guys who pre-ordered on Steam in good faith, expecting to be able to play at the same time as everyone else? Honestly, the degree to which high-up businessy types don’t have a blind clue how things really work in the real world never ceases to stun me.

I would guess this whole sorry saga, and all the sniping and swearing and spitting it resulted in, could well spell the end of Call of Duty’s PC tenure. I won’t be surprised if the next one does a Gears Of War 2 and gives up on the platform entirely. It’ll be a little sad if so, as the PC is where CoD was born, where Infinity Ward earned the experience and mega-bucks necessary to become the goliath they are today – but hey, we’ve got plenty else to be getting on with instead.

All the more importantly: who’s playing MW2, and what do you think so far? Worth the hype? Better than you thought? Sickened to the very stomach by That Level?

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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