A Critical Review of "Call of Duty: Vanguard," King of the Hill Multiplayer Game Mode

"Call of Duty: Vanguard" is a first-person shooter for the Nintendo Wii set in World War II. The game offers several multiplayer options for play in split-screen mode. This review will evaluate one of these options, "King of the Hill."

The formal system of King of the Hill works as follows. The objects in the game are the player avatars, of which there are four, the flag, which is in the center of the digital environment, several types of upgrade guns placed around the map, obstacle objects like barbed wire and walls, and the terrain itself.

The avatars have attributes, such as their chosen weapon, the ammunition in the "clip" of the weapon, the total ammunition available for the weapon, the direction in which the avatar is facing, the height of the avatar, which can be standing, kneeling, or prone, and some measure of how much life the avatar has left. The avatars are also assigned a team attribute ("allies" or "axis"), which determines their costume or "skin" as well as the color of their displayed player name when the avatar is sighted in the reticule of another player. In King of the Hill Mode, the players also have a score attribute, which is a number from zero to less than 20. The number represents the amount of time, in tens of seconds, that the avatar player's team has spent in close proximity to the flag object. If the flag has an attribute, aside from its visual display, it is whether or not a player is near it. This is represented by a sound triggered when a player avatar cross a boundary near the flag.

The most important internal relationships in the game are between the each of the player avatars and between the player avatars and the flag. For players with the same team attribute, their avatars must not cause "injury" to each other by firing their weapons at one another, and they each contribute to the others score while they can maintain a close proximity to the flag. For players with different team attributes, the relationship requires the players to fire their weapons at the opposing avatars for several different reasons. If the player is in the wider area of the game map, firing on the opposing player avatar is intended to prevent the enemy from achieving proximity to the flag. If the enemy is encamped next to the flag, the goal is to "kill" the opposing player and, in so doing, prevent the enemy from gaining any more points. If the player is next to the flag and the enemy is encroaching, the goal is to kill the enemy to prevent them from killing the player so that points can continue to accrue. First team to 20 points wins the game.

The environment of the formal system is the terrain map and the location of the key objects within it. Typically, the flag, as stated above, is placed in a central location, usually surrounded by a few "bulletproof" objects that serve as cover for the defender. The "spawn points" for the players are located near the periphery of the map and usually orient the player toward the center of the map. Typically, the spawn points for each team are located on opposing sides of the map. The effect of this is that, as players run toward the center of the map, where the flag is placed, they do so while facing enemy fire from their direction of travel. In addition, there are walls, rocks, machinery and other hard points that the player may use to avoid detection or injury from opposing fire. There are also holes in the walls, trenches, alleys and other features that allow the player to progress toward the center, around the objects, as well as allowing enemies the opportunity to fire on exposed players. Finally, located in areas not usually in the direct line between spawn points and the flag are upgrade weapons that allow for attacking with greater speed, accuracy, or power (e.g. machine guns or sniper rifles).

Because the game is a realistically rendered first-person shooter, the game environment allows for the player to wander through the map at will. The player may enjoy the scenery, examine architecture, etc. But to be competitive in the game, the player has far fewer options. After spawning, the player may either make a mad dash toward the flag in hopes of occupying it quickly, encamp near the flag to pick off enemy players (possibly while a teammate occupies the flag's scoring area), circle around the flag in order to find and eliminate any defenders (followed by a rush at the undefended flag) or run off track to acquire a more powerful weapon and then proceed with the first three options.

As the game progresses through several rounds of play and the players begin to achieve an expertise at King of the Hill, however, only two of those options become realistic: mad dash to flag and shooting flag defenders point blank. The other options require too much time for the benefit they grant, creating more points for flag-defending enemies. The consequence of this is that, while the game allows for an almost infinite variety of actions in a realistic digital world, the choices that emerge from play are much more constrained.

Consider the anatomy of this choice. The state of the game is laid out on a split-screen view, with multiple viewpoints displayed, indicating position and orientation of all players. Typical of a game like this, players will check the views of opposing players and discover whether the enemy or the teammate has occupied the flag area, showing the player the possibilities for action. The player pressed forward on their controller and advances toward the center where the flag is placed. The avatar moves in the direction in the face of potential enemy fire as well as closing the gap to the goal. The result is that the player either takes fire and dies (indicated by red flashes on the screen) or reaches the flag intact.

Once in the flag area, the players choice is to pick an orientation and hope that the enemy approaches from that angle. Otherwise, the enemy usually gets the drop on the player, kills the player and then occupies the flag area.

The net result of these choices is that play begins to feel very narrow and mechanical after the group of players has achieved a certain level of expertise with the King of the Hill mode and with specific maps within it. Talk among the players begins to shift from commentary within the context of the game ("gotcha, dude!", "argh, I'm wasted!", "help defend the flag!", "he's over there!", etc.) to meta-game critique ("fuck that, I totally shot you first", "if you mess up in the beginning, it's hard to make up the points", "let's try another map"). This breakdown of the lusory attitude is a consequence of the choices in the game being, in effect, far too limited to allow for a meaningful strategy to develop or for creative approaches to be explored. The constant demands of the scoring system create a game in which the player is forced to rush to the center, dislodge the defender, occupy the position, wait to be killed, then start over again. The winner of the match appears to be nothing more than the team lucky enough to spawn close enough to take the first point, which is very discouraging over time.

Copyright Mike Edwards 2006-2009. All content available under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, unless otherwise noted.