Map design in Modern Warfare 2

It’s no surprise that Modern Warfare 2 has broken recordsNotoriety sells after all, but fortunately the game lives up to the hype. For devoted fans the single-player storyline, cause of the controversy, isn’t the appeal – it’s the multiplayer mode that’s kept gamers coming back for more.

What makes MW2‘s multiplayer experience so rewarding? The answer is of course that the developers Infinity Ward have designed the game meticulously, in particular the maps on which the action takes place. By deconstructing these maps, we can attempt to understand the underlying gameplay design principles.

The most obvious principle is that Infinity Ward have ensured there is no dominant position on any map. Advantageous positions of course make it easier for you to kill the enemy, and harder for them to kill you. Features of advantageous positions include:

  • Elevation. This reduces your exposure, improves visibility and offers a better angle for headshots on the enemy
  • Cover. A solid object to hide behind means you can pop up into firing position and quickly drop into safety to reload.
  • Limited access. The fewer routes the enemy can approach from, the easier to spot attackers and quickly take aim.

and so on. To make the game fair and therefore enjoyable, game designers must use these features with caution. Omitting them would simply create extremely dull environments, so MW2’s maps make subtle use of these advantageous features, coupling strong positions with serious weaknesses.

This ledge on the Afghan map gives clear long-range lines of sight but is exceptionally vulnerable from the rear. At the far end of the map are reinforced bunkers, from which the following screenshot is taken. Cover and vantage are both good, and the low light leaves the shooter cloaked in darkness, making them hard to spot at distance.

However, since these bunkers are potentially very strong points, the map designer clusters two together, so that each poses a tactical threat to the other. To make these appealing spots even riskier, explosive barrels are placed in a particularly juicy spot, further deterring a player from camping there at least until the barrels have been destroyed.

(Camp (v.): To stay concealed in a safe spot and kill enemy players as they run past. Often considered a cheap tactic.)

For the few spots that offer clear tactical advantage without high vulnerability, Infinity Ward has wisely made reaching them a risky proposition. The Highrise map features a second-floor window (below) with excellent angles, low light and few weaknesses; however, it can only be reached by jumping around on dangerously high and sorely exposed crane beams. I’ve had many a profitable game repeatedly picking off beam-runners too stubborn to accept that I wasn’t going to let them reach their beloved camping spot.

Highrise also boasts a very unorthodox but effective position (‘A’ below), which allows a player to surprise anyone emerging from the southern building. Position A is suspended off the building on a platform and therefore hard to notice if you’re focusing on the more obvious threats near the helipad ahead. However, this excellent spot is awkward to reach and treacherous to leave. Your only exit route is to laboriously climb up over the side, leaving the player vulnerable for a few seconds – as such, once your cover is blown at A, you’re pretty much screwed.

By balancing the maps’ positions of strength, MW2 keeps players continually on the move as hiding spots become discovered and teams move to flank their opponents if repelled in a frontal attack. It doesn’t take an expert to see that movement makes for a more exciting game than static trench warfare; indeed, movement impetus and variable pacing is a well-known tactic of game design. By running around, players cover more ground and experience greater ranges of contact, from long range to hand-to-hand. In short, players are pushed into experiencing as much as the game as possible. Map scale also follows this principle. Although the maps are generally larger than MW2’s predecessors there is still ample variety, with both compact and sprawling maps encouraging bloody scrambles, patient stealth and all gameplay tactics in between.

Through prolonged play it becomes apparent that Infinity Ward also designed the multiplayer maps not to punish players for their choice of weapon and style of play. (Me? I hang back with the M4A1 or ACR, playing the percentage game with mid-to-long shots. I’m a poor run-and-gunner.)

As we’ve seen earlier, Afghan has some excellent sniping spots; but for those more inclined for close quarters combat, the map also features twisty cave areas and this tight rocky outcrop.

For those who enjoy a sneaky ambush, the maps offer plenty of safe havens and cover from which to spring. Terminal, set in an airport, offers some novel cover spots including this flower bed.

That said, some levels are better suited to some loadouts and styles of play. (Loadout = combination of weapons, perks and upgrades.)

This is healthy for the game, since it prevents a strong player sticking to the weapon and tactics they’ve perfected and dominating every map. Wasteland, for instance, is a sniper’s paradise.

This sort of position is close to ideal for a sniper: sure, it’s open, but the lines of sight are immense. Given this much visibility, even a modest sniper can pick off an unprepared enemy with ease. Short range weapons here are far less useful; however, Modern Warfare 2 offers players multiple ways to use territory to their advantage. For those who don’t like the patient precision required of snipers but want to use this spot effectively, the map designers helpfully place a machine gun nearby.

In the right hands the machine gun can be just as effective as sniping, rewarding those who get their kicks by spraying bullets indiscriminately. For the sake of equality, there’s a gun at the other end too and the long grass can quickly give a well-camouflaged player cover from fire.

This interplay demonstrates that every strategy has a valid counter-strategy. If you’re facing a sniper, the maps give many opportunities to hide. To counter this, snipers can flush out hiding opponents by using thermal sights and heartbeat sensors. To counter that, players can employ perks that make them invisible to these devices. Rock beats scissors beats paper beats rock. And for those who’d like to avoid this long range battle altogether, Wasteland also features an intense and dark section of trenches. Here, I’ve planted a Claymore landmine by one of the trench entrances to trap anyone who comes this way.

These indoor areas also give vital cover from the game’s aerial attacks, earned by successful killstreaks, for example killing five players in a row. At the first warning of an incoming enemy helicopter or Harrier, there’s typically a mad panic to get indoors. Skilled opponents will of course follow, but again the game provides an alternative to the hunt. Brave players can switch to a loadout armed with anti-aircraft weapons and perks and shoot the air support down for the good of the team. Thus good play gets its reward (air support usually brings many more kills) but not to the extent that it leaves the opposition team entirely devoid of options.

Through careful design, and no doubt thousands of hours of playtesting, Modern Warfare 2’s maps reward some surprisingly different approaches: caution and risk, patience and aggression, short range and long range. Admittedly the balance will never be perfect, and Infinity Ward are continually tweaking the game to overcome new glitches and overpowered strategies. But I consider Modern Warfare 2 a great example of thoughtful design achieving some difficult goals, and being clearly rewarded by the sales figures.