Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Did Modern Warfare 2 change the face of 2009?

On the long, long list of things gamers love to bitch about, the release calendar owns fixed berth somewhere in the top five. And it should – nine months out of the year, gamers have little to look forward to besides press materials, previews and the occasional demo. We wait until the holiday season, when our wallets are gutted by the three or four “must have” titles that year.

2009 is different. Some of the season’s AAA heavyweights – Bioshock 2, Splinter Cell: Conviction and Army of Two: 40th Day – were pushed back to early 2010. While delays aren’t suspicious, the timing was: all of this happened after E3, when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 debuted to Pentecostal enthusiasm.

Did Modern Warfare 2 bully the competition out of 2009?

Really, who knows? The studios won’t admit it, and all of the games in question could certainly use some work. 2K Marin’s last-minute enlistment of help from two other studios did nothing for gamers’ faith in the product, so a cooling period was strategically sound. But Splinter Cell: Conviction looked to be in a state of high polish, as did 40th Day. With the recent revelation that Bungie cooled Halo 3: ODST since May in the interest of stoking the hype engine, it seems more likely that these studios held finished products in the interest of getting a bigger slice of the pie.

And why not? MW2 is a juggernaut. Its predecessor has sold more than 7 million units to date, and will only sell more once its (hideous) Wii incarnation hits shelves. It snatched GOTY awards left and right from Mass Effect, Bioshock and Halo 3 (is this starting to look familiar?) and gathered a horde of multiplayer devotees. A sly pre-E3 marketing campaign – the sonic collage teaser trailer was decoded by forum goons for weeks – only helped fan the flames.

Two big ‘uns sneak in before MW2’s Nov. 10 release date – Halo 3: ODST on Sept. 22, and Borderlands on Oct. 20. Only Left 4 Dead 2, Assassin’s Creed 2 and The Saboteur remain after. Will they suffer for not fleeing the blast radius of MW2’s commercial nuke?

I’m confident L4D2 will sell regardless. The zombie bubble has (sadly) yet to burst, and I think it shares a gamership with MW2 gamers. Assassin’s Creed sold well, and it stands to reason its sequel will experience similar success. Despite critical interest, I think The Saboteur’s December release date may doom the Eidos title. Assuming all the AAA releases perform will – and I think they will, this year – wallets will be gutted, and people will be unwilling to invest in an original IP that, being a WWII game, is also kind of unoriginal.

Quarter 1, meanwhile, will be a boon for gamers. With funds restored by a quiet December – and with a bumper crop of Christmas dough for the younger demographic – Bioshock 2 should experience exponentially greater sales than if it shared a month with MW2.

Again, mere postulation on my part. It’s entirely possible Splinter Cell: Conviction was delayed for nth-hour polishing. And with Assassin’s Creed 2 and L4D2, the air around MW2 isn’t exactly clear – yet, no one has any doubt that Activision’s favorite son will take the year, at least commercially. That I would even argue a single game delayed several other multi-million dollar enterprises should say something: Modern Warfare got big. Really big. Big enough for me, in some small, nasty way, to wish upon it stunning failure. Unlikely, considering the clinical precision with which Infinity Ward designs its games, but come on, Gamespot publicly speculated that MW2 could be the best-selling game of all time. Statements like that provoke the iconoclast in me.

And there’s the fact that dual wielding has been built into the game. Coupled bombastic snowmobile chases, it gives the impression of a game a bit full of itself, lacking the cold, confident brevity of its predecessor. Whatever. I’ll pretend to be bitter when MW2 sells a bazillion copies and knocks over critics. It’s not like I preordered my copy already, or anything.*

*I did.