Battle royales aside, third-person shooters have always been somewhat of a dark horse compared to their head-mounted camera counterparts. SOCOM, the PlayStation-exclusive tactical shooter series has been left to history. Ghost Recon sits in the shadow of Rainbow Six (and The Division is more of an RPG). Metal Gear Online is mostly a thing of the past. Arma is a bit too tactical to gain popular appeal. And while Gears of War certainly has its followers, few fans of more tactical, semi-realistic shooters are likely tempted by magnetic cover mechanics, clunky walking speed, and chainsaw guns. But the new third-person mode in the latest Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II makes a solid case for the perspective’s inclusion and with just a few touch ups, could certainly become my go-to mode in this solid multiplayer shooter.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II was revealed to feature a third-person multiplayer mode back in September during the franchise’s NEXT event. Third-person mode existed in the original Modern Warfare 2 back in 2009, and the series has flirted with the possibility of pulling the camera behind our characters in the past. But the latest game marks the first time in many years that the feature exists in the series. Third-person mode now has a dedicated playlist with limited game modes and can be swapped to in the game’s multiplayer cooperative maps. You can also set private matches exclusively in third person, or only on one team at a time. There are a few rough edges, but what’s on offer right now makes for a very different experience, one I find to be way more fun and tactical.
Perhaps the single best element of a third-person mode in a shooter is that the elevated camera position grants far more peripheral vision than a first-person game would (VR is a separate conversation). Even gentle movements of the camera give you a greater sense of your surroundings.
Third-person mode also allows you to do something that’s completely unrealistic, yet makes for a more satisfying and strategic experience: peeking around corners. Because your camera is detached from your body, you can easily get eyes on what or who is above your cover and around your corners without exposing yourself to gunfire. The result is more lethal camp spots and ambush opportunities. That might sound like a big no to some, but stay with me, because it results in a less frantic game.
Modern Warfare II’s treatment of third-person deftly balances out the ability to see around corners by forcing everyone in third-person as a specific mode. This means it’s not an unfair advantage. And given that you as the player know this, you’re less likely to run past corners and assume someone behind cover can’t spot your position. And if you’re not playing under that assumption, well you’ll learn to be more careful real fast. This has the effect of forcing everyone to play more tactically. In my time with the game so far, the biggest difference I’m seeing is that people are watching their angles with far more caution and concern than they do in first-person.
Fortunately, most of the maps in Modern Warfare II translate well to the camera shift. One, in particular, is so wonderfully fitted to the new perspective that it’s becoming my favorite map in the game: Santa Sena Border Crossing.
What can feel a little claustrophobic in first person becomes a wonderful landscape of intentional, gritty, and focused planning and cover movement. Empty cars are littered throughout the map. And because you can see around and above them in third person, I’ve found these to be some of the most thoroughly enjoyable strategic gun fights I’ve played in years. You can easily get a perspective on the battlefield that is simply impossible in first person. Add to that the narrow corridor that runs down the center of the map, where you can peek out of the doorways via third-person, and I almost want a playlist of rotating modes on just this map alone.
There’s also something to be said about being able to see your character and having your presence amount to more than just arms and a gun. Thankfully, Modern Warfare II has some pretty nice cloth animations on characters. Sprinting results in very satisfying movement of fabric, and in general, the detail on backpacks, jackets, pants, and boots makes for nice visual appeal. In a game where you can pick different operators, being able to finally see them, if even only from the back, is a nice change of scenery.
All is not unicorns and rainbows, however. Though I’m far from alone in engaging in the SOCOM nostalgia feels, there are a few rough edges that need to be addressed to make this mode really sing. The most important, and one that many are voicing, is the frustrating reality of having “shoulder swap” and “sprint” mapped to the same button.
Ever since the mid-2000s, most third-person shooters use an over-the-shoulder camera perspective (thanks, Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War). While this is a boon to aiming accuracy akin to a first-person experience, it comes at the cost of needing to swap which shoulder you’re looking over if you want to be smart about how you play.
Right now, Modern Warfare II lets you swap shoulders by quickly tapping the sprint key. I shouldn’t need to spell out why that’s a tricky configuration. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any real way to change this. The result leaves you sprinting when you really wanted to change your shoulder, making moving from cover to cover less seamless and smooth than it could be. Coming to a stop and hitting sprint will guarantee a swap, but that’s not ideal when standing still for even a second can mean death. Camera swap doesn’t play nicely with weapons that ask you to hold “Shift” to focus, either. Right now, one key is doing way too much work, and it isn’t any better on a gamepad.
Some, such as SOCOMJohn on YouTube, have suggested the inclusion of a centered, “over-the-head” camera reminiscent of the old SOCOM games. This might be a little too old-school for modern gamer tastes, and I’d have a hard time seeing this as a benefit without dedicated lean buttons. At that point, we’re starting to talk about a different game, but it’s a cool idea nonetheless.
Not every game mode is even playable in third-person. Locked to a specific playlist called “Third-Person Moshpit” (okay, I guess?), only three modes are currently available: TDM, Hardpoint, and Domination. I would love to see new mode Prisoner Rescue added, as well as the other classic CoD modes.
There are a few quality-of-life improvements I’d also like to see. Like many tactical third-person shooters, Modern Warfare II will let you know if your gun has fully cleared cover or a corner with a small X on screen to indicate your gun isn’t aiming straight but is instead blocked by something. I find MWII’s implementation of this a little too strict. I’d also like to see grenade arcs and even bounce predictions sketched out with a HUD indicator. I don’t think that’d work well for CoD’s first-person experience, but it would help grenade throws in third-person be a little more deliberate. Modes that limit or don’t allow respawns would also be great.
I also wish third-person mode was available in the main campaign. I might’ve liked it better had that been an option.
It remains to be seen if third-person mode will get the love and support it deserves from both the CoD community and the devs. While it might not fit the tastes of a classic CoD fan, it sure is a treat to those of us who dearly miss experiences like SOCOM, Metal Gear Online, and the better Ghost Recons. And honestly, after SOCOM 4 (Confrontation was fine), recent, sloppy Ghost Recons, and what-ever-the-hell-was H-Hour World’s Elite, us TPS fans could use a well-supported mode in an otherwise solid shooter. With just a few changes to third-person mode (and the inclusion of Valeria as an operator), I’d find it hard to make time for any other shooter. Okay, maybe Halo, but that’s the one exception.