Oh Infinity Ward, you really managed to piss me off back there. Takedown is one of the most frustrating and unforgiving levels in recent memory thanks in part to its nefarious level design. Some have even bestowed upon it as one of the worst designed in the history of games. I don’t see how it warrants such a title. Certainly it can’t be as bad as the Library from Halo. Difficult and confusing though it may be, the favela level was in no way poorly conceived. On the contrary, it is a shining example of level design done right.
Before you bemoan and lambaste my statement, ask why you hate the level so much. Is it because the sharp jump in difficulty so early on in the game? Maybe you have issues with the layout of the level? Is it due to the unfair and overwhelming odds you have to face? Whatever the case, I fail to see how these reflect poorly on the design of the overall level. Is difficulty a mark of what makes or breaks a level? I applaud Infinity Ward for making it so punishingly hard, because, due in part of its pace and setting, that is the nature of the level and the focus of its design.
The spike in difficulty when playing through Takedown is quite jarring when compared to the levels that precede it. However, what should be considered is that this is the end of the first act in Modern Warfare 2. Had it been the first level in the game then surely it would be a problem, yet it is in its rightful place because it is meant to close out the act. Most of us think that difficulty should stay at a constant pace throughout a game. While a fair and justifiable reason, does this have to be the case with every game? For the sake of argument, look at a game such as Resident Evil 4. Before entering a new setting (say, for example, the transition of the village to the castle) are there not boss fights and situations that challenge the player and are more difficult than what immediately follows it? In the context of pace, the difficulty of Takedown is justifiable.
What also needs to be considered with the difficulty is the layout of the level. Playing through Takedown, I am amazed at how close Infinity Ward got to resemble the look and feel of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Shacks stacked on top of one another, streets that bend into small alleyways, and tightly packed residential quarters all give the level a grungy and maze like quality. The number of militants you run into is also a nod to the real life situation on the ground. Life in Rio’s slums is a constant struggle between gang members vying for power, police forces who employ brutality, and average citizens caught in the middle. All of these meld into the situation presented in the game, so it is no wonder why some choose to flee and other fight against you. (Author’s Note: There is an amazing documentary on the City of God DVD called News from a Personal War. Anyone interested in how close the setting of Takedown resembles the favelas should consider watching it.)
When the civilians start to run and the militia pours out, a new challenge is presented. In a game where seconds count between locating your next target and eliminating the threat, having to wait and see who is an innocent bystander and who is gunning for your head pushes your skills over the edge. Under all the stress and chaos, it is overwhelming. It evokes a feeling of helplessness to the player; no matter which way you turn, you are at a disadvantage. The difficulty, therefore, is a product of the overall focus — done on purpose by design — not due to laziness or bad practices.
Throughout all this, the militia constantly have the upper hand. They can come from around any corner and attack from high or low — there is no safe haven for the player to rest. Every wound becomes an agonizing test of skill and reaction to move forward and not linger. Not knowing where the next enemy will strike is part of the level and setting. Removing this aspect would dampen the experience until it becomes dull and void of character. Doing this, instead, brings to light the true face of modern urban combat. The battle is constantly shifting, taking the players heart and pulsing it to the beat of drag racer.
When I play this level, I keep thinking back to Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. While the setting of the two are different, the tone and pace are eerily similar. In both instances soldiers are assaulted on all fronts, enemies take every possible position, and not everyone makes it out of the lion’s den. Losing your only two teammates in the fight adds to the momentum. It is this chaotic momentum that Infinity Ward set out to create, and I can see how it is fun through its difficulty. Allowing the setting to create the level is what makes Takedown a brilliant example of good design.