Monday, 6 July 2009

Extended look: Call of Duty 4

Not many people would argue against the critical acclaim and public popularity that is Call of Duty 4.

Although it’s only two years old the game marked a major step away from the usual WW2-era shooter that the franchise had previously trodden. All Infinity Ward’s previous games, including the Medal of Honour releases, didn’t focus on storytelling or a particularly well rounded narrative. They operated around key set-pieces of the war and struggled to link these events together. Jumping around different theatre's also fragmented the story and these earlier efforts were little more than globe-trotting shooting galleries.

Modern Warfare's plot shows a far greater grasp of multi-perspective narratives, the previous year’s effort by Treyarch was held together by a similarly logical method. Call of Duty 3, attacked critically by many as the franchises low-point was actually the better game for a coherent story. There was no jumping across the globe from Stalingrad to Normandy with little or no point. Instead we saw a game that operated within a small part of WW2 that worked consistently with the changing perspectives.

In Modern Warfare this method was taken and then expanded on dramatically to great effect. The fragmented narrative was gone and in its place was a gripping story that took place across the Middle East and Russia. The slick and cool presentation of the game was one aspect that really stood out to me. Whereas mission briefings in the previous games had consisted of stodgy slideshows and stilted dialogue, CoD 4 broke out the guitar riff and the gruff British SAS voiceover instead.

Moral ambiguities

The modern angle of the game was something that bothered me slightly from the start. It’s acceptable to have a multitude of WW2 shooters that have you mowing down Nazi’s by the dozen. Your moral compass is immediately appeased as the Fascists are painted as pure evil along with any other generic space alien. But setting the game in the Middle-East, even thought the countries are not named, leads to a whole new moral quandary.

What worked so well in assuaging my concerns was the title sequence. Being driven around the streets of a city in the midst of a military coup, seeing your people gunned down and executed by rebels is a strong image that successfully, for me, made it ok to go on the traditional Call of Duty shooting gallery set in the Middle East. It’s a gripping start to the game and gave me hope that this version of the franchise wouldn’t shy away from showing the reality of war a little more than the previous games.

I can understand the decision to keep the countries and cities anonymous for political correctness. But wouldn’t it have been a more dramatic and charged experience if it was in Iraq, or Saudi Arabia? Even if it was set 5-10 years in the future or on an alternative timeline – surely the impact of a true modern setting would carry more meaning?

Screwing the pooch

As it is the game still carries a punch in its fictional version of the world. It also took the unusual step of showing the American Marines screwing up the assault of the country’s capital and trying to capture Khaled Al-Asad. The moment when you’re escaping on the Helicopter after a gruelling few missions and see the nuclear blast was another dramatic moment I never expected from Call of Duty. It essentially meant the progress you’d made up to that point was worthless – you hadn’t captured Al-Asad and millions of people had died because you tried to invade.

Added to this was the best moment of the game. Stumbling around after the nuclear blast, seeing a city disintegrating before your eyes as the radiation took your life was depressing, awesome and upsetting at the same time. Every time I play through this section the final few moments of Paul Jackson always end up looking over a school and the wrecked playground. The eerie sounds of children playing as the screen dissolves into a red mist give this game one of the most dramatic moments I’ve experienced. And what did it prove? It proved to me that at least one developer is prepared to kill you as a character for dramatic impact and show how un-heroic and bleak combat is.

Death from above

As the game moves on from this point it also seems to change its nature. The theme of retribution comes to the fore and takes this moral balance away. The most obvious sign of this is the AC-130 Gunship level. A level universally regarded as the most awesome part of Modern Warfare, but one I find the hardest of all to stomach.

Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the actual reels of Gunship attacks from the two Gulf Wars or maybe my sensibilities are just too sensitive? But the level of accuracy shown in that level is disturbing to me. Not just the destruction of whatever is on the screen but the commentary of your spotter and the crew. This is the point where modern war becomes a little too videogame-like for a lot of people and I think this is demonstrated aptly in this level.

I’m also confused as to why this was put together. Was it merely a palette-cleanser to break up the first person shooting levels? Or did Infinity Ward have another motive for its inclusion? Obviously the answer is the first – after all this is a videogame and not a political art house film. But where many parts of the game show an anti-war sentiment, this Gunship level thrives and revels in its bloodlust.

Killing your darlings

I found this bad taste sweetened slightly by the game’s finish. The heroic finish and jock explosion of an all-American army victory was nowhere to be seen. Seeing the characters you had come to love being gunned down or shot in the head (poor Gaz), was an encouraging sign that storytellers in videogameland know how to end things properly.

This was another example that armed conflict isn’t about the patriotism and glory many films, books and common opinion tries to justify. War is hell. It’s brutal, bloody and full of pointless and painful death. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare didn’t show enough of this but it made an interesting effort. Modern Warfare 2 has some big boots to fill for other reasons, but if the developers can build on the first game’s interesting narrative then it gives me hope for a more unflinching portrayal of real combat.