doin’ that duty

Sat Jan-12th-2008 // Filed under: Games

Since we’re on the subject of games, I might as well hit you with another one. Before Christmas, I completed Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a game that’s worth discussing a little more than I did in my woefully short review of the game.

I’m gonna start with a bit of honesty: I’ve played a bunch of the CoD titles before, and I was never particularly interested. It’s not that they were bad games, but frankly, I’ve played so many WW2 shooters that I’m hard-pressed to give a shit — and even though they weren’t bad games, I wouldn’t quite call them great ones, either. Not that I feel like I’m in a position to really judge them, since I don’t think I’ve actually completed any of them. In any case, they all kind of blur into one game in my head, along with the Medal of Honor games and the Brothers in Arms games and the rest of the WW2 gang. That’s not a criticism of the games, really; it’s just the inevitable result of the ridiculous oversaturation of Axis-fightin’ titles.

Hence, Call of Duty 4 instantly stands out from the crowd simply by being set in another time period. It’s a welcome change — not that I don’t think the WW2 period can accommodate a just about limitless number of titles, but it’s about time we had a breather. Let’s try that again in a couple of years, okay?

The Good Fight

As an action game, Call of Duty 4 does well. The missions are varied and fun, the production values are great, etc. I think my only real complaint is that the enemies operate on a pipeline principle — that is to say, there’s an open tap that pours out enemies as you kill them, and the only way to close that tap is to advance to a certain point on the level. This means that instead of ducking behind cover, using precise fire to take down the enemy and then advancing on their position or otherwise using basic tactics, you really need to dash across open ground at the enemy.

That’s kind of counterintuitive at best, particularly in a game that’s ostensibly realistic. (Also, playing Rainbow Six: Vegas after that is sheer fucking hell, because at least I inevitably end up trying to kick some terrorist ass with my mighty CoD4 fu with entirely predictable results.) But I understand why they’ve done it like that, and I admit that it certainly makes the action more hectic and desperate.

Whatever. It’s not what really interests me about the game; suffice to say that both the single-player and multiplayer modes are very well-done and a lot of fun. And of course it looks really good; easily one of the nicest-looking games from the Xbox 360. Some levels, like the haunting Chernobyl flashback thing are just incredible, and the gameplay has a lot of variety. From a purely technical standpoint, Infinity Ward has done excellent work on the game.

None of this really sets Call of Duty 4 apart from other games, but luckily, there’s more to it than that. It’s got some underhanded tricks that betray an ideology a little more advanced than you would expect to see. Let’s face it, your average war game isn’t really what you would call an enlightened — let alone enlightening — product. Apart from the boilerplate “boy, war sure is hell!” tripe we inevitably get, it’s kinda rare to see anyone actually question the basic “good guys/bad guys” dogma, let alone challenge any of the other notions, such as the morality of warfare.

And I’m not saying Call of Duty 4 makes a huge deal out of these things, either; most of the game is definitely about killing the bad guys, but at least Infinity Ward clearly acknowledges that it’s not about heroes and villains. More importantly, it does that through excellent and immersive game design instead of clumsy and self-important exposition.

President No More

This becomes obvious during what I think is the game’s second level, if I recall correctly, during which the opening credits for the game appear. In this sequence, the player takes the role of a president of some Middle Eastern state or another (I don’t think they actually name it). The player’s options are extremely limited, since all he can do is turn his head and look around while armed men drag him around and physically abuse him, at one point knocking him out with a rifle butt to the face.

He’s thrown into a car. During the car ride, various ugly scenes can be seen, from executions to violence and abuse directed at civilians; clearly, the country is in turmoil, and with the coup underway, the new regime is making its presence known. (It’s actually a big diversion, financed by a big bunch of ultranationalistic Russian military guys so that they can go about their own business in peace, but never mind that.) At the end of the ride, the president is dragged from the car and into a square, where a guy with a video camera and a gun awaits.

The president — that is to say, the player — is tied to a stake, and after the executioner is done posturing to the camera, the last thing the player sees is the muzzle of the gun raising to the camera, and the briefest of flashes, with an echoing gunshot. So much for the previous regime.

Personally, I didn’t find the experience as disconcerting or disturbing as I was probably supposed to, but it does set the tone for the game. It’s an ugly scene by any standard, after all, and it’s not something your average war game bothers with, at all — more often than not, this kind of stuff just isn’t a consideration.

Death From Above

That’s nothing compared to what may be the most chilling sequence I’ve ever run into in a video game. In that, you assume the role of the gunner of an AC-130 gunship and provide air support to a bunch of your own troops on the ground as they make their way through the Russian countryside, attempting to reach their extraction point. And that’s some cold shit, not least so because the whole thing looks so ridiculously authentic — it’s just like the gun camera footage the news — and YouTube — are full of, and so’s the crew chatter. Take a look for yourselves:

Yeah, you can certainly nitpick about the realism if you want to, but that’s a little like getting punched in the face and wondering where you can get a ring like that, because that’s some cold shit. You’re shooting at little moving video game dots, and that’s pretty much exactly what it looks like through the actual gun camera.

The details are just perfect. The hypocritical “don’t fire directly on the church” crap (because that’d just look bad on the news), the fact that anyone who moves in the area without an infrared strobe duct taped to the top of their head is considered an enemy and must be killed, the order to take out everything in the village (they know for a fact that there are no civilians anywhere in there, I’m sure!), the laughter when innocent civilians get terrorized by armed men and get their cars stolen, and especially the way the crew obviously treats the murders they commit — sanctioned as they may be by the “rules” of war — as if it was just a video game… it’s harsh shit, and I really don’t think it’s like that by accident.

Destroyer of Worlds

The game goes out of it way to stomp false rhetoric and disingenuous ideas about heroism and nobility in wartime into paste. In another mission, there’s a nuclear device in the presidential palace back in that aforementioned Middle Eastern country. The Allied forces are trying to disarm the bomb, but that’s not the player’s concern, because at that time, the player character is in a helicopter. The radio blares with information that the nuke has been armed, and everyone should get the fuck out of Dodge right now. The choppers do a 180 and motor the hell out of there, and the player can see another chopper take a hit from an RPG and spin down into the city.

So, since these guys are the good guys, they instantly request permission to go and get the pilot out of the wreckage. They’re asked if they understand that unless they keep moving, they may not make it to safe distance in time, but they say that they know the situation and they aren’t leaving anyone behind. It’s your call, they’re told, good luck if you go for it.

Of course they do. So there’s a really hectic and short mission, in which the player has to run through the streets to the crash site, popping off quick shots in the process, pull the chopper pilot from the wreckage and carry her back to the other chopper. Once that’s done, the chopper takes off again, with the player looking back through the open rear loading ramp, looking at the other friendly choppers that have provided air support and are now following…

…and that’s when there’s a flash and a mushroom cloud. Yeah, boy, you’re fucked. The blast front knocks the other choppers out of the sky, and an instant later everything spins around and we know this one didn’t work out that well. We cut to the strategic screen that shows a long scrolling list of names designated as MIA, one of which is highlighted — that’s the player character’s name.

A little later, though, the strategic screen shows that hey, that guy isn’t dead after all. We go into the scene, and the player finds himself prone in the crashed helicopter. Crawling out of the wreckage, we find it’s not much better outside — there’s a hellishly mutilated urban landscape with overturned cars, corpses littering the streets, the mushroom cloud clearly visible in the horizon, everything tinted red and an irregular heartbeat making up most of the soundscape, and just walking is almost impossible, with the character falling back down to his knees every few steps… not a fun party, no.

But what the hell. We’re hurt, yeah, and trapped in what may well be the worst place on Earth at that moment, but we’re alive. Any experienced gamer’s well-honed instincts take over, and they start to think survival. Yeah, boy, didn’t get us.

And after about a dozen steps, the point of view suddenly lurches down, the view dims and the heartbeat slows down and stops, because we were just slapped out of the sky by a nuclear explosion, and you don’t get to limp away from that.

The strategic screen confirms Sgt. Paul Jackson as KIA. It’s a great piece of nasty game design, because gamers are so conditioned to believe in this crap — at that point, they fully expect to make it out of the wreckage and limp their way to safety, mushroom cloud or no mushroom cloud, because what other option is there? I mean, even though the game had already showed me that it was willing to kick me in the nuts, I still bought it, and I was thrilled to see that I got suckered like any other rube in the cheap seats. Traditionally, this kind of stuff never happens. It just isn’t done.

Smart Enough

So much for heroism. Would they have made the minimum safe distance if they hadn’t stopped to drag the pilot from the wreckage? The game doesn’t tell us that, but assuming that they would have, the decision to replace common sense with tired rhetoric just cost the lives of not just the pilot, but also a far greater number of other personnel. Is Infinity Ward telling us that this is the price of heroism? Probably not, but they’re definitely making it clear that you don’t get to win because you’re purportedly pure of heart. The nuke doesn’t discriminate; it doesn’t give a shit about nobility.

At the end of the game, we pretty much get the same stuff. The player wins, sure, but at that point, the player character is badly injured, and all of his SAS buddies are dead — the only other one who may still be alive is being given CPR, and it’s not looking good. We are — and so is our point of view — airlifted from the scene before we know if the only other survivor makes it. There’s no sentimental crap about brotherhood; in the end, even though you’ll make it, you’re bleeding and alone, and the world’s not a whole lot better place.

And I’m not saying that it’s the video game equivalent of Johnny Got His Gun — judging by this effort, Infinity Ward could probably pull that off, too, but good luck getting someone to publish it. In the end, it’s an action game where the good Allied guys whack a bunch of bad Russians and Arabs, and let’s face it, with that setup you need to work pretty hard to be something other than what the real world right now makes it into. But it’s a pretty smart game, and it gets a couple of really good and sharp ones in well under the belt — and that’s a hell of a lot more than most games in this genre manage.


  1. The storytelling was very surprising and very effective, yes. I was most bothered by the Spectre guncam level. And yeah, the “no, you don’t win” scene after the nuclear device goes off. It just goes out of its way to show you that no matter how much of a hero you are, war does not discriminate.

    I also dig the ending. Once you’re still feeling like a winner of some sort, winding down during the credits (I always watch the credits), reflecting on what’s gone down, you’re pushed straight into the crazy epilogue, which is basically a two-minute long firefight in which you run forward all the time, culminating in jumping off an airplane. It’s a weird, but very effective way to top off the game.

    That said, I’m enjoying the explosive, Counter-Strike-esque multiplayer a lot, thoughtful views of war be damned.

    Comment by Joonas — January 12, 2008 @ 1200133397

  2. Oh, yeah, the epilogue was great, I forgot all about that — it’s actually a great little mission. I wouldn’t mind seeing more really short and intense sequences like that in games in general, actually.

    And yeah, I do like the multiplayer a lot. The way it constantly rewards you for playing the game is fun, and the whole thing has just been balanced so well. I never got into the Halo multiplayer that much, for example — sure, I’ll play it with my friends and so forth, but it doesn’t really rock my world or anything. The CoD4 multiplayer, on the other hand, is something I actually tend to look actively forward to.

    Comment by Mikki — January 12, 2008 @ 1200155831

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