Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Posted at 22:59 on 12th February 2008 - permalink

I played through the single player campaign of Call of Duty 4 a few weeks ago. I’m not sure what I can add to that statement, as judging by the sales figures, most of you will have also played it and formed your own opinions already. Shifting over seven million copies in a few short weeks is nothing short of phenomenal, and the game will surely add a couple of million more to that total in budget and Game of the Year re-release incarnations.

Activision and Infinity Ward judged the market perfectly, managing to recapture the ‘extended audience’ that turned the Deer Hunter franchise into a $100m industry at the turn of the century. Which isn’t to say that the game is aimed squarely at jingoistic Americans, it’s just very idiot-inclusive in its design. It’s the gaming equivalent of a Summer blockbuster movie, and guaranteed to spawn many imitators.

The game is the latest in a long lineage of sanitised Hollywood-indebted war games, harking back to Combat, Ikari Warriors, Operation Wolf and Desert Strike more than its more immediate predecessors (the Medal of Honor, Brothers in Arms, and Call of Duty series et al, with their Band of Brothers/Saving Private Ryan inspired aspirations to historical reverence), and a million miles from the scant few attempts to portray the ugly realities of war such as Operation Flashpoint, Hidden and Dangerous and (oh, alright then) Cannon Fodder.

I’ve never quite been able to reconcile CoD’s subgenre of FPS games, the rigidly linear, AI-less shooting gallery where everything is boiled down to moving between pieces of cover towards checkpoints and repeating the process as increasingly elaborate setpieces are triggered around you. (The game rather lamely pretends to be a simulation during a tutorial which demonstrates some ‘authentic’ military procedure which you subsequently never have to use.)

The reviews I’ve read make it clear that the sheer spectacle is supposed to compensate for the narrow range of interactivity. The annoying thing is that it sort of does. About 80% of the game goes past in a blur of dramatically anesthetised mayhem, leaving no lasting memory but engaging at a superficial level during play, but it sure is pretty.

The game’s standout sequences are ring-fenced away from the waves of AK-47 wielding stereotypical cannon fodder. One level presents a visually extraordinary flashback to early-1990s Chernobyl (which looks rather nicer than S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s version, albeit at about one millionth of the size and complexity) which makes a commendable leap across the Uncanny Valley through the use of desaturated colour, subtle shading and the masterstroke of obscuring your NPC companion’s face, building the character purely through motion capture and voice work. Elsewhere, the US Marine Corps story thread is terminated with a sequence that can be interpreted as either poignantly heroic or depressingly futile, depending on your viewpoint.

The game’s signature level (“Death from Above”) casts the player as the thermal camera operator in a AC-130 Spectre, the culmination of the thought processes that were set in motion by footage of the first Gulf War, which was often likened to a video game at the time. It’s head and shoulders the most brazenly tasteless level in the game, but at the same time one of the most compelling to play, giving a little taste of the ridiculous godlike power that such weapons afford.

I expected the tone of the game to be crass and jingoistic (in the Tom Clancy mould), but this wasn’t quite the case. Unfortunately the view of modern warfare that the game presents, in its reticence to question or explore the consequences of the process, is still a rather dubious one. After the credit sequence, there are effectively no civilians in the game; everything that moves is a target. Your AI squadmates don’t get angry, scared or confused, they’re all rugged, jargon-barking killer robots. The SAS characters are given a bit of personality, but this mostly manifests itself as sarcastic comments and cheeky cockney swearing. It’s also stupidly easy, allowing the player to heal within seconds, giving them vast amounts of ammo and the enemies no sense of self-preservation. Getting caught on the scenery is the most frequent cause of death, followed by dogs.

It’s a bit worrying that the game has just suggested to seven million people that war is a bit of a laugh, but perhaps that’s straying into hand-wringing, point-missing “if only you could talk to the monsters” EDGE territory. Playing at war remains excellent fun.

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