Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare: Play :: Pornography: Sex

One thought keeps recurring when I play Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: “Why even bother?”

Followed by the corollary: “Is this really what people want?”

I finally finished the single-player campaign for the first time. This was an overdue playthrough, certainly, but I could never quite bring myself to buy the game after I tried the demo. My friend Lange gave it to me when I asked to borrow it, saying that Modern Warfare had left him utterly cold. Now I see why.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

I started to get a bad feeling during the very first mission, as my team boarded a storm-tossed freighter. The scene was evocative, but as my SAS team swept across the deck, I did not feel like I was in control of my character. It felt like if I took my hands off the keyboard and mouse, “Soap” MacTavish would continue to move toward the hatchway below the bridge. The whole thing reminded me of those times when you’re playing split-screen multiplayer and you are looking at the wrong window, thinking you’re in control while watching someone else play.

I don’t remember previous Call of Duties having such a strong sensation of being on a conveyor belt. They were heavily scripted, yes, but I felt like I had some freedom in the space between the trigger points. Now I constantly feel like I’m tugged along against my will. The effect extends to the way the game looks. I always feel crowded and claustrophobic, because all the characters seem to suffer from tunnel vision. Trees, buildings, and other types of cover cut deeply into the level maps. Whether I’m in the Ukrainian countryside or a subterranean missile bunker, I am always fighting in alleys.

The scripting is likewise more in-your-face than almost any shooter I can remember. The game practically revels in your sheer lack of agency. This is what I noticed in the demo, and why I couldn’t quite bring myself to get excited about the thought of the entire game.

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

In the part of the game excerpted for the demo, you and your Marine squad start taking heavy machine gun fire from a tenement house. I took cover behind a car and heard the Lieutenant start yelling something about how we needed to get around these guys. I took one look at the constellation of muzzle flashes and the deafening roar of heavy weapons and thought, Are you out of your fucking mind?

I kept shooting machine gunners and riflemen from my cover position, trying to suppress them enough so I could move, but within a second or two of clearing a window, a new gunman would take over the position. This went on and on, and I had this vivid flashback of a game I had forgotten: Hogan’s Alley, a lightgun game for the NES. Almost twenty years later, Modern Warfare was feeding me the same game mechanic.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or dont. It doesnt matter.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or don't. It doesn't matter.

This sequence turned me into a lost sale, and it repeats throughout the game. At another point I was tasked with destroying some BMPs while fighting off waves of Russian ultranationalist soldiers. I noticed a few streaming out of a hangar and gunned them down with my SAW. Before I could turn away, however, a few more came out of the same hangar. Then a few more after them. Then more. Every two seconds, someone came out, marched into my crosshairs, and joined the growing pile of corpses outside the building. It was like a cross between a clown car and a batting cage, far more Hot Shots Part Deux than 24.

The nail in the coffin, however, is Modern Warfare’s passive-aggressive level design. Time again, I find my progress blocked because I am not going to the magic spot that Infinity Ward has decided is the correct place to fight, or I haven’t identified the correct route through an encounter. Whenever I am in danger of improvising, I can practically hear the game turning into a Woody Allen character. “Are you sure? You’re positive this is the best way to handle this? Because in my opinion, and I say this with all due respect, your plan may be the worst thing conceivable. I just want the record to show that I was not responsible for what you are about to do.”

But even if you try to be an obedient little drone, Modern Warfare won’t make clear what it actually wants. It will demur. “Oh, I don’t know where you should defend from. Anywhere seems like it could work. I don’t want to ruin anything for you. It’s your game, after all, not mine.”

The game has many sequences that behave this way, but I think the quintessential example has to be the last stand beneath the Pripyat Ferris wheel. You set your wounded comrade, Lt. MacMillan, on a ridge where he can command a wide field of fire. Then you get hit by wave upon wave of Russian troops while waiting for exfiltration.

I tried to defend my spotter / team leader, but kept dying while the rescue chopper was about 4 klicks out. Oh, for awhile it was a heroic gunbattle as I gave ground while leaving piles of Russian dead in my wake. I was furiously setting traps, detonating charges, and switching between my rifle and my shotgun. But nothing I did seemed to make a difference.

On my best run, I spent my last few minutes hiding behind a bumper car in the back corner. The Russians had a hard time getting to me, and had a tendency to run right past me into positions where I could easily gun them down. This made me think, “What if I tried holding out behind the bumper car platform?”

This shouldn’t work. It meant abandoning my teammate, but of course he is invulnerable. One gimpy Irishman with a sniper rifle turns out to be tougher to kill than Roland. When we finally get Call of Duty: Easter Rising, Connolly will probably get out of his chair and simply kick the Tommies’ asses.

The Russians should just be able to pin me down, lob a bunch of grenades at me, and maybe send some guys around the flank to kill me. I’d say they should be able to get me from behind as well, but it just so happens that a field of radiation fences off the space behind the bumper cars.

Bumper Car Masada

Bumper Car Masada

So I hid behind the track, running back and forth while dodging grenades and watching Russian troops charge up the ridge that I wasn’t defending. Sometimes they rushed at me, but were confounded by the railings at the edge of the bumper track.

Eventually, the chopper showed up, and I walked back across the ridge, grabbed my invincible cargo, and boarded.

There was nothing convincing about my response to this sequence. Everything I did was suggested by the exploitable level design and mechanics. My teammate couldn’t be killed, so I could leave him alone. The Russians couldn’t outflank me because the designers left an obvious corner in the gameworld, and they were also scripted to attack along a single axis. By moving to the artificial corner behind the bumper cars, I also placed myself perpendicular to their path of attack. The scripting was too rigid to allow them to face me head on, so I was able to mow them down as they rushed past.

My objection to this structure is that it fundamentally breaks the contract I sign when I load up a Call of Duty game. They are supposed to, and often have, made me feel like I am in an old-fashioned war movie. But with Modern Warfare, I feel more like I’m on the set of a war movie, and Infinity Ward is the director, yelling at me to use the blocking and hit my marks.

This just about sums up the experience

This just about sums up the experience

What I’ve seen in COD 4: Modern Warfare and World at War has made me seriously skeptical for the future of this franchise. Regardless of how these games perform commercially, they are feeling increasingly antique after games like Stalker or Far Cry 2. This isn’t to say that every game needs to be an open-worlder (far from it, as the Half-Life series continues to show), but there are more and more games that dazzle me with freedom and possibility. Modern Warfare tries to dazzle me with spectacle, but I can never quite bring myself to forget its shackles.

  1. Dead on, ever since Far Cry 2 I have a lot of trouble playing old FPS games. It’s not that I mind be roped into going one direction or doing one thing, it’s that half the time you can’t figure out what they want you to do. The fact that they’re spawning enemies until I touch some invisible line just makes the situation all the more irritating. It’s sad but my policy with linear games, from Uncharted 2 to Half-Life 2, is just put the sucker on easy and crack open a beer. If I’m supposed to be on a roller coaster ride, I might as well be relaxing.

    Also, I’m stealing the Woody Allen joke.

    • Well, outright theft is the sincerest form of flattery, so steal away.

      I’m not sure my problem applies to linear FPS games globally. I’m okay with games that use scripting and put me on a linear path, but I think there are limits to that approach and COD has hit them. When I think of a Half-Life game, I think of moments of scripting that appear after lengthy intervals of my being in control. Even if the level design steers me through Ravenholm or White Forest, I still feel like I’m free to move about within the game’s flow. Like a fish in a stream, and from time to time Valve places a waterfall in my path that will put me into a new stream.

      COD games are just getting more controlling. I’m like a fish on a hook when I’m playing these games. I think it ends up lessening the impact of the game’s big moments. Because I’ve never even had the illusion of being in control of my character or of having any impact on the events around me, I’m really detached when the nuke goes off, or my comrades start getting killed.

      I’m not turning against authored game narratives entirely, although it might start to sound that way this week, but I want to feel like more of a collaborator. Infinity Ward has this one particular experience in mind, and they make damned sure I get it.

    • Tom Endo
    • November 2nd, 2009 5:58pm

    I think it comes down to the fact that many designers view the terms FPS and single player as being mutually exclusive. The single player campaign in these games is like an extended tutorial/thrill ride to prep players for the main event – multiplayer. So yeah, COD4 has a flashy single player experience, but how much work did they actually have to put into it? Maybe a lot, I can’t say for certain. But I do know that the great single player FPS’s like Far Cry 2 and Stalker seem to be investing their time in developing AI, instead of a bombastic set piece that involves no player participation. Maybe the open world FPS came about because, as COD4 shows, the scripted shooter has few avenues left to pursue.

  2. Your concerns about Modern Warfare’s extreme linearity never really went unnoticed, not even by Infinity Ward.

    When the game first came out back in 2007, everyone saw it for the heavily-scripted game it is and the monster closets were criticized. It was already observed then that as engaging as Infinity Ward’s machine is, it breaks the second you deviate from it.

    From what I’ve heard this actually becomes worse the higher you crank the difficulty. On hardened and veteran it reaches a point where you WILL die if you don’t follow a very specific route. Guides for completing the bonus level on veteran are written out literally second-by-second. Some have already said that COD4 on hardened and above feels very much like a puzzle game.

    In spite of this I still see Infinity Ward to be one of the better developers when it comes to authoring within their game engines to create stories that are shocking if nothing else. They just might not be as good at cloaking their authorial tools as developers like Valve are. It’s still enough to wow the casual gamers though. After all, Call of Duty pretty much has become the face of pop gaming.

    However, Infinity Ward has expressed awareness of these issues. For one thing they’ve said that Modern Warfare 2 won’t have monster closets. Also, the level they demoed at E3 2009 was actually more or less a mini-sandbox of sorts.

    I’m not sure what that says about the final campaign since COD4 had its own stages that were a little open, but it confirms that no one really saw COD4′s campaign as the work of perfection it was hyped up to be.

    • @RedSwirl

      I went back and looked at a lot of the reviews for this piece, and I think they were way more forgiving of the design’s oddities that I was at the time (hence me not buying the game). The reviewer who I think came closest to nailing it was probably Rory Manion for 1UP, who didn’t cut it much slack for its heavy scripting.

      The other thing is that the argument often goes, “Yeah, COD is heavily scripted but what a ride!” The problem I encountered was that the scripting was so heavy handed that I could never enjoy the ride. I felt the designers’ presence too much to ever take part in the action. Again, it goes back to that weird feeling I described at the start: was I playing, or was I playing someone else who was playing? I felt like I was at two removes from the game.

      For the record, I was playing on hardened, so that could go some way to explaining some of my issues. Not a good sign, however, if your game scales from “normal” straight into “annoying”. Indicates a brittleness to the type of challenges it poses.

  3. @Tom Endo

    Oh, I definitely think IW must have poured a tremendous amount of effort into that single-player campaign. It’s what sold the game. The multiplayer gave it its legs, but the genius of COD is that it makes you think you’re going to get a chance to do all this cool shit. Except in practice, it all boils down to “run to where we tell you”.

    I think you’re right that the scripted approach is running out of room to maneuver, and I think there are only a handful of studios who can get away with using the technique now. However, I worry the baby might get thrown out with the bath water. Far Cry 2 has, unsurprisingly, a near religious devotion to throwing out scripting and guided missions. On the other hand, the gameworld is totally bereft of character and, as Stephen Totilo put it on his blog, it ultimately feels like you’re repeating the same 15 minutes of gameplay.

    Stalker gets the balance much better, because the world is invested with so much story and the missions are just guided enough to allow the designers to build in variety. But I think it’s telling that almost every open-worlder plunges off a cliff in its endgame. With IW or Valve, you always feel like the story has a destination, even if you’re being steered a bit too much. With open-world games, there’s always that moment you realize that the developers have lost control of the game.

  4. Yeah there’s your problem right there. 1up even warned the more hardcore guys to just play on regular first and actually enjoy the game before they transform the game into work on hardened. At that point you were playing something akin to an elaborately dressed-up arcade game.

    As for sandbox games, as I’ve said before, getting that balance between openness and polish has proven virtually impossible for sandbox games developed with console versions. They always end up sacrificing one or the other because of insufficient memory in the hardware or something. That’s why stuff like Crysis and STALKER are PC-only.

    • BNRMatt
    • December 17th, 2009 5:05pm

    When I first read this review, I kind of discounted it – I’d played the MW demo and liked it and I heard such awesome things.
    Then I bought the game, played through the campaign, and enjoyed it. I came for the cool spectacular storytelling, and that’s what I enjoyed.

    Where your criticisms really strike home, though, is in replaying it. The Modern Warfare single player has *zero* replay value. None. In order to complete the game, you really do have to do everything the same as you did the first time. Even playing through with different weapons is heavily discouraged by the demands of the game. Want to play through Pripyat with only the M-21, running and sniping like Randy Shughart in Blackhawk Down? Too bad, you have to play using the tactics we prescribe. Want to get creative and find an alternate route around? Stay on your rails, drone!

    I’ve tried going back and replaying the missions, trying to milk some more fun out of it, and it’s just not there. And I still have to deal with being constantly killed by enemies without the slightest hit of a warning there’s a threat there.

    Nor do I have any solace in multiplayer, because I follow Yahtzee’s policy of never playing with anyone whom I can’t reach over and whap on the head.

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