Posts Tagged ‘ Call of Duty

The Real War Will Never Get in the Games

Note: I wrote this one year ago on my old blog. I didn’t know it was Armistice Day until after I published it. Not many people read it, but it still seems like a fitting subject for the day. So here is what I wrote when Call of Duty: World at War was released.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps far earlier than I was willing to admit to myself, the World War II shooter genre started become reprehensible.

I had my moment of clarity yesterday morning when I watched the video of the first five minutes of Call of Duty: World at War, with it’s slick opening cinematic (leaning heavily on the style of the “War Corporatism” antiwar video) and grotesquely cliched in-game cutscene. About the only thing that I can say in its favor is that it at least takes note of the fact that the US embargo against Japan was, from the Japanese point of view, casus belli. Beyond that, I think we may have reached the genre’s nadir.

The game appears to open with a scene from every crappy action movie you’ve ever seen. The villain is torturing and interrogating one of the good guys, in this case a captured US Marine, and the good guy shows his defiance by spitting in his face. This is the thing to do when otherwise powerless, apparently. The villain reacts calmly, takes a drag on his cigarette, then extinguishes it in the Marine’s eyeball. The villain orders another Japanese soldier to execute him using, naturally enough, a sword.

Then Kiefer Sutherland shows up, carrying a Ka-Bar knife and all the baggage of being Jack Bauer in one of the most over-wrought shows in television history. Whoever directed his voice acting decided that Jack Bauer is exactly what this game needed, and there seems to be no trace of the fine character actor fromA Few Good Men and Dark City. All that’s missing from this 24 moment is the Ford Expedition that Jack and the Marines presumably drove to this island.

Now that the player is free, the Marines launch into a standard Call of Duty action sequence, promising to “make ‘em pay for what they’ve done”. The Marines also say “fuck” and variations of the same, coyly demonstrating that the game is hip to what it’s like “in the shit”.

I don’t mean to unfairly single this game out. It’s probably a very good war-themed shooter with glittering production values and sobering bromides about warfare that pop up every time the player is killed, just to show that the game is sensitive to the fact that war is not a game. The Call of Duty series has always been very good at slipping little antiwar messages into its militaristic fortune cookies. The fourth time you die crossing a field, Douglas MacArthur will remind you that it’s fatal to enter a war without the will to win it. The fifth time you die, Barbara Kingsolver is on hand to talk about the inhumanity of man.

This has been bothering me lately, and I’m hard pressed to completely explain why. There were always things about the series that never sat quite right. The quotes are one example, but there was also the annoying way the games were so barefacedly ripping-off Band of Brothers, Enemy at the Gates, and a slew of other World War II films. The games were never about the war, but were instead about movies that were about the war.

Except that the games always had such a stench of horseshit coming off them, far outstripping Hollywood in terms of jingoistic revisionism. The movies at least acknowledged some of the human cost of the war. Not just in terms of the awful damage it inflicted on so many human bodies but also the minds and hearts of those caught up in the maelstrom.

The Call of Duty series, always so careful to keep its ESRB rating, redacted any of the physical cost of war. More insidiously, they whitewashed the monumental cruelty, stupidity, and misery of the war. The troops rather cheerfully went through each mission with their grizzled sergeant character, playfully bitching about their orders, and then celebrated after their victories. War, as the early Call of Duty series liked to portray it, was kind of like a big football practice. And it was all for a good cause.

Where were the fuckups? Erased from gaming’s recounting of the war are all the stupid and pointless wastes of lives that made such a contribution to the war’s final, staggering death toll. Hurtgen Forest, where several divisions of US infantrymen were devoured in a long, bloody, and ultimately meaningless battle for a piece of land with no military value. The wholesale slaughter that occurred along the Siegfried Line after Market Garden failed, and the Allied offensive lurched back to life only to find that the Germans had used their brief reprieve to fortify the border. Anzio? The daylight bombing campaign? Dieppe?

Naturally, games aren’t unique in this regard. Starting with the 50th anniversaries of the war, World War II became a big business and our culture began a very dangerous love affair with one of the greatest catastrophes to ever befall mankind. In retrospect, what a strange spectacle it was to see a nation ostensibly honoring its “Greatest Generation” with a series of increasingly lackluster movies, TV specials, sentimental bestsellers, and finally videogames. And how thoroughly that primed us for the misguided adventurism and empty promises that marked the past several years. The Bush administration may have misled the country into a war, but would the country have been so easily manipulated if it had not spent the previous decade reliving a time when we slew dragons?

What I am sick of is the disingenuousness we see in our military shooters. Hell’s Highway was marketed, on the one hand, as the most historically accurate and respectful World War II FPS ever made. The series had the pedigree to support that claim. On the other hand, the game included a feature that was basically a “fatality” cam, letting gamers revel in the carnage they inflicted. So what we had was a bit of two-faced marketing, where one developer video would talk soberly and respectfully about how serious this game was, and the next was all about “sweet kill” and “check out the gibs”.

I don’t think gamers are burned out on World War II games, but I know that I’m burned out on this particular kind of World War II game. I’m tired of playing games that present a vision of historical reality that I know to be false.

Go read Paul Fussell’s books to understand what I’m talking about. Actually, you only need to read the final chapter of Wartime, “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”. There is a guy who saw the war firsthand, nearly died over in Germany, and who fifty years later was still filled with a palpable sense of rage over the pity of the entire damned thing. He writes about the stupidity of Allied command, the shoddy equipment that most definitely cost lives on the battlefield, the lies that were told to the “home front”, and most of all the Disney-fication of the war.

Read some Kurt Vonnegut, particularly an essay from Armageddon in Retrospect called, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”, in which he talks about Dresden. After annihilating the city, the Allies send bombers over a few days later to drop leaflets explaining why there was a sound tactical reason why the city had to die. Vonnegut explains:

The leaflet should have said: “We hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theatre, your university, the zoo, and every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre. So sorry. Besides, saturation bombing is all the rage these days, you know.”

There was tactical significance: stop the railroads. An excellent manoeuvre, no doubt, but the technique was horrible. The planes started kicking high explosives and incendiaries through their bomb-bays at the city limits, and for all the pattern their hits presented, they must have been briefed by a Ouija board.

Tabulate the loss against the gain. Over 100,000 noncombatants and a magnificent city destroyed by bombs dropped wide of the stated objectives: the railroads were knocked out for roughly two days. The Germans counted it the greatest loss of life suffered in any single raid. The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and wilfully executed. The killing of children – “Jerry” children or “Jap” children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us – can never be justified.

The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all clichés, “fortunes of war”, and another: “They asked for it. All they understand is force.”

Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalise the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.

It’s useless to ask that war not be exploited for entertainment purposes and I’ll cop to enjoying good wargames, movies, and books. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious. But I simply cannot handle any more sentimentalizing when it comes to war, especially World War II. It was a nightmare and one from which the world has not fully recovered, and it is crass to see games wilfully over-simplifying and idealizing an event that killed scores of millions of people.

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.