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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.