Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Modern Warfare: Call of Duty?

I have a big pile of un-played and un-finished games chilling in my DVD drawer. The problem is, I make unrealistic judgments about my ability to dedicate time to gaming. I also am something of a stickler when it comes finishing games. Like books, I just can't stand to leave them unfinished without lying to myself, promising that I will get to them in the future. This same impulse also accounts for some weighty tomes cooling their heels in the nearby bookcase (I promise that I will come back for you one day, Hans Blumenberg's The Legitimacy of the Modern Age!)

In my effort to chip away at the pile, I settled on Call of Duty 4. (I do want to play Prince of Persia:Sands of Time and Fallout before their respective sequels come out this October, but I will have to put that project on the back-burner. Anybody have any suggestions on this one?) I've never met a military shooter that's impressed me much before (None of them have stacked up to the likes of Bioshock and Half-Life 2 in my estimation), but I have heard critics rave for going on a year now about how Call of Duty 4 is an example of peerless craftsmanship.

And it is. I'm only about a third of the way through the single-player campaign now, but I have been continuously impressed by the firm grasp on the finer points of pacing and gameplay variety shown by the folks over at Infinity Ward. Although it can't match Half-Life 2 in this department, it does a good job of overcoming the essential homogeneity of its level design by varying the combat-- moving from street-level fighting in claustrophobic Middle Eastern streets to pitched battles in Russian fields to helicopter turrets.

The multiplayer game bears out my recent thesis concerning leveling. Although the jobs-and-perks system builds imbalances into the game that are grossly punitive to the novice, it also offers the alluring idea that diligence and steady application will one day result in the murderous feats glimpsed only through your killcam, during one of your many deaths. I tell myself that I will be able to walk away before I am drawn into the vortex, but then again that next carrot is always only 150 XP away. You know how I feel about red dot sights. .

When I was playing online today my roommate walked by and said “Hey, this is that game that they use to recruit people for the Army.” She's not kidding. Even though Call of Duty is not an official recruiting product (unlike Full Spectrum Warrior and America's Army), it may as well be. It's not even that Call of Duty is jingoistic and triumpalist. It's just that it depicts war as a professional affairits depiction of wartime service is overwhelmingly dominated by the feeling of competence. Games are almost inherently empowering, because their very structure trades on the player's gradual mastery of the virtual world. Coupled to the representation of military service they almost cannot help but glorify the cool-headed professionalism shown by the officers in Call of Duty.

I am less bothered by games' attempts to glorify warfare than I am by the steady convergence of warfare itself on video games. I trust that any sane human being can distinguish a video game from reality. But there is this eerie way that the tools of modern warfare can turn the killing of human beings into an intangible abstraction, no different from the dance of pixels on a screen.

I had heard Shawn Elliott discuss the chilling distantiation involved in Call of Duty's gunship mission on GFW Radio some time back, but it is worth having these two representations of an AC-130 gunship in action in front of you:

The top video is a mission in Call of Duty. The latter is an actual camera video from an AC-130 mission in Afghanistan. You have to hand it to the game's creators for nailing the flat, affectless tone of the radio chatter. And anyway, it's impossible to feel any pathos for blobs of light on a computer monitor. War is not a game. But how would you tell?


Anonymous said...

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is excellent and not all that long if I remember correctly. The release of the reboot got pushed back to early December, too, so you've earned a brief respite if you want to try and get the older one in before street time.

Of course you have to navigate thru all the other new games coming out between now and the first week of December. This season is going to bankrupt me, I fear.

Anonymous said...

Those videos are incredibly creepy, even apart from the fact that they really feel like videogames. The second one is frightening for the ten seconds or so where, presumably, the commanding officer keeps changing his mind as to whether the gunner can engage the target. There's a good two seconds in there where the guy could be dead before the officer changes his mind again.

For what it's worth, I wrote on the war aspects of Call of Duty 4 a while ago and I actually think that the game is a lot more nuanced than a brief glance would suggest. It might be a war shooter, but I think it's problematic to suggest it's simply pro-war.

Unknown said...

It's been a while since I played through the single player of CoD4, but I remember getting the feeling that they were a bit cynical about war from some of the quotes used during loading. I wish I could remember specific ones but I can't seem to. It seemed to me that they respect what soldiers do, so that gets glorified, but they also have their reservations about war itself. Or maybe I just read the quotes wrong, which is very possible.

Anonymous said...

Although the jobs-and-perks system builds imbalances into the game that are grossly punitive to the novice...

Acutally, one of my favourite things about COD4's multiplayer is that (by and large) its perks/upgrades aren't too imbalanced. The perks themselves are, perhaps, an added bonus, especially when it comes to carrying more frag grenades or doing more damage.

The weaponry is quite well balanced, though - all the weaponry accessible to the novice is, in fact, the most well-balanced (rather than the weakest, as is so often the case). The M16 and AK balance damage and power very well, as does the MP5 and the M40 sniper rifle; as you gain new weapons, they tend to trade damage for rate of fire (or vice versa), or rate of fire for accuracy, rather than simply being total-upgrades. It's a shame it takes so long to upgrade some of the sights - the red dot being invaluable, and the ACOG totally changing your usage of assault rifles - but I still think there's a decent amount of thought in there; enough of the multiplayer game still comes down to player skill, rather than having the neatest toys.

Enjoying your writeup of it so far; I'd be interested to see how you feel by the end of the game, as I think COD4 feels noticeably different at the end than in the middle, and not in a straightforward manner based purely on the events of the game (especially the last third).

Chuckpebble said...

I think that PoP is longer than CoD4. If you're just looking to finish games, I'd start with CoD4. I played it on and off on my Father-in-law's PS3, he's the type that hands off the controller when things get too hot. I remember being astonished when I realized we had finished the game. Of course, I did miss much of the story, I just walked into the house one day and was handed a controller. Bam, two levels and I'm watching credits.
PoP gave me fits. The parkour platforming was awesome, but the combat was difficult and frustrating at times.
Its funny because I just started up my first game of Fallout 2 days ago. The mouse is a little sluggish on my laptop (old iBook) and I'm trying to figure out how to tweak it if I can. I think its funny that we're playing (or planning on it anyway) this game because of the new one coming out. Unlike you though, I more than likely won't be playing Fallout 3. It's similar to how I played MGS on the Gamecube during all of the MGS4 hype. I got my fix.

Mitch Krpata said...

The gunship mission in CoD4 is really something special -- one of the most memorable, well-done sequences I can think of in any recent action games. Part of the reason why is because it's so quiet. The rest of the game is non-stop cacophony. It's a shock to stop dead like that. And it's also a massive shift in perspective, from having your nose in the dirt to looking upon the battlefield like a vengeful god. Disquieting, but wonderful. The whole game was really spectacular. Man.

Also: Sands of Time is probably one of my top five games of its generation. That's a must-play. Not too long, either. I would really like to hear your thoughts on it.

Anonymous said...

Also: Sands of Time is probably one of my top five games of its generation. That's a must-play. Not too long, either. I would really like to hear your thoughts on it.

Agreed on all counts - it's about 8-12 hours, depending on how many scenic routes you take, and wonderful in so, so, so many ways.

Nels Anderson said...

Is CoD4 portrayal of conflict unsettling simply because it's a game and games are supposed to be "fun?" If its content and style were presented in another medium, say film, where something can be enjoyable without necessary being "fun," would we have the same thoughts about it? Maybe interactivity makes a big difference here.

As for the conundrum of what's next, if you think you can manage it, play Fallout. It can be a long game though, while Sands of Time won't stretch much beyond 10 hours, if that. If your time is limited and you to ensure something gets finished, go for Sands of Time. But at least drop a few hours into Fallout.

Anonymous said...

Interactivity is the difference. Film and literature present unsettling content in an easily digestible way: a passive viewing experience. In a game or new media presentation you not only take an active role in furthering the narrative, but the narrative often centers around your avatar, thus implying that the unsettling content is your responsibility as the person who controls the game world. Bioshock partially addressed this conundrum (although I wish they had taken it much, much further).

Call of Duty 4 is an excellent game, but I can't play it. I find the situation it presents horrifying due to how grounded in reality the whole thing is. A certain event at the end of the game's second act left me on edge for days and I never went back to the game after that.

Anonymous said...

I really have enjoyed COD4. It's one of the very few games I have been faithful to in terms of average playtime since its release.

I had never seen actual footage from a AC-130 and the resemblance was amazing and almost disturbing.

I can sympathize with thesimplicity about his comments. There were definitely points in the campaign that made me cringe when I compared it with current events, but my inability to depart from such an epic title overshadowed that feeling in my gut.

Anonymous said...

thesimplicity - really? It's a very disturbing event, but I thought it was meant to be disturbing and shocking... to me, stopping play there would be like stopping reading All Quiet On The Western Front after a certain event with a knife in a shrapnel hole.

It might just be my reading of the game, but I genuinely saw it as anti-war.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@daniel: I really wonder whether the surreal gunship mission was meant to be that way; it clearly trades on the juxtaposition of your on-the-ground missions with the sterile and abstract Gods-eye view of the gunship, and I wonder whether (as you say in your article) this was meant as a sort of critical commentary on modern warfare or not. I think not, but that's just my hunch.

On a larger note I didn't say I thought the game was pro-war so much as pro-military-professionals. It doesn't valorize war-- in fact it repeatedly shows how war's arbitrary violence disempowers the soliders-- but it does, I think, extol the military virtues of discipline and camaraderie.

@pete: the quotes are a really interesting part, but the general feel you get from them is that they're a kind of commentary that says: "hey guys, we're all having fun here but remember that war has costs and it's not a game." This stands in contrast to the way the game empowers you. I'll have to write about this at some point.

@tom: I think you have some good points, in that the entry-level perks and weapons are pretty well-balanced to the later weapons. The big thing for me, as you rightly point out, was the laser sight and the ACOG sight for the assault rifles, which really give a huge advantage to the higher-level players. You can earn these in the first 10 levels or so but until then I thought I was at a pretty big disadvantage relative to higher-level players.

@thesimplicity: I think I just hit the event you mentioned. It is a totally devestating scene but I think it's really interesting to think about in the context of the game as a whole. I'll have to write something up about it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I guess my position is more a hopeful one than anything else. I just really have to believe that the designers of that gunship mission have to have had some sort of reflexivity; otherwise, I think we really, really have to wonder about the nature of the industry when it comes to representing serious subjects like that. How can (presumably) numerous people work on art, coding, voice acting, scripts, level design etc and not think about what it is that they're representing?

I do agree with your point about the game being pro-military professionals at the very least. Although, I think in this aspect, at least, Modern Warfare is hardly alone; I already mentioned All Quiet On The Western Front, which I think does this too (not the organisation/professionalism aspect, but the camaraderie/don't-blame-the-soldiers-blame-the-government line), and it can be seen in many other cultural artifacts usually considered anti-war, from Band of Brothers to even Fahrenheit 9/11.

Anyway, I think possibly the more compelling question is not whether a pro/anti war stance was intended, but how it is taken by players. If this thread is anything to go by, it certainly made people think about current conflict and the nature of war; conversely, I'm dead certain that a huge percentage of players wrote it all off in the name of 'epic' gameplay and entertainment.

Anonymous said...

@daniel - I agree that the event in question functioned as intended... they wanted to screw with the player, and they succeeded. The context in which it's presented is what gives me a chill. The basic role of the player in the game is to run around shooting terrorists. Then an event like that happens and... you go on to the next mission and shoot some more terrorists? No, that's not what I want to do! I want to enter the peace talk simulation section or something.

The fact that it affected me so much is a good indicator of how expertly crafted the story is. I guess it's something like like a Sweet Movie sort of situation, where the level of craft pushes it to such uncomfortable levels that the viewer is challenged to see the material through.

Etelmik said...

Man, I'm glad to hear discussion about CoD4--I've not seen enough of it and this post has got me pumped.

On the anti-war/pro-war thing: IW made sure to be very careful on this. If you think about the villains, it's quite clear that they're washing their hands of the subject by making it easy to take sides.

What they do try to comment on is what it's like to engage in war and how unclear the general public is about why countries do what they do. I know the connection is a stretch, but I kept thinking of Christopher Buckley novels and movies (Thank you For Smoking, Boomsday) that show the "behind the scenes" stuff.

The real war, as one of the quotes from a previous CoD game says, does not get in the books. But in a game where you make up all the characters, you can put the real elements of it in and make people more pensive and thoughtful about it should they actually think or talk about the game's events, themes, and plot.

I really wonder what the devs at IW said as they talked amongst themselves about the plot and presentation and how they'd handle doing a modern game with U.S. marines in it. WW II is simple, and they had precedents to borrow from. Modern Middle Eastern conflict is a different thing.