Friday, September 25, 2015

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare review

    I mentioned in my review of Black Ops 2 that, until that game, I had never played one of the Call of Duty franchise. As such, I had an enormous hole in my video game review credibility. It, like my complete unfamiliarity with the Halo games, marked me as someone who had let a cultural milestone pass me by. Having run out of Xbox One games I wanted to play, I decided to give the series a try. Having very much enjoyed Black Ops 2, I've decided to give the Modern Warfare trilogy a try.

    As I mentioned in my previous review, there's no sense in my reviewing this like a regular video game. If you haven't played Modern Warfare, you're probably not going to play it now and if you have played it, there's very little I can add to the subject. As such, I'm just going to talk about what I liked about the games and disliked in a more conversational tone. I'm still a newbie to the series and given my general dislike of multiplayer, maybe my readers will find it entertaining to hear how I think it stands up eight years later.

    The answer? Really-really well.
All the level graphics hold up well.

    I think part of the reason this game stands the test of time is the graphics are good enough to pass for "real enough" while the relative open freedom of the levels means that there's a staggering amount of re-playability.

    The story is surprisingly good, which is something I'll get into later but makes me wonder if the people who've dismissed these games as military power fantasies are divorced from the community which has actually played them.

    This is the sort of game which could be ported with almost no changes whatsoever and it would still be popular, albeit nowhere near as revolutionary as it was in 2007. I feel like I've cheated myself as I really would have loved this game back then and been blown away by all the things other games have since ripped from it.

Game over. Except not.
    Before I get into what I thought about playing it, I'd like to state I really love the bait and switch which is at the heart of the game. The premise on the surface seems to be a gung-ho heroic action movie: Evil RussiansTM have armed their Evil Arab TerroristTM allies with nuclear weapons and its up to both the SAS as well as US Marine Corps to stop them. This is both true and misleading as what really sells the narrative is the game doesn't flinch from the consequences of war. In the one medium where you can honestly say, "war is a game" this is a game that nicely say "war is not a game."

    The use of multiple perspectives, including individuals who are scripted to die is something which is both simple as well as highly effective for causing the player to lose his general sense of invulnerability. Games with inescapable script-deaths for heroes are often highly criticized because they're escapist entertainment where, after being invincible for the entire game, it feels cheap to suddenly have your character killed for drama. Here, the sense of life's fragility may not be "realistic" given you're able to reload to checkpoints but it's a hell of a lot more so than in most stories.

    This isn't just because of the infamous nuke scene but also because of subtler satire as well. The sections where you play as the SAS portray them as highly professional, ruthless, focused on stealth, and always operating behind enemy lines. They're outgunned, outmanned, and forced to do questionable things in order to get their job done. The Marine Corps, at least at the start, is focused instead on winning the war through superior firepower. They're loud, proud, and taking on a much-much weaker force than themselves. It is an error in intelligence as well as the desire to do the "heroic" thing which results in the biggest tragedy of the game.

    I also think those who accuse the Call of Duty games of xenophobia miss a lot of the nuance to the game. In a game which doesn't take time to explain the plot points to you, instead letting you figure them out for yourself, it still manages to convey things with a pretty deft hand in my opinion.

    Yes, you're shooting at Arabs and Russians the game but the biggest victims of both are their own people. Al-Asad spends much of the level he first appears in killing civilian Iranians (or whatever country he's supposed to have taken over) while Loyalists help you throughout the Russian levels. The nuke detonation kills, as I understand it from later games, 30,000 American soldiers but how many hundreds of thousands of Arabs did it kill? There's even an achievement for rescuing a Russian farmer from execution.
One of the most haunting images in gaming.
    The campaign energy and deconstructions rather fizzle after the nuke scene, however, with a return to a more traditional story structure serving as the finale of the campaign. There's no plot less subversive, really, than preventing a bunch of renegade Russians from nuking the entirety of the Eastern Seaboard only to stop them at the last minute.

    The fact the campaign continues with a disappointing last level thereafter makes me think they could have ended the game after saving the world or had something a bit more final on the bridge. Given there were sequels, I can't help but wonder if it might have been better to just let the nukes drop too (or, at least, explode in the atmosphere delivering an EMP to the Eastern Seaboard).

One thing I will say. I love to *HATE* the main villain.
    While we don't get much characterization for our squadmates or player characters, I think the game makes good use of what little we do get to know about them. Captain Price and MacMillian, of course, are stand-outs as is the contrast between the U.K. vs. USA forces.

    I was genuinely shocked when the SAS killed the sleeping Russian freighter crew, I shouldn't have been but I was. That was my first indication I was playing in a very different game than the kind I was used to.

    Are there areas the game could be improved? Yeah, I think so, at least narratively. It might not have made the game more popular with the general public but I would have appreciated a little more downtime and storytelling between scenes. Limitations of the technology at the time or not, I think it would have benefited from some more cutscenes too to fill out the story. Likewise, the final half of the game could have used some of the game's more subversive elements on the 'game-y' elements of war. Saving the United States from destruction doesn't really fit with the narrative the first half of the game established and I would have liked something a bit more ambiguous but I'm not going to quibble with something I still enjoyed a great deal.

    I've got to say I love Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It's a gritty, enjoyable, and still very fun action game. It's not nearly as innovative as it was seven years ago but the fact it stands the test of time shows it was a good game in addition to being innovative. The storytelling is top notch and I actually enjoyed every single level but the final one.



  1. I take it the Metro series wasn't up your alley? The big complaint about the CoD series since Modern Warfare is the shortness of the single player campaign. Maybe 8 hours at best.

    1. I still have Metro but I was distracted from it after the first couple of missions by Hitman and now CoD. It's a fine game so far but hasn't wowed me yet into getting back to it.

    2. The story doesn't pick up till you meet Bourbon and go through the Great Gate.

    3. Well, I sat down and finished it after Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 so expect that after my review of it.