Call of Duty 4: Weapons of Mass Deconstruction

War: it's never funny. Therefore, neither is this alt-text. (NOTE: some wars are funny)

I’m about two years late to the party, but I just finished playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. And, yes, that old saying is true: (Modern) War(fare) is (one) hell (of a game). From start to finish, it’s a tightly scripted, action-packed thrill ride, alternating between making you feel like a legitimate bad-ass soldier, and an insignificant speck that could die at any moment without anyone paying much attention. It’s a great game, no bones about that.

But it’s also a game that deserves (and has received) some deeper thought than “94/100 – ‘sa good game, chief.” And I don’t mean discussion about whether the game is too linear – as valid as that discussion may be if the game was woeful, or even mediocre, it’s rendered flaccid and pointless by the fact that the game is wonderful. Basically, I’m gonna go in over my head, and take a look at what its story tried to achieve, and how it sometimes tripped over its own epic ambitions as if they were untied bootlaces.

So, yeah. War: what is it good for? What it is good for is providing a meaty, relatable, real-world backbone for a lot of first-person shooters, and the Call of Duty series seems to be the agreed upon pinnacle of that subset. Infinity Ward’s series had been set in World War 2 up till now (I say “now”, but really until November 2007, when this game was released), and provided you with ample opportunities to smack down some naughty Nazis from British, American and Russian perspectives. War is also good for tragically destroying millions of young lives, and the COD series never shied away from this – the body count of the games is stratospheric, but it’s all borne out by history, innit?

So in Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward got a bit bored with WWII and decided to move things up to the titular modern world. This means nuclear holocaust is the endgame rather than worldwide fascism, and instead of killing Nazis by the Luftwaffe-load, we’re shooting a much more nebulous foe: terrorists. And this is where the games problems begin to arise.

In previous CODs, we fought Nazis in a host of real-world locales, often as part of battles that really happened. In Modern Warfare, we fight in Russia, Azerbaijan, and the largest country of them all “The Middle East”. Tom Francis touched on this in his review for PC Gamer: the game doesn’t name any specific Middle Eastern country as the location of the action. It’s just terrorists in the Middle East. His words:

The setup for COD4 amounts to: “There’s some kind of conflict in a Middle-Eastern country LET’S GO!” It’s no less than we’ve come to expect from games, but it’s a little less than we’ve come to expect from Call of Duty, and it’s hard to get emotional about a conflict this vague.

Your enemies are referred to as ‘Ultranationalists’ but for a country that’s never even named. Hilariously, your pre-mission briefing screen keeps telling you you’re heading out to ‘THE MIDDLE EAST’, while news reportage yaks about fighting in ‘the capital’. The capital of THE MIDDLE EAST?

He didn’t elaborate much further than that – space constrictions, I’d guess, but also probably because it wasn’t the time or place for that kind of discussion – but it’s a part of the game that really doesn’t sit well with me. As Tom notes, it robs a large part of the game – a part that sees the developers do brave, evocative things with conventions of the genre – of any kind of meaningful context.

It’s odd, because I have no problem with fighting entirely fictional armies in places that don’t exist (and in the game, yes), but because COD4 places you so firmly in realistic depictions of Chernobyl et al, the vague catch-all “Middle East” setting grates – it’s not that they’re averse to setting this game in real places, it’s that they’re averse to naming what Middle Eastern country the US army is invading.

Look, I’m not saying that I wanted this game to make grand statements about the futility of war, and that the lack of specificity in the setting prevented that, therefore, the narrative failed. It’s that the game does try – and often succeeds in its attempts – to say some very daring things about war (or at least, daring for an FPS in 2007). In fact, compared to most other shooters, COD4 shows the human cost of war – both in terms of death toll and psychological effect – better than any game I can think of.

Some scenes make for some obvious examples: the mission “Death From Above” places you in AC130 gunship, flying over enemy encampments in Western Russia, remorselessly obliterating dozens of soldiers with a 40mm gun. The radio chatter is eerily divorced from the reality of the situation – as you snuff out a group of soldiers, your companion blithely remarks “Kaboom”. It’s a moment where you sit back and wonder what you’re doing; how could it possibly be this easy to kill so many people at the touch of a button? And then you realise that it’s based on actual military footage, and it becomes a stunning example of the power of video games: putting you in the gunner’s seat and letting you wipe out the enemy is far more affecting than watching the footage.

Compared to this, the cutscene near the start of the game, seen from the eyes of a kidnapped “MIDDLE EASTERN” president as he’s transported by terrorists through a wartorn “MIDDLE EASTERN” city, tied to a pole, and then ruthlessly murdered by “MIDDLE EASTERN” terrorists is a study in contrast. It’s brilliantly choreographed, certainly, and fairly affecting in its own right: as you’re being moved through the city, you see civilians being shot by firing squads; a man spray painting a wall runs in terror from the car you’re in; it’s a picture of a city in chaos, torn apart by the brutal “ultranationalist” uprising. But at the same time, there’s a vagueness to it: the anti-Western rhetoric is there, the wanton destruction we expect from terrorists is there, but we have no idea who these people are or what they really stand for, or what the assassinated president stood for.

This means that the missions you play as Sergeant Jackson, the US Marine fighting on the frontline in the MIDDLE EAST, have an odd feeling of pointlessness to them, and I don’t think it’s intentional. You have no idea who you’re killing, or why – not out of some liberal pinko “Why are we fighting” mindset, but because you literally don’t know what country you’re in. So even when Infinity Ward do incredible things in the game, it doesn’t hit as hard as it perhaps should.

For example, as you’re leaving THE CAPITAL OF THE MIDDLE EAST in a helicopter, a nuke goes off in the middle of the city. You watch the mushroom cloud engulf the choppers flying behind you, and then you look on helplessly as it catches you in its destructive grasp. It cuts to a list of the casualties from the blast… and then cuts back to you. You’re the sole survivor, coming back to consciousness in the crashed helicopter. You struggle to the outside, and it’s a picture of utter devastation: everything’s tinged in red and yellow, buildings are crumbling, bodies strewn everywhere. You slowly get to your feet, only to crumple again to the ground. You look for a way out – preferable away from the gigantic mushroom cloud on the horizon. And then you stop… and the screen turns to white… and the game has killed off one of its protagonists. It’s killed you off. It’s a remarkable sequence – a stark, atmospheric example of the fragility of the human life that games like COD4 mostly ignore in favour of player empowerment.

And I love that. I love that this game is brave enough to show that war can kill anyone. I love that this game makes you die. What I don’t like – really don’t like – is that it makes you die in a scenario without meaning. The statement it’s making about war loses some of its impact, because I don’t feel like I’m fighting a real war: I’m fighting a fictional, non-specific representation of what a war somewhere in the Middle East might be like.

I understand their decision: look at the furore over Six Days in Fallujah – basing a game on real-life, present-day flashpoints is a good way to find yourself without a publisher willing to risk attaching themselves to your product. But it feels like IW took that tentative first step towards biting the bullet, then decided not to at the very last second, substituting “MIDDLE EAST” for any specific Middle Eastern country.

It’s not important in any large way – the game is still fantastic. But the poignancy that the first Call of Duty had stemmed from the fact that real soldiers experienced what we were experiencing, in the places the game was simulating. It’s as close as we’ll likely ever come to being in their boots. COD4 doesn’t let us do that. And that’s disappointing.

Making real statements about a fake war just doesn’t have the same power. It’s like Gordon Ramsay lecturing you about the intricacies of Italian cuisine while he microwaves a ReadyMeal SpagBol for you. Pointed statements rendered strangely pointless.


2 Responses to Call of Duty 4: Weapons of Mass Deconstruction

  1. Pingback: Skulls and Arms and Torsos Squelching Noisily Underfoot Like Pillows Stuffed With Runny Porridge: And other children’s favourites « Mister Hands

  2. ian says:

    Where I can download Call of Duty 4 full version for PC? Can you give me the links? thanks before

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