The best single-player experiences I have enjoyed throughout my many years of gaming have been like fine operas: complex arrangements of fast action, dramatic crescendos of characters and events, and cathartic climaxes as the story and players’ emotions reach a rewarding zenith. Many games have achieved this end or at least have come close enough to make the whole endeavor more than worth the effort put into playing it. Tragically, this generation’s biggest franchise seems to have refocused its efforts and created a dramatically different experience.
Activision and Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trilogy rejected any Wagnerian ambitions and created something more like a rave, with the merciless sights and sounds of war generating the blinding, flashing lights and merciless beat of an unrelenting techno dance mix. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. Likes and dislikes are entirely subjective, but the end product is undeniably jarring and, at least for fans of the classics like me, horribly disappointing.
Oh, and yes– there will be spoilers.
To be entirely fair, the Call of Duty franchise didn’t really start with the intentions of being the best the greatest single-player experience in the history of gaming; multiplayer increasingly became the major focus, but the campaign was never neglected either. The early games presented a rather gritty and fast paced vision of battle that seemed to balance a certain measure of historical accuracy with the strangely romantic view so many possess for World War II. The first through third entries of the series, as well as World at War, had the player hopping back and forth between various fronts of the war as they controlled American, Russian, and British soldiers in their valiant effort to turn back the naked aggression and blatant atrocities of the Axis powers. It is a classic story that most everybody knows and demands a certain amount of reverence that was always paid in full. Overall this created exciting gameplay opportunities that sacrificed more personal story telling for a dose of historical grandeur.
The series changed with the fourth entry, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. World War II was abandoned for a near future conflict that was actually an amazing achievement in innovative story telling. Intricate storytelling and compelling character development remained largely absent, but the story had enough interesting twists to keep you motivated and Infinity Ward utilized the first person perspective to truly capture the horror and shock of truly terrifying events. I’ll never forget seeing through the eyes of a deposed Middle Eastern leader as he witnesses his war torn country just moments before his own execution or stepping into the shoes of a helpless marine as he draws his last breaths in the radiation soaked ruins of a city that just fell victim to a nuclear attack. Moments like these were legitimately shocking, daring even on Infinity Ward’s part, and punctuated what could have been a rather standard experience. Unfortunately Infinity Ward saw how successful these events were and it went to its head, so when it came time for a sequel, it approached the project with a horribly unrefined enthusiasm.
This scene has been burned into the minds of millions of gamers.
Wii gamers, of course, had to wait for Modern Warfare, and when we finally got it the rest of the gaming world was playing Modern Warfare 2, a title that has yet to appear on Wii– which is something you should possibly be thankful for. Before I get too brutal with MW2, I do need to give it some credit. Much controversy was generated around a level titled “No Russian” in which the player, controlling a US soldier undercover in a terrorist organization, sweeps through a Russian airport in a horrific massacre of countless innocent civilians. Much like the aforementioned event, this level is shocking, but on a completely different, much more tragic level. However, it is also very necessary to the plot and I even think it served as something of a message to those critical of games being considered art. Developers are not afraid to present whatever is necessary to fulfill their vision, especially when much more shocking subject matter has been much less scrutinized in other media. That being said, the rest of the game doesn’t quite live up to this lofty ambition.
I have two major complaints about MW2. First is the fact that Infinity Ward decided to play out their trick of killing off the player in the story while maintaining the first person perspective. They do it two more times in MW2, and I was shocked the first time it happened, but more so by the simple fact that they decided to play that card again so early on and in a manner that was much less forceful than in the previous game. And when they did it again I just put my palm into my face, not only because they did it again, but also because it was part of a betrayal that any semi-lucid gamer could see coming almost right off the bat. But this is really second fiddle to the bigger problem that really stole the franchise’s soul.
Problem number two is when Russia invades the US. Every moment of the series from this moment onward plays out like the unholy love child of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, an unyielding tidal wave of explosions with a penchant for blowing up famous landmarks. In all seriousness, the subject of America being invaded was handled with more tact and restraint in the 1980s cheese ball classic Red Dawn featuring the unequaled acting chops of Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. I know that seeing small town USA and the White House overrun by foreign aggressors is supposed to tug at my heartstrings, but I was too busy emptying machine gun rounds into endlessly respawning, brain-dead ultra-nationalist Russians and watching EMP crippled helicopters fall from the sky to really care. All things considered though, this is still restraint compared to Modern Warfare 3.
For better or for worse, Wii owners got Modern Warfare 3 at the same time as the rest of the gaming world, so this means that Nintendo fans needn’t wait to delve into the insanity. While MW2 toyed around with tense and compelling ideas for a while before going completely bonkers, MW3 makes no illusion about being anything other than a steroid infused shot of testosterone directly to the part of the brain that makes people watch shows about police chases. From the very beginning the player is put into an almost ceaseless firefight with only a handful of minute long breaks in which you follow an NPC to sneak past effectively deaf and blind guards in which qualifies as quite possibly the least tense stealth sequences ever placed in a video game.
Are you shocked yet?
Oh, and of course you are once again shot in the face in as the developers play the card that has, at this point, become laughably predictable rather than even moderately shocking. And let’s not forget the need to blow up places your average American and European gamer will find dear, because this time around New York City, Hamburg, London, and Paris all receive a good thrashing with the Eiffel Tower receiving the shortest end of the stick. Of course Infinity Ward decided to throw another truly “shocking” level into the mix, except this time you watch a family of tourists (who are vacationing during World War III, mind you) get blown up in a terrorist bombing… doesn’t quite have the same impact as taking part in horrific massacre, does it?
I could keep going, but I don’t want to spoil too much and there is no sense in continuing to beat this horse, especially when the overall experience really isn’t necessarily bad. Call of Duty has always featured smooth, fast-paced action that controls beautifully while keeping the excitement level high. As the Modern Warfare spin-offs have progressed, Infinity Ward has simply played more and more to these strengths. The real problem comes from the general lack of creative ambition from what many consider to be the series’ best developer after the Call of Duty “B team,” Treyarch, put out Black Ops, a game that featured actual characters and a story driven by deception, mystery, and the major question of the primary protagonist’s loyalty and sanity rather than overly bombastic action set pieces. As cool as it is to see the Eiffel Tower get blown up, it really doesn’t count as a compelling plot point; especially when you compare it to learning that you can no longer trust your own perceptions of the reality presented in the game.
Regardless of all my ranting and raving, there is a place for the mindless action game, both within the world of gaming in general and in my personal library. But one can’t help but be disappointed when the most popular franchise in the world has devolved from pushing the limits of the genre to focusing on delivering little more than a constant stream of explosions. The FPS genre has exploded in recent years and many developers have created amazing titles that go above and beyond the expected norm: BioShock tells a philosophically compelling story, Halo is interwoven with a rich mythology, Metroid Prime rewrote the book on first person exploration, and Portal has set the high water mark for both comedy and puzzles in gaming. I’m not asking for the next Call of Duty to feature an intergalactic bounty hunter battling an objectivist cult of evil aliens within a secret research laboratory run by a sadistic robot; heck, most people buy the games for the multiplayer anyway so a single player campaign is barely even necessary! But if you are going to bother with it, at least make something that isn’t insulting. Black Ops managed to become the best-selling game of all time (when combining systems) while still managing both the classic Call of Duty action and an interesting narrative, so there is no harm in at least giving something that resembles an effort.