RPS Advent Game-o-Calendar: December 1st

By Alec Meer on December 1st, 2007 at 5:59 pm.

So, our advent celebrations begin. We turn to our RPS-approved fairtrade advent calendar . What’s behind the door…

5 GOLD RINGS!!!!

It’s chocolate. Thanks, Fairtrade. Om nom nom nom.

But for you?

Iiiiiit’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare!

Is “linearity” really such a dirty word? It’s perhaps the default criticism for games, both by people who aren’t games journalists and by journalists who should know better. Yes, often including me.

It’s as easily defended as it is criticised. In some cases, having your experience tightly controlled so you always see good stuff and enjoy a fine tale is as important as optionally being able to run off into those trees in the distance and kill a bear or something, if you really want. But it only works when you are, indeed, seeing and experiencing good stuff. It’s when the only place the game will let you go is dreadfully uninteresting and lined with a thousand locked doors that linearity becomes becomes a deserved focus of all-consuming anger.

Call of Duty 4, then: this year’s golden child of linearity. Call of Duty games have always done on-rails well, generally by being so overwhelmingly frenetic that the last thing you want to have to think about is where to go. What they haven’t been is narratively interesting. They’ve certainly had some great little dramatic tics – being presented with your single clip of bullets, and told you wouldn’t get a gun to use it with until you prised one from the cold, dead hands of one of your comrades at the start of COD1’s Russian campaign was incredibly harrowing. But they haven’t made me care about anyone, or want to know what happens.

In Call of Duty 4, I did. I really didn’t expect to – the modern war setting leaves me really cold. I’m generally quite uncomfortable with deriving entertainment from a recreation of how people are dying /right now/, plus I expected it to require tactical complexity and belly-crawling stealth and satellite scans and similar Ghost Recony fare, which I really don’t want from a Call of Duty game. I just want to shoot a lot of pretend men, in a really big, ridiculous way. And, hey, turned out I could. A few water-treading levels (and one or twenty-eight too many unavoidable grenade deaths) aside, COD4’s the best run and gun game of the year – personally, I prefer it to its peer in polished linearity, Half-Life 2 Episode 2. It’s brutal, visually busy, and its gentle twist of being able to shoot through walls’n’doors gives its combat an organic feel. Stand, shoot, crouch, stand, shoot, crouch – the usual looped routines of gunplay against AI that knows how to hide aren’t a problem. When the enemy duck and covers, you mentally plot where you think he’ll be and fire, your bullets chipping through plaster and wood to an unknown target behind. Wait a second or two. He doesn’t appear. Congratulations. You’ve just used the world against him.

What carries it safely from Fun to Important is its cutscenes, or rather the alternative to them it comes up with. Generally, I’m with Jim – there’s enough atrocious , tedious and pointlessly interruptive cutscenes in gaming at the moment that complete genocide of the bastard things makes a lot of sense. COD4 clearly realises that cutscenes are often nowhere near as interesting as their creators believe they are. Rather than just leaving them out, it actually tries to fix the form. I’ve already written about its first attempt here. Now I’m going to talk about another, and this means mega-spoilers. Read on if you’ve already played the game, read on if you’re convinced you’ll never play it, but don’t read on if you probably will.

Spoilers commence after the linebreak.


……

One of Call of Duty’s traditions is the changing perspective. Across the campaign, you’ll step into the jackboots of a few soldiers of different nationalities. In COD4, it’s no longer prescribed campaigns – you switch in out of Brit SAS newbie ‘Soap’ MacTavish and US Marine Paul Jackson at unexpected moments. Fine, good, all very cinematic. The first third of the game is fairly much Call of Duty business as usual, this time pretending it’s some sort of accurate reflection of conflict in the middle-east. Blah blah.

Then, a bomb (A BOMB!). Specifically, a nuclear bomb, detonated uncomfortably close to the helicopter Jackson is currently departing Baghdad A Middle Eastern Country in. And from thereon in, COD4 changes direction. I, as Jackson, presume I’m just out of range. I’m the hero, after all. I’ll be fine… Waitwhat. The shockwave of the blast catches the chopper, and the last thing I see is the ground and my face about to become intimate acquaintances.

Still though, I’m the hero. So when the black screen begins to fill with colour again, it’s no surprise. Only survivor? ‘Course I am. Hoo yeah. I crawl, slowly, out the wreckage of the chopper – everything is bathed in yellow light, and there’s ruin all around. The only sound is the whistling of some hellish wind.

But I’m alive. Time to find the fuckers who did this and make them pa…. Ow. I crumple to the ground, the shaking screen offering a devastatingly convincing impression of my legs going from under me. Weird. Must have tripped over some scenery. Stand up, walk on.

To the right, a burning, broken playground – Terminator 2’s apocalypse scene, essentially. In the distance, a tower block crumbles.

To the left, more urban chaos – not a soul around, just fractured architecture. Oh, and a mushroom cloud. Quite a close mushroom cloud.

Oh dear. A health pack’s not going to help, is it?

But, I’m the hero. Something’s going to happen, obviously. Chums will descend from the sky, fill me with magic medicines, and I’ll go kill some more terrorists. Hoo yeah. Ow. My legs. Okay, stand up again. Where should I go? Where’s my HUD? Why is there no HUD? There, a doorway. Start to run to it, fall again. Keep crawling… Slowly, colour bleeds out of the world. The screen turns white, and then there is silence.

“Sgt. Paul Jackson. Status: KIA.”

But… I’m the hero!

Hands still frozen in the WASD claw, I just stared for a minute or two, trying to take in what had just happened. I’d been killed. Not quick-load killed. Killed. Dead. Forever. I’m just another casualty of the war my other character is fighting. I’m why he’s fighting. Why I’m fighting. Aeris dies? Oh, piss off.

And, from there, Call of Duty becomes 24, but a 24 that repeatedly packs more emotional punch than the diminishing returns of frowning Kiefer Sutherland. You know the other bits I mean if you’ve played it, I’m sure. This moment’s the strongest of the lot though, and even if it had been a mere cutscene I’d have been impressed by its ballsiness. But it’s not a cutscene. It’s me, crawling around in the horrific aftermath of a nuclear explosion, feeling my body failing on me. It’s a breathtaking moment, and one of the strongest pieces of proof I’ve experienced that games are not the straight analogue of movies. They have ways of telling their narrative cinema never will. I’m not watching someone die. I’m dying.

There’s no more playing as US marines from there. Their story’s done. They’ve failed. Call in the SAS. And the SAS are awesome – particularly Captain Price, a gruff hardnut with a heart of gold – his disdain for Soap’s greenhornedness is balanced just as often with treating him/you like his best-loved son – and a brutal whatever-it-takes streak. He’s with you to the end, and, at that end, you earn his respect at last. At a terrible cost. I almost cried. He’s one of the most memorable, likeable gaming characters I’ve seen in a while. Honestly, I feel a little giddy whenever he’s on-screen.

Some folk have looked for politics in Jackson’s death and the deferment to the SAS to finish America’s job – that it’s an indictment of the US’s involvement in Iraq. Maybe there’s something in that, but I suspect it’s more about making the maximum dramatic impact on the largest playerbase. Equally, the worries about COD4 dealing with a sensitive subject matter (and being annoyingly softly-softly about it – not naming the exact nationality of the terrorists, for instance) disappear as it quickly becomes knowingly excessive melodrama. For all its dreary oh-look-realistic subtitle, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is pure, Hollywood fiction, and it’s a far better ride once it makes that clear. It’s also the best traditional FPS of the year, as far as I’m concerned.

Additionally, it has this cheat mode:

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29 Comments »

  1. Mike says:

    A great read and a very on point assessment of why this game is so fantastic. You guys are awesome.

  2. Andrew says:

    Complete agreement with you, Alec.

    It’s like the best, most engaging action movie ever. One that involves you and makes some pretty impressive points and so on as well as being bloody good fun.

  3. Evo says:

    Ah truly brilliant game it was, found it so hard to do a review of it myself without giving away anything like what follows your spoiler section.

    Really great game, my GOTY :)

  4. Tom Lillis says:

    Ahh, so THAT’S what Gillen was doing. It all makes sense now.

    I actually experienced the nuclear explosion moment as an observer to someone else’s game, alongside a bunch of other people. It is the first time I have ever seen this particular group fall into dead silence, only finally broken (a good thirty seconds later) by someone disbelievingly asking, “What?”

    “I think he’s dead.”

    “No, that’s not how this works.”

    “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”

    Another pause.

    “…what?”

    Brilliant, and not at all gimmicky. Great stuff.

  5. Homunculus says:

    For extra oomph that not-a-cutscene occurs in the immediate aftermath of an evacuation-interrupting ad-hoc sucessful rescue of a downed attack helicopter pilot, replete with the urgency of a genre-convention countdown. So any high you may have been experiencing of heroic triumph over adversity whilst racing away from the imminent ground zero is rather neatly extinguished in a too-rapidly advancing wall of nuclear fire. Coupled with the depiction of the confusion of squalid urban conflict it’s a better horror game than any oozing stack of Resident Evils or Silent Hills.

    I am never, ever joining the army.

  6. Faust says:

    I remember that when I played this bit, I was experiencing the same sort of ‘My guy is the fucking biggest bad ass here’ temperament, and even when it said ‘KIA’ I was thinking ‘Well, there will be some cool bit when he’s alone and running through the aftermath of a nuclear explosion to rejoin the army’. It wasn’t until the end of the game that I finally realised that Jackson was dead. It was extremely shocking and more than a little uncomfortable. If more games start doing stuff like this, it’s going to become a little harder ending lives of faceless militants.

  7. Jae Armstrong says:

    I had been identifying more with the wet-behind-the-ears British man than the random American guy at that point, so I guess I wasn’t really extending the protagonist-shield to cover him when the bomb went up. At the very least, I thought he was a gonner when the chopper went down, so the whole “dying slowly in the shadow of the mushroom cloud scene” felt more like an “aha! he’s alive!” moment… right up until the point where my legs collapsed under me and I thought “…oh”

    Nevertheless the whole experience had my eyes as wide as they’d go- definitely not where I was expecting the game to go.

  8. Leeks! says:

    Damn it. I read on thinking “I don’t really like military shooters, I probably won’t play it.” *Now* I want to. Damn it, damn it, damn it.

  9. Five says:

    COD4 reminded me that I hadnt played a game with a great selection of cheats since… Perfect Dark. Why don’t more developers have fun with their games, and share it with the players?

  10. Ging says:

    Until I saw the “KIA” message, I was convinced that he’d get picked up by some nearby chinook and whipped to safety, given a paracetamol and be back in a couple of missions.

    I ultimately found the last section far more harrowing though – I have faith that the nice Russian man that was slamming the hell out of Prices chest did the job and he came back to us, a shame the same can’t be said for Gaz…

    Then of course, I went through the not so poignant “deep and hard” rap, followed by the evil (in veteran) deep and hard epilogue mission and the harrowing emotional experience changed slightly.

  11. po says:

    When I came round after the chopper crashed I though I’d need to search for some NBC gear, so I was looking all round the chopper hoping to find some. Seeing the bodies of the rest of the crew, with no wounds on them, really made it sink home how unhealthy being there, breathing that air was. It’s too extreme a story line to be allowed to survive to see any more of it though.

    Having gone back and successfully rescued the female Cobra pilot, only to be caught in the nuclear blast, is just the kind of emotionally involving story games need.

  12. Tom says:

    “Shock and Awe” – the bomb level, for those who’ve not played – is perhaps not the best level in terms of pure gameplay, but it’s certainly the best level overall in the game.

    A lot of it’s in that title – it begins with the humdinging thunder of rotor blades and your grenade launcher, pouding the hell out of ground targets; pure US shock and awe at its best. It ends with pretty much every civilian and combatant in the area being wiped out by the nuke. Tables are turned.

    As pointed out, that’s after a heart-racing rescue of the downed Cobra pilot.

    it also has some punch because Soap – the other protagonist – has already survived one chopper crash. So as the Sea Knight goes down, you think “oh, this has happened before; we’ll be OK”. Jackson is also reported as MIA after the bomb – but before the brief regain of controls – so when you get given that chance to control him, you assume you’ll prove the short video inerlude wrong, and turn out not-MIA at all.

    In one sense, you’re not missing. But you’re sure as hell dead. The hardest part is the crawling – every time you stand up, falling back down. Just wandering, with nowhere to go.

    Game over, man. Game over.

  13. The_B says:

    To use an oft-used cliché, I have to agree: It’s one of the best uses of storytelling in a game, ever.

  14. malkav11 says:

    Yep. That was one hell of a moment….though, I have this nagging feeling that it could have been better if I’d had any sense of Jackson as a character at all. I guess the point is to make you identify as being him, but when I’m jumping haphazardly to Soap and an unnamed AC130 gunner at random moments, the first-person non-talking bit doesn’t really make them feel like *me*, it just makes them feel like remote control puppets.

  15. Jachap says:

    I didn’t expect to like Call of Duty 4, either, but after reading the feature on here about the credit sequence I decided I’d try it out.

    I’m so glad I did.

    Despite knowing what was going to happen to the President, it was still extremely emotionally affecting. I was genuinely thinking, “Oh shit. I’m going to die” and staring around wildly at the crowds of people chanting and watching as I was strapped to a bloody pole. Then the heart beat… for some reason, that really got to me.

    I basically had to stop playing for a bit after the AC130 gunner section, though, because it tweaked my pacifism up a notch.

    For the first time in a game, I wasn’t playing some world saving hero. I was just playing some detached guy, an office worker doing his job quietly and effeciently without emotion or consequence. Only his office is a plane with large cannons and his job is to watch TV and fire shells the size of phone boxes at distant faraway targets.

    The crew’s audio was perfectly judged as well. The completely neutral discussion of bombing a church and then:

    “Looks like he shit himself.”
    “Heh heh.”

    It just seemed natural to me.

    Compared to the bombing raid in the expansion pack of the first Call of Duty, which could have been approached in a similar manner but was actually turned into a horrible space invaders/fixed turret mini-game… where you had to shoot down wave upon wave of Luftwaffe aircraft…

    Its just nice to see a game actually mature.

  16. Chis says:

    Completely agree with all the sentiments here. CoD4 has possibly the best single-player FPS campaign I’ve played. Ever. What Bioshock took 15+ uneven hours to say, CoD4 managed in its first of a much more concise, compact 6~ hours. I do wish it were longer, but I’m sure that would have compromised the pace.

  17. Monkfish says:

    Just finished it this afternoon. I can safely say that CoD4 has been the most pleasant surprise of the year – for me at least.

    Nothing had quite prepared me for how sensitively it would handle the Jackson KIA scene, and how bloody tense the ghillie-suited retrospective in Pripyat would turn out. Great storytelling and a damned fine game.

    Sayōnara Captain Price – it’s been emotional.

  18. Richard says:

    I love the sniper bit. Not only do you get a (kinda) realistic depiction of doing a long-range shot, you can do a trick-shot. BOOM. Into the ear-hole!

    But then, I tend to like a bit of the snipey-snipey…

  19. Homunculus says:

    BOOM. Into the ear-hole!

    *arm falls off*

  20. Richard says:

    Just be glad it was the ear…

  21. Pod says:

    If this is only 24, I wonder what is to come?

  22. NegativeZero says:

    There’s actually a map shown briefly at one point that reveals that the spot that the US have invaded is actually most likely Saudi Arabia, rather than Iraq.

    Personally for me, the best part of the game was the sniper mission. I usually hate stealth stuff, but that whole sequence was awesome beyond words. My only complaint was the shot itself, when it came. Not only did I put that bullet right through the guy’s head, it went on to hit another guy standing behind him in the chest. That was a headshot, dammit, not an arm-shot.

    There are several parts in CoD4 where they pull this interactive-cutscene thing. It really does add a huge amount to the impact of the scene, to be honest. I don’t know why we haven’t seen it more – the only other instance I can recall of it is the final part of Shadow of the Colossus. Has it been done by anyone else?

  23. Andrew says:

    The Half-Life games, perhaps.

  24. Tim says:

    I’m gunning for Portal Dec 25.

  25. Damien says:

    Can anyone believe that there are 24 games better than this in a single year? I think we might be spoiled forever.

  26. Yhancik says:

    I just watched the nuclear bomb sequence (i know i’m late), actually this made me more sad than Passage… oh my…

  27. Wild Bill says:

    “I’m generally quite uncomfortable with deriving entertainment from a recreation of how people are dying /right now/…”

    I myself *LOVE* recreations of how the enemies of the United States are dying–preferably in great agony. COD4 is now a must-buy for me.

    Chacun a son gout.