I am a very Modern Woman. And by that I mean I have only played Call of Duty [official site] campaigns from Modern Warfare 2 onwards. But this year, instead of picking up Black Ops 3 and despairing over the sheer number of gadgets and grenades I must remember, I went back to the very beginning (a very good place to start). I am working my way through the original Call of Duty.
Well, original-ish, it’s whatever the version of the 2003 game is on Steam right now.
I’m over halfway through the American campaign, having just taken out the German artillery at Brécourt Manor and couldn’t help remembering how Adam put that level as one of the best the franchise has ever managed:
“Brecourt Manor has you taking out several artillery pieces and there are desperate moments when you’re clearing out buildings, shooting people up close and personal. There’s no glory in it. It’s bloody horrible. And then you’re pinned down between two buildings, then creeping forward inch by inch, foot by foot, as people drop like flies and their names blink out of existence.
“It’s a really bracing reminder that Call of Duty cared about portraying battle in a way that emphasised the chaos and deadliness of an area thick with bullets. It makes you feel like a person trying to survive an awful situation rather than a person trying to win a war. It’s genuinely superb – more of a standout than the Stalingrad and Normandy missions – and I’m not going to use it as a stick to beat modern Call of Duty (mostly because I don’t play modern Call of Duty so I’d be comparing it to a bogeyman) but it does highlight how brilliant military FPS games can be.”
Obviously I’m playing the game out of context by a dozen years so just bear that in mind from here on in.
Call of Duty is not so far from the franchise as it exists today that it’s unrecognisable. The way people talk about it I’d been expecting it to be as different from its current incarnations as a tomato is from a cheese grater. Your missions have you crawling or running from objective to objective accompanied by the barks of your fellow soldiers. There are fewer graphics (I think original Call of Duty has about fifteen graphics while Black Ops 3 has nine hundred and five) and the missions are shorter but there’s a kernel of “Call of Duty” in there which you’d also be able to excavate from recent iterations.
It’s weird, though. A couple of hours with the original game and it feels like I’ve just been browsing an Activision mantlepiece and found pictures of Call of Duty from when it was an athletic teenager while the rather more portly and pompous Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is getting bored and inviting me to admire all of its most expensive gadgets.
The Call of Duty of 2003 is still an entertainment product but it feels more brutal, less divorced from the horrific side of war than the modern incarnations. John wrote about press briefings for the earlier outings of the franchise and noted that developers had spoken with veterans about their experiences, about how they wanted to tell those stories and do so with respect, as well as offering the spectacle.
(He adds that for more recent Call of Dutys “they spoke to current operatives in current wars, who gave government lines and speeches of patriotism and bravado. Honouring this meant abandoning honesty, because those whose lives they were attempting to portray were in no position to tell the truth.”)
I’m maybe a fifth of the way through the campaign in the first game so my thoughts haven’t solidified yet but here are some preliminary thoughts while I have them in my head.
First is that I’m wondering how much of feeling that this is somehow grittier is because a World War II Call of Duty game can make use of shared understandings or ongoing traditions of remembrance to add a certain amount of gravitas.
It doesn’t rely on that by any means and there are plenty of WWII-themed games out there which prove that simply invoking the names of various locations and operations doesn’t guarantee any level of emotional sincerity but there’s no getting away from the fact the original Call of Duty latches onto a lot of pre-existing brain baggage.
For me there are 31 years of Remembrance Day services and tributes and documentaries. I worked in a museum and part of my work was cataloguing wartime news reports and posters and correspondence – those get invoked too. There are lines of poetry – most from the First World War not the Second but they get used as part of the general remembrance effort – which I don’t think will ever leave me. For one primary school project I asked my grandmother about what she did in the war and she tried to explain about how she and her colleagues were taught to shoot in case the Germans ever got as far as Whitehall. Then there’s Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan and everything else.
Call of Duty can’t rely on my knowing those things for success but I think that having been shown/explained/told the horrors of the two World Wars in so many different ways and through so much different media I’m primed to see the grit and the awfulness in a way that I simply haven’t been with more recent conflicts, with modern warfare. To be clear, that warfare is still horrific, but we treat the World Wars as something different.
Secondly, I really appreciate the lack of bloat so far. I was saying over the weekend that I sometimes wish games could be more like short stories or things the length of a movie. I’ve started to feel dread when faced with larger games, knowing that unless it’s for a review or other work project I’ll likely never finish them before I need to take on something else.
This first Call of Duty feels satisfying in the entertainment it delivers but doesn’t outstay its welcome. In that sense it feels refreshing – even faintly rebellious. I’m giddy over possibly finishing something!
Sometimes the paciness has a cartoonish quality to it. I’ve just done a proper on-rails mission where you’re leaning out of a window shooting at soldiers like they’re ducks at a fairground but that has been the anomaly so far. I’ve been pondering the other campaigns and I’d say that the closeness of the objectives is important. So far the play space has generally seemed pretty small but that makes sense because you’re gaining ground by inches rather than striding into enemy territory. The next objective might be only a few feet away but you’ll likely have to crawl on your belly to get to it, painfully slowly and with bullets whizzing overhead.
Thirdly, I like that the factions can be confusing. Generally the enemy seems to be dressed a bit greyer and is often aiming at you. Allies are a bit more khaki and have names when you move your crosshair over them. But I’ve had moments of genuine confusion, not known if the guy kneeling in front of me is on their side or mine or hesitated when someone darted across my field of view because I didn’t want to get chucked back to a checkpoint because “friendly fire will not be tolerated”.
In another game it would feel like a clumsy UI decision or like I’d been playing wrong but here it works. I feel like there should be confusion, that is should feel like people fighting other people who happened to be wearing different clothes and speaking a different language.
That’s all for now but I’ll post some more concrete thoughts – possibly even a CHAT with Adam once I’ve finished the first game.