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