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20°

In Retrospect: Modern Warfare’s Tight & Layered Campaign (Part 1)

[NOTE: As this blog pertains to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s campaign, there’s going to be YUGE SPOILERS ahead. If you haven’t played it yet and are curious as to whether or not it’s worth playing I respond in following: what have you been doing?!?! Yes, it’s worth it! Find some way to get a copy (original or remastered) and play that sucker. That goes for the two of you.]

Remember when WWII shooters were considered blasé? Perhaps some at Infinity Ward still recall. A few months ago, one of the biggest tent-pole releases of the seventh console generation received the remaster treatment: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (which will be shortened to either MW1 or Modern Warfare below). And with that came me trying to wait for some kind of sale on the Infinite Warfare Legacy bundle and reminiscing on my review of the Xbox 360 version back then (1), only to be unnecessary considering Activision sold it separately at a later date. It’s one of those cases where I’m left surprised at how well the campaign has aged, from mechanics to tone; the latter quality’s sometimes called into suspect by some critics throughout the years (2) (3). And while I don’t deny how later entries tarnished the series’ thoughtful and nuanced perspective towards war, Modern Warfare—as a spiritual sequel and standalone narrative—delivered meaningful layers within a taut action thriller.

While I do want my body of work to dig into the meat ‘n potatoes of the campaign’s content, I can’t stress enough just how integral the epoch of its release played into Call of Duty becoming what it is today. This was the 7th generation’s biggest lighting-in-a-bottle moment; in fact, I’m willing to say it shares an obscure-yet-deep bond with Star Wars in its long-lasting effects: a commercial surprise hit that was almost scrapped in appeal for safer investments along with a divergent attitude to what was coming out at the time. But whereas George Lucas & co. went simpler to counteract the glut of popular films filled with a greyer morality, Infinity Ward presented a rather unassured stance about topical subject matter which went beyond the comfort food of gunning hundreds of Nazis or hostile aliens found in most shooters of the era.

Despite these considerations, it’s fitting—in a way—of Modern Warfare also being the last in the numbered COD phylum. Because there’s still a lot in keeping with the previous games as a whole: a blockbuster framed around a clinically examined time period (the weapon porn and military-appropriate vernacular), separate narratives following soldiers from disparate nationalities, and a greater thoughtfulness put into an otherwise popcorn-encouraged action extravaganza. Before, those details were allocated to minutiae like the readable journals of the playable WWII characters in loading screens, the oft-uncomfortable info or quotes that come on the screen upon dying, and certain bits of dialogue or game design. The same design ethos was kept here but reconfigured into a more politically-plausible modern story.

These echoes of game design past make their way into how the British (S.A.S.) and American (USMC) narratives are structured: S.A.S. focusing on covert infiltrations and American on large-scale battles. The beginning, well, begins with assuming the role of new guy “Soap” MacTavish through a training course and onto a covert ship raid that’s suspected of containing a nuclear package. While this just serves as setup, to this day I’m still left fascinated by how well it builds upon Infinity Ward’s previous (Call of Duty 2) with both its tutorial and initial stealth operation: the connective tissue between the repetition of beating the developer’s best time through the breach-and-clear exercise which in turn places you in that headspace of an elite operator when on the next level: “Crew Expendable.”

Whereas those two-thirds of the prologue may present a morsel of mechanical meat to dig into, the final third, named “The Coup,” provides the first morsel with respect to the story’s heavier themes. After the ship raid, players are set in the shoes of a now-deposed Middle Eastern leader. The supplementary opening credits (listing the IW team) provides light interactivity of moving your character’s head around while witnessing Al-Asad’s coup d'état taking place: roads being closed off, massive military troop movement, and those supposedly disloyal to Al-Asad’s regime being gunned down. You’re powerless to stop any of it. And it all finishes with your character being executed. It’s an uncomfortable set of shoes to fill; that intent is deliberate. After just getting through some empowering missions, players are given their first taste of a challenge to their sense of agency with the events that’ll transpire.

Act 1 opens back up with the S.A.S. rescuing an informant. Though this serves as more plot advancement and showing off the no-nonsense type of fella Captain Price is, there’s some subtle environmental storytelling involving a TV news report discussing America’s intention to react to Al-Asad’s coup. React they do in the only way America knows how.
What I found absolutely fascinating on my playthrough of the Remastered version is how quickly this…palpable languor sets in upon assuming the role of USMC Sgt. Jackson. This discomfort is set in two subtle ways:

1.) The mission title: “Charlie Don’t Surf.”
2.) One of the very first things players view through Jackson’s eyes being offshore oil drilling platforms in a distance.

So, within the first seconds of donning the American role in this supposedly jingoistic game there’s already visual cues in the game’s environment and highlighted text imparting a rather unflattering portrait of “your side” in this conflict. Charlie Don’t Surf being a direct reference to the famous anti-war film Apocalypse Now and the conflict of oil—including the economics around oil—being one of the central disputes of the US’s argued unethical intentions for The Iraq War and broader involvement in the Middle East.

Whether brought to the fore or floating intentionally in the background, a unique anxiety courses through the American portions of Modern Warfare’s campaign for me. I was in middle school when the Iraq invasion officially began. I can still vaguely recall some tidbits on news feeds: tanks shelling locations in a distance, soldiers methodically clearing a building, other buildings either engulfed in flames or turned to rubble. Every level through Jackson’s eyes felt like a different sliver of those same feeds: nighttime portions of barrage after barrage, dust kicked up from tanks rolling by, helicopter viewpoints sometimes showing horrid details; but this occurs not just in situation but also emotion. Tinges of frustration, anger, confusion, and self-doubt are fomented from various gameplay situations that are undoubtedly intended to mirror similar sensations to that of the real war.

Within that interplay between British and American forces, you also see things aren’t exactly as they seem. Al-Asad didn’t show his hand of openly televising a military coup without knowing full well such action would then force the US to flex its muscles, similarly to the tactics which characterized the Iraq War. And flex those muscles they do. Pushing toward Al-Asad’s forces will give players a lot of toys: Stinger missiles, helicopter grenade cannons, and more. Thanks to the game’s incredibly polished gameplay and general variety it all feels empowering. But one’s muscle memory and elite skills all become subverted by the game’s biggest gut-punch at the end of the aptly-named mission “Shock & Awe.”

One fascinating aspect about this mission is the structure. Jackson’s a foot soldier at the beginning coming to rescue pinned-down crew. Upon success, we’re finally getting to see greater momentum of the troop’s movement making towards the citadel, gunning down enemy encampments with a Cobra’s Mk19. Nearing the end of the mission troops are in the heart of the city but are ordered a full retreat. An armed nuclear bomb’s been located. Instead of hightailing it out of there immediately, a helicopter pilot is shot down and you go to save her. It’s a simple job: get in, get out; be quick about it and we’ll make it out alive. Upon extraction, that sense of success kicks in but is then twisted on its head. The bomb went off, and you’re within the blast radius.

The next level is the briefest yet most impactful in the entire game. Jackson’s still alive—barely—and ambles out of the crashed helicopter and into this desolated street only to quickly succumb to his wounds thereafter. This scene rests at the heart of Modern Warfare. Although there’s a panoply of great scenes, it’s here that the grander cultural commentary about another needless war is tacitly argued. It’s effective because of the uncomfortable sensations built up ever since that grave decision was enacted in 2003: the agonizing, well, shock & awe in realizing what appeared as a decisive retaliatory action against a grave injustice became something far less digestible. The dominoes fell here with such predictability because of imprudence and hubris, echoing the same kind of situation seen in real life.

You can see these echoes of previous gameplay subversions; one such example in “Aftermath” calls back to the assassinated leader during the coup. Just as in the end of the prologue, Act 1 is bookended with the same sensation of upending the power fantasy found within the previous missions. There’s several moments of getting to raid Uncle Sam’s war chest and test your reflexes, but none of that stops the inevitability of an agonizing death. It doesn’t matter if you’re the protagonist of the story, if the intentions are noble, or how effectively you domed the insurgents, war doesn’t play favorites in its destructive wake.

What makes this such a touchstone of gaming culture is in how it’s communicated via interaction—the unique strength of this medium. But there is another example of interactive play here that inspires some to reflexively point at Modern Warfare’s hoo-rah chauvinism (2) (3), of which I’m compelled to refute...IN PART 2!

[Part 2 found here: http://n4g.com/user/blogpos... ]

Links:

1. http://n4g.com/channel/call...
2. https://www.youtube.com/wat...
3. https://www.destructoid.com...

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