[ Continued from Part 1: http://n4g.com/user/blogpos... ]
Before the explosive Act 1 finale, the SAS story has a 2-mission setup of getting your team and previously-saved informant out of dodge once your helicopter crashes. The first part is on-foot taking control of Soap while eluding Russian Ultra-Nationalists and even taking out a Hind. But as more and more waves converge on this town the direr the situation becomes. The second part has you playing as an AC-130 Gunship operator.
Turret sections in shooters can be hit-or-miss. What made “Death From Above” such a memorable mission stemmed from a few factors. On a technical level, it’s a superb example of gameplay subtraction. Everything expected of standard COD shooting is stripped in favor of taking control of some big cannons with limited maneuverability. This is further punctuated by the understated visual and aural design: everything is viewed through a slightly hazy black-and-white image, the cacophony of noise on the ground is replaced with a dampened expectation of what an AC-130 gunman would hear, and communication between teammates comes with a slight buzzing of listening to them via headphones.
While the technical design and variety may feel satisfying, the slaughter en masse committed by this operator is what causes some to contend Modern Warfare’s blatant hoo-rah attitudes. The dry detachment of your operators as seemingly a hundred enemy combatants are wiped out of existence, with uncomfortable adulation sprinkled in whenever scoring a kill combo. “Hot damn!” or “Good kill good kill” are just some of what you’ll hear repeatedly. Here’s the thing though: that’s the whole point. It’s meant to present that uncomfortable parallel between video games and the digital era of modern warfare. There’s a clear demarcation between a foot soldier in real life and a drone/gunship operator; however, one can’t help but spot a closer mechanical resemblance between digital target shooting in Death From Above and digital target shooting in real-life.
What makes me respect how this is approached is by leaving it up for the player to experience and interpret. That isn’t to say something like Spec Ops: The Line’s more blunt approach isn’t as valid a pursuit (as I wish more modern military shooters had followed that route too); however, it’s important to consider that not being the only worthwhile way of commentary. Just because the game doesn’t sit the player down for the ethical implications of these actions doesn’t mean the mission was implemented without consideration.
The final important mission I want to dissect would be All Ghillied Up, which hits a much different nerve with most players like myself. Unlike the more personal reflections from something like the Middle Eastern conflict, Cpt. Price’s detailed recollection of his Pripyat mission hits a distinct curiosity with me; as if it’s more of a wonder or mystery versus abject horror. This is in part due to the Chernobyl incident itself: a tragic accident that caused mass flight out of a once thriving area. “Fifty thousand people used to live here,” the official Modern Warfare trailer starts, “now it’s a ghost town.” But rather than some invasion force stomping hither or thither reflecting current events, it’s a derelict place that occurred before many gamers were even born. It’s also more of a message regarding mishandled safety procedures than of open-armed conflict.
It’s also worth noting how this setting makes Modern Warfare’s examination on nuclear equipment come full circle; a before, during, and after of what’s wrought from the mistreatment—deliberate or not—of such awesome power. This is even further reflected within gameplay. Instead of the march towards inevitability with a mushroom cloud in the background, Pripyat’s tinged with a septic-grey color palette that gives off an almost-alien aura from everywhere else visited previous; further, there’s also pockets of radiation players have to avoid by keeping a close ear to Price’s portable Giger counter. This is enhanced through the first-person perspective too, as if we’re examining the long-term effects via a continuous shot through a camera or film lens.
Without a doubt in my mind, I still consider this to be one of the best first-person stealth levels in gaming history. Now I’m sure many fans of the first three Thief games, Dishonored series, etc. will go on and on about how the complexities within several of those games’ levels make them more rewarding. It’s true that this level’s scripted, but the ways Infinity Ward went about incorporating Modern Warfare’s cinematic influences elevate linearity as necessity.
The first important aspect to consider comes back to the ghillie suits themselves. It’s fascinating to see just how well the power fantasy COD’s going for translates so well into this quieter mission. Since the suits disguise Price as vegetation, players can implicitly understand the advantages they have over their enemies in a distance. The enemies’ clear advantage comes in respect to closer-range combat (with their automatic weapons) and the sheer numbers at their disposal, especially when an alarm’s been tripped. This is all done without needing a new set of tutorial pop-ups either—communicating a level of respect to the player I can’t help but admire.
The next important quality comes from your squadmate and high ranking officer on the mission: Captain MacMillan. When it comes to judging the quality of such important teammates in missions, or entire games, I’ve often considered their inherent quality by what the environment would be like without them. If MacMillan were out of the picture one very likely outcome would occur that’d be detrimental to the mission’s philosophy: a slower pace. Heck, Modern Warfare 2’s ghillie suit co-op mission reflects that. Since this level’s intention is all about a build-up towards the opening sequence in “One Shot, One Kill” too much slacking tension because of the player’s hesitancy to move forward harms the level’s overall goals; conversely, the tension doesn’t boil over thanks to MacMillan’s cool and collected directions. And just as you feel a bit unfamiliar with these kinds of stealth operations after hours of open conflict, Price is under the lead of MacMillan. This sensation of you being the one escorted is an indispensable wrinkle in harmonizing the tone and intention.
There are two central moments where MacMillan’s escorting is used to exhilarating effect. The first instance occurs in an open field where seemingly at random MacMillan orders players to go prone. The previous calm is upended by an unsettling score as you continue advancing. Slowly, a company of troops and tanks come into view heading towards your previous location. Because of the limitations of the first-person perspective, angling Price’s body in the field to avoid detection becomes a teeth-grinding sensation, tapping into memories of the one who’s ‘it’ passing by you in hide-and-seek. The next important moment counters the previous entirely. Rather than lie still, MacMillan and Price need to sprint out in the open and crawl under a line of trucks. Once again, the strengths of being in first-person are clear as it makes the players uneasy about possible guard detection, thus building a reliance on MacMillan, and the technical frustrations that often come from floating cameras in tight spaces like under a truck chassis.
Ultimately, what elevates this stealth mission over so many others comes back to the understanding of its limitations and utilizing the full potential of everything within said limits. From sound design, historical context, visuals, pacing, to creative situations, it hits on all cylinders.
After the duo of flashback missions have concluded, Modern Warfare step away from visual or mechanical allegories in lieu of resolving the self-contained plot in a pastiche of Tom Clancy’s most exhilarating thrillers. And you know what? That’s just fine. By the end of Act 2, I’d say it’s earned that indulgence to finish out this thrill ride with stopping the bad guys. It has something to say but it still wants to be a compelling thrill ride first and foremost. And that it accomplishes with an awesome finale where a nuclear holocaust is prevented, all the villains are dead, and Soap’s—possibly—made it out alive. Although it’s made clear in Modern Warfare 2 that he survives, it’s worth noting that the only playable character in the main campaign you’re one-hundred percent assured survived this story is the AC-130 operator; perhaps another nod to the state of warfare in the modern age.
In conclusion, that cliché about fine wine and age can apply to Modern Warfare. Which seems absolutely ludicrous, doesn’t it? The notion of an older modern military shooter feeling more “refreshing” in this day and age? But it goes to show just how important tone, intention, design, and more add up to what makes a military shooter, or any game, so fondly remembered. It’s one of those rare examples of a product born of a heavily commercialized timeline in game history that also utilized this creative medium to have something meaningful to say. Again, it’s unfortunate that over time the artistic intentions of Infinity Ward would become more muddled as the series became fully committed to annualized releases, but it’d be unfair for that to color what this particular entry accomplished then and still accomplishes today in remastered form.