Review: Call of Duty 4 – Modern Warfare (**** stars)

Note: This is purely a review of the single-player campaign. I can’t say I’m qualified to review a multiplayer first person shooter, so I won’t even bother.

The Lord is in His holy temple; the [b]Lord’s throne is in heaven;
His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.
The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,
And the one who loves violence His soul hates.

Can a piece of media remain pointedly critical of something, while also reveling in it? That is the question of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Equal parts anti-war and pro-violence, atmospherically affecting and intensely fun, one wonders whether we could consider it a righteous purveyor of truth or a lover of painstakingly detailed violent conflict.

Shoot, kill, die, repeat. Shoot, kill, die, repeat.

As I load the next checkpoint yet again after reading yet another anti-war quote from a famous person or military factoid that demonstrates the staggering cost of the modern coercion machine, I gotta ask myself: why do people like Call of Duty so much? Clearly it doesn’t derive from a bunch of philosophical musings on war; rather, it displays it. It shows, and doesn’t tell. It rarely breaks the fourth wall (especially for tutorial’s sake!), and even controverts the game notions of death in at least one sequence. War sucks, and you’re in it. The atmosphere’s simply palpable, and all your comrades fight in the horrific bloody storm right along with you. It’s a firecracker of a game, straddling low culture (HOORAH explosions) and high culture (man, war sucks) in a way accessible to just about anybody who could pick up a controller. And I imagine most people playing just want to hit the things with the assault rifle, but hey. that works too.

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Guess where this is supposed to be? Hint: 2007 conflicts!

Pick up a gun, point and shoot. There’s no real ambiguity, but there’s also no heavy-handed “message”, either. Call of Duty strives to focus you into the role of the soldier, but then it sidesteps the problematics of “simulation” by turning the whole shebang into a robust arcade shooter. Seriously! Nothing about Call of Duty’s combat strikes me as realistic, but Infinity Ward knows how to make it intense. Each weapon’s got a snap to it, and the brain-pleasing victory of winning a prolonged firefight comes from the tiny, minute rolling hills of each conflict. Those rolling hills, more often than not, come in the form of headshots, explosions, throwing the right device at an enemy, or planning well. Modern Warfare just varies the setting from place to place, whether storming a depot or defending an indefensible position, and you just need to adjust to the overwhelming odds. Video game-like? Yeah, but Modern Warfare knows it’s a video game, and hence it can be fun! Shocking, I know!

Think of the campaign of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (heretofore referred to as “Modern Warfare”) as a series of “events”, and not so much a narrative. The game carefully crafts its atmosphere so that the setting matches the game mechanics, and you honestly don’t get very mad when you die. In real life, would you ever even see the bullets coming? I think not. I know they’re hitscan weapons, wherein the game magically decides when you get hit, and yet that’s about as realistic a depiction of war as you could ask: you never see it coming. All the training in the world can’t keep you from a stray round or explosive grenade, especially if you don’t notice the handy, yet often obtuse, GRENADE AT YOUR FEET indicator. Then you die! Then you respawn! This sounds a lot like multiplayer, doesn’t it?

If Modern Warfare does want to teach you one lesson “don’t pop out of cover” is quite a good lesson. Modern Warfare often teaches the player solely through situations, and not so much through blatant tutorializing. I like that; if you die, you failed, and you need to do better. If you do well, your tactic succeeds, and you win. If you’re seen during a stealth mission, the game lets the consequences of your actions play out, rather than a weighty YOU FAILED screen taking its place. That isn’t to say the White Text of Doom won’t occasionally say something straightforward that, in the heat of the firefight, you didn’t notice. Yes, game, I should not sit next to exploding cars, thanks for the helpful tip! After that, plunk another quarter into the machine and try something else. Shoot kill, die, repeat. You’ll get it eventually, I guess!

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And this mission (All Ghillied Up) is perfectly demonstrative of that!

In one sense, then, we could call Modern Warfare a rollicking, arcadey roller coaster of Michael Bay (well, more Jerry Bruckheimer) fun. That only holds true for Regular difficulty and below. Once you hit it up a notch, Modern Warfare suddenly turns from “experience” to “video game”. It helps with immersion when you don’t run into the open so much, and your companions turn out to be just as invaluable as your own skills, but it turns super great and frustrating in turn. The cinematic qualities just run off the track as the flow suddenly breaks with some particularly nasty sequences (one involving a ferris wheel which I hate to death on Hardened). When you retry something nearly thirty times, it’s hard to say you aren’t playing a video game!

I don’t believe that a bad thing, either, but it also points out the positives and negatives of the actual mechanics, placing them under the harsh light of frustration and anger. Most of Modern Warfare takes place behind cover, finding optimal positions to take out guys without having them flank you. Flank them in return takes some work, but often remains the most efficient tactic. On higher difficulties, however, merely popping out of cover turns the enemies into psychic warriors, able to pinpoint the exact body part in harm’s way and repeatedly shoot it. Obviously, they use the “confusion” of war to cover it, but really the game sends signals to you to “NOT GET OUT OF COVER”.

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It uses subtle cues like “THERE ARE A LOT OF DUDES IN THIS ROOM” to get there.

And that would seem all well and good, until you realize the developer don’t want you to camp in one spot. So, they use an actual displacement device to repeatedly displace you (grenades, duh). It certainly keeps you on your toes, no doubt, and the grenade throwback mechanic makes it doubly satisfying to kill some guy with his own grenade. Still, it gets pretty hilarious when you snipe from far, far away only to find several grenades at your feet that seemingly dropped from air. That, or one of the generic Islamic terrorist guys (not much for subtlety, this game!) has an incredibly throwing arm.

The higher the difficulty, the more insane this gets. Enemies respawn continually, and at hilariously over-the-top rates as they continue to pour into the battlefield. Guys will throw grenades from what seems like a mile away, enemies will track your position and fire at your from point blank range while barely taking damage themselves, and a lot of the atmosphere just breaks completely. Some might find this a fun challenge, but I don’t. Add the natural pitfalls of hitscan onto the pile, and I really start to lose my patience when fifty grenades appear next to me. I played through most of the game on Hardened, and while this added a great deal of tension, it ended up feeling more like a video game than an experience. Regular, from what I played, provided a far better balance of atmosphere and challenge; considering they spent so long on that atmosphere, Regular mode seems ideal in the long run.

If you want to think of it that way, then you can have a true war experience where you die for no reason you could see or foresee! Modern Warfare tends to fall on either side of the fence, being a game and experience at equal intervals, yet I can’t help but admire it for being so adept at two different things and combining them with confidence. I imagine I am speaking to none of the thirteen million people who bought it, but for those who have not played any Call of Duty game before, I implore you to see what the fuss is about, at least the campaign. They balance out the fun of mastering fair game dynamics (MOSTLY) while also being critical of warfare in general, and gosh darnit, it works.

Also, if fire and brimstone consist of nuclear explosions, then this game is completely accurate:

Upon the wicked He will rain [c]snares;
Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.
For the Lord is righteous, He loves righteousness;
The upright will behold His face.

Psalm 11

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.