The Call of Duty games are prime examples of on-rail shooters done to perfection, with amazing production values. They’re not complex games, nor do they strive for realism: they’re the equivalent of a great 80’s action movie – Die Hard rather than some Van Damme or Seagal vehicle.
Call of Duty 4, subtitled Modern Warfare, was the first (and to date only) game in the series that didn’t take place in that most overused of scenarios, the Second World War. Instead, it tells a Tom Clancy-style story of Russian Ultra-Nationalists and, surprise, Middle Eastern terrorists. So far, so unoriginal.
What is fascinating, though, is this: in a genre that is usually about making the player feel like some super-hero with a gun and macho one-liners coming from his lips like so much testosterone-riddled drool much of the storytelling is about showing the player that he doesn’t actually have that much control over what is happening. In fact, two of the game’s most interesting scenes in a subtly subversive fashion give the player just enough control for him to realise that he’s powerless.
Consider the prologue, in which the president of a fictional Middle Eastern country is shoved into the back of a car, driven through his war-torn city, dragged in front of the apparent Big Meanie (who turns out to be a minor meanie, in fact) and shot in the head.
And you, the player, get to control the president. As far as he can be controlled: beaten and dragged by soldiers, he can barely move his head enough to glimpse scenes of loyalists being executed through the car’s windows. And whatever you do, the outcome is the same: gun pointed at your head, blam, black screen. It’s chilling and very, very effective. Clearly it’s also designed to make you hate the bad guys, but apart from this obvious aim it does throw in question the power-trip fantasy of first-person shooters.
The second scene is the one that every reviewer and most players remarked on. (If you’re planning to play the game without spoilers, DO STOP READING RIGHT NOW. In fact, STOP READING TWO PARAGRAPHS AGO! WHY ARE YOU STILL READING? IDIOT!) In it, you and your squad (platoon? team? posse? I’m afraid I don’t really know what the correct military term for “you and the guys with you” is…) have just rescued a downed pilot from the bad guys and you fly off in an army chopper – when a nuke goes off. You watch as the shockwave races towards you, crushing the helicopters behind you. There’s no way you can outrun it.
After you crash, the game gives you control of your character. He’s alive, just barely, having survived the crash. You stumble out of the wreck of the helicopter and look around at the devastation, your heart beating in your ears. In the distance you see the mushroom cloud. Obviously you don’t perceive the radiation, but you know it’s there. But you’re the player! You’re in a shooter! Surely there must be a way to make it out of there!
And then you die, perhaps of radiation, perhaps of your injuries. It doesn’t matter. You have a minute or two of stumbling around and then you die.
The game doesn’t have the ambition or the guts – or the stupidity – to end on your lack of control over the situation. Later on, as a different character, you do stop nuclear missiles from destroying half of the Eastern Seaboard (although you do that using a computer rather than an automatic weapon). And at the very end, you’re given the chance to kill the main bad guy who’s behind it all in a fairly heroic scene (although one with an interestingly bitter tinge).
Clearly Call of Duty 4 is a first-person shooter, not a treatise on the powerlessness of the soldier. Clearly you want to give the player the feeling that he’s the hero. But it’s still interesting, in a game that is almost the perfect representative of its genre, that you get this subversive, and in this highly effective, streak… Sneaking it past the player that for all of his heroic fantasising, he’s not in control. Just don’t let him find out…