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Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (spoilers)

Posted by Nick Dinicola on October 31, 2008

Call of Duty 4 (CoD4) may not be the first, second, or even fifth game one thinks of when thinking of artistic games, but I think that it, like any good war movie, really captures the experience, i.e. the horror and random violence, of war. There are two missions in particular that work together to make this wartime experience stand out among the many other similarly themed games.

First some background info about CoD4: We play as one of two main characters (there is a third, but we only play as him in a flashback), both of which have zero personality, zero character development, and zero anything else other than a name. They are Sergeant Paul Jackson of USMC 1st Force Recon, and “Soap” McTavish of the 22nd SAS. The game itself is very visceral, constantly dropping us into the middle of a war zone. If left to their own devices, our enemies and teammates will shoot at each other forever with neither side gaining or losing any ground. The action only advances when we do, forcing us to lead to charge and place ourselves in harm’s way, keeping the action intense. Unfortunately, while our teammates die constantly, their position is always replaced by a fresh body, so there’s no real sense of loss.  They’re just fodder. But CoD4 isn’t a game about forming emotional attachments, it isn’t a game about character development, this game is all about the experience of being in battle. The artistry of CoD4 lies in how it uses its visceral experience to portray the brutality of war.

The first of the two missions is “Shock and Awe” and stars Paul Jackson. It’s quite an epic, intense mission, beginning with us manning a Mark 19 grenade launcher on a helicopter then landing to evac another team of Marines. As we get back into the helicopter and it takes off, we can see another helicopter beside us get hit with a rocket in the tail rudder. It spins out of control, smoking from its tail, until it crashes between some buildings. Anyone who has seen Black Hawk Down can easily imagine this scene. Our helicopter lands nearby and we must race the clock to fight our way to the downed helicopter, rescue the pilot, and carry her back. Once successful, we take off again but before we gets very far a bomb goes off. A nuclear bomb. We watch a fireball rise as the shockwave flies towards us, engulfing other helicopters on the way, until it hits ours, sending it into a tailspin. A teammate is flung out. It crashes and we blackout. When we awake everyone else is dead. When we exit the helicopter all we see desolation: The sky is red, smoke and dust fill the air, debris everywhere, a nearby building crumbles before our eyes. Then we fall to the ground, the screen fade to white, and Paul dies.

It’s uncommon for a main character to die in a first-person shooter. It’s simply the nature of the genre: Our character can’t permanently die because then we can’t continue the game. So Paul’s death is shocking simply due to its surprise. But what makes it so powerful are the subtle things the game does to immerse us further, to really put us in his shoes. There’s the sound, or lack of it: Previously there were the sweeping scores during firefights, the blaring alarms of the falling helicopter, the shouts of teammates, the rumbling of the explosion…now there’s almost nothing, just a quiet wind, radio chatter, and Paul’s breathing. By making everything so loud earlier, the sudden quiet is all more noticeable and further adds to the sense of desolation. There’s Paul’s inability to stand up: He awakes lying down, we can make him kneel, but when we try to stand him up he falls back to his knees after a few steps. By handicapping the player’s actions like this, the game is passing information to us in a way only games can: Not by telling, not by showing, bu by having us experience things firsthand. We know that Paul is badly hurt because we can feel the effects ourselves even if we can’t feel the actual pain. There’s the world itself: With all the smoke and dusk and debris it really looks like a nuclear bomb just went off (and the mushroom cloud in the distance certainly doesn’t hurt). Finally there’s the fact that we control Paul: Even though we’re playing as a character, how we react to the situation is entirely up to us. Do we check on our teammates first? Do we look around the body of the helicopter first? Do we explore outside? Do we try to walk away? By giving us control over Paul’s last moments and not just cutting to the K.I.A screen after the crash, the experience becomes far more personal, far more memorable, and far more powerful.

The second of the two missions is “Game Over” and stars (obviously) “Soap” McTavish. This is also a very dramatic, cinematic mission. It begins with us shooting out the back of a truck at other trucks as they pull alongside and enemies pop up to shoot at us, while we wait for helicopter backup to arrive. Soon a helicopter shows up and starts firing misses at us, so we pick up an RPG and fire back until we enter a tunnel. After exiting the tunnel we start to cross a bridge but the helicopter blow it up. We quickly run off the crumbling bridge and straight into one last firefight. The helicopter comes back and a missile hits nearby, stunning us. While stunned and helpless, we watch in slow motion as a teammate tries to drag us to safety only to be shot in the face right before our eyes. We turn to see our leader, Captain Prince (the third character we take control of for a short time) wounded on the ground. All we can do is watch as the main terrorist and two men walk towards us, executing our teammates along the way, when suddenly the enemy helicopter explodes as backup finally arrives. Price slides a pistol at us and we finally get control again, just in time to take out the three terrorists. As medics come rushing at us, we turn to see Prince limp, while another medic does CPR on him. Whether or not he dies is up for debate, but I believe he does.

Now that the game has proven it’s not afraid to kill off characters (Paul Jackson), it preys on that fear to create another powerful scene. Again it starts off loud and intense so that when everything goes quiet the effect is more pronounced. But in this case the silence is even more unnerving because we’re still in the middle of a firefight. We see muzzle flashes but don’t hear the shot, it distances us from the action and makes us feel helpless to intervene. That feeling of helplessness is important on a thematic level: It lets us know that we’re not a super soldier, we’re just a person and as such we are vulnerable to the random brutality of war. All we can do is watch as our teammates die. The slow motion only compounds this helplessness since we can tell what’s going to happen before it happens, and yet can’t do anything to stop it. As the terrorist walks towards us, our death seems a very real possibility (personality, I was cursing at the pilots of the backup helicopters as I thought “I’m going to die because they didn’t get here fast enough!”) The heavy focus on making us feel helpless only makes that one moment of control all more powerful. In that one moment we finally end the conflict, and the relief is so great that we don’t care when control is taken away again as we’re airlifted to safety.

In Call of Duty 4 we experience war through the eyes of normal soldiers, all of them subject to events beyond their control. All of them were faced with death at some point, but only one, “Soap,” survived. Our happiness at beating the game is lessened with the realization that two of the three people we played as died. CoD4 ends on a somber note, reinforcing its dark portrayal of war.

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3 Responses to “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (spoilers)”

  1. a1979shakedown said

    Need a spoilers warning!

  2. ndinicola said

    Fixed. Sorry if I spoiled anything for you, I hate when that happens to me.

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