Aaamaazing!: Modern Warfare

[For his Monthly Musing, ArcticFox tells us how Call of Duty 4 blew him away and changed how he looked at the first person shooter genre entirely. There’s only one more week to get your blogs written on April’s topic, so if you’ve been putting it off all month, now is the time to write. — JRo]

Call of Duty was not the first shooter franchise to leave World War 2 behind, but it was the one that refined it to near perfection and changed the face of the entire shooter genre. Call of Duty 4 came out at a time when the vast majority of shooters were derivative of each other. Many of the games were set in World War 2 with scenarios that had been rehashed again and again. The other modern day military shooters were great, but they were almost exclusively relegated to multiplayer shooters, devoid of any storied single player experience. This is not a bad thing, as Battlefield 2 and Counter-Strike, the two most prevalent modern shooters at the time, were fantastic games in their own right, but Call of Duty 4 changed the game completely with a surprisingly good story, interesting squad mates, and at least two moments that left me with my jaw on the floor and my mind reeling.

Call of Duty, at least at that point, had always been a respected series. The first two games, set in World War 2, are among the most respected military shooters in history, and arguably the best of the WW2 shooters (though I might argue Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was equally as brilliant). The third game, though not made by Infinity Ward, was still decent, if not as good as its prior incarnations. But Call of Duty 3 allowed for Infinity Ward to do something great, it let them completely revamp their series, regardless of Activision’s need to push out the franchise on a yearly basis. It allowed them an extra year to essentially perfect a modern day shooter.

From the very beginning, the game is interesting. After the first mission, you are put into the shoes of a second character, the president of an unnamed Islamic-style country in the middle of a coup. As you get your bearings, you find yourself being heralded into a car with a gun pointed at your head. As far as opening credits style cinemas go, it was pretty interesting to be started off so powerless, with your character’s assassination as an exclamation point telling you that this story will not pull any punches. This is even more potent because you had just finished raiding an oil tanker as a member of the British SAS. But no one rescues this character; no special operatives drop from the ceiling to save this nation from the coup, you don’t become the hero yet, you don’t break free of your bonds and overpower your kidnappers, no. You die. It allowed for Infinity Ward to tell the players to abandon their expectations, telling them, you have not played anything quite like this.

From that point on, the game is a somewhat standard military shooter, albeit a fun one. Infinity Ward did a great job of occasionally breaking up the combat by allowing the player to experience some very cool scripted events. The entire fight in the middle east surrounding the TV station is an urban warfare style chaotic mess, rescuing a friendly tank, Wardog, was admittedly a pain, but still provided a change of pace from run and gun down streets to a more strategic move from cover to cover to advance slowly as the tank gets repaired. But the entire mission is impressive because it is fun. Then you get a new mission. There is a nuclear device hidden somewhere in the city, and you are to provide support for it. As you progress through the mission, you’re eventually warned to evacuate, as the detonation is imminent. At the time, I saw this as standard gameplay. You retreat and live to fight another day.

But then a friendly helicopter goes down, and the female pilot is still alive. In one of the most adrenalin pumping sequences, my transport helicopter landed, and with cover fire from my squad, I hauled ass down the street, taking lots of fire (very reminiscent of Black Hawk Down, and very well done I might add), and essentially throw the pilot over my shoulder and, again, under intense fire, run back to my chopper. As I, the player relaxed a bit, having successfully rescued the pilot and smiling over my success and the sheer fun o the sequence, I heard someone screaming over the radio on the chopper. And then the nuclear blast detonated. The chopper went down and the screen faded to black. The first thing I saw, in my now red hued screen, was the pilot that I went through so much to rescue, and my squad leader. I then tried to get up, figuring the next level would be a standard “you’re alone now, escape from the destroyed city” or something akin to that. But I was still prone, crawling. I crawled outside the downed and destroyed chopper, still trying to hit the position button. I believe I actually said out loud, “Stand up, dude!” And then, as I crawled down the street, marveling at the destruction and the mushroom cloud up ahead, the screen rushed to white, and the game reported me KIA.

I was shocked. Sure, we’ve all died in games. But games very rarely actually kill us. And this was not a plot point to have my character come back seeking vengeance or some other cheesy red herring, rather it was a calculated point to show that people in the military die. Amazing.

But it wasn’t over. Part of the reason the Call of Duty series is so well done is that even after a nuclear explosion it keeps the throttle on. This is best shown through the stunning sniper mission. First of all, the graphics were incredible, allowing for the word Ghillie Suit to enter the gamer’s lexicon. The mission starts off with you crouching in a field outside Pripyat, near Chernobyl. It seems you’re alone, until the grass moves, and your squadmate, a fellow sniper, stands up. This in itself was an amazing thing. We had seen good graphics, but this was a testament to the transition to what was still then considered the “next generation.”

But that wasn’t it. After moving stealthily though patrols (another incredible sequence, when you have to lie down and move VERY SLOWLY to avoid discovery by a line patrol and some APCs), you are set up in a vantage point with a .50 caliber sniper rifle. Then it changes the entire sniping game. In most military FPS’ (not counting sniper specific games), the sniper rifle is just point and shoot. In Call of Duty 4, they tell you that not only do you have to worry about ever changing wind, which is to be expected, but they tell you the shot you’re taking is so far away, you have to consider the coriolis effect, i.e. the effect of the earth’s rotation and curvature on the bullet. I was blown away by this. It was just another one of the really cool gameplay decisions that set Call of Duty 4 above all the other games. Even the subsequent sequels haven’t been able to replicate the feeling of success as you watched the bullet trail away and curve into your target.

After that sequence is a frantic chase, of which another wow moment occurred. As you and your squadmate are trying to escape Pripyat, you are chased by a helicopter. Your squadmate turns, shoots the pilot, and the helicopter crashes between the old soviet bloc apartments and comes crashing toward you in a screaming, twisted mess. It was straight out of the best action movies, and really put a cap on the mission. At least until you got to the frustrating, frustrating end of that level.

Above are just some of the reasons that Call of Duty 4 was aaamaazing. And that isn’t even considering the revolutionary multiplayer or the endgame chase sequence. It was a game that transformed the first person shooter genre, not just for myself, but also for millions of people. Infinity Ward not only redefined their own franchise, but also redefined an entire genre. The scripted event, rewarding the player with a sense of accomplishment and the incredible sound and graphics all combine to make the game nothing short of aaamaazing.