Realism in Modern Warfare?

You know, I actually quite like the Modern Warfare franchise. I wrote my thesis on how modern military shooters in the vein of COD 4 validated and glorified the neo-imperialist position of the United States today – and I stand by that, I think it’s true. What I didn’t say is that I don’t think it’s intentional – which is not to negate its political effects, but I think the left do tend to demonize things a bit much. Anyway: problematic political aspects of the modern military shooter notwithstanding, I really enjoy the games. They’re well-made, there’s clearly a lot of money that’s gone into making them, and they’re fun. I haven’t played that far through – I played Modern Warfare and its two sequels, and the storytelling deteriorated with each new instalment. I’ve heard terrible things about the storytelling in BlOps and Ghosts, but I haven’t played them myself, so I’ll leave them aside. 

For this post, then, we’re going to need to be a bit refined, because the distinctions are becoming more subtle. Obviously I was talking unkindly about the ‘shooting corridors’ that mark these franchises the other week, but to be honest, I don’t personally mind them so much. I love gunning down a corridor full of dudes, advancing from position to position, having a dude scripted to run out of a side-door and charge at me – I enjoy all that, I really do. I think it’s inorganic, and for that reason it has weaker replay value, but I’ll come back every six months or so for a quick ten-hour playthrough of the campaign. By that point, I’ll have forgotten most of the little scripted moments – except for those riot shield fuckers in the gulag in MW2. Fuck those guys.

I do think, to some extent, that these modern military shooters get a bad rap, especially when it comes to game design. Yes, they’ve got terrible story arcs, and all the other criticisms that hold true, but it seems almost like they’re being held up as something to rag on, which is just as unbalanced as unreservedly hyping the design of Half-Life. I mean, sure, Half-Life is good, but part of being a critic is being able to step the fuck back and get some perspective. For example, when I was writing on flow in Mirror’s Edge, I was thinking about a companion piece looking at navigating combat environments in the COD games – not in terms of how you move around, but navigating who you shoot, when you shoot them, and which position you move to after that. I think there’s a whole lot of fluid evolving strategy that goes on there – so there’s actually an interesting comparison with Mirror’s Edge to be made.

Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about the first level in Modern Warfare 2 – not the stupid Pit-run-learn-to-shoot intro, but the first proper level. You start off shooting across the river at some bad guys, and then the bridge-spanning thing goes up, and you drive over the bridge and into the city. You drive around for about thirty seconds, and then everything goes completely to hell. That’s the little section I want to talk about, because I’ve always found it interesting as an attempt at realism.

When you’re shooting across the river at those dudes in the distance, you don’t have a great scope, and there’s mud flying up in your eyes, bombs are getting dropped in the river and splashing water everywhere – it’s damn near impossible to see anybody across the way, and there’s not really any decent cover. It’s tricky and impractical – and once you get the grenade launcher out it’s a bit more fun, sure, but again there’s a difficulty because all this shit’s spraying up everywhere and it’s hard to 1) know where your enemies are and 2) get the depth right to hit them across the river. For me, that just introduced a difficulty to the combat – it wasn’t fun and slick like most of Modern Warfare, it was impossible to see and remarkably unsatisfying. There’s something encouraging about shooting a dude and seeing him fall over (call me a psycho, if you want, but I don’t think it’s that simple). When you’re across the bridge, it’s not satisfying, because half the time you can’t even be sure you got the guy, because there’s water and shit flying everywhere.

Similarly, when you’re driving through the city like a crazy bitch, getting shot at and rocketed and snipered and everything else, it’s hectic! It’s hard to know what’s going on and how to get a shot off and who to shoot – I saw a dude running across a rooftop when the snipers started up, and I thought ‘Is he a baddie? Can I shoot him? Would it be okay if he turned out to be a civilian?’ There was a patch of self-doubt that eventually gave way to a determination – if I’m being shot at, I’m taking those bastards with me! I still wasn’t sure if those dudes on the roof were baddies (they were), but I started shooting at them, and they fired back (see), so it was okay.

Eventually you move into the school and the game returns to its sleek and simple ‘Move through, kill everybody, save the day’ formula that it’s known for. It returns to the superficial pattern whereby your good shooting saves the world – but I just really appreciated that little opening vignette of battlefield chaos, because it felt authentic. There were little echoes of Saving Private Ryan, in that all this crazy shit was happening and everybody was equally panicky and confused. Combat became less about ‘fun’ and more about trying to make sense out of what was happening.

Of course, it was only an opening sequence. The game does shift back into the glib ‘guns are fun’ militaristic neo-imperialism that both characterises the genre and earns it dirty looks from the left. To return to a point I made at the start, I think it would be too easy for the left to write these games off as American propaganda – and largely I think that’s what they are, but I also think that that attitude is not condusive to appreciating some of the complexities and curiosities that make up the Modern Warfare games.

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