Friday, January 06, 2023
Recently, I tried to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II. It proved challenging. Not the campaign, which, while pocked with occasional patches of frustration, was hardly difficult; Call of Duty campaigns are, as it were, calibrated to reduce recoil. No, the challenge lay in starting the thing. The logo on the dashboard bore the name of “Warzone 2.0,” so, thinking I had the wrong package downloaded, I went rooting around for the real thing. It turned out that, in the eyes of many, Warzone 2.0 is the real thing. More fool me. To access the menus, I needed an account. Activision required my e-mail. It may also be an idea, I am told, to think about two-factor authentication. Then comes the mournful message that informs me that, with my current settings, I won’t be able to connect and upload to social media. Well. No point in playing then, I suppose.
Finally, I was in. But where was the campaign? I scrolled past a barrage of options, game modes, multiplayer menus, past the Neymar, Pogba, and Messi bundles, right down to the bottom. And there it was: Campaign, Solo. How has it come to this? How has a series renowned for its campaigns – rich with vertical slices and moments that brand themselves on the brain – dwindled into an activity that resembles logging onto a work PC?
For some time now, the decision to play Call of Duty has more closely resembled a lifestyle choice. For a start, there is the storage-busting bulk of the game itself, swelling annually, like an engorged defence budget, well over the hundred-gigabyte mark. Then, over the course of the ensuing months, in stream the updates, the seasons of content, the footballers apparently. News of which springs up when you check in, alerting you to the newest riches. Booting the game up, on a weekly basis, is akin to bending down, picking up a wedge of mail, and sieving out the junk. Long have I wished that we could prise the single-player mode from its setting, that the publisher Activision would take, say, £20 off me and let me download only the campaign – and thus be free of the bloat and frippery. I would stagger away happy, eagerly awaiting next year’s instalment.
When it comes to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, however, I may not stagger so happily. Reaching the end of its bizarre and uneven story, I couldn’t help but think that it probably deserves its place at the very bottom of the menu. The story – something about Iran, a South-American drug cartel, and a stash of stolen missiles – is attended by the usual suspects. We have John “Soap” MacTavish, formerly of the S.A.S., and a proud Scotsman to boot. Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, whom we last saw shooting his way through traffic in Piccadilly Circus. My favourite has to be Captain Price, whose cheeks are governed by a pair of muttonchops of such well-gardened bushiness that his enemies must think they had been slain by a Victorian. New to the group is Simon “Ghost” Riley, a man so scarily classified that he has seen fit to stitch a plastic skull onto his balaclava. Imagine him at home, donning a stainless-steel thimble and getting down to work.
Indeed, there is an air of extreme silliness about Modern Warfare II. It isn’t as if silliness and this series were not already intimately acquainted; my prevailing memory of the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, from 2009, is of averting global catastrophe by hurling a combat knife, in slow motion, into the head of Lance Henrisken. But there is something uniquely bizarre in the tone of both new Modern Warfare games. The characters behave as if part of their mission briefing entailed playing the earlier games, and getting high on their own heroics. Most of their lines are delivered like cliffhangers, as though anything they say can and will be clipped for the sake of a trailer.
Now that we live in a post-Marvel universe, we are trained to treat our entertainment products as part of a larger lore, and we are rewarded for our repeat visits with a raft of references, in recognition of our narrative stamina. The problem with these Call of Duty reboots is that the characters used to be renowned for their unremarkability; they pulled off unimaginable feats in the midst of enemy fire, and they fobbed off their own gallantry with a dusting of dark humour. “What the hell kind of name is Soap?” asked Captain Price, in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It was a good little gag, speaking at once to the slippery nature of their work, and to the impossibility of coming away with clean hands. In Modern Warfare II, we get the same inquiry again, upgraded to “What the fuck kind of name is Soap?,” and spoken in Spanish. It’s a nice nod, but it weighs us down with the past, and we would be better off without it; who needs a COD mythology?
All of which wouldn’t be much of a problem if the missions themselves weren’t afflicted with such a severe case of post-triumphal stress disorder – a condition that locks its sufferers into the burned-out repetition of old glories. Hence the mission in which we rain down hellfire from an AC-130 gunship, at cruising altitude; or another where we crawl through the foliage, clad in grassy fatigues, toting a suppressed rifle: both of which are old favourites from Call of Duty 4.
When a new breed of set piece does turn up, as it does in one of the mid-game levels, entitled “Violence And Timing,” the result is surreal to behold. A military convoy, barrelling along a desert highway, and your job is to jump from truck to truck, highjacking as you go, until you reach the front. The irritation I felt at the slightly slack leaping mechanic was offset by the touching notion that the developers at Infinity Ward would look to, of all things, Pursuit Force – the PlayStation Portable game from 2005 – for inspiration. It was around that point in the campaign that I felt it seize up. It seemed a pretty good illustration of the landscape of shooter design: a parched stretch of road, cracking under the weight of old juggernauts, and a studio hotfooting it between rusty vehicles in the hope of gaining ground.
It used to be that other shooters had to strain and strike a pose in order to stand apart from Call of Duty. Battlefield: Bad Company, for example, opted for crooked comedy. Its plot was drained of heroics and its characters’ motivations resounded with the clink of gold bullion; it had you driving a tank over the bunkers and baize of a golf course, in a conflict cooked up for the sake of satire. Medal of Honor tried to root its action in reality, following a squad of soldiers through Afghanistan. I am fond of both of those games – and I am convinced that Bad Company stands alongside only Cannon Fodder, when it comes to the black pastiche of war – but neither attempts to match Call of Duty on its own ground.
I was reminded of just what that ground is, and the thrills that we used to find there, in only one mission of Modern Warfare II. “Dark Water,” in which you storm a rainswept oil rig by stealth, moving quietly along drizzling gantries, is the series at its best. Your comrades whisper the positions of foes into your ear, and fell them with passionless precision. It’s a blessed reminder that Infinity Ward can still turn out spectacle like no other developer can; and that, behind the endless noise of its yearly approach, some of its greatest moments were made of little more than violence and timing.
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