Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Yes it's a murder simulator but George W. Bush would totally approve...

The time has never been better to become obsessed with video games. Top drawer digital entertainment is literally coming out faster than I can play it. I recently finished the single player in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and feel compelled to do justice to the online multiplayer PLUS complete the wondrous looking Ratchet and Clank Future BEFORE next week when the double-barrelled deluge of Mass Effect and Uncharted: Drakes Fortune hits the street. In leaner times I would be thankful to subsist on a third helping of Bioshock, more movie making in Halo 3, and a do-over of the Half-Life 2 series but these are the heady days of a Henry the 8th calibre gorging. Thankfully I’m not into PC gaming because then I would have to add Crysis and the new FEAR title to the list. When child-rearing and bathroom breaks become something of a distraction it’s a sign that you are on the receiving end of too much of a good thing.

So I’m going to express what I thought about while playing Call of Duty 4. With so many glowing critiques of the game already printed I don’t feel the need to go over that ground and will instead focus on deeper themes and more ephemeral aspects of this fantastic game.

Infinity Ward developed this modern military shooter and these game purists work on a higher level that is only gained by making two back-to-back award winning, million-plus selling titles. They are not only brimming with success-fuelled confidence but possess the smug superiority of having one of their properties farmed out to another company who could only cook up mediocre results. So it's not just their product, you see, but what they can do with it that makes the real money. This may be something only a true fan-boy cares to follow but what it explains is that this company can do whatever the fuck it pleases, publishers be damned, which is a rare exception in this medium. We benefit from this, greatly.

Boiled down that is really why this game is worth playing, to see what unbridled game makers can do with their art. It’s not just that the game is bloody beautiful and fun as all hell to play; it’s the psychological needling that gets you the day after; the telling of little stories that you didn’t expect to be told.

The Call of Duty series stands out as some of the best military games you can play because with each game they try to give you the whole war experience as they see it. You don’t play a single character following a linear story; they pop you into different bodies and battles throughout the conflict. This allows for a big story with many small parts to be told and they really ran with it this time around. You get to play people who die, not die and re-spawn like every other game you’ve played but die and that’s it, their story is done and you will play another person henceforth. It’s so simple and subtle but it’s the kind of storytelling masterstroke that only a fearless company would pull off.

World War II shooters are at their core romantic, uphill battles. I wind up dumping the Thompson for an MP 32 every time which makes for righteous, guilt-free killing of Germans. It's their high-end machine gun after all, using it on them is poetic. This is not the case in Modern Warfare and the people at Infinity Ward were shrewd enough to pick out a very relevant theme; that today’s battles tend to be horribly one-sided affairs. Weapons like the M4 or the G36C or the P90 are science-fiction-like in their ability to locate and penetrate third-world militia-men. There is no fictitious space marine weapon that compares with the present-day Javelin anti-tank missile. Once you’re locked on and fire a ballistic shoots straight up a few hundred feet in the air before coming down hard. Even firing one for the third time is something of a ‘whoa’ moment.

Mix it all together and you create a game with a lot of ethical quandaries. This is war as Donald Rumsfeld had wet dreams about and the designers not only confronts you with it, but force you to act on it. In one scene you have night vision and have to take out soldiers in a dark house. If you do it right then they don’t even know you’re there. The last man standing is pointing his gun in every direction, clearly frightened out of his mind. In one scene you operate the three guns on an AC 130 flying at 30,000 feet. The enemy can’t even see you, never mind strike back. You complete the scene by killing them and not striking any of the nearby structures. It’s a level that has made visitors to my living room uncomfortable. It’s quite a trick to make a game challenging all the while crushing any notion of fair play.

The online multiplayer matches give this game its true legs of longevity. I’ve been throwing myself into free-for-all death matches, eschewing all concepts of teamwork or flag capturing in favour of killing every motherfucker I see. It is savagely unforgiving; you take a couple in the chest and you’re done. Sneaking around and playing smart is mandatory. By the same token killing someone is deeply satisfying because it only comes about as a result of you playing well. One amazing new feature is the death-cam. Bang, you’re dead. It will take the computer five seconds to re-spawn you, but while you wait why not look through the eyes of your killer as he killed you? You get to see where he was, how he scoped in on you, and how he did the dirty deed. There is no arguing, griping, whining, pissing, or moaning when you see how they did it; there is only grudging respect and a vow to do better. You get shown your error; that your ass was hanging out or that you were looking the wrong way. Every failure is a learning experience. I am finding it to be an immensely valuable tool.

Seeing as this game is out on PC, the 360, and the PS3 there is no reason why you should miss it. There are sure to be a whole slew of games that allow you to kill Middle Eastern people but this one sets the bar very high right out of the gate.

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