Critiquing CoD4: My War, Let Me Show You It.

by Steve Bowler on December 23, 2007

in combat,critique

Awhile back Clint over at ClickNothing did a great critique of Bioshock, and it got me thinking that designers should be doing this regularly. As an industry, we have countless outlets for reviews of games; a consumer level media wrap-up of a “buy it or not” standard. But what we don’t have is a professional grade critiquing process.

So I’m taking up the call that seems to be going out and I’m going to offer up a critique of Call of Duty 4, seeing as it’s the only game I’ve managed to finish in the past year besides Halo3.

Maybe it helps that I’ve never played a previous Call of Duty title, so I missed out on the entirety of the drama of the whole “only the evens are worth playing” thing. I’m not really interested in comparing it to past titles anyway, as a critique should always be based off of the singular title’s merits and flaws. It should go without saying that yar, thar be spoilers ahead, so continue reading at your expense if you haven’t played it yet.

When you start out playing CoD4, it becomes immediately apparent that this game is going to be all about the First Person, and I don’t mean just because it’s an FPS. The opening cinema puts you behind the eyes of a benevolent leader being overthrown by a new militant uprising. You see exactly what he sees, and it’s a startling perspective. You experience the entirety of the game within the first person, cinemas included, and I have to say that I think their design vision was “Show Them What War Is.” It’s not “ShowThem How Awful War Is” or “Let’s Pass Judgement On War” or “Here Comes Preachy McJudgealot.” It’s just “Show Them What War Is.”

And damn if they didn’t nail it.

It’s rare to get the opportunity to play a game who plays so singularly and expertly to their vision. Throughout the experience, you are shown horror after horror, and heroic act after heroic act. Sometimes you visit the horror upon your enemies, stabbing them while they sleep, shooting them while their eyes are wide and searching frantically in the dark for your position, arms outstretched reaching out desperately in an attempt to find something to guide their way. And sometimes the horrors are visited upon the player.

At one point, you die. You are shown experience death, and the futility (at times) of war. I will never forget when my friend explained to me the death scene. He had just finished with this amazing desperate rescue of a helicopter pilot, telling me how he carried her back to the Chinook chopper, and then a call over the radio tells the player that the nuke which the Seal team discovered is about to go off, and then the view out the back of the Chinook’s open gate erupts in a nuclear fireball. You wind up watching the door man fly out of the helicopter as it spins out of control, crashing into the town below. You come to (after the satellite feed conveniently hides the load by pretending to look for you) and manage to crawl your way out of the downed chopper, into the new wasteland that is the nuclear apocalypse visited on that city by the blast. The player, fully in control, will desperately attempt to get Sgt. Paul Jackson to stand again, only to have him fall back down, his last heartbeat playing through the controller and the player’s ears as his retinas can no longer control their aperture and he “whites out” as he fades into unconsciousness and dies.

It is amazing just how powerful this is, during the middle of the game. At first I thought perhaps my friend failed during the mission, somehow, until I played it for myself. Why would Infinity Ward frustrate a player that way? Death as a reward for finishing the level successfully?! Not fair! Not fun!

And yet, it serves as an amazing narrative tool: teaching (without preaching) the player that sometimes, no matter what one does, death is inevitable (especially in war), while at the same time serving as the next story piece for the plot. It makes the game feel more grounded, a sobering reminder that you are not a killing machine; you are playing for your life in a hostile environment.

Even the level design functions entirely around a more linear/scripted approach, so as to hand-feed the player cinematic in-game moments. While normally I’m more of a fan of “emergent” gameplay and level design (Crysis for instance allows the player to achieve goals from more than one angle/tactic/direction), CoD4’s scripted events and narrow paths really feed into the mechanic of giving the player that high pressure sensation of being in the thick of it. The levels and scripting are even designed to “force” the player to look in certain directions at certain times so that they can hide another cinema within the gameplay, knowing full well that the player can’t miss it or look away, and the player doesn’t feel frustrated or confined by the mechanic.

Hell, the flashback moment where you play as your mentor during his sniper mission to Chernobyl is done in an amazing (if not slightly Hollywood ludicrous) fashion. Instead of you being the amazing sniper who can sneak everywhere unnoticed, you have to play second fiddle to your sniper trainer, who shows you how to sneak everywhere unnoticed. At times this goes into sheer Indiana Jones territory (you’ll know you’re there when you’re hiding under the vehicles), but for the most part, it was handled so well that I wasn’t even frustrated when you wind up not getting the kill shot you were aiming for on your target. The funny thing is you know it’s going to miss him somehow (you’re playing a flashback, after all; you already know how this turns out), and yet you try to get it right anyway. The fact that you’re playing a game almost makes you think that they’re giving you a chance to somehow change history.

The game’s absolute mastery of the “Show Them War” motif is the C-130 Spectre Gunship mission. If you’ve seen the footage of the Afghanistan Gunship gun cams (complete with audio overlays), then you already know what’s in store for you. Here’s an actual gun cam video from Afghanistan (standard squeamish warning applies here):

And here is a video from the C-130 mission in CoD4:

Except for the quality and zoom/camera/gun changes, these two videos are seemingly interchangeable. The only difference is that you get to play one, and only watch in the other. Even the audio calls are the same (“Good kill, good kill”). It is so seemingly real that I was actually nervous I’d hit one of my own friendlies (when normally I just shrug that sensation off in a video game).

And I guess that’s where the pinnacle of “Show Them War” hits. You actually feel bad when your buddies die (I hope this doesn’t come as a spoiler to you. If they’re willing to kill <em>you</em> in a videogame it only follows they’re going to kill your mates). They have so successfully put the player in their war that you wind up forming emotional attachments to their fictional characters. The end of the game had me in such an emotional rollercoaster at one point I found myself cheering so much I missed my shot and had to play it a second time.

So, I have to say that despite my earlier nitpicks on the gameplay aspects, the Ward boys really hit this one out of the park. Hats off guys, on the first team all year to actually complete and successfully deliver on their design vision.

And people, make sure you stick around after the credits roll. Oorah.

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