The battlegrounds of World War Two had been well traversed and space marines had begun to lose their appeal. Stories of past glories or battles against an alien horde were not engaging enough for this new generation, videogames had progressed to the point where they could now begin to address current global concerns.
This was where Call of Duty 4 (CoD4) came in. At the time the game was ground-breaking. This was not as a result of the gameplay, as aside from a couple of instances CoD4 played very much the same as its Infinity Ward developed predecessor Call of Duty 2 (which marked the first time an Infinity Ward CoD was released on a console, and helped strengthen the Xbox 360 launch line-up). Even though the single player campaign was fairly short for a First Person Shooter (FPS) at the time, coming in at around the 7 hour mark, the pacing was spot on, the story did not drag, nor did it feel like you were being rushed from one location to another, even though you took control of multiple characters fighting in different locations around the world and even at one point reliving a event from the Cold War.
CoD4 included some of the most memorable moments from the previous generation and ironically did not succumb to the jingoistic hoorah that plagued not just subsequent CoD games, but also the other military shooters that it helped to spawn and continue to influence throughout that generation. The very start of the game played on current fears in the West of the continued instability in the Middle East and featured a very dramatic first person perspective of a public execution at the hands of a separatist militia that was adding to the unrest in the region.
Despite utilising real concerns held by many Westerners surrounding Western “intervention” in the Middle East the game unfortunately relied on having Russians play the main antagonists, and even though the Cold War had been over for almost two decades, the Russians were ultra-nationalists seeking a return to the height of Soviet influence. With the Germans no longer an easy go to villain as afforded by the nature of WW2 games, and unable to rely on a real Middle Eastern power to fill the role because it would be too current, the Russians once again became the default threat as if the 80s never ended.
However regardless of its utilisation of certain troupes, CoD4 used these to facilitate its wider narrative, one that was actually interesting for a military shooter, and even had the player guessing at what was to follow. Then there were the moments which caught everyone by surprise. The most notable was when the US Marine, that the player had been exploring this unnamed Middle Eastern state through, after having just made it to the safety of the helicopter, is caught by the sudden detonation of a nuclear device which demolishes the nearby city and brings the helicopter down near the outside of the city. As this is a videogame some might have assumed that the Marine would walk out and start shooting at people within five minutes. However the game instantly destroys this misconception, with the player guiding the character out of the helicopter who stumbles whilst witnessing the ongoing devastation from the nuclear blast, the mushroom cloud still in the distance, ultimately succumbs to his injuries.
This marks the second time that a character in the players control has died, and there was nothing they could do about it. This enforces the importance of mortality; war in all of its various forms will result in people dying via devastating ways, for there is no “clean” death in war. Furthermore it brings to the attention of the player that they are not immortal. They may be used to seeing the supporting characters die around them, but when they die, they get back up again starting from a previous checkpoint. Instead CoD4 removes this safety net that players have become accustomed to. In a somewhat similar fashion to what viewers (and readers) of Game of Thrones have come to expect, knowing that their favourite characters could be killed off at any moment.
The relationship with death that is present in CoD4 alters throughout the campaign and there is one mission that stands out due to its cold portrayal of killing enemy combatants. This mission has been brought up here at Thumbsticks before, this is because the mission (Death From Above) is significant in what is seen as the blurring between the depiction of war in videogames and what takes place in reality. Death From Above represented one of the first substantial instances of Baudrillard’s theories regarding simulacra being applied to videogames, and specifically military shooters.
During Death From Above the player views the mission from up above looking down at the ground via a screen displaying the action emphasised by heat signatures. The aim of the mission is to protect fellow soldiers as they progress through a heavily defended area. All the while the player takes out anything else that moves. For all they know they could be shooting at civilians at some point. But it is the cold distant killing from the player, coupled with the praise from a support character observing that the player had made a ‘good kill’ that highlights the uncomfortable fascination videogames have with war. This is not a criticism of CoD4 as in further support of Baudrillard’s theory; the reality of war at times is not too dissimilar to the “fiction” displayed in this instance.
It is important to point out that irrespective of CoD4’s influence on modern military shooters, it was not the first, and what title has that honour is up to debate, but it is worth noting that the Battlefield series made the leap to the modern era two years prior to CoD. Unlike CoD, Battlefield 2 saw the Russians fight alongside the US and European Union with China and a Middle Eastern Coalition representing the opposing side, although as players fight as either side, due to the multiplayer only aspect of the gameplay, neither can be deemed the default antagonist. There was also the often forgotten Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, which was the first in the series to grace a console; it also marked the first inclusion of a narrative based single player which followed an outbreak of war between NATO members and China. Interestingly before CoD made the progression to the modern day Battlefield had already decided to make the leap to the future with Battlefield 2142.
For EA and DICE (the creators and main developers of the Battlefield series) modern combat was just one era that could be explored, and that the series had the flexibility to go where it wanted to. The expedition into the future was short lived, as shortly after the release of CoD4 (and therefore only coincidentally) saw the series return to modern combat, albeit with a twist. Bad Company and its sequel focused more heavily on a single player narrative (whilst still maintaining the excellent multiplayer) as well as introducing the destructible environments the series is now known for. What set these games apart was that they featured a comedic tone that would not be out place in most blockbuster action films as well as avoiding the gritty nature present in CoD4 and other subsequent military shooters.
This theme continued into the sequel, although this was to be another shooter series that fell foul to the troupe of having the Russians play the antagonists, but then again Bad Company did not spend much time focusing on the why, rather instead on the antics between the titular Bad Company. At this point in the Battlefield series gameplay was still at the core for decisions regarding the style that a new title would take. This was particularly evident with Bad Company 2 which featured the updated Frostbite engine that now allowed for entire structures to be demolished once the supports had been destroyed. This added to the notion that the player was no longer safe behind cover, for now an entire building could go down with them still inside. The decision to focus on enjoyable gameplay scenarios was further reinforced by the Vietnam expansion (although not the first time that the series has gone to Vietnam) that built upon the excellent multiplayer experience and applied it perfectly with the setting resulting in what is still a unique experience.
This approach unfortunately did not last, as despite the relative success found by Bad Company and its strong fanbase who consider it to be one of the best of the multiplayer console shooters, it was never enough to get anywhere near the number of sales that the multiple CoD games were generating. An attempt to change this situation came a year after Bad Company 2: Vietnam when Battlefield 3 was released, a game which was an effort by EA to directly compete with the CoD franchise. However instead of building upon the unique gameplay features afforded by the Frostbite engine which were evident in the Bad Company games, they instead tried to beat CoD at its own game. Whilst the multiplayer was mostly the same, albeit with maps that allowed for less destructibility than Bad Company but was considerably larger, the single player was an absolute travesty. Say what you will about the overly bombastic approach that has defined CoD since the original Modern Warfare, at least the core gameplay was retained and still provided an enjoyable experience. BF3 on the other hand would take control away from the player as much as possible so that they could witness another over-the-top spectacle which they have no control over, aside from the poorly implemented Quick Time Events (QTEs).
The BF3 single player felt like a culmination of everything that was wrong with the modern military genre of shooters. The story was dumb, irrespective of its serious self-important narrative that was doing its utmost to try and present an intriguing mystery, one that was waiting to be unveiled by looking back through the events that led to the protagonist being in his current state of detention. This was perpetually interlaced with unnecessary militaristic jargon which became more infuriating by the unwavering jingoism from all involved, foregoing any sense of rational thought in their actions.
The CoD series can be criticised for its pro-military stance, but it often has an internationally diverse cast to detract from the more gung-ho approach of the US missions. Yet BF3 failed to acknowledge this and went all out confusing military shooters with having to unabashedly praise the military as heroic figures that can never do any wrong regardless of circumstance.
Call of Duty was not the founder of the modern military shooter, but it undoubtedly helped to popularise the genre. Meanwhile the Battlefield series, which had attempts at the genre prior to Call of Duty, failed to understand what people liked about Call of Duty (although one cannot criticise the sales numbers for BF3 or BF4) and created a tedious and bland experience, that would be forgettable were it not so bad. However it was not until the launch of Spec Ops: The Line the following year that highlighted the shallow nature of games like BF3 and the underlying problems that exist with modern military shooters.