The Method to the Madness of 'Modern Warfare'

by Nick Dinicola

22 March 2012

Soap from the Modern Warfare series 
cover art

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Collection

On the surface, it looks like each Modern Warfare game is made with the simple goal of outdoing the previous entry in the series. There’s an obvious pattern of escalation: you’re fighting terrorists, then you’re fighting in a war, then you’re fighting in a worldwide war. It seems to be the result of the standard “bigger and badder” method of making sequels, but there’s a deeper reason behind the bombast that’s unexpectedly tied to the characters and story. The escalating madness of each game is more the result of character and story progression than just “sequelitis”. By that I don’t mean that the narrative justifies the action, though Infinity Ward does try, but that the growing chaos stems from a thematic progression that stems from character progression that stems from the unexpected popularity of Call of Duty 4.

Modern Warfare

The game was a crazy risk when it was released, bringing the franchise out of its World War II roots into the modern day. Infinity Ward seemed to realize this, and a game that was made into a standalone story as a result of the decision to essentially kill every major and minor character, both good and bad. Subsequent games tried to tie these events into something larger, but it always felt like a narrative stretch. That’s okay. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare works best when viewed on its own.

It’s a dark game but also a smart one. It works as a commentary on the detachment inherent in modern warfare, sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally. The level “Death From Above” has you piloting an AC-130 and shooting at enemies that are nothing more than white dots, and the fact that you can respawn with infinite lives lessens the dramatic tension that the rest of the roller coaster ride provides. From a meta perspective (that is to say, unintended), the game suggests that its trademark combat must be detached from reality to be exciting.

But then it turns that idea on its head by making everything personal. Two levels after “Death From Above”, in the mission “Shock and Awe”, you make a daring rescue after a fellow helicopter pilot is shot down. You rescue your teammate, escape from the many ground troops, and in that moment of accomplishment, a nuclear bomb explodes. That by itself would be surprising, but we then get to play the last few minutes of a soldier’s life. We wake up to see our teammates dead, crawl out of the helicopter to see a building disintegrate, and then we die. It’s a moment that makes the destruction intimate. From this point on, we play as one character, which helps creates camaraderie with the team, since they’re always around us. The game encourages this attachment with a humanizing flashback of Price that shows our current leader as a rookie.

The game ends with us killing the main bad guy, but it’s not clear if anyone actually survives. Even these soldiers that can mow down hordes of enemies must eventually succumb to the destruction of War. They’re strong enough to fight the bad guy, but not strong enough to survive.

Modern Warfare 2

Since Modern Warfare was a runaway success, it naturally needed a sequel. Not just another Call of Duty game, but a proper sequel that also took place in modern times and preferably with the same characters, since they were so inexplicably popular. (I think it had a lot to do with their names: Soap, Price, Gaz; they’re short, unique, and very easy to remember.). But with everyone seemingly dead at the end of the first game, what’s a writer to do? Through the magic of a deus ex machina, the two central characters just happened to survive. By literally reviving them from the dead like this, they became superheroes (or is super soldiers more apt?) capable of surviving the utter destructive chaos that is War as it is presented in the first game. More powerful characters then necessitate a bigger conflict to challenge them.

This newfound love of the characters permeates Modern Warfare 2 in the form of more personalized wide-scale destruction (is that an oxymoron?). There are more moments of first-person death. After the terrorist attack, Ghost is burned alive and then that astronaut is nuked. While Soap doesn’t die in the end, he is stabbed in the chest from a first-person perspective. There are also more moments that try to make the destruction personal, like the nuke in the first game: the terrorist attack that kills civilians, the Russian invasion on American soil, and the levels in which you defend the White House and an Applebee’s-like restaurant.

These moments might have worked if they weren’t surrounded by the antics of super soldiers and super villains. In the very beginning, we meet Soap in a level that has him scaling an ice cliff and ends with him jumping a chasm on a snowmobile. We meet Price in a prison escape, and the level ends with us being pulled out of an exploding building by a helicopter. Price then launches a nuke into the atmosphere as if it’s no big deal. Makarov manages to trick the Russian government into launching an all out war on the USA with just a single terrorist attack. Everything that these main characters do is so extreme that it lessens the dramatic impact of the other parts of the game, even as the game tries to play up that drama.

It’s interesting that none of the new characters are imbued with the same powers as Soap, Price, and Makarov. Every new character that we slip into gets killed: Joseph Allen (the guy who participated in the terrorist attack), Ghost, the poor astronaut. Unlike the heroes of Modern Warfare, these characters die without having contributed much to the overall plot. In Modern Warfare 2, since War has been escalated in response to the returning characters, War is now far stronger than the typical soldier. But the super soldiers, the action heroes, the bonafide badasses, these guys can go toe-to-toe with War and survive. And they do survive. Sure, Soap gets hurt in the end, but he’s in much better shape than he was at the end of Modern Warfare

Modern Warfare 3

If Modern Warfare 2 went crazy with its action because the main characters outgrew the somewhat realistic confines of the first game, then Modern Warfare 3 is a clear attempt to get things back on track. Sort of.

Modern Warfare 2 is a tonal combination of the first two games. Infinity Ward still wanted to create a cynical war story, so in this game, the war is escalated even more into something that’s capable of killing these super soldiers.

The details of the war are irrelevant to both the player and Infinity Ward, as the many plot holes attest to. The most obvious proof that World War III is just a subplot is the fact that the game keeps going even after the United States and Russia declare peace. If the game was really about the conflict, then it should end when the conflict ends. Since we instead keep playing, it’s clear that Infinity Ward is more concerned with character resolution than plot resolution.

The level “Down the Rabbit Hole” is a perfect metaphor for the progression of the trilogy as a whole. It features the main cast of heroes (which now includes Sandman, a survivor of Modern Warfare 2, and Yuri, a new addition in Modern Warfare 3) descending into a diamond mine to rescue the Russian president. As they go deeper, the enemy forces grow stronger. While trying to escape, Yuri (the player at this point) is shot and can’t walk, so he’s dragged by Price/Soap while continuing to shoot. The enemies keep coming, killing minor teammates, until you’re finally dragged onto a helicopter that takes off, leaving Sandman behind just as he’s overwhelmed and the whole mine explodes (y’know, for good measure). This one level encapsulates the series-wide game of one-upmanship between conflict and soldier that only ends when everyone is dead.

Modern Warfare 3 ends with World War III because that was the only way that Infinity Ward could kill the super soldiers that it created in the second game. Creating super soldiers in the first place was the only way that Infinity Ward could bring back the fan favorite characters that seemed to have died in the first game, and those characters had to come back because Call of Duty 4 was shockingly popular and that standalone conflict had to be extended and escalated into something that could continue for two more games.

Modern Warfare has always been a cynical series. It avoids the fist pumping, chest bumping, “fuck yeah” mentality of other shooters, including the other Call of Duty games (I’m looking at you in particular Black Ops). The final scene of Modern Warfare 3 is not patriotic, heroic, or even very uplifting. It is just Price leaning against a wall and lighting a cigar. We watch him puff on it a few times before the scene fades to black. It’s a quiet moment that encourages reflection. There’s no heroic speech, which means there’s no authorial context to justify the loss of every major character save Price, just this simple cigar break that represents a rare moment of calm and allows the player time to justify the events themselves.

In that moment I remember that despite being the most over elaborate, gratuitously action-packed FPS on the market, the act of combat is always destructive, victory is never really achieved, and the good guys must sink to the level of the terrorists in order to survive. This all combines into one crazy, mad series, but there’s a method to this madness.

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