The Call of Duty series has never been known for subtlety or for story but more for its large scale battles and action sequences. The 4th entry stays true this formula but also uses the modern setting to set a pace that builds up our perception of the game as a “power fantasy” until that fantasy is violently undermined.
The basic flow of combat in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is meant to make us feel powerful. We rush into the fight surrounded by allies, and the respawning enemies ensure we always have someone to shoot or that’s shooting at us. We’re always in danger and it’s always exciting. In order to stop the flood of terrorists, the player must charge ahead past an invisible line that shuts off the respawning enemies. By forcing us to advance farther ahead than the other soldiers, it feels as if we’re clearing a path for them. Even though we’re in the middle of a crowded battlefield, we’re encouraged to act like the lone, bold hero of a typical action movie. We are clearly the hero here regardless of however many allies are with us.
Our actions become grander as the game goes on. In the fourth mission, “The Bog” we destroy a series of tanks with a Javelin rocket. In the fifth mission, “Hunted” we take down a helicopter with Stinger missiles. In “Death From Above” we actually take control of a friendly helicopter and our enemies become cannon fodder. The eighth mission, “Shock and Awe,” combines the “fight for every inch of ground” combat style with the empowering destruction of the helicopter sequences. At the end of “Shock and Awe,” we’re tasked with rescuing a fellow soldier whose helicopter has been shot down. Before we land, we’re told that a nuclear bomb has been found inside the enemy stronghold, so saving our ally means we’re at risk from the explosion. We land, shoot our way to the crash site, rescue the pilot, and fight our way back: a daring rescue under a tight time limit. We’re the hero once again. But then the nuke goes off. There’s a moment of panic as the helicopter spins around and crashes but then we wake up. Everyone else is dead but as usual we survive.
At this moment, though, every player is thinking the same thing: What do I do now? No matter how stunned we may be at the devastation, every player is asking that question either consciously or unconsciously. When we wake up inside the helicopter the first thing most players do is go outside. There’s an automatic assumption that since we’re still in control and that there is still progress to be made, but left without any objectives, we don’t know what to do for the first time in the game. We remain in control just long enough for confusion to set it, for us to seriously wonder, “What do I now?” Then we die; the character dies. Up until now we’ve been made to think of ourselves, while acting though this character, as the hero of the story: We lead the attack, we destroy tanks, we rescue our comrades, but in this moment, all that is taken away from us. We’re no longer that special one-man-army; we’re just another casualty of war.
This death gives the latter part of the game an intensity that the former was missing. From this point on, there’s a genuine fear for our character’s life. The developers realized this and took advantage of it for the final action sequence of the game: A car chase that ends with us driving across a bridge as part of it is blown up. We end up on the ground, dazed and wounded, watching the lead terrorist kill our squad mates as he slowly comes towards us. The game has already established that death is a possibility, and in this situation, it seems like the only possibility. By taking control away from us at this moment, we’re shown how powerless we really are.
We don’t die though. Backup arrives just in time, we get a gun, kill the terrorist leader, and save the day. But far from feeling heroic, this moment is tempered by the fact that all our allies, every other character we’ve fought with throughout the game, is dead, and even the fate of “Soap,” our current avatar, is uncertain as he’s evacuated by helicopter on a stretcher before the screen fades to black. Sure we beat the game, but (maybe) everyone is dead. It’s a surprisingly sobering end to one of the most action packed power fantasies in gaming.
Unlike most action games, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare acknowledges the consequences of sustained violence, of war. It relies on the standard FPS gameplay to make us feel strong but then takes away control at specific moments in order to induce feelings of helplessness. Those moments are few and far between, but by surrounding them with empowering action, they stand out as the more memorable moments in the game. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is still an action game, but one that leaves us reeling from the effects of war, not energized by them.