I've just this minute finished the single-player campaign for Modern Warfare 3. It leaves a very bitter taste at its climax. But perhaps not the same bitter taste that flavours it throughout. It is an enormously high-achieving action FPS, on a scale like nothing before it, turned to 11. And it's a bloodthirsty, bombastic and clumsy un-game, with a core of nastiness.
Clearly I'm getting old. I feel like someone's gran who's wandered in on an action movie, and can't understand why anyone would want to sit through so much noise. But clearly people do. An enormous number of people. It is clearly the thing that most people most want from their games, if the extraordinary sales are to be understood. And yes, of course, most of those people intend for it to be a multiplayer game, but there is no questioning that this is the accompanying single-player that's expected and desired by the largest number of players.
And Infinity Ward are incredibly good at it. While the game is riddled with bugs, clipping, AI issues and especially on PC, a litany of crashes and conflicts, despite all this, the achievement is remarkable. It is a non-stop barrage of enormousness, each level trying to outdo the last for scale, magnitude and destruction. When the collapse of the Eiffel Tower is a side-note in your world tour of explosions, you've gone all the way up the bombasto-meter and lit up the prize sign reading "!!!MICHAEL BAY!!!". Despite an engine that's creaking at the edges, and a weirdly washed-out pastel world, there's enough artistry in the design of the demolition that its sense of scale is undeniable, and often breathtaking. Boring as all hell, but undeniable.
Playing the familiar characters from the Modern Warfare series, along with new-boy, Yuri, a dissident Russian, as tradition dictates you skip between characters and countries at a ferocious rate. I didn't finish MW2, because no one was paying me to, so I really have no idea where the story begins here. It certainly doesn't make an effort to catch anyone up, and you're supposed to rush in pre-armed with all the plot information you'd require. Let me help: Russian terrorists trying to take over the world. There's some Russian guy your team really hates, and then, er, that's it. At some point it becomes about trying to stop the baddies blowing up the entire world with nuclear missiles (which you can't help but think would a. be the largest scene of explosions the game could offer, and b. set the series up for moving to its inevitable post-apocalyptic future once IW get fed up of near-future war, but sadly you obviously prevent). And then it's about rescuing the Russian President and his screamy daughter. And killing that other guy.
It's not as if the game is dismissive of plot, by the way. It has an enormous amount of it, shouted at you in extensive cutscenes between levels, and then played out in the endless stream of scripted sequences throughout. It's just that it's a bloody terrible plot, written with all the thrill of a seven year old playing with his toy plane, train and boat as they career inevitably toward smashing into each other. Dialogue is beyond parody in its cliche awfulness. We're getting our mission details. Where are we heading?
"What's the location?"
"Brooklyn Battery Tunnel"
"I thought it collapsed?"
While the ceaselessly shouted lines ensure everything sounds ridiculous in its desperate attempt at pompous severity. I think perhaps it bottoms out with, "You destroy your enemies when you make friends with them." Bleaurgh.
But following the series before it, and the spate of copycat attempts to cash in on this enormous success, it is the crowned king of the follow-em-up genre. While the game isn't bad, like the awful Medal Of Honor reboot, nor the laughably terrible Homefront, it is a special achievement in ensuring you never, ever feel like you're really playing.
Videogames often allow us to live out fantasies, to be who we could never be with our saggy, regular-person frames and lives. A soldier fighting in a near-future war, with access to the finest in military hardware? Maybe I could be the squad leader? Maybe I could be the hero? Maybe I could be the one who's allowed to open doors? But no, of course not, you are – as ever – the grunt, being barked at throughout, forced to do whatever the game/game characters tell you to, which is usually to sweep up after them and the party they're having in front.
It fascinates me that this is the successful formula, the secret behind being the biggest FPS series of all time. It turns out people don't want to be that hero at the forefront, making glorious decisions and bravely leading the way. They want to be the nobody who can only ever do what he's told, and that's on the rare occasions when he's actually able to control himself. This game has the word "follow" on screen almost as often as it doesn't. It floats above the head of whomever it is you're with, ensuring you know your place, which is never to be in front, never to pick the direction, never to make a tactical decision. You follow. It says so.
In fact Modern Warfare 3 seems to make special effort, more-so than ever before, to literally shove you out of the way if you ever get ideas above your station. Realise you're going through that open tunnel next, because there's nowhere else to go? Just try it. The NPCs immediately barge you out of the way, bumping you to the back of the line, like the bigger kids in the dinner queue, making sure they leave you only the cabbage. Reach a closed door, and you'll have to wait for everyone else to get there to open it for you, because you are below the status of someone who can open doors, and you should bloody well know it. Get to the back, shoot the baddies that are left over when the game people have had their fun, and shut up. There's one level, halfway through the game, where you're literally told every single move you make. "Jump over this! Crawl here! Stand still! Drop down under there! Wait by this door!" It's like the world's worst tutorial escaped, grew sentient, and programmed itself into the bulk of the game.
Of course, it's not quite that simple. Irregularly, despite the "follow" instruction floating above your companion, it's actually not going to progress any further until you walk through the invisible trip-wire that triggers the next event. So trained are you to never dare pioneer a move that you'll often sit there shooting a comically infinite supply of enemies until you realise, for once, you're supposed to disobey the rule in order to trip that script. At which point your padres will charge ahead of you once more, just in case there's fun to be had. But for the most part, run ahead and the game will instantly murder you for your ghastly nihilism.
Often as I played I would comment out loud to the characters, "Hey, can I have a go with that?" as they use some massive weapon to saw down a door, or perform a splendid move to take out an enemy. Heck, they even get to use their hands to smoothly vault objects, while I must just Mario-boing my way over the walls with the spacebar once they've gone ahead. On the rare occasions when it's your turn to do something crazy, like open a door, it's because the game wants to force one of its irregular, and very peculiar, moments when everything goes slo-mo and you have to shoot all the baddies in the head before your superpower runs out. So I guess it's cool you have an involuntary, very occasional superpower.
Another thought that kept coming to me as I played was the memory of how the phrase "scripted sequences" used to be spat out with such disdain when it came to the FPS genre. Like QTEs, no one liked them, but every developer included them, and we'd all grumble in commentary that the game was fine, but spoiled things with too many scripted sequences. But Modern Warfare 3 is about seven hours of scripted sequences, occasionally broken up by the odd burst of first-person shooter. That's not my being facetious, that's what this is. And those few gaps are actually pretty good! It's shooting gallery run-n-gunning, but it's fun, because in those moments you actually feel as though you're the one playing. But they're few. Did we all stop minding that when I wasn't paying attention?
And so on it goes, with uninterrupted noise. Noise, noise, noise, as everyone alive bellows everything said, while everything inanimate blows up or falls over. Main characters expectedly die in what were clearly supposed to be dramatic scenes, but instead just become unfortunate comedy as the grunting actors attempt pathos, and all the while civilians are slaughtered for your viewing entertainment. Because more than anything, it's nasty. It's nasty in an unsubtle, barely-even-insidious way, where chest-thumping, log-dragging bloodlust and gruesome revenge are saluted like a flag. Yes, there's the scene where a little girl gets eviscerated so we can all remember that war is tough on the kids or something, but actually that's just the least subtle of a constant theme, where the game takes away your controls and makes you watch as innocents are murdered. You're maintaining cover. You're obeying orders. You're dazed. Whatever the script says, it makes sure you can't turn the camera away, removes your ability to use guns, holds your eyes open Clockwork Orange style, and has you watch.
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But masterfully. There are non-stop glitches, characters running on the spot, doing crazy dances, entire squads becoming hell-bent on murdering a lamppost, but really the entire game is a spectacular effort. This is clearly the work of enormously talented game creators. It's paced such that you always find yourself embedded in the next stretch of action, compelled to continue, to see what will blow up or fall down next. (Although this is partly due to the enormously stupid decision to refuse saves the ability to recognise checkpoints.
The checkpoints are regular, and exquisitely well placed, but for some inexplicable reason you cannot save-and-quit and then return to one. It's start the entire mission over, soldier, because you dared to stop playing. Which also becomes a problem with its propensity to crash – something that seems more ironed out since the latest update. Oh, and while I'm on that, there's also no option to create profiles, so want to play through the game alternating with a friend/relative, etc? Well tough.)
This is the Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich film of gaming, and as such it's going to be derided by critics like me for being an endless stream of ideologically unsophisticated bombast and roaring, while adored by a legion of consumers who just want some brainless fun. Except, the thing is, I love brainless fun, and as much as I recognised the craft and success that had gone into this game, I absolutely hated it.
It's a game that really didn't seem to want me to be playing it, far preferring that its own characters enjoy themselves. It feels like it resents being played, and to get its passive-aggressive revenge, it's going to make sure you know what fun you're missing out on. Oh, and make sure you watch as lots of civilians get shot in the face while you're holding a weapon that could prevent it, because YOU MUST KNOW THAT DEATHS WILL HAPPEN FOR THE GREATER GOOD. Except that greater good here appears to be the revenge of the few characters IW let live this far through. Which while hardly shocking or offensive, is in fact just nasty.