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Call of Duty

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Video Review:

On the way…

Written Review:

When I think about how the first-person shooter has evolved, my first instinct is to turn to Call of Duty.  The little-remembered 2003 war epic turned a niche genre – the military shooter – into a full-blown phenomenon, earning millions for publisher Activision and resulting in an avalanche of competing products.  It has received ten spinoffs, nine official sequels, an expansion pack, and at least one compilation with over 100 million total game copies sold.

Like it or not, Call of Duty was the explosion that changed the shape of gaming.  And the original game was the spark that set it off.

I doubt that Infinity Ward knew for certain what kind of force they were unleashing when they fired that first shot, for good or ill.  When the close allies and acquaintances of Vince Zampella and Jason West departed 2015 Inc. for greener pastures, their greatest concern seemed to be making games the way they wanted to.  If I recall correctly, their time spent designing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was marred by clashing interests and the inability to add features or design levels as they saw fit.

Inspired (or perhaps filled with anguish) by their experiences at 2015, Infinity Ward’s original 22 members sought to improve upon the formula of their spiritual predecessor.  For their first project since the company’s creation, the team decided to play on the emerging trend of World War II-centric epics that were sweeping the world post-Saving Private Ryan… except with one key twist.

This new project would be about teams of soldiers overcoming the odds.

Team-based game design, save for in the multiplayer scene, had not yet emerged in first-person shooters.  In fact, Medal of Honor had made a point of focusing on the exploits of lone soldiers combatting the Nazi army, defying any notions that the war could be (and ultimately was) won by entire nations’ armies.

Thus, Call of Duty had the advantage in terms of innovation, as well as apparent grasp of realism.  In a time when graphics were still moderately blurry messes of pixels, here was a game claiming to not only be about the exploits of the Allied forces but which actually allowed the player to briefly inhabit the time and space necessary to experience these exploits first-hand.  No one had seen done it done before, but everyone wanted a piece of the action.

So, with all this build up and with the potential in the game’s premise apparent, Infinity Ward went forward with the release of the final product… and the rest, as they say, is history.  Many sequels later, one important question remains unasked: does Call of Duty (the original, that is) still matter?

To deliver such a verdict, we must first examine where all the trends and tropes began.  Call of Duty opens with images of war-torn Europe: abandoned villages steadily demolished by gunfire, foggy forests shrouding the clash of armies, the sound of death’s approach as bombers fly over advancing Soviet troop carriers.  The air is rife with both reverence and solemnity; as the superimposed text states, “In the war that changed the world, victory was not achieved by one man but by the lives of many… Across the battlefields of Europe, many nations united to reach one goal: Berlin.”

This, for the most part, is our setting: the final push by the Allied forces into Germany, circa 1944 to 1945.  The campaign follows the exploits of the American, British and Soviet armies – in that order – as each gears up for the most significant campaign of the war.  Save for some timeline hopping in the British missions and much of the Soviet section being set around the Battle of Stalingrad (1942), this is as streamlined and straight-forward a war epic as one can get.

First, I have to congratulate Infinity Ward for doing what other companies had not: focusing on more than one army.  World War II was not won solely by the Americans, nor were they the key driving force for victory; that is more attributable to the British and French efforts in Nazi-occupied France, and the westward push by the reformed Soviet army.  Thus, to accurately portray and honour those involved in such a grim conflict, you truly would have to acknowledge that America was a small part of a larger organization.

But the decision to acknowledge other nations’ efforts goes beyond simply righting a cultural error.  By cycling between each army, the game goes a long way towards contextualizing the player’s actions as being part of a global effort.  Over the course of the game, you control three different characters: Private Martin of the 506th Parachute Infantry Division, Sergeant Evans of the 6th Airborne Division, and Private Alexei Ivanovich Voronin of the 13th Guards Rifle Division.   To put it in perspective, the concept of one person (the player) carrying the war effort on their shoulders makes a lot more sense in real-world terms when it’s several distinct characters on several different battlefields taking on several different missions.

Those various mission play out in typical shooter fashion: you start out at a fixed point, move from objective to objective, wipe out countless enemies, and reach the assigned “end point” of the level.  The context of each mission, however, is what shakes up this established formula and what ultimately gives Call of Duty its edge over other games in the genre.

See, the international focus also has the distinction of granting Call of Duty a certain broader and more modern appeal than its contemporaries, not only because many different people are represented but because you’re tasked with doing different things with each group.  The American missions are focused on capturing and holding territories for the broader Allied advance, the British sections are espionage-based with an emphasis on sabotaging the Nazi war effort, and the Russian portion of the game is essentially one violent yet honour-bound push against the Nazi army to reclaim the homeland from enemy hands.  Values like loyalty, perseverance and teamwork get thrown around a lot in gaming, but here such ideals can be sensed in the very game design.

Frankly, I’m surprised not as many people defend this game (and its increasingly mad sequels) with the argument that globalization and international co-operation in any form doesn’t see the light of day much in gaming.  It is a miracle that any game managed to address the issue, but a game released in 2003 tackling it head-on? Damn near revolutionary, if you ask me.

All that global good will, however, is not the game’s only appeal – not by a long shot.

2003 was an interesting year for gaming, in that it contained many sequels and fondly-remembered classics but only incrementally advanced the industry.  Call of Duty, in particular, stands out both as a notable advancement in shooters and a firmly rooted classic shooter in its own right.

It advanced what we know and what we expect about first-person shooters not by being the first game to introduce set-piece moments, but the first game to do them extraordinarily well.  Set-pieces being scenes of intense action that are typically found in blockbuster films, there had to have been doubt about whether or not Infinity Ward – a very fresh-faced and “green” developer – could translate such cinematic intensity to the language of gaming.

And yet as we look back, that is exactly what Infinity Ward managed to do: translate the sensibilities of an old-school action-packed war epic into the rules and restrictions of the first-person shooter genre.  Within the game’s 25 missions (8 for the Americans, 7 for the British, 10 for the Soviets), the developers managed to included tank battles, multiple car chases, a segment in which the player fires a flak cannon solo, an entire level that felt reminiscent of GoldenEye’s opening sequence, an chaotic uphill battle on the shores of Stalingrad, and (from what I gather) the siege of Red Square as visualized by Enemy at the Gates.

Which is to say nothing of the ordinary gameplay, where the other great thing about Infinity Ward’s gamble shines.  Shooter design in the modern age means a two-gun limit, a single-minded approach to level design not unlike a funnel, the clear “implication” that hiding behind cover and firing off potshots is the only way to have fun, and the overwhelming difficulty presented by trigger-happy cover-abusing enemies.

Shooter design in the original Call of Duty, meanwhile, is a lot looser about the rules of combat conduct.  The two-gun limit still exists, but a pistol is automatically included on your person as a “sidearm”, thereby eliminating the debate between having a backup weapon and having the far more useful standard weapon.  Levels are less a funnel and more of a wide map with specific objective markers, thereby allowing for more variation in how you get from Point A to Point B.  You can, in fact, run into a room or field guns-ablazing and survive (though the presence of the lean button does suggest a more tactical approach).  Enemies still enjoy their cover, but they will pop out or charge depending on the situation.

It’s very much the time in which Call of Duty was released that determines much of its success.  We had not yet seen the bullet hellstorms of more modern shooters, the oversaturation of the market with pro-American recruitment vehicles and anti-Middle East propaganda.  It was a simpler time, when the only war people were really concerned with was the one that everyone agrees needed to be fought – be it for honour, or the economy, or for the preservation of millions of lives.

Now with all that said, it is by no means perfect.  Being an artifact of a more simple time, it gets points for not descending into the madness of current politics – but the tradeoff here is that the complexity of its themes is practically non-existent.  To put it into more relatable terms, the game doesn’t really fail in any manner.  It just lacks something deeper, something that appeals beyond surface level.

For instance, the idea of focusing on the more notable forces of the Allies is nice. The idea of focusing solely on their victories and the hind end of World War II, however? Not as effective as, say, using the guise of a first-person shooter to explore the failings of the Allied armies and compare them to the very enemy they fight tooth and nail.  Granted it was 2003 and such a high concept wouldn’t see daylight until Spec Ops: The Line shattered our reality, but courting the idea would have been an incredible shakeup of the traditional war epic.

Speaking of shakeups, I also wish the game’s visual palate had the bravado to pull one off.  This is not a condemnation of the Quake III engine as used here; everything may not have aged very well, but it runs at a smooth rate and captures your interest most of the time.  It is also not my way of disliking an older game’s look just because of its age.  It’s just that when you’ve played one colour-drained shooter, you’ve played them all.  The European setting, complete with authentic stone architecture and rustic forests, may have a lot to do with this but some creativity in this regard would have been nice.

Setting aside the complaints, there is enough to praise that I can safely answer my earlier question.  Yes, Call of Duty still matters and it needs to be experienced to truly understand what has been gained – and lost – with modern gaming.  What began as a simple deviation from Medal of Honor has become something almost damnable today, but the original’s good intentions and solid design are what protect it from passing into obscurity or being lumped in with its offspring.

Well done, Infinity Ward.  You truly proved that no one fights alone.

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