I just spent the past two weeks going through all of the Modern Warfare games in preparations for another project that I’m working on it was a struggle. The games aren’t particularly long, consisting of maybe 4 – 6 hours for the campaign, nor were the games particularly difficult, since I set it to novice difficulty just to get through the main plot points of the game. The struggle was stepping back into technology that was still infantile when comparing AAA development from a decade ago to today’s technology. The contrast to how Call of Duty creates a voice for itself through Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare franchise from its first inception to its last makes it hard to piece the games as a trilogy, in everything but name and characters. It makes it hard to go home to your roots.
The problem with calling it a trilogy is that there is normally some coherence between the games. Either a coherence in story, people, setting, tone; but as you play through the games, the story is consistent, albeit sparsely given; the people generally there; the setting somewhat there; but the tone is all over the place.
The story revolves around a Russian nationalist Zakhaev and his protégé Makarov starting World War 3 where a Russian nuke in Afghanastan and an American-blamed Slaughter in a Russian Airport light the fuses from the two superpowers.
The story’s point of view shifts throughout the game, making it hard to figure out who’s story are these games actually telling. Is it Captain Price’s story, because it was his mission to assassinate Zakhaev in his earlier years before the Captain title was bestowed? Is it Soap MacTavish’s story, the new recruit to Price’s squad in Modern Warfare and the playable character through much of the franchise?
You play as plenty of other soldiers in the various factions of national security in the game. Delta Force, Marines, Presidential Security, under cover terrorist.All of these short stories, in the eyes of someone who has to live through them feel inconsequential. You are rarely given details to the story at large and what you do in these side stories has very little impact to them. At their best, the player is given a set-piece every so often to showcase some excitement, heroism or horror that war brings, but without the emotional attachment to the people the emotional engagement is speaking to deaf ears.
It’s the disjointedness within and between the games that makes it hard to even lump the games together. As the series developed its voice, it segregated itself from its past. When you go back and play Modern Warfare, the tone is 90s B-rated action movie, the Xbox360 technology graphics is sparse and the modernity is nowhere to be found.
(jump to 6:45 for the offputting)
The animations are janky, the vocal are forced and that orchestra is completely out of place that should go back to the lost and found so Twister or Poseidon Adventures can come pick it up. Even the rollercoaster of excitement that you’ve come to expect from Call of Duty has surpassed what Modern Warfare could muster up. Call it developmental evolution or a learning experience, but the militaristic set-pieces in the later games make the previous feel utterly bland.
For some reason, I’d still put Modern Warfare 2 as the biggest leap in evolution through the franchise and with possibly the best kinds of set pieces. They have context, they have meaning and they development an understanding from the player in the dangers and repercussions that bringing the fight to your backdoor could cause. Setting off the nuke to cause an EMP to halt the war in the DC battlegrounds for a time, fighting to reclaim the White House, having to take cover from ground forces in anytown USA.
Call it a form of nationalism or just national-perspective, but for the market that Call of Duty is appealing to, having settings and connections closer to home instead of some setting thousands of miles away gets you to be a bit more thoughtful when considering the horrors of war. The connections are already drilled into us through grade school, you just needed to pull at them a bit and give us a reason to feel connected.
And these connections are just so few and far between in Modern Warfare because for the most part, they aren’t developed that much. You play as too many people in too many settings for too short a time. Each level lasts around 15-20 minutes, not a lot of time to focus on the environment and take in the destruction that’s happening around you. You’re too focused on the next objective, moving forward and not taking a bullet in the face to even try to reflect on what you’ve done up until then.
The series has learned to keep a main character in Ghost where you play as him for 90% of the game, so at least you can start developing connections that will last in the games to come. But because development, whether it’s gameplay or character building or story, is a learning process it organically obsoletes its past, especially when the voice that you develop isn’t consistent throughout. It’s just going to get harder and more of struggle to go back, making those early voices forgotten.