I booted up Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare lastnight, for the first time since its release. I remember enjoying playing through the single-player campaign (I’ve never been much for online multiplayer) way back in 2007, and being staggered at some of the visuals, even with it running at lowest settings on my old Toshiba laptop. The reason I’m playing through it again is for inclusion in the published version of my PhD thesis.
Eight years later, the opening chapters of the game really hold up from a visual point of view. Yes, games have come a long way, but the sheer rollicking action of the training sections and cargo ship prologue mask some of the less crisp edges and other visual shortcomings.
Hilariously, though, the game is really bad. It tries to do so much in such a short span of time (rough play-through, from memory, was under ten hours?), and in so doing draws on every cliche of Anglo-American foreign policy for the last hundred years. This, however, makes it perfect for my thesis.
The first key element is the ‘othering’ of all races, nationalities, religions and genders. You’re safe if you’re white, American, Christian, and male. But even the British — one of whom the player controls for a significant part of the game — are heavily caricatured and stereotyped. The first words out of your superior’s mouth are ‘What kind of a name is Soap, eh? How’d a muppet like you pass selection?’
The antagonists of the game are… Arabs? Russians? Hell, throw in the North Koreans and the Chinese and everyone’s covered.
The primary antagonist is a fellow named Khaled al-Asad, who leads a separatist group in an unnamed pan-Middle Eastern country. Naturally, said country is rich in resources, hence the international interest. The player is introduced to al-Asad while the camera is situated inside the head of the President. As the President, you’re driven through the streets of an anonymous city, and every stereotype is there: people being shot, people shooting, people running, children playing soccer, a firing squad executing civilians, helicopters and jets flying overhead, wild dogs chasing random people. You arrive at a public space, where al-Asad is finishing a rallying speech to the separatists. He calmly wanders over, levels a gun at your face, and pulls the trigger.
The gross over-generalisation of these early parts of the game is deplorable, but you can’t deny the compelling spectacle. I certainly can’t deny I’d like to get back into the game right now.