Blog: CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 3 wraps up the story that the first Modern Warfare set in motion, but what story was there in the first place? Joannes Truyens probes the game’s singleplayer experience, explaining why it struggled to tell a strong story.
It’s often said that singleplayer games can no longer be considered profitable if there isn’t some sort of multiplayer mode tacked on. The success of games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim proves that this is a skewed viewpoint, but when looking at the Call of Duty and, in particular, the Modern Warfare games, the opposite seems to be the case.
They continue to be most popular in the multiplayer arena, and their bombastic singleplayer campaigns receive more attention from the gaming press (for review) and the press at large (for controversy). But it’s there for anyone to enjoy, so let’s take a look.
John Walker reviewed the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 singleplayer campaign for Rock, Paper, Shotgun and called it “a bloodthirsty, bombastic and clumsy un-game, with a core of nastiness”. This then prompted Kill Screen editor Brendan Keogh to pick up on the label “un-game” and turn it around to call Walker an “un-player” who approached an inherently linear game wrongly by expecting freedom where there was none. Walker quickly offered a retort and said that he never once expected freedom but criticised the game for hamstringing even basic linear progression with inconsistencies therein.
Their viewpoints clash over the inherent nature of Modern Warfare 3 as a game. Keogh expresses his enjoyment of the exhilarating thrill ride it offers, and Walker laments this thrill ride because it is just that: a ride that comes at the player’s expense (you might say he derides it, ho ho ho). In my eyes, this is a moot point. Linearity has always been at the core of the Call of Duty games, and Modern Warfare 3 just drops the ball at times by not being clear about it.
I always pay close attention to stories in games, even when they’re stories that provide no more than an excuse or context for my actions in the game. This is definitely the case for Modern Warfare 3, but it’s a mistake to view the series’ stories on their own strengths. When scrutinised, they immediately fall apart as a Jenga tower of glaring plot holes and inconsistencies. And when viewed in relation to the game, this brings us to the topic of ‘ludonarratives’.
A ludonarrative is “the storytelling aspects of a game that are controlled by the gamer”. But this is broken when your actions are directly at odds with the actual story of the game as it’s conveyed by the designers. Story-wise, Modern Warfare 3 tries to make a point about the nature of wars and the men that fight them (though the many quotes that are shown upon player death do a better job of that). But the game itself says that wars are won by those who can wipe the strawberry jam from their eyes the fastest.
As such, story and game are in conflict because the story takes itself overly seriously while the mechanics of play are anything but. The Modern Warfare games are the more egregious of the Call of Duties. Characters grunt and spit their lines through clenched teeth while utter chaos and mayhem erupts around them. But then it starts raining helicopters or you ollie a zodiac over a sinking aircraft carrier, and whatever immersion was there is lost completely. Allow yourself one or just a few such sequences so they stand out, don’t start with one and then keep trying to outdo it. As Walker says, “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!!!”
Compare this to the likes of Portal and the above-mentioned Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Portal embraced its ludicrous premise with an equally ludicrous story that didn’t bother to explain the science behind the portal gun with anything more than exactly that: science. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was conceived and built from the ground up with the single, unifying theme of transhumanism underpinning both story and game, thus binding them together through augmentations and the idea of a cyber-Renaissance.
I wouldn’t lump those two games in the same category as Modern Warfare 3, but the overarching challenge of aligning story and game applies nonetheless.
Coming back to Michael Bay, I’ve often likened the Call of Duty games (at least from the first Modern Warfare onwards) to his movies. Both are juggernaut blockbusters that keep their audiences occupied with explosions, explosions and lens flares to hide their shallow and vacuous natures.
But Bay is well aware of the ridiculousness of the material he’s dealing with, and at least he isn’t kidding himself. This is evidenced alone by the appearance of the already ridiculous Ken Jeong as a character called Deep Wang in the third Transformers movie. We, instead, get Captain Price whinging without a shred of irony that “we go forward like a breath exhaled from the Earth”. Lighten up, man. You’re not a soldier. You’re an action hero.
Of course, judged purely as a game, Modern Warfare 3 is still a spectacular and impressive experience, with a multiplayer experience that makes up for any singleplayer shortcomings. Have a read of our Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 review!