I needed a gaming holiday. It's not that the world of RPGs has been unkind to me of late, exactly. My long-dormant PSP was recently coaxed from its lair with both Tactics Ogre and Persona 3: Portable confidently arriving on the scene, resplendent in their seductive packaging and brandishing statistical, turn-based treats. Dragon Age II, whilst not the defining moment in my ongoing romance with BioWare, proved that even on a bad day they could still string together a compelling 40 hour experience.
This feeling was not entirely alien to me, as my living room shelf will happily attest; the Fallouts and the Icewind Dales interspersed with a light sprinkling of FIFAs and WWE: Smackdown Vs Raws. I'm also no stranger to the FPS, but over the years I've always managed to elude the war-based flavouring, resisting its gung-ho charms and unfortunate press-baiting. For some perspective, I have friends who collect bullets, and own authentic military equipment. In their eyes, I have all the ruthless tactical combat potential of Noel Fielding in camouflage drainpipes.
I didn't want to embarrass myself any further in front of these guys by picking a bad war or something, so I went for the only franchise I'd seen advertised on a billboard that blocked out the sun. With a penchant for always starting at the beginning, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was my selection at the till, much to the operator's thinly-veiled surprise. As he kindly informed me that it was 'Bare next level', I felt a bit like Joe Cornish researching for Attack On The Block, and I escaped with my purchase closely pursued by a creeping sense of regret.
So there I was, fresh from my impressive début on the assault course. Rain poured down from an ashen sky as the freighter heaved amongst the crashing waves, the din of the rotor blades and thunder above us like an epic score to our bold mission. The raised voices of my fellow squad members were all but drowned out, and no time was wasted as we scrambled into position, the sprint to a nearby hatch thrice illuminated by flashes of lightning. Not one face showed traces of fear or apprehension during those split-seconds of clarity, and I hoped my own hadn't betrayed the high tension as we breached the innards of the ship.
“Check your sixes, Double-Dog!” I step into the dimly lit room, and – what? My sixes? I look over at the leader, and then down at my watch. Who's Double-Dog? In my momentary confusion, I'd fallen behind, and could now hear gunfire in the adjacent room. “Tango down.” Well, I could use a drink, but there was no time for refreshments, surely? I wasn't sure where everyone was at this point, and then I was told to 'Stay Frosty'. In this weather?
Despite the apparent handicap, I was able to finish the mission, and several thereafter. The problem I had with the experience is that it never made me feel particularly like I was in control at any given moment; I was just there to nod and point my cursor at the guys who looked slightly rougher than my guys. I hadn't expected my holiday analogy to end up being so accurate; this essentially felt like one of those weekend packages you can give as gifts – be a Formula 1 driver! Fly a helicopter! Shoot terrorists!
Of course, the game is designed this way, to be played exactly how the developers want you to with little room for deviation. You're planted at Point A, and asked to Reach Point B; the tunnel-vision level designs reflect this so much that I half expected to see parents queuing with their children on the outskirts of some of the war-torn cityscapes.
It is however, mildly refreshing to set aside common worries, such as missing out on the enchanted anal beads because I had insufficient charisma points to seduce a sentient tree, and just coast through a brief sequence of scripted events. I only came off the finely-tuned rails once due to some heavy-handed artificial difficulty about halfway through the campaign, causing me to dial the difficulty down to 'Metrosexual'.
Looking past the brisk and relatively challenge-free nature of the campaign (I have to assume that my pre-owned copy didn't come with the vaccine necessary to brave online play), the most positive thing I can say about Modern Warfare is that it gave me a different perspective on an aspect of life I'm not particularly accustomed to. It's easy to casually deride the 'War on Terror' every night at 6 on the news, but to get even a tiny glimpse of a modern soldier's potential mindset is a valuable opportunity, and to actually experience it is a unique, inherent strength of computer games.
So whilst I won't be hanging up my robe and wizard hat (Or taking them off), I'm a little more open to the potential of the franchise, and to an extent, the genre. I fully intend to sample the sequels in the not-too distant future, where based on the voice-acting in Modern Warfare I can only presume they've added a comedy English butler character who is hilariously impervious to harm. I'm also keeping an eye on the next offerings from both Activision and EA, although I suspect I'll draw significantly more entertainment from the ludicrous nature of the PR battle between the two.