Back to the front.
Today, the phrase ‘Call of Duty’ denotes a subculture. Like Super Mario Bros. or Halo, the franchise’s phenomenon has exceeded the limits of its industry and become synonymous with a newer generation of young gamers. Someone says, ‘Call of Duty’, and you don’t think of the service and sacrifice the saying signifies; you think of freckled fifteen-year-olds in a multi-player mosh-pit massacre. But only a decade ago, before the monster that is Modern Warfare came to be, the series was grounded in a different sort of mentality. We’ll analyse the current craze of the latter C.o.D. era another day, but for now, let’s reflect on the battle’s beginnings.
By 2003, the WWII shooter had already been done to death. From your single-player Medal of Honor’s to your multi-player Battlefield 1942’s, the period-piece was in pieces, period. But the catalyst for the genre saturation was not a game, strangely enough, but a film: Saving Private Ryan. For the first time ever, warfare was visually exposed as a counter to a century of cinematic lies. War was no longer a romantic romp of John Wayne and his American ideals leading democracy to triumph over tyranny; it was seen for what it was: bloody, brutal, and tragic. Then, a tragedy for our own generation: 9/11. A new millenial order ushered by heartbreak was defined by a mentality of mourning the murdered. It was in this mentality of the 2000’s, guided by understanding and seething purpose, that the WWII shooter came to be.
Now where does Call of Duty come into all this sombre morbidity? Hold on to your Thompson, I’m getting there. Spielberg, a fan of video games since the early days of Pong, and, on the heels of his WWII epic, zealously focused with the subject, used his clout to create the Medal of Honor series in 1999, which would culminate in a 2002 sequel, Allied Assault, for the PC. Coincidentally, but not by chance, these games featured some of the first big-scale battles in a scripted story, many recreated from Ryan (the game even directly duplicated the Omaha Beach landing from the movie). To ultimately connect the dots here, a good number of the fellas who worked on Allied Assault would depart and band together as brothers to form the company that would be known as Infinity Ward. And the rest, as the cliché goes, is history…
Saving Captain Price
The one thing that Call of Duty got right that no other shooter had to that point was nailing the feeling of immersion, of putting the player in the boots on the battlefield.
So, now that we’re all up to speed, let’s talk about the game and why it was so revolutionary. The one thing that Call of Duty got right that no other shooter had to that point was nailing the feeling of immersion, of putting the player in the boots on the battlefield. The key was to, as much as possible, make the gamer assume the responsibility and mindset of a real soldier in combat, to make them feel that they were really a part of this terrible conflict and that they were driven to kill Nazis out of emotional and historical hindsight. Now, all that analysis isn’t very obvious when you’re playing the game, because you’re playing to have fun, but whether you were aware of it or not, every kill was guided by a voice in the back of your mind saying “This really happened all those years ago and this is the closest I can get to taking part in that momentous struggle”… and that’s what made Call of Duty great, that it made you feel like you were really a soldier in the Second World War. But how did it do that?
Well, for one thing, you weren’t a one-man army. The tradition of a solitary hero rectifying the Reich behind enemy lines, initiated by Wolfenstein 3D, had officially worn its welcome. What had begun with Allied Assault, putting the player side by side with comrades who would fight and die with you, became the focus of the experience. Sure, they weren’t entirely helpful… I mean it’s not like they were going to win the war for you, but they weren’t useless either, and if you were in a serious pinch, one of your pals may just come through for you and take out that son of a gun that had you suppressed. Ultimately, it’s the fact that they were there, sharing in the sacrifice, sharing in the shit, that made you feel less superhuman and more ordinary, more expendable. Keep in mind that unlike many other games, Call of Duty didn’t make character development a focus. The closest the game ever got to personal was in the journal entries alluding to the coming mission. Again, it didn’t matter. Whether you became best buddies with Sgt. Moody or learn about Captain Price’s past was irrelevant; the point was that you were all in this mess together, and strangely, just by existing in their own one-dimensional way, it was comforting to know that you weren’t alone.
The missions with big battles were free of composition, so as not to interfere with the rawness of combat
And then there was the thunderous sound, itself enough to make you believe you had stepped onto the European frontlines. A diverse and accurately represented array of weapons finished foes like they were fodder. Rifles recoiled, machine pistols peppered, and each felt powerful and precise. Officers would scream to get your ass out of dodge as a barrage of mortars homed in on your position, the rattling of tank tracks would loom dangerously in the distance, and the muffled disorientation of shellshock would contribute to the chaos. The voice-over wasn’t too shabby, either. Though the Russians were anglocised, the Germans all spoke their native tongue, the shouting of “Granate Eingehende” adding to the authenticity. Put simply, this was a loud game, frenzied and furious. But the rightfully-awarded musical score was just as critical to the auditory awesomeness of Call of Duty. The missions with big battles were free of composition, so as not to interfere with the rawness of combat, but for the spy-like recon missions in between, a terrific soundtrack of subtlety filled in for the intensity of ‘bang-bang-bang’. Put on a pair of headphones and you were good to go.
Infinity Ward’s atypical title’s structure was so strange it was almost unpatriotic. Remember, the WWII shooter is the descendant of Spielberg’s Private Ryan, which was a purely American film saluting the American dead (indeed, the opening and closing shots of the movie are of the American flag), so games like Medal of Honor only showed one perspective of the war. Call of Duty broke from formation and said, “What about the other guys?”, telling its story through three loosely individual campaigns from the eyes of the Americans, the Brits, and the Russians, a move that was not only fair, but smart. Letting you play as different flags varied the objectives, the settings, and the characters; the partition peaked the pace, preventing things from ever getting boring.
And, sure enough, the key was to keep things from ever getting boring. The developer knew what they had stumbled upon. Like Halo before it, Call of Duty slightly innovated on the FPS core gameplay (the ability to aim down the sight of your weapon as revolutionary as Halo’s shield system) but it also did something far more important: it foreshadowed the video game blockbuster. C.o.D. was the catalyst for the gradual shortening of the average game’s longevity. Take a second and think back. From adventure epics like Zelda to simple platformers like Mario, if a game took less than 15-20 hours to beat, it was considered short. I remember it taking weekends of renting from the local video store for me to finish Rayman 2: The Great Escape or Donkey Kong 64 (mind you, much of that had to do with finding out that the last person who had the games out had erased all my data from the cartridges… FFFF-UUUUUU…!).
So how did this fledgling franchise evade critical backlash? Because their game wasn’t just short; it was sweet. Linearity suddenly became justified via the scripted action sequences. In place of the freedom of an open realm to explore, the game became a cinematic roller-coaster. A medic would be lost in no-man’s land, a shell-shocked NPC, refusing to go over the top and help him, was programmed to bite a bullet, his superior would scream for your covering fire, and you’d unload on the incoming as the guy rushed into hell to prove that no man gets left behind. All of this was just one short sequence of hundreds, and even though the scenario was static – it would happen every time you played the game – it didn’t matter. As long as the moment was dramatic and movie-like, it accentuated the intensity. In sum, Infinity Ward set a precedent by discovering that as long as you left no room for filler, a ten-hour campaign could be as exciting and fulfilling as a twenty-hour campaign. That changed games forever.
You can hate Call of Duty as the Jaws of video games, the blockbuster that killed the platforming renaissance of unrestricted freedom in favour of manipulative thrills, the what-would-soon-to-become factory franchise that sees gaming as an economy, rather than an art, or you can love the classic as the game that would propose its own ideas about the medium and its message, and, for better and for worse, turn trademark for a transitioning industry. Were the game to rely solely on its contextual placement in the 9/11 niche, a grimmer time when Grand Theft Auto was exploring deeper and darker themes, it’d be just another footnote in the annals of banality; Call of Duty stands the test of time because it was revolutionary in the big-picture scheme of where games were heading: it told its own story, rather than have you direct your own. All of these quick-time events, 5-hour campaigns, and scripted sequences of today that have you along for the ride, opposed to in the driver seat… credit CoD. On the other hand, to no detriment, compared to the fictional ordeals in the Modern Warfare line of sequels, Infinity Ward’s first firefight was fact, and Call of Duty managed to immerse the gamer into the reality of World War II in a way that no other game had. And, oh yeah, the game is also a heck of a lot of fun. So, while that 9/11-era mentality of mourning the murdered has waned in a gaming age when kids whose balls haven’t even dropped wield their weapon (that’s not an innuendo) with a greater respect for the warfare than the duty, even the flaming fanboys can’t burn the importance of this definitive salute to soldiering and the shooter.
Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then watch our video retro reflection here.