Warning! Heavy dose of Call of Duty 4 spoilers and general rambling to follow.
For those who are turned off by World War II franchises, there's a certain temptation to dismiss Call of Duty 4 as the same game spiced up with fancy weapons. And really, how can they be blamed for that? The Call of Duty series rose to fame under the worn out backdrop of Nazi-occupied Europe that we've seen dozens of times before. And in many ways, this is the Call of Duty of old: linear paths, scripted events and a handful of shifting perspectives. But the move to present times has also given Infinity Ward the creative legroom to explore the uncertainties of today's conflicts with an incredible campaign that manages to impress with its technical prowess, but stun you with its heartbraking portrayal of 'Modern Warfare'.
World War II has been such a popular setting in part because of how clearly defined everything is. The line between good guys and bad guys is stark and clear. You know who you're fighting, you know why you're fighting them and you know your ultimate goal is to defeat their army. Things aren't so clear in modern combat. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, America hasn't really had a definite enemy. Instead they're fighitng abstact concepts, like terrorism. When the enemy fights for a shifting set of ideas, not a country or an all-powerful leader, those lines and goals that were so clear in WWII are a lot more blurred. And when you don't necessarily know the enemy, achieving a tangible 'victory' becomes much more difficult.
This ambiguity is played out brilliantly in Call of Duty 4. The game keeps your emotions on a string, never afraid to yank you back down to earth when you think you've won. The most obvious example comes at the point when you've just completed a Black Hawk Down style rescue of a helicopter pilot. You're warned not to attempt this resuce because a nuclear bomb nearby may soon go off, but the crew does so anyway out of a commitment to brotherhood and loyalty. The heroic rescue is completed, but as your helicopter is making its escape, the bomb goes off and sends you tumbling back down to earth.
At this point, the perspective is changed dramatically. The players vision is blurry and movements are extremely slow. You turn around to see a dead pilot, then crawl through the hatch at the end of the helicopter. Outside the sky is blood-red and the wind is absolutely howling. With bodies strewn all about, it seems like you're the only one left alive. You're truly stuck in the shadown of a nuclear explosion. But you're still alive, so there's hope -- for a few moments. Just when you think you might be able to crawl to safety, your character dies. The reward you're given for loyalty and brotherhood is seeing the acronym 'KIA' flashed next to your name. In short, just when you think you've won, everything changes as the game twists and ravages your expectations with a devestating death sequence.
Another way the lines become more blurred is with the use of advanced technology. One very unique mission in the game has you flying in a C-130 Hercules aircraft miles above the ground. As the plane's gunner, you're given a top-down view of the battlefield in grainy, black-and-white night vision, and told to take out a string of enemies that appear as nothing more than small blips on your screen. What's striking about this level is just how removed from the battle you are. In contrast to previous fights where you can see your enemy's face, here it almost feels like you're character is playing a retro videogame, some sort of top-down shooter in the mold of Galaga. It's a testament to Infinity Ward's ability to immserse you in the overall experience that this feeling of playing a videogame is actually a second-hand one: you're playing a game of a real soldier playing a game.
On top of this, the radio chatter is alarmingly casual. Your commander doesn't bark out targets, he calmly points them out with the confidence of knowing that these targets don't stand a chance against the advanced weaponry at your disposal. You hear phrases like "Ooh, there's a kill" and "One running through the field--got 'em" spoken in an easy, monotone voice that contrasts heavily with the fact that you're actually killing dozens of people at a time. For many, this might be the most uncomfortable mission in the game. You could plainly see your enemies in the old WWII setting -- and since they're villainized Nazis, you don't feel as bad killing them -- but now you're taking out de-humanized blips in a stunningly casual way. Miles above the ground, how can you be so sure that these targets need to be eliminated? You don't, and that's what adds the extra moral conflict of modern battles.
Finally, there's the ending sequence. This is the very definition of a pyrrhic victory, one that's so devestating that it has you questioning the entire campaign as a whole. You've just saved the entire Eastern Coast of the United States from a devestating series of nuclear blasts by infiltrating the enemy base, emotions are riding high, and you've got to escape in a jeep with truckload after truckload of enemies trailing you. Just when you think you've made the escape, a bridge collapses and you hit a roadblock in the form of a massive wave of enemies. Your character is knocked to the ground, and from your distressed position you see your three closest buddies throughout entire campaign quickly, casually and mercilessly killed, as if they didn't matter at all.
Thankfully, just before your commander dies, he slides you a gun that lets you take out the game's final target, one that you've been searching for throughout the entire campaign. 'Objective Completed' flashes across the screen in bittersweet white text, inevitably leading you to wonder whether or not it was all worth it with all the losses you've suffered. Again, the game manages to take the rigidly defined concept of a traditional wartime victory and dillute it with moral uncertainties to the point where whether or not it counts as an actual victory is entirely open to interpretation.
There are so many more examples of how Call of Duty 4 embraces the uncertainties of post-WWII / post-Cold War battle, but I've already spoiled too much of the game for you. If you're tired of the World War II setting, you owe it to yourself to see Infinity Ward's new take on the series. For as rich and compelling as the history of WWII has been in modern re-tellings, Call of Duty 4 somehow manages to be just as compelling while branching out into an era that requires developers to take more chances.
Note: Absolutely none of the above should be taken as a position on current conflicts involving the American or British militaries, either for or against. It's simply an analysis of how Infinity Ward has been able to succesfully reflect the difficulty of modern warfare in its latest Call of Duty game. Thank you.