22 November 2014

So, Call of Duty, subtitled Advanced Warfare, has come out recently. And well, it’s about good Americans versus evil mercenaries, and it covers ripped-from-the-headlines issues like security and privacy. Because the advantage you have with PMCs is that you’re not offending anyone when you shoot at them, unlike when you do so with Russia or some middle eastern country. On the scale of cartoon evil, mercenaries are only one step above Nazis. And they’re at their evilest when they come to take our hard earned freedoms because humans can’t be trusted with that. Makes me wonder why they did not just pick Abstergo as the villain there. Oh, right, intellectual properties.

In short, it’s about as cynical as any other Call of Duty title since Modern Warfare 2. But at least, with MW2 and its sequel, you could squint your eyes and think it’s actually a parody. But the more recent games in the series really wants us to take them seriously.

The Battlefield series has similar problems since its eleventh title (called Battlefield 3 just to screw with your head): it ships with a poorly made single player campaign. Super Bunnyhop has already covered most of its problems in an excellent review. I suggest you check it out. As for Battlefield 4, I can’t personally say, since I didn’t try it, but judging from reviews, it seems like they didn’t learn anything.

Medal of Honor (the 2010 reboot) features an insultingly linear railroad with little to no context, although, in this case, if you want to know who you’re shooting at and why you’re doing it, you might as well just check the news because it’s a real life setting: the war in Afghanistan. No such luck with BF3’s campaign, however, which is about… bullshit, really. At least its multiplayer mode is good. Great, even. But that’s not what this article is about. No, this article is about how war isn’t cool.

The problem(s) with military shooters

Lack of proper context is an incredibly common problem with the plots of modern military shooters. Come to think of it, WW2 shooters also had the same issue, except they had it much easier because most people automatically assume that Nazis are evil, and as such you don’t need to justify anything. Just show the player a few swastikas and you’re good to go. In modern shooters, though, nobody takes the time to explain who you’re shooting at, and why they’re the enemy. They just give you a gun, and tell you to point it at some strangely nondescript characters (typically non-white, but that’s another issue entirely), and hope you won’t ask too many questions.

Most military themed shooters have the following issues:

  • They happen in clean and empty wastelands devoid of any civilians.
  • Friendly soldiers are invulnerable and cannot be harmed by your weapons.
  • Weapons do not cause visible wounds aside from some pink mist.
  • Everyone involved is completely immune to PTSD.

The end result is that, no matter how “realistic” these games claim to be, what they’re essentially doing is simulating a battle between unfeeling robots in an artificial environment. You, the player, is not exposed to the various ethical dilemnas that any real soldier will have to face. So, no matter how great the production values, you’re still playing with “cowboys vs indians”, with the exact same moral implications.

Why is this such a big deal?

I’m not saying every game needs to be realistic. However, if you claim to be realistic, like Battlefield does, then you also need to address the above points. If you don’t want to, then drop the pretense and admit you’re basically just doing G.I. Joe: Gritty Edition or something. I mean, Doom certainly never expected you to think it’s high brow. Maybe CoD was once, in Call of Duty 4, but since then it’s little more than dumb popcorn entertainment, like those Michael Bay films.

In short, you can’t have your cake and eat it.