A gung-ho kind of war
At the risk of sounding overly grand, this piece has been two months in the making. It began with the news that Medal of Honour: Warfighter was being readied for an October release. Time and time again I returned to the idea of addressing the news in a scathing write-up. A franchise lost to convention and rebooted in the same vein is a disappointment, no matter how you dress it up. But I held back on writing anything, and I’m glad I did, because yesterday it emerged that Call of Duty: Black Ops II is arriving in the same window – and the news produced a snide remark from one of EA’s own, Kevin O’Leary. Call of Duty is the Ali to EA’s Frazier. Guardiola to Mourinho. Nadal vs Federer. A rivalry that prompted the “global product manager” (I quote Gamespot, because I’m not sure what this job entails) to label Black Ops II “tired”.
Irony reigns. 2015. Inc, the team responsible for the best in the Medal of Honour series, Allied Assault, left to form Infinity Ward: yes, the team responsible for the birth of the Call of Duty series. In recent months Infinity Ward has fallen out with publisher Activision, seeing key members once again leaving for pastures new. But the fact remains that Call of Duty is EA’s nemesis: a franchise that sells consistently well year in year out. What I love about O’Leary’s comment is that he indirectly asserts his game, Medal of Honour: Warfighter, is fresh. Whether said in jest or not, it seems like a fatal mistake, because judging by early previews Warfighter is very much in the Call of Duty mould.
It was Guy Cocker’s Gamespot preview of Warfighter that really made me chuckle. Cocker begins the write-up with the sub-heading: “2010’s Medal of Honor reboot was a good shooter, but it didn’t set any new standards for the genre. After 18 months, can the sequel Warfighter fare any better?” Read between the lines and Cocker seems to be suggesting no. This lukewarm tone colours the article. Describing a scene in which soldiers rescue hostages, Cocker says “[the hostages were saved thanks to] the now-obligatory slow-motion breaching sequence allowing you to pick off the dazed terrorists.” It sounds very Call of Duty, doesn’t it?
Elsewhere, there’s talk of Warfighter being based on real-world events, thanks to input from Tier 1 soldiers. That’s all fine and well. We can all appreciate authenticity, right? But consider what the game will likely entail. Explosions! Shrapnel! Shootout after shootout. Soldiers screaming at one another to get behind cover. More explosions… more shootouts! All this, with little to no downtime in between fights. Why doesn’t EA take inspiration from recent military films like The Hurt Locker and Jarhead? War is not only about shooting dudes and fleeing ‘splosions, it’s also about intense disaffection and boredom, about the memories of home, and loved ones slipping from our grasp. There’s talk of Warfighter dealing with these themes, and I hope that’s the case, because both movies were informed by the events of real war and were as much about firing a gun as the anxiety of waiting for something to happen.
Of course I understand that no one wants to trudge through a desert for an hour without so much as a bullet whizzing past their ear. From the comfort of your sofa it’s more fun to plunge head-on into a battle, hammering the triggers and watching all fall before you. I like to be entertained as much as the next person. Still, I think we deserve more. Surely a developer needs to recognize that there’s space for a game that straddles the line between the big-budget thrills of Call of Duty and the slow progression of the original Operation Flashpoint? The genre is crying out for something with careful characterization and a band of brothers that you really care for.
To be clear: I’m not for one moment belittling the soldiers who fight these real-life wars. It must take intense bravery. It likely instills strong national pride. These are virtues. But as for the videogame that is set to translate these scenarios onto our screens, well, it all just seems a tad infantile. What’s worse is that EA is promoting their ties with the Tier 1 operatives to cash in on casual gamers who might like the way soldiers refer to planes as “birds”, and will take great joy in slaying Taliban soldiers. As an outsider looking in, the Medal of Honour series stands for national pride. And Warfighter is set to continue this trend. I only wish it did so with a touch less bonanza.
That’s not to say I’m looking forward to Black Ops II with relish. I’m tired of the way these games are the same every year, barring a new lick of paint, a different setting, and a few new toys to play with. Ironically though, in light of O’Leary’s comments, Black Ops II does seem to be trying to innovate, at least within the rigid parameters of its honed formula. There’s talk of branching storylines (I’ll believe it when I see it) and a story set in both the past and future. Oh, and real-time strategy too, though that’ll likely be passed over by the casual Call of Duty player.
We all know that singleplayer has become less of a priority in the past decade, when these games were in their prime. Perhaps if people wanted characterization and a strong narrative, developers would be forced to challenge the formulas they work to. But attention has switched to the world of online gaming and both games are hitching strong sales on this component. If the world of modern warfare is only about shooting dudes and stepping back from the clunk of a grenade, fine, just don’t call it authentic.
Warfighter might yet prove me wrong. I only hope it distances itself as far from Call of Duty as possible, in the name of true authenticity rather than slack jawed entertainment. After all, no one likes a half-baked pretender.