Despite its obvious presence in the center of the main menu, and the fact that the game practically begs the player to try the single player mode before permitting entry to the multiplayer interface, I wouldn’t blame anyone for forgetting that the Call of Duty series is committed to its solo story campaign. Sometimes I forget this game mode exists, myself.
In fact, after rummaging through my video game library recently, I decided to engage in some ‘modern multiplayer warfare’ (Modern Warfare 3, that is), but once the game’s menu appeared, so did the word “Campaign.” The image of a generic soldier became highlighted in front of me, and I whimsically pressed “A.” I thought it might be fun to at least poke fun at or discuss the campaign in some meaningful way, but after about six hours of gameplay, this proved not to be the case. I reached the credits feeling exactly as I had when I put the disc in my Xbox tray – indifferent. But, for some reason, I played through the whole campaign without experiencing the sentiment of boredom or the realization that this game was as taxing as being forced to mow the backyard in the summer. I’d go so far as to say I actually enjoyed playing the solo campaign – shooting was genuinely fun, the environments and cover mechanics felt relatively organic, and the gameplay varied itself enough with stealth sections and superficial actions like carrying a wounded squad mate or wading through ponds to keep me engaged.
But no one who buys Call of Duty is interested in the single player aspect of the experience. Well, there are exceptions to this rule (I have heard of people selling the game after finishing the story, as though that were the entirety of the experience), but this is a laughable notion to anyone who is familiar with the series. Yet year after year, this aspect of the game pops back up to vie for your affection like a neglected middle child, and Activision will keep it in the game because supposedly this makes it appeal to a wider audience, thus increasing sales. But few people are going to buy Call of Duty for the single player campaign if it just sucks. And this is sad, because the gameplay is mostly fun – it’s the story that is in dire need of some touchups. So I’m generously offering my own steps to help relieve the single-player campaign of its idiocy. (Note: I’m going to discuss Call of Duty plots in the rest of this article, so if you haven’t played these games and have an allergy to spoilers, consider this your warning.)
1. Feed exposition smoothly: One of my greatest troubles with the series is that it’s just plain tough to follow. The games rely on transition sequences (the loading screens between missions) to deliver the majority of exposition. I can’t express how tiresome this feels. Key plot points are spat out carelessly at rates that just don’t allow me to process all the information. This could be due in part to the fact that Modern Warfare 3 is the only campaign that I have finished, and the story seems to depend largely on the player having experienced the entirety of the previous games’ campaigns. Rarely did I have a clear understanding of the “why” factor in any objective. Sometimes I caught details, like having to rescue the U.S. Vice President, but missed how he was captured, or why we knew where he was, or how we knew that a rescue attempt wouldn’t necessarily endanger his life any more than it already had been. This carried over into performing my tasks, as I was often told to do them without adequate information, which didn’t sit well with me after playing BioShock. (“Would you kindly?”)
Instead of alternating between almost zero exposition during play and tons of it during the loading sequences, Call of Duty should find a method for relaying this information slowly and revealing small portions of it as the game progresses. I realize this is a challenge for a fast-paced action game, but the current method is chaos incarnate, so either slow the pace intermittently to deliver the exposition, or see my next tip.
2.Reduce the scale: The sheer size of these plots have proven too unwieldy for the developers to manage. Military action plots are tricky because action story lines are aided by simple scenarios so the audience can just enjoy ‘the moment’ without being bogged down with details. However, military plots involve multiple complex organizations, like at least one government and any organization that’s large enough to antagonize a government. This doesn’t mean these plots are impossible – they’ve been repeatedly executed well in other media, but it hasn’t worked out for Call of Duty.
Obviously, if the exposition was planned better, this wouldn’t be a problem. But Modern Warfare creates a plot detailing World War III, literally, involving several major governments, and multiple extremist factions. And because the game desperately seeks the grandest scale possible, this opens the door for confusion and narrative-breaking plot holes: What is Makarov’s motivation? Why does a misunderstanding give Russia reason to invade the rest of the world? Who is commanding the Russian armed forces when the president is captured? These may be vaguely explained somewhere, but it’s still not clear. And this is all because the game is just too big – there’s too much going on and too many questions to sate an appetite for complete comprehension. So instead, details are hurled at the player during segues and the game generally moves too rapidly for players to contemplate the narrative.
I’ve never played Black Ops in single player, but the game promoted itself as an account that was stricken from the records of the Cold War – I like this concept. As much as I dislike promoting the Jack Bauer 24 mentality, Modern Warfare would be an excellent story about soldiers or spec ops that avert crisis without alerting civilians. It would be a story of troops who help stage a coup or assassinate a chemical weapons dealer or something in that vein. This is perfectly feasible and doesn’t place too much strain on the players’ suspension of disbelief.
3. Focus on a smaller cast: While reducing the scale, the Call of Duty devs should cut down on the number of playable characters – two pushes the limit. I know it’s exciting to write stories in which the player is convinced that the playable character could die at any moment, but this power of killing the player’s window to the world should be used sparingly, if at all. This threat was established with the helicopter crash death from the first Modern Warfare, and comes off more blasé than shocking now.
The constant character switching simply drives me insane. I never get a chance to know any of the characters in any situation when player perspective is heaved back and forth from one character to another. Each time I play a sequence involving one character, switch to another, and then switch back again, I’m forced to recall and reanalyze my prior interactions with the protagonist and how the narrative has progressed since I last inhabited his body. It’s a mess. And near the end, I missed the part where the game notified me who I was; I believed I was Frost for the majority of the mission until I heard Price call me Yuri (or at least I assume he was talking to me). This is such a baffling and unnecessary device, directly caused by an enormous plot that the writers can’t figure out how to work around.
Of course, fewer characters means more opportunities to develop those characters. Every single person in the games are dull, flat characters with no personality. Maybe if I knew any of these characters had a life with interests or thoughts that didn’t involve war, I would sincerely feel somber when Soap dies, or when Sandman and his crew are left in a diamond mine, or when Yuri is gunned down by Makarov. But because there’s nothing to these characters except war, I couldn’t get myself to feel for them. And this would’ve been nice, because death clearly affects these characters, despite their kill-or-be-killed lifestyle.
4. Cut the over-the-top action: Midway through the game, my character and his company chase terrorists through a subway tunnel in London; the train derails, causing it to skid for what feels like ten minutes. My character stands in the bed of a truck that flips sideways repeatedly before the character blacks out. Once he wakes up, he is clearly hurt, but is nevertheless hurried along by another soldier, and then is suddenly ok and can shoot normaly despite being in a horrendous accident. This was one of the most disruptive moments in the narrative. I chuckled to myself about the implausibility of this occurrence, but it wasn’t the last time this would happen.
This is just unnecessary. The train wreck didn’t intensify the sequence, and wasn’t truly necessary since all it did was eliminate most of the opposition and my squad; something that could’ve been done easily without all the craziness. If this is a supposedly realistic shooter which attempts to take itself seriously, these jarring unrealistic moments should just be cut. I doubt anyone would miss them much, anyway.
5. No more shock value: The shock value aspect of Modern Warfare has waded farther and farther in the deep end of gimmick territory. The first time Modern Warfare tried something crazy, it wound up being one of the most visceral and engaging moments in recent video game memory. I’m referring to the helicopter crash sequence, in which the player is allowed to stumble away afterward. You are given hope that being allowed this player authority means the character will survive, but inevitably, the character collapses and dies; it’s incredible. Since then, Modern Warfare 2 attempted a distasteful segment that allows the player to massacre innocent Russian civilians while controlling an undercover agent (and for some reason is not permitted to shoot Makarov on the spot). Finally, in Modern Warfare 3, the moment was an even more head-scratching exercise in revulsion that permits the player to control a father filming his family’s last moments before being killed by terrorists. This is a sign that either the developers are at best incapable of reigniting the spark of the crash scene, or at worst, don’t understand what made this segment so amazing. An artistic tampering with player authority in Modern Warfare is reduced to mere shock value in the latter two games.
And in these games, the damage is so awful: Washington D.C. is assaulted in Modern Warfare 2, and in the final entry in the series, New York is blown apart, as are Berlin, London, and Paris; the player even witnesses the Eiffel Tower topple to the ground. The destruction of New York and D.C. to Americans have become cliché action tropes that no longer inspire hopeless awe like when the movie Independence Day released. But again, this rampant destruction severs the contract between audience and creator to suspend disbelief. These moments become trite and unmoving since they don’t feel like reality anymore.
The remedy for all of this is simple – just create a gripping story. Don’t go over the top with shock value sequences, don’t employ unnecessarily convoluted plots that require the narrator to skip through the eyes of so many characters, and make a smaller, convincing world by feeding the players enough information throughout the story so that Call of Duty doesn’t need to reduce itself to base moments of visual awe. The game stands on what I believe is a solid foundation of gameplay, so it’s already got an advantage to attract player interest. But few people care at all about the single player mode, and no amount of bystander murder and monument destruction will change that. Creating a compelling story may be the change that gets people to talk about the campaign instead of dismissing it as a bland effort of going through the motions out of obligation to a wider audience.