This Is Just A Modern War Song

Let me take you back to the dim and distant past of January 2010. I’m in deepest darkest Dunstable, visiting my dear friend Curly (or Rich as he’s now known in respectable society) for his annual birthday bash. It’s rather late, and we have repaired to his luxury chalet for some refreshment and nibbles. Messrs Burke, TB and Manwich are in attendance, and they throw out the delightful suggestion that we play a newly released game by the name of ‘Modern Warfare 2’.

It turns out to be jolly good fun. Even though I am awful at it. As the evening draws to a close, I vow to keep up with my chums more often, and to this end I buy a shiny new Gold subscription to Xbox Live along with a brand new copy of Modern Warfare (the first one that is), fully intending to play with my pals online.

A year later my Gold subscription expires after I’ve managed to play online just three times, each for around half an hour. I work out that my failed attempt to join the ranks of the online gamers has cost me around £25 per hour in subscription fees. I decline to renew my subscription.

Cut to January 2012. I’m in Dunstable again, and my chums are excitedly talking about the delights of Modern Warfare 3. I shamefully admit that I still haven’t played Modern Warfare 1, despite having purchased it two years ago. They look at me with a mixture of confusion and pity. I vow to regain their trust and respect by at least making an effort to play one Modern Warfare game this decade.

But I have to say, playing Modern Warfare solo is a world away from the ribald joshing and playful oneupmanship of that birthday night two years ago. In place of the friendly, liquor-fuelled rivalry of the living room is the cold, hard, horror of war beamed directly from your telly box right into your pleading eyes.

I’ve played a fair few first person shooters, but my tastes tend to veer towards the sci-fi/supernatural (BioShock, Halo, Gears of War, FEAR 2, etc.), so playing a game whose main intention is to create a realistic representation of conflict was quite a shock. One of the early levels in the game places you in the streets of an unnamed Middle Eastern capital as part of an American invasion force, and the designers go to great lengths to recreate the confusion and chaos of warfare. Bullets zip past you from all directions, and mostly you can’t tell where they’re coming from, so you’re spinning round in a panic trying to find cover, and all the while your comrades are shouting and screaming and barking orders and one by one they’re dropping like flies and it feels like there’s nothing you can do to save them and then a grenade appears out of nowhere and BAM you’re dead. It’s as convincing a portrayal of an actual firefight as I’ve seen, and it’s eerily reminiscent of footage from ’embedded’ reporters in actual war zones. But is it fun? Well, not really. Harrowing, perhaps. Draining, yes. Fun? No.

I guess the point is, whenever I’ve been watching footage from war zones on the 9 o’clock news, I’ve never, ever thought to myself, “Oooh, that looks like a laugh, I wouldn’t mind a go at that.” So I really rather wonder why you’d want to recreate that great war feeling in your own living room.

I realise I might be in the minority here (14 million Modern Warfare owners can’t be wrong).

About halfway through the game I was just about ready to jack it in: I was pretty much fed up to the back teeth of gunning down wave after wave of brown-skinned ‘bad guys’ before being blown to bits by an unseen grenade. Even worse, there seemed very little strategy to all the running and gunning – carefully picking off enemies from behind cover was a surefire way to meet swift grenade death, yet, against all reason, running straight at the enemy with guns blazing and grenades flying proved to be a surprisingly effective strategy. I was beginning to doubt the game’s ‘realistic’ credentials.

Then, just past the halfway point, the designers suddenly remembered they were meant to be making an enjoyable computer game rather than a harrowing war documentary and decided to include levels that are fun instead of drawn out stamina tests. It begins with ‘All Ghillied Up’.

Suddenly you’re transported from the modern-day Middle East to the Ukraine circa 1996, deep within the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. The visualisation of the deserted, radiation-ridden city of Pripyat is thoroughly absorbing, and the level simply drips with atmosphere – you really feel like you’re stepping into long-abandoned, forbidden territory. In a refreshing change of pace, the focus switches to carefully making your way past enemy guards rather than melting off the faces off insurgents with sustained machine gun fire, and the new approach makes for some heart-stopping moments. There was a particularly excellent scene in which you’re making your way across a field of long grass when suddenly an armoured column hoves into view. You drop to the ground and pray that your ghilly suit keeps you hidden from the enemy, but at the same time you need to shuffle out of the way of the incoming tanks. You know that any sudden movement will alert the troops, so you’re forced to crawl away painstakingly slowly as a 40-tonne tank bears down on you with alarming speed. Tense stuff. In fact, this level is so damn good that Now Gamer voted it number 20 in their 50 Greatest Gaming Moments.

The remaining levels of the game don’t quite hit the high point of ‘All Ghillied Up’, but they’re generally far more inventive and interesting than the first half of the game: the level in which you infiltrate a bunker against a tight time limit is particularly good, as is the final escape mission. So it’s safe to say that the single-player game goes some way to redeeming itself by the denouement – what could have been a tasteless, repetitive shooter ends up displaying some surprising inventiveness and a flair for dramatization.

However, I suppose I’m missing the point here.

The main reason that those 14 million or so gamers bought Modern Warfare wasn’t to sit there playing and replaying the single-player game, it was to shoot the crap out of their friends online, and this is where I just don’t get the appeal. I loved playing Modern Warfare 2 against Curly et al. in that epic late-night birthday gaming session, but when it comes to swapping bullets with randoms over t’interweb I’m just not interested. My limited online multiplayer experiences mostly consisted of me dying repeatedly to the mocking cries of people I’d never met, which, frankly, wasn’t fun in the slightest. Obviously, with a huge amount of patience and practice, it could eventually be me doing the killing rather than the dying, but the thought of the many, many hours I’d have to put into the game to reach that kind of level just puts me off completely.

The whole experience has really brought it home to me that I’m essentially a story gamer: I play games to see what happens next, and once I’ve finished a game once I hardly ever go back to it. I’m still partial to the odd local multiplayer session when circumstances allow, but these occasions are extremely rare nowadays, and I’ve realised that the thing I enjoy the most about gaming is being able to lose myself within an entirely new world. Which I suppose is why a game based around the horrors of real-life combat didn’t really click with me.

I guess in some ways I’m missing out on all the online fun – but on the other hand, I’m looking forward to the next drunken deathmatch in Dunstable.

PS. The title is a pun on ‘This Is Just A Modern Rock Song’ by Belle & Sebastian. I know, I’m referencing Belle & Sebastian songs, I really shouldn’t be playing these nasty war games. Anyway, here’s the song if you want to have a listen: