During its first 24 hours on sale last week, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 sold 6.4 million copies and earned more than $400 million in revenue. The first-person shooter became not just the most successful video game launch ever, but possibly the biggest release of any entertainment product in any medium. This wasn’t much of a surprise; previous games in the series, including last year’s Black Ops and 2009’s Modern Warfare 2, also set records.
For thoughtful gamers, Call of Duty’s domination of the pop-culture charts isn’t necessarily welcome. As Tom Bissell argued in Slate last year, the series—in which you play various covert-ops soldiers trying to save the world from various forms of annihilation—is, narratively, as stupid as any big-budget action movie you’ve ever seen. The Modern Warfare plot has long been riddled with holes, and this third release, which is written by the screenwriter (and Scientology scourge) Paul Haggis, only exacerbates them. If you’re the sort of gamer who cares for a coherent storyline, for believable characters, and for some indication that the game makers want you to engage emotionally with the worlds they’ve created, this series isn’t for you.
I am not that sort of gamer. I don’t play games often, and when I do, I don’t expect as much from them as I expect from the best books or films or music. I’ll concede that this attitude is unfair to the medium; gamers like Bissell demand more from games precisely because they’ve had transcendent experiences while playing. But I rarely feel that way about games, even the best games. When I confessed that I skipped the cutscenes in Red Dead Redemption—a game I otherwise loved—readers accused me of playing it wrong. But I found the cutscenes hokey and droning. I don’t apologize for not caring enough to sit through them.
Modern Warfare 3 fails as a story, and even its gameplay is formally uninteresting. But these apparent shortcomings are part of its appeal. The Modern Warfare series, and MW3 in particular, satisfies three important criteria that more creatively ambitious games can’t often achieve: It’s easy to learn how to play; its hyperrealism is exciting to behold (this is a game in which the Eiffel Tower gets destroyed); and it’s physically enjoyable—in its best moments, MW3 produces the sort of adrenaline rush that you feel in action movies. Are these shallow virtues? Sure. But what’s wrong with that?
Although there are a few sequences in which you mount a chopper or a predator drone, playing MW3 mainly involves doing one thing over and over and over again: You run, find cover, and shoot bad guys. The game designers haven’t created many puzzles; you don’t have to find your way to the next checkpoint (you always move forward), your enemies are always the same (they don’t vary in strength or weapons) and they don’t even do things that a real enemy would do, like hide in wait. As if this weren’t enough help, the game also offers a target-assist feature that locks your aim onto a nearby enemy (you can turn off this feature, but I found that makes the game impossible).
As the game writer Simon Ferrari points out, the Call of Duty series once made up for all these gimmes with a game-design rule known as “infinite spawn.” This meant that in a given scene, the bad guys would keep coming at you until you crossed a certain (invisible) geographic threshold; if you just stayed put behind cover and shot everyone you saw, you would make no progress. But players hated infinite spawn, and it was largely absent in MW2 and Black Ops. There are a couple places in MW3 that feature endless enemies, but for the most part, the bad guys here are finite.
It’s obvious, then, why the series has such broad appeal. It takes just a few seconds to learn how to play; if you’re coordinated enough to walk and chew gum at the same time, you’re coordinated enough to play Call of Duty. That’s also why MW3 is really only enjoyable when you increase its default difficulty level. (I play on Hardened mode, which is second hardest, though Ferrari says that Call of Duty only comes alive at its hardest level. But I’m too chicken to try that.)
When you do play MW3 on a high difficulty level, it becomes thoroughly absorbing. The thrill isn’t intellectual or emotional, but physical. Getting used to moving through the game feels like learning to play a new sport—as your fingers, eyes, brain, and heartbeat adjust to the game’s choreography, you become enveloped by its inescapable velocity. MW3 just doesn’t stop—the game doesn’t pause for character-developing cutscenes and there are no suspense-building stretches without enemies. It just keeps pushing you to the next platoon of bad guys, and there are always more around the corner.
Sure, I’d love if MW3 offered something more than these cheap thrills. But here, again, is why it’s perfect for infrequent gamers. It took me about eight hours to finish the game, and I don’t think I’ll be going back for much more. (A lot of MW3’s fans will spend much of their time in its multiplayer arenas, but these aren’t for me; my function, in multiplayer games, is to play the sitting duck.) Eight hours of cheap thrills once a year? I waste more time watching reality TV. MW3 is nothing to feel guilty about.
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