As the Modern Warfare PR juggernaut rolled into town a few months ago it suddenly seemed impossible to escape. Newspaper articles, new channels, blogs and websites all added to the media storm, and the pre-release coverage of the now infamous 'No Russian' level - where the player takes on the guise of a terrorist attacking a civilian airport - launched coverage of the game into the stratosphere.
But what impact has this had on our understanding of the military today - and on military history enthusiasts in general? Has the Modern Warfare series opened up the realms of military history to a wider audience? Or has it been detrimental, reinforcing the kind of stereotypes that Hollywood thrusts upon mainstream audiences? Or is all the buzz surrounding it disguising the fact that the game is no more than that, a slice of mindless entertainment?
The Call of Duty series, like it's traditional rival Medal of Honour, were rooted quite firmly in World War 2 for many, many years. I played a couple of the Medal of Honour games through from start to finish - and although I preferred that series to Call of Duty, I couldn't help but feel slightly uncomfortable with the subject matter. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to seem like a prude, or like one of these people who continously lambasts videogames for their violence. Grand Theft Auto, God of War, various incarnations of Zombie slayer Resident Evil...I have played them and enjoyed them. It is not the violence that I struggled with in Call of Duty and Medal of Honour - but having worked at Osprey for 4 years I have been lucky enough to meet a number of amazing men and women who were actually on the beaches of Normandy, or taking cover in a foxhole in the advance towards Germany - and I get a sinking sense that I should not be enjoying playing through situations that these people lived through.
Which is one of the reasons that I didn't pick up a copy of the first Modern Warfare game until this Christmas. Letting you play as a new SAS recruit and a US Ranger operating in an unnamed Middle Eastern country again made me uneasy - the former SAS troopers that I have met in the past have shrugged off their incredible achievements - and bravery with a sense of efficiency and quiet pride. They don't crow about their achievements. This game does, and does so in bucketloads. Your character seems elevated to an almost superhuman status. But what a ride it provides. Within days I had completed the single player campaign, and promptly went out to pick up a copy of the sequel. All the hype is well deserved. In terms of a gaming experience they are brilliant!
Both Modern Warfare games are supremely polished and deserve the praise they have received. Cinematic, action-packed, brilliantly scripted they are addictive playing, and the on-line multiplayer modes are adrenaline pumping, mindblowing and immensely fun. Although I kept on being annihilated by nine-year-olds who had racked up 100s of hours practice despite the age restrictions placed on the games...
Ostensibly both games have also exposed a whole new audience to the equipment and weaponry of a modern army. Hearing people chat away about MP5s, Javelins, Predator drones, Strikers and the immense AC-130 Spectre Gunship suggests that these terms, gleaned from the games are entering everyday knowledge. The array of weaponry is astounding, and reassuringly accurate. In particular I did enjoy finding an A-12 Shotgun and clearing a whole building with it's ridiculously high rate of fire. But as much as the weaponry looks accurate, how it is used remains pretty much fantastical. The fire-and-forget Javelin from time to time seems to be loaded up with four or five rounds. Grenades can seemingly be lobbed over buildings at will. AK-47s are alarmingly accurate, even at significant distances. The claymores that you set up around a map are stunningly clever and don't explode when you or a teammate walk into them, but go off as soon as an enemy gets in range. Get in close enough, and knife attacks can take out wave after wave of enemies - and in multiplayer, throwing knives have become the long distance instant kill weapon of choice for supremely talented players. And bizarrely you can wonder around with your finger pulling the trigger almost continuously and you never seem to run out of ammo - there is always plenty lying around for you to pick up.
Oh yes, and I'm pretty sure that if you are carrying a Heavy Machine gun, as well as an AK-47, a bunch of claymores, 5 frag greandes, 5 flash bangs, a knife, enough ammunition to stop a small army, night vision equipment, radio equipment, and presumably some food or water (definitely not enough re-hydration undertaken, particularly in the desert /city scenes) you probably wouldn't be able to run around at top speed like a mad man.
Some aspects of the game are a little cliched. Virtually all of the enemies that you face up against are armed with the ubiquitous AK-47 and RPG. In fact at times there seem to be more RPGs flying over your head than would ever be possible in real life. Even your enemies are dully predictable. Middle-eastern terrorist threat? Check. Crazy Russian leading a coup? Check. Russian invasion of the US in a Red-Dawnesque re-imagined Cold War going hot scenario? Check. Afghanistan Cave complex? Check. Some situations are obviously more believable than others. But the levels do descend into the ridiculous from time to time. Hurtling down a mountain on a snow mobile whilst picking off enemies with a hand gun? Dressing up in a full ghillie suit, and wandering through an abandoned Chernobyl to take a shot at an enemy from a mile away?
The in-game chatter has also been well researched and is packed with terminology used today. Although by the end of the game I was getting a little tired of being perpetually told to "check my corners" while doing room clearance. And the number of times I was told everyone else was "Oscar Mike" while I was taking cover behind the nearest available barrel/car/wall drove me a little mad. There are a few lovely little touches in the dialogue - little nods to popular culture, like the moment before you breach into a ship in the first game and a character pulls out a shotgun with the words "I like to keep this handy for close encounters" - a line lifted straight out of Aliens!
Ultimately, much of the Modern Warfare games is over the top, mostly unbelievable and somewhat inaccurate. Any yet somehow this has still got people talking about the military. How many video-game playing youngsters knew what a ghillie suit was before these games emerged? I would wager not that many. And that simply cannot be a bad thing. Inevitably that is a far as the interest will go for 90% of the people that pick up and play these games. But every single person whose interest is piqued by this game and goes out and picks up a couple of books because they are interested is a great success for the military-history community. This is taking military history to a new community, which is great.
A few years ago, in the wake of the release of the first Modern Warfare game, Osprey released a pair of Elite books about Special Forces Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are great books, and so interesting - but the response to them was so great, and so immediate that we were taken aback - and became some of our best ever selling titles, both of which have already had significant reprints. Call of Duty Modern Warfare undoubtedly played a role in this.
Next up for the Call of Duty series is rumoured to be a venture into the previously unexplored realms of the Vietnam War. EA have announced that they are dropping the stale WW2 fare in the next Medal of Honour, taking up a new modern angle and basing the game in Afghanistan. The Creative Assembly and Sega have just announced the imminent arrival of Napoleon: Total War. The epic, much postponed RTS Ruse by Ubisoft is lurking just out of sight.
Call of Duty has raised the bar for videogames dealing with the military - and although it has its flaws, if the current trend for well-researched, well-executed games continues, the whole military history community is set to benefit.
Oh yes, and if you play Call of Duty online and you ever happen to stumble across someone cowering in a corner wailing about how an AK-47 should not be that accurate over this sort of distance - come across and say hi. Its probably me trying to work out how to avoid the hail of gunfire sweeping over my head. But please play nice, I'm having enough problems already!