This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (kind of).
Prologue: Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash Edit
My latest book in the Jacques McKeown saga, Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash, is available now from audible.com! As an audiobook. Obviously. That's kind of their whole thing.
It was nice to see Call of Duty making the important first step of realizing it had a problem; I mean, I could (and indeed, did) point this out around the time they were hiring Kit Harington to play a space terrorist from Mars. No offense, Kit Harington; I'm sure you're a perfectly decent fellow. It's just that your presence often seems to be an omen of ill fortune. You're like a banshee, but with mouth-breathing instead of shrieking.
So, Call of Duty put on its thinking cap and went, "There's got to be some way we can get back to the times where people like us and give us lots of money," and that's when they realized the solution was staring them in the face. "Of course! Redo Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but different, and then title it Call of Duty: Modern Warfare." Wow, that is different; you took an entire numeral out of the original title. Better slow down your revolutionary zeal before you start decapitating French monarchs, Activision!
"No, but really, we're updating Modern Warfare to more reflect the shape of international conflicts today, rather than how it was in 2007!" Oh, okay. So, the plot will mainly be about burly, professional American soldiers getting pulled out of the Middle East because a dictator rang up the president and the president didn't want to look lame in front of the cool kids? "No, of course it bloody won't. It'll be Middle Eastern terrorists and evil Russians, again, except with a new mealy-mouthed, Ubisoft-esque aversion to taking political stances, so characters will occasionally look to camera and go, 'Boy, it's a shame how all these unflinchingly Saturday-morning-cartoon-villainous Russians are reflecting badly on all those nice non-Skeletor-like Russians, none of whom we are showing you but do assuredly exist!'"
Don't be fooled; this whole exercise is just an attempt at a second dip in the trough, marginally more sophisticated than the last attempt, the re-release of Call of Duty 4 but trussed up with micropayments and dangled from the ceiling like a party gimp. All talk of updating the franchise and bringing it to new heights was bold-faced porky pies, because Activision know that the true audience for this game doesn't actually want innovation; they want the scene that happens at the end of the campaign where Captain Price, the Amazing Human Weetabix, literally reads off a list of named characters from previous Modern Warfare games then winks to camera, as if to say, "You may now soil yourselves in excitement." As for the gameplay, pick up the gun and shooty-shooty, constant chaos, spunkgargleweewee, "Ooh, why won't those meddling politicians let us murder foreigners as we see fit?", wanky-wanky, spy on your neighbors... Patriot Act... racism... Have they gone yet? Have the Call of Duty fans heard enough and fucked off to buy it in droves yet?
Right, serious question for the rest of you: Why are you here? Why are any of us here? Did you really expect to hear something interesting about the new fucking Call of Duty?! It's like going to a baseball game and saying, "Yeah, all the hitting balls and running around the diamond is kind of boring, but maybe they'll do something different with it this time!" I'm sick of talking about it! But now that you are here, expecting your Modern Warfare review, let's talk about Disco Elysium instead. That's right, stealth indie review! You just got lured into a shadow by a thrown object and contextual-button neck-snapped, motherfucker! You, the people watching swear-y reviews about Call of Duty, are exactly the kind of people who need to hear about games like this, so listen up.
In contrast to what you might think Disco Elysium is from the title-- "And what would that be, Yahtz?" (…) Well, anyway, it's an isometric RPG in the Planescape: Torment sort of mold about a disheveled detective in an alternative dystopian world who's been sent to investigate a murder, but the murder investigation isn't the plot so much as the quiet, fastidious housemate of the plot that stays in its room most of the time and sits in the corner reading its phone during parties. Solving the murder is just a thing on your to-do list, given no more emphasis than your intention to find a cigarette or scratch your arse.
It's actually a story about a man who burned out, drank himself into oblivion, and must now rebuild his entire identity from scratch. You don't even know about the investigation at first; you don't find out your fucking name for the first couple of days. You start off in a trashed hotel room with no memory, having to pass skill checks to look at yourself in the mirror and get your tie down from a ceiling fan. So in brief, it's Planescape: Torment meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And when I say skill checks, I don't mean rolling for strength or lockpicking - Where the fuck do you think you are, Gimli, son of Glóin? - instead, you put points into rhetoric, conceptualization, savoir faire, and various other aspects of personality, all of which have their own distinct voice in your head, ensuring that the main character has as much dialogue with himself as he does with other characters, and two times shitloads is a lot of shitloads, buddy.
Yes, I should stress that if you're scared off by too much reading, then you'd better move along and get back to shooting scary foreigners, because Disco Elysium is wordier than an Ayn Rand monologue in a dumpster full of refrigerator poetry kits, which is normally something that turns me off, and my eyes were glazing over as I skimmed through the fourteenth political debate with a passing milkman. But this might've been my fault for trying to see every dialogue for completeness's sake; Disco Elysium is a game that requires a shift in attitude.
My usual instinct is to focus squarely on the main goal, because I've got deadlines to meet and puerile euphemisms to concoct, but this is a game for meandering and letting the pieces fall as they may. No following icons on minimaps here; now it's all "Check out the building behind the crime scene", and there's, like, five buildings that that could mean, so all you can do is bumble around. Sure, you could ask the suspects direct questions about the murder and listen to them recite their carefully-rehearsed statements, but it's more fun to ask them how they know that physical reality exists, or what it is that makes the stars turn on at night, and watch them get completely thrown for a loop. So, I eventually got into the spirit of things, spending my evenings drinking methylated spirits and arguing with road signs (in the game, I mean) and found myself getting quite absorbed. It's a densely, fiercely intelligently-written game, but the humor and weird tangents make it fascinatingly accessible.
I won't call it my game of the year. There's a lot that niggles me: the isometric world is very confusingly laid out and only becomes more of a slog to navigate as it expands; the way different clothing items affect your stats drags me back down to Video Game Land, when I find I can pause the conversation when I see a skill check coming up, put on a Hawaiian shirt, Wellington boots, and a coolie hat and maximize my stat bonus. But these niggles are pointless, because Disco Elysium is a bona fide work of art that elevates the medium of video games. No, it's not for everyone, but making games as broad as possible has long been the major part of the fucking problem; the reason why following mainstream releases is like watching a sausage-making machine filling condoms with glue! Speaking of which, better get back on topic in case any Call of Duty fans decided to skip to the end: ooh, pick up that grenade, ratatat ratatat, strawberry jam on the glasses, Bay of Pigs, Iran-Contra, 70% on Metacritic, etc., etc., stick it up your fucking bum, Activision!
- A blank slate of a man: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Is it me or are Captain Price's eyes weirdly close together now? He looks like two black eyed peas on a hairbrush
- Sorry I didn't do the dishes darling but I botched my skill check