About 24 hours ago, I started playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 online in the middle of the Willamette Week office. I have stopped for food, bathroom breaks and occasional unescapable professional obligations since then, but mostly I’ve just been playing Modern Warfare. I have killed 1,013 people. I have died 1,247 times. I have ended 71 lives by shooting my enemies right in their stupid faces.
I know these things because Activision’s just-released game keeps track of every inane statistic possible. In fact, there are so many numbers that the game’s developers built an entirely separate Web app just to keep track of them. For $50 a year, it will pile even more obscure numbers on top of the already ridiculous numbers. By the game’s own calculations (more numbers!), it would take me about 10 work weeks of game time to jump through all of MW3’s hoops.
In short, Modern Warfare 3 wants my life. I gave it 24 hours.
I’ve done this sort of thing before. I was 13 years old the first time I ever stayed up all night for a game. A friend and I had rented Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis, and we were dumbfounded. As I walked home the next morning, half-awake, the Casino stage’s 16-bit theme song was churned in my head and I could still see checkerboard patterns spinning out of control in every direction. I had played the game so intensely and for so long that I internalized Sonic. Sonic the Hedgehog changed the way I looked at the world—just a little.
Though my pacifist leanings make it hard to reconcile, I’ve also sunk a fair amount of time into the Call of Duty franchise. Modern Warfare 3’s predecessor, released in 2009, was a particularly vapid time suck. Its fantasy statistics, combined with endlessly customizable variations of guns and special abilities, actually didn’t do much for me. The game’s ingenious level design and smooth animations pulled me in. MW2 was like a really violent ballet—all odd angles and strangely graceful movements, pulling together then pushing apart and retaining an incredible balance throughout. The controls and customization worked in tandem, allowing players to bring a great deal of individual style to the table—something previous shooting games hadn’t generally been sophisticated enough to offer. MW2 had a puzzle game’s mind and a war game’s body. It ruined a good number of my weekends, keeping me up until sunrise.
This week’s 24-hour video-game bender hasn’t led me to internalize Modern Warfare 3 the way I did Sonic. That’s probably a good thing. I’d rather not be tormented by explosions, aerial drones and sneaky knife attacks on the bus ride home. Besides that, there’s just nothing groundbreaking here: While it does expand on its predecessor in a number of subtle ways, I couldn’t help but feel like I was playing a very well-made expansion of the 2009 title. The graphics aren’t noticeably improved. The levels are as smart as ever but break no new ground. The actual game play has not significantly changed. The Call of Duty franchise knows what it does best, and, shit, it’s just going to keep doing that. There are, of course, a number of new gadgets (the drone helicopter being the most fun; a pop-up land mine called “Bouncing Betty” having the most troubling real-world implications), but you’ll find fewer major structural shifts in the game’s online component after the three-year hiatus than you would from one season of a sports game to the next.
Did I forget to mention the story? Oh, I’m sorry. Well, the story is irrelevant. The fact that the game’s battles take place on Wall Street and in London’s Tube, among other settings—a crazed terrorist having attacked various postcard-perfect cities and baited Russia into war against the U.S.—will engage the average player’s brain only for a handful of hours. The multi-player game’s job is to pummel those single-player levels into organized submission and strip them of any meaningful context. In the overwhelmingly popular straight-up death-match mode, players are simply dropped into war-torn landscape, assigned a team at random (you might be the “African militia,” for example, and I might be the Russians), and asked to shoot the shit out of each other. Over and over and over again. For at least 10 working weeks.
The shooting eventually gets old. It’s going to get old quickly this time around, and not just because MW3 avoids side-steps innovation in favor of playing it safe. See, for a title that brings millions of diverse players (with headsets) from all over the world together every day, Modern Warfare 3 is oddly lonely. Where Electronic Arts’ graphically inferior Battlefield 3 title actively encourages teamwork, Modern Warfare only allows for it. And it turns out gamers can’t be depended on to work together—or even speak with one another, save for blurting “fuck,” “bullshit” or “faggot”—without a lot of encouragement.
Maybe I’m a fool to expect that a game about something as abhorrent as war should encourage any sort of community. But in all my attempts to talk to MW3 players, I couldn’t even get anyone to tell me why they liked the game. Somewhere in my 23rd hour of marathon gaming, I got tired of the silence, so I changed up the question, asking: “Does anyone else not really care about the military but really like these games?”
“Fuck the military,” one voice said.
“Yeah, fuck the military,” another one added.
“Bro, I was in the Army for four years. Fuck the military,” said a third.
This wasn’t the response I was expecting. I wonder what the other 9,999,997 players might have to say if they felt like talking.
Maybe other people like the Modern Warfare games for some of the same reasons I do. Maybe the franchise’s success has less to do with war than it does with movement, style and balance—the same traits that made me want to stay up late maneuvering a blue hedgehog around arches and over spikes. Or maybe I should just be thankful that Modern Warfare 3 can take my life 1,247 times in 24 hours without anyone getting hurt.
KILL KILL! Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is out now. It retails for $59.99.