An anthropologist friend recently told me about a London youth group run by a Christian faith school where the assembled teenagers liked nothing more than to play the new Call Of Duty. This pained the group leader, who suggested that the game was ‘inappropriate’. Apparently, it would have been fine to play FIFA, but not a bloody bulletfest such as COD: Ghosts.
This use of ‘inappropriate’ is a hilariously mealy-mouthed sign of our times. By calling something ‘inappropriate’, one avoids saying it is actually wrong or forbidden. Perhaps it is actually wrong or forbidden, but the speaker is pretending to be a friend rather than an authority figure. Or perhaps it isn’t wrong or forbidden at all, but the authority figure still vaguely disapproves of it, and so deploys ‘inappropriate’ as wheedling emotional blackmail.
In any case, the fragfest-loving teenagers of the youth group were not stupid. They argued that COD: Ghosts was structured around themes of duty and sacrifice – basically, like Jesus. I tip my hat to them. Indeed, they could have gone on to argue that COD was therefore much less inappropriate than FIFA, which would surely brainwash them into adopting the values of wife-beating, spit-roasting and ear-biting football-celebrity culture.
In a quest to find out just how ‘appropriate’ COD: Ghosts was, I sprinted, swam, floated and snap-aimed my way through the whole singleplayer campaign. This is something I have not bothered to do in a shooter for years. But since Ghosts tragically abandons the almighty Spec Ops co-op mode, I sure wasn’t going to do anything else with it.
The first and almost the last thing you do in COD: Ghosts is tool up as a kind of psychopathic rifle-toting Sandra Bullock for a version of the movie Gravity that has similarly glittering destruction of orbital structures but also lots of balletic zero-G murdering of spacesuited enemies. I did worry momentarily whether it might be ‘inappropriate’ to fire a high-powered gun inside the (presumably thin) walls of a space station, but duty called, after all. Keeping Christian-friendly themes in mind, I also made sure to appreciate the awe-inspiring view of Earth.
It wasn’t long before I was trundling through a city in a tank with a friendly dog’s head poking out of the hatch; rappelling head first down the side of a skyscraper before it blew up; flying a chopper and blowing stuff up with it; racing across the burning and listing deck of an aircraft carrier that was in the process of being blown up; infiltrating an oil rig to, I don’t know, blow it up or something; and actually driving a tank (a future-tank that handles like a go-kart) frenetically around an airbase, trying (I think) to blow stuff up.
On PS4, all this was very pretty. (The higher resolution also makes it more satisfying, since the men you are shooting in the face look more detailed at the same distance.) It was also no less stupid than it had ever been. My brother in arms (geddit?) made no comment if, while we were patrolling alone, I let off a frag grenade three feet from his legs. The much-publicised dog, Riley, is one of those bulletproof dogs until he is shot with some kind of special bullet and you have to carry his whimpering body through a firefight. The final scene of the game is crashingly cynical. And the mission failed index cards – “Killing civilians will not be tolerated!” – were all too reminiscent of a schoolteacher suggesting sorrowfully that my behaviour was ‘inappropriate’.
Even so, the game was tremendously entertaining. People are snobbish about the CODs, but Ghosts is obviously a work of immense artistry. To complain that it doesn’t teach us anything about the human condition would be a category mistake. (It would be an ‘inappropriate’ criticism.) The game should be judged on its own terms. It wants to be a relentlessly beautiful and stupidly exciting action blockbuster, so it fails only if it is ugly or boring. Personally, I found the underwater shooting sections a bit tedious (and yet look at all the work they put into the seaweed and the fish!), and the crawling-interminably-through-grass bit frankly dull (not enough work put into grasshoppers, earthworms and so on). But mostly the game is quite extraordinary as sheer hurtling interactive spectacle.
It’s true that Ghosts doesn’t redefine the shooter for next-gen consoles, but this kind of shooter may be something that most fans don’t want redefined, just as they’re not interested in changing the rules of football simply for the novelty value. And, after all, very few humans can live on the arthouse alone. No one wants all games to be like Ghosts, but as part of a varied cultural diet, the odd Call Of Duty is hardly ‘inappropriate’ at all. And, as those canny teenagers noticed, it’s not even un-Christian. As Jesus once famously said: “I come to bring not peace but a sword, an AK-12 with ACOG sight, and massive space-based projectile weapons.”