Why Call of Duty's greatest power fantasy leads to its most disturbing scenes

Modern Warfare’s mission briefings might be pornography for hardcore military fetishists – all bristling gun barrels and intimate exhaust port close-ups – but there’s really only one vehicle that makes an impact deserving of Infinity Ward’s near-reverential treatment. For a game that’s in constant, unabashed thrall to military hardware, the AC-130 alone manages to communicate the sheer, terrifying might of western power – and the horrifically one-sided nature of modern war.

Your first good look at the AC-130, by way of a briefing scene, offers little more than a plane covered in stats. A 25mm Gatling gun capable of firing 1,800 rounds per minute, a 40mm Bofors autocannon capable of a more modest 100 rounds per minute, and an 105mm M102 cannon, which fires 10 rounds per minute. It’s an introduction that reads like a spreadsheet, and unless you’re a gun nut, it does nothing to communicate the AC-130’s fearsome power. It does, however, neatly foreshadow the cold detachment of the level that follows.

Until now, the player’s viewpoint has been mostly limited to the perspective of US Marine Paul Jackson or SAS operative John ‘Soap’ MacTavish, and the previous level, Hunted, saw Soap and his squad scrabbling for safety after their helicopter was shot down deep behind enemy lines in a civil war-stricken Russia. Hunted is a low-key experience by Call Of Duty’s standards, where the outnumbered unit skulks and creeps through the Russian farmland. When the AC-130 arrives, though, everything changes, and a Russian convoy is obliterated from the sky.

The next level, Death From Above, carries on immediately after that scene, but switches the player’s perspective. You are no longer an imperilled soldier, but a member of the aircraft’s flight crew – your view of the battle below is just a fuzzy black-and-white image on a 4:3 monitor. It’s a discomfiting transition: the WWII-era COD games had vehicle sections, but they placed you in a vulnerable tank on the frontline. In this scene, Modern Warfare enables you to experience the battle from a video monitor’s safe remove – and in doing so begins to live up to its name.

Much of the level’s impact comes from that blurry monochrome screen, which is covered with an indecipherable yet plausible-looking HUD, and filled with burning white points of body heat for you to target. After years of news reports filled with footage from real-life wars, it is an eerily familiar image, and one that can be rendered perfectly by Infinity Ward’s engine. If the rest of Modern Warfare looks like a video game, Death From Above looks queasily real. Or, inversely, it makes you realise that taking lives from the comfort of a cockpit and using a flickering monitor can look weirdly like playing a video game.

“Good kill, good kill,” chirps the AC-130’s pilot as you annihilate small crowds of Russian nationalists from on high. “We’ve got a runner here,” the co-pilot mentions dryly as a straggler attempts to flee. Occasionally, there are flickers of emotion, with comments such as “Nice!” and “Nailed that guy…” Delivered with the enthusiasm of a fan cheering on their favourite football team, they’re disturbing in their own way, but for the most part it’s the complete lack of emotional engagement that makes the scene so uncomfortable. What makes it truly frightening, though, is the simple fact that Death From Above, on standard difficulties at least, is terrifically easy.

Framed as an escort mission (Soap and his squad progress through the level on foot, and must not be harmed), at no point during the level is the AC-130 under any direct threat. The enemy forces below don’t just look like ants from the plane, they might as well be ants for all the difference it would make to their ability to withstand your assault. The game introduces a few other fail states, too: you’re obliged to avoid civilian vehicles on the main highway, and are repeatedly instructed not to shoot a church in the centre of the level – but these aren’t difficult to fulfil. They’re slightly absurd, in fact. You wreak so much destruction across the breadth of this small town that avoiding a single religious building is obviously a sop – and a scarily plausible one at that.

Did Infinity Ward understand the nature of the experience it was creating? In a game stuffed with hoorah jingoism, such an uncomfortable experience as being the AC-130’s gunner feels out of place. COD 4 has a more obvious ‘big’ moment – the detonation of an atomic weapon that undercuts the heroics of the level in question. But Paul Jackson staggering out of his crashed chopper isn’t a Kojima-esque commentary on the futility of war. It’s a justification for it. Saddam might not have had weapons of mass destruction, Modern Warfare seems to say, but my bad guy does. By contrast, the AC-130 sequence makes you understand that the true horror of modern war is its dehumanising effect on those who wage it.

But for most players, their lasting impression of the AC-130 won’t owe anything to Death From Above. It’ll be its role as a killstreak reward in Modern Warfare 2 and 3. Get 11 kills (12 points in MW3) and for 40 seconds you can dominate the other team from the skies. It’s a thrill, certainly, but a cheap one, and the squealing protests of the opposing team won’t linger in the memory like the sight of a single figure, burning white with body heat, trying to escape your onslaught by running stupidly into a wide open field.

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Edge Staff

Edge magazine was launched in 1993 with a mission to dig deep into the inner workings of the international videogame industry, quickly building a reputation for next-level analysis, features, interviews and reviews that holds fast nearly 30 years on.