The End of Nostalgia
Author’s Note: This post mainly discusses nostalgia in video games, specifically first-person shooters. My critiques don’t apply to single-player games here.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gaming, specifically first-person shooter franchises. I believe they have largely stagnated over the years regarding enjoyment and novelty.
Two of my favorite gaming franchises, Call of Duty and Halo, are emblematic of this decline.
Recently, I played through the latest edition of Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2 (2022).
Halo Infinite (left) and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (right).
For the most part, I found the game uninspiring. I haven’t touched the base multiplayer, and I dislike Warzone 2.0 (WZ2). (My biggest complaint with WZ2 is the base map is way too big, with few vehicles available to traverse distances quickly, which ruins the pacing of PvP interactions that I am used to in the previous edition of Warzone (WZ).)
The DMZ game mode is the only net positive for me within MW2 2022. It’s a PvEvP mode on the base Warzone 2. I enjoy it - it’s like Spec Ops meets WZ. It’s great to play with my friends when we all have time to hop on and do missions here and there in Al Mazrah (WZ2 multiplayer map.)
What remains to be discussed is the campaign.
It took me around a day and a half to beat it on the Hardened Difficulty.
I wasn’t impressed. Don’t get me wrong. The graphics are better than ever. The shooting mechanics are solid. The game’s sound is incredible.
Yet, I find the narrative lacking. Especially compared to its past trilogy’s counterpart, Modern Warfare 2 (2009).
I’m not going to go through the whole story (which will now be referred to as nuMW2), and I will try to avoid point-by-point comparisons between its predecessor (which will be referred to as ogMW2, “og” standing for Original).
The problem with the nuMW2 starts in the first mission. Led by a re-imagined Simon’ Ghost’ Riley, he calls in a drone strike on Iranian General Ghorbrani, eliminating him and several Iranian and Russian adversaries in the middle of an arms deal.
Cut to the title screen: MODERN WARFARE II.
In retrospect, it was at that moment that the game was lost for me. There are no flaws within the scene itself - in a vacuum, it’s a run-of-the-mill campaign mission. But this is Call of Duty, and this is no ordinary mission.
This introductory scene is a direct reference to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, former Iranian Quds Force commander, on January 3rd, 2020. Putting aside the ethical, moral, geopolitical, and legal complexities of the real-life assassination, the fact that Infinity Ward (makers of the Modern Warfare series) decided to start the game off in this manner with this event reveals their conscious decision to stray away from everything that made the ogMW2 great.
Qasem Soleimani (left) and General Ghorbrani (right).
This was my worry with the Call of Duty series since Modern Warfare (2019, the first installation in the series reboot, which will be referred to as nuMW1); by shooting for military realism in its narrative and gameplay, it would be bounded, or more realistically, restricted by reality.
That’s exactly what has happened with nuMW2. What made ogMW2 great was that it wasn’t bound by reality. ogMW2 narrative could go beyond the real-life geopolitics and aims of real nations and civilizations.
It’s telling that the most famous campaign stories in IW’s gaming catalog and arguably in the whole genre of military shooters have one of the principal antagonists (General Shepherd) in the game be American. (It’s also worth noting that until nuMW2 was released, having an American Army general/higher-up as the bad guy was never done again! I wonder why.)
But I digress. What made ogMW2 great was that it was not restricted by reality! The game’s narrative could be bombastic and over-the-top; thus, one had to design characters that would rise to the occasion.
One of those characters from ogMW2, Simon’ Ghost’ Riley, became a cult favorite of the franchise, despite only appearing in that original game!
Hell, you can make an argument because of how iconic his character was in the original; he’s been given a prominent role in nuMW2 (spoiler alert: he doesn’t die as he does in the first one, and there’s already slated to be a spin-off game focused on just him!). Ghost aside, all of the characters in that game stood out to me. They were exaggerated caricatures of the real-life special forces they were designed to emulate, and that worked by they weren’t bounded by approximating their real-life character and speech. In a weird way, because of the lack of adherence to reality, they became fully realized characters themselves.
Beyond the characters, in that video, you can see that the game has grander, immense set-pieces in the gameplay. It gives the feeling that the stakes are higher and everything is on the line.
However, I did not get that feeling even once with nuMW2’s campaign. It was a watered-down version of ogMW2.
Thus, I hardly remember it. nuMW2 is not memorable compared to ogMW2, and even nuMW2’s immediate prequel, nuMW1. However, the comparison between nuMW2 and nuMW1 is for another day.)
ogMW2 is Art. nuMW2 is marketing.
It’s nothing more than the marketing of the past with the hope that consumers will come to appreciate the latest edition of the game based on the nostalgia of its earlier counterpart rather than bringing anything novel and exciting on its terms.
How sad. But IW isn’t the only game developer guilty of this. 343 Industries, the gaming studio currently behind Halo, fits the crime as well.
When Bungie departed the Halo franchise for their new IP, Destiny, after 2012, I was sad but also excited for the series, as 343 Industries took over the mantle of responsibility for the franchise from them. I was curious where 343 would take the Halo franchise. Would it play things safe and deliver more Bungie-style Halo games? Or would they make their own unique stamp on the series and chart a new direction?
Their answer was Halo 4. Continuing the Master Chief’s journey after sitting adrift in space for roughly four years after the events of Halo 3, the tone of the campaign (and multiplayer) was dramatically different from its predecessors. The campaign centered on Master Chief’s and Cortana’s relationship more than any edition in the series.
For Halo, this was a massive breath of fresh air. We finally got to see the Chief act more as a human being than a soldier at any point in his life as a character for the iconic franchise.
343 ventured where Bungie did not. Where the latter framed Master Chief as a “vessel” for the player, 343 consciously evoked the Chief’s personality in his speech and body language.
The Chief isn’t a vessel; he is his own person.
And he has something to say.
Halo 4 wasn’t a perfect game by any means, its multiplayer was lacking in a few areas, and its campaign wasn’t perfect from a gameplay perspective.
But it gave us this:
343 took the risk, and in my eyes, it immensely paid off. Ten years later, those cutscenes still hit hard, full of life and emotion.
It’s too bad we haven’t gotten anything to Halo 4 Chief since. Halo 5 was a disaster for many reasons, but specifically, the narrative in that game could not convey Chief’s humanity through the interactions with his Spartan team and close friends, Blue Team, and poorly executives the narrative foil that Fireteam Osiris is supposed to set up. Halo 5 also undoes Cortana’s heroic sacrifice to save Chief at the end of Halo 4. And let me not even get started on the massive false advertising leading up to the launch of the game…
However, the Halo TV show was even worse. After binge-watching it on Paramount a couple of months back, the only thought I had was:
Why was this even made?
Seriously, I don’t think the Halo TV series should exist. It was just that bad. The Master Chief in that melodrama was nothing like the Chief I was used to seeing in either the Bungie or 343 games. He was angsty and emotional (in an immature, dramatic way), like a teenager instead of a mature combat veteran tempered by decades of war. It did a major disservice to the perception of the character, and the fact that 343 gave the green light on that show, knowing what would be shown to a non-gaming audience, was disappointing.
Halo (2022) on Paramount+.
It’s like they consciously chose to move away from how they initially started building and presenting Master Chief and Halo to the world in Halo 4. The Halo TV show, and specifically its portrayal of Chief by Pablo Schreiber, betrays what the Master Chief could have become as a character on TV with Halo 4 at his foundation. To me, the TV portrayal constitutes an explicit repudiation of 343's past, brave work.
To summarize: The Halo TV series was shitty marketing for the gaming franchise. I hate it. It should go away.
Which leaves us with Halo Infinite. On its own, Halo Infinite is a great game. It’s got a strong, solid story and fantastic multiplayer. You can easily argue that Halo found its way back, after missing Halo 4 (great campaign, poor multiplayer) and Halo 5 (poor campaign, great multiplayer). They finally got things straightened out, right?
Wrong. At first glance, the story’s campaign looks very polished and classy. It plays well. The new enemies are compelling and interesting. But it’s familiar.
343 aimed for Halo Infinite to be a “spiritual reboot” of the series. On its own, that isn’t the issue, but when you analyze the narrative, what’s revealed is stagnation.
This article from Inverse captures my thoughts pretty well. Here is a relevant section that cleanly captures how I feel:
“Halo Infinite is meant to serve as a platform for all upcoming Halo storytelling, so there’s potential that additional campaigns will roll out over the next few years that showcase the Endless and the Master Chief’s fight against them. However, that content won’t alter the fact that conflict with the Endless sounds like a derivative take on almost all previous Halo games, and that the interesting antagonism of Master Chief and Cortana, humanity against Created, has been completely swept aside.”
To take the article’s point even further in a simplified way, Infinite is not just a “spiritual reboot” of the Halo franchise. It’s more or less a carbon copy of Halo: Combat Evolved (2001), the first mainline edition of the series in some respects.
The Banished replace the Covenant as the main alien antagonists.
The Endless replace the Flood as a secondary antagonist.
The Weapon replaces Cortana as your trusty AI sidekick.
It’s a familiar formula first laid out by Bungie, now copied again by 343.
You have the same triumvirate conflict between humanity and the two different alien species. It’s too familiar. Halo isn’t progressing; it’s stagnating.
Halo is more clever than Call of Duty in how it explicitly leverages and disguises nostalgia to get your buy-in to the new title, but it’s all the same.
Neither franchise wants to take risks and move forward. Instead, they want to retreat into a familiar past and seduce you into believing there’s progress that has been made. The past is familiar. The past is safe. The past is profitable. (Both Halo Infinite and nuMW2 went on to gross billions of dollars in game sales and microtransactions.)
Yet, the past is not what we need. We need an end to nostalgia in video games, especially first-person shooters. We need to move forward as life moves forward. These shooters should be products of their own unique time and not be endlessly referential to a past golden age of gaming. The last FPS that truly felt innovative to me was Titanfall. (Fortnite gets an honorable mention here, but it’s not my kind of game. I respect it nonetheless.)
I always used to think:
Do the type of video games I like just suck nowadays, or did I just get older?
The truth is I did get older. I grew up.
But Halo and Call of Duty did not. They don’t want to, and that’s a shame.
No more reboots. No more calls to the past. Build something new, or don’t build at all.