Straight off the bat, more than Medal of Honor: Warfighter, this is an article about Spec Ops: The Line, and I like to consider it a testament to the unparalleled meaninglessness of a game like Warfighter, that the first thing I tell you in an article ostensibly about the game is that it’s not really about the game at all. It’s about another, far more interesting game, that I’ve already talked about in great detail.
You might think from this introduction that I hated Medal of Honor: Warfighter and I’m a huge fan of Spec Ops: The Line, and while you probably could be more wrong, you would really have to be making an effort. On our year end round-up episode of the IndieCent podcast (check out the episode here) then I named Spec Ops: The Line the worst game I played in 2018. Then, because that apparently wasn’t enough, I wrote a 10,000+ word article diplomatically named ‘The Many Pretentious Failings of Spec Ops: The Line’. Then I called Walt Williams’ (Spec Ops main writey bloke) home phone number a few times and pretended to be a pizza delivery guy with a funny – but wholly unindicative of any particular nationality and therefore not racist – accent.
I don’t want to jump straight into Spec Ops without even touching on Medal of Honor, but the reason I ended up playing the latter is strictly because of the former, so here’s a quick recap on my experience with Spec Ops: The Line. Perhaps the key to understanding my dissatisfaction is this; I went in knowing the twist.
Spec Ops: The Line is probably the most subversive modern military shooter game to have yet been made. While most games in the genre are power fantasies about heroically shooting a bunch of evil foreign people until eventually you’ve shot enough to have saved the world/freed the American hostage/killed some time until the next episode of Better Call Saul, Spec Ops is a much more brutal portrayal of what would happen if a small squad of elite US special ops with mild regenerative healing abilities wandered into a very delicate situation in Dubai and tried to solve everything with their guns. It doesn’t go well.
The game is paced excellently, as its protagonist, Captain Walker, starts off with the reluctant mindset of “Well, we didn’t want to shoot anyone, but some people opened fire on us and it was self-defence,” which quickly becomes “Okay, so we found some American soldiers, but it was in the middle of a gunfight and they were all so confused and trigger-happy that we had to shoot them too!” and then there’s the signature scene in which you use white phosphorus to get through a base of finger-quotes ‘enemy’ soldiers, and it turns out you also just killed a bunch of civilians that the soldiers had moved for protection. The situation somehow gets even worse with the help of the CIA and while the game has several endings, a running theme throughout them is that Walker’s attempts to play the hero have ultimately made things worse for everyone in a manner which is retrospectively obvious. There are some insightful parallels into Walker’s behaviour and the reaction of the typical player of the modern military shooter game, who expects to be rewarded with a happy ending after systematically slaughtering thousands of people for entertainment, but I found the general anti-war sentiment more interesting and honestly, if I started going on about player agency in interactive media then we’d never get around to Warfighter. And wouldn’t that be a terrible shame?
Unfortunately, I had spoiled the plot for myself long before playing the game, and while the story is ambitious, I just couldn’t overlook that the game was just as boring and dreary to play as any other generic third-person shooter; which I fully understand may have been the point, but I maintain that there’s a difference between gameplay being so-so – something unimportant but perfectly functional, usually in narrative-heavy games – and gameplay being bad. And the gameplay in Spec Ops was… bad. It doesn’t help that it’s not a genre I particularly enjoyed to begin with, and since it’s the rare type of game that actively encourages a negative response from a certain type of player, it’s extremely likely that if you say you don’t like Spec Ops: The Line, someone will miraculously appear to tell you that either you didn’t get it, or that you’re the type of player who was supposed to not like it. And I’m sure that’s not entirely untrue when applied to everyone who didn’t like the game, but it also feels very smug to me, as if by knowing what the game is saying and agreeing with it, you’re somehow detached from the participants who are supposed to reflect on their behaviour.
But as much as that sounds quite smart and thinky, honestly it was mainly just that I found the gameplay really boring, and knowing that it was intentionally not the focus of the game didn’t help. I would compare it to reading a really fantastic book, but it’s printed on stinging nettles and recycled toilet paper. The story might be great, but the method by which it is being imparted to you could have used a lot of work. I also had some gripes with certain elements of the story, but hey, if you want to read more about that, go check out the Spec Ops article.
So, in order to prove that Spec Ops: The Line had sub-standard gameplay, I set out to play five of the most generic modern military shooters I could find. Three Call of Duty trainwrecks, one tedious Gears of War campaign, and, as you may have guessed, Medal of Honor: Warfighter.
I’m already a thousand words into an article about a game that I’ve barely mentioned so far, so I’ll cover the others quickly. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was alright, decent story but not much variety. Call of Duty: Black Ops was the worst and most repetitive of the bunch. Call of Duty: Ghosts was forgettable but had a few novelty moments. Gears of War was a laughably meat-headed gravel-voiced clusterfudge of mid-2000s cool gruff badass manly masculine military man men that honestly serves as a fantastic time capsule for the era, and a decent explanation/justification of how a game like Spec Ops: The Line came to be.
But Medal of Honor: Warfighter was… uh… good?
Clearly, I mean it was good by the standards set by other games in the genre, which as previously mentioned, I thought were all garbage. But even taking those standards away, did I have fun playing it? Yes. Was it the best game of the limited selection I played? Yes. Would I recommend it to anyone who asked “Say, I’m a fan of modern military shooters; do you know where I can find a decent one that will provide me with 6-8 hours of entertainment for roughly the price of a McFlurry?” Also yes.
And yet, retrospectively, both of these games have moved in opposite directions. There’s still a part of me that would deride Spec Ops: The Line as a bunch of pretentious wank, but it is practically the only modern military shooter that attempted to have a more meaningful message than “Ha ha ha machine gun go brrrrrrr.” If I hadn’t spoiled the story for myself, I expect I would have found it original, insightful, hard-hitting, and an interesting commentary on the nature of the genre of video games that it’s in, and also the relationship between a player and a game, and the consequences thereof. And Medal of Honor: Warfighter is stupid, brainless fun, but the more I think about it, the less I remember the fun, and the clearer it becomes that this game isn’t just stupid. It’s aggressively stupid. It might actually outclass Gears of War in terms of just how utterly devoid of meaning it is in favour of big boom shooty pow pow explosion – my GUN is also a CHAINSAW – daka daka daka kill the evil aliens.
I still haven’t really covered any of the reasons why I thought Medal of Honor: Warfighter was good in the first place, so I should probably start. A large part of it is simply variety. I’ve seen the Zero Punctuation review and it makes a valid point than in the second or third level, you deploy a robotic drone that looks a lot like if WALL-E was designed by Skynet, and while the change of pace is fun, it raises the issue that you’re hardly the underdog going up against a superior force and rallying together using superior skill to save the day. You have tanks and cars and space-lasers and magic gun robots, and the enemy doesn’t. And while I did just describe this point as ‘valid’ it’s also ultimately… kind of unimportant?
If there were two modern military shooters – one with a storyline about overcoming a difficult situation and defeating a superior enemy, albeit with repetitive and samey gameplay, and one where you clearly hold all of the cards but the gameplay switches around enough to keep you feeling entertained – then I would pick the second one every single time. I would tell people on Twitter that I was a big fan of the first one and use phrases like ‘subverting expectations’ and words like ‘deconstruction’ and ‘disempowerment’, but secretly I would hate it and prefer the second game by a large margin. Besides which, there’s no reason why a game can’t successfully do both. My greatest gripe with Spec Ops: The Line is that it was so unpleasant to play; not in the thoughtful deconstructive ‘we’re not here to validate your power fantasy’ way, but just in terms of playing the game. I did not have a good time, and knowing that the point of the game was to intentionally not be a good time did not transform the experience into a good time. If I had to pick a game to replay today, I would still choose Warfighter in a heartbeat.
Also, I’m not sure how to segue onto this particular element of the game that I found so enjoyable, so I’m just going to announce the words out of the blue. Car stealth.
Medal of Honor: Warfighter has a driving/racing section straight out of Need For Speed: Most Wanted, one of the greatest racing games of all-time due to its open-world mechanics which allowed you to, between races, get into car chases with the police, smash through roadblocks, and generally do the kind of thing that would make Gran Turismo scream and cover their mother’s eyes. Medal of Honor and Need For Speed are both owned by EA so it’s not that surprising that they would crib from their earlier work when looking for something to fill the gaps in an otherwise fairly standard shooter game, but it’s an entirely welcome addition and it is at least mostly responsible for Warfighter being ranked so highly above its competitors, albeit I honestly think Warfighter would still clinch the win without a kickass driving section, based on the other varieties of gameplay they added to keep you occupied.
So Warfighter has a few levels where you drive around in a big old car, smashing into other cars, swerving around and generally… I already said the thing about Gran Turismo, didn’t I? And hell, unlike in Most Wanted, where you might occasionally be struck by a wave of Neil Druckmann-esque ‘Bro, that was people in that car you just flattened with a giant novelty doughnut!’ sentiment, it’s all good because it’s a Medal of Honor game, so all of the people trying to hit you are probably terrorists, or something. And all of the people you crashed into because you were distracted are noble martyrs whose sacrifice will not be forgotten because the dopamine rush you got from nudging them into the path of an oncoming truck for a quick laugh is what gave you the positive burst of energy needed to combat terrorism! It’s kind of reminiscent of those bits in Batman: Arkham Knight where you can slam into people at 300 miles per hour in the heavily armoured Batmobile tank, and then the devs remembered that Batman doesn’t kill people, so they added a hasty pop-up scan that informs you that, wow Bruce, you sure ‘detained’ that guy, who is most definitely still alive!
In case I haven’t made it clear enough – and also because it just needs to be said, over and over – I am not saying that Warfighter is a particularly smart game. Anyone could figure that out just from looking at the name Warfighter. But in the context of knowingly-stupid ways to kill time (and a bunch of fictitious foreign people) it is genuinely a pretty fun game, and while the entire genre is almost impressively meat-headed and lacking in any kind of artistic merit, shouldn’t ‘fun’ count as a merit on its own? One of my biggest problems with Spec Ops was that if you take away the subversive storyline, it was just so interminably tedious to play. Warfighter is definitely more fun, and while there have been discussions for years over whether games can be good whilst not being fun, it’s hardly a negative quality.
To top off the fun but stupid nature of Warfighter, it even has a very short level based on Captain Phillips. The Oscar-nominated Tom Hanks film based on the true story of the Richard Phillips, captain of a container ship which was boarded by four Somali pirates, and who was held hostage when the pirates escaped on one of the ship’s lifeboats. Spoiler alert; the US Navy intercepted the boat, killed the three pirates still on board, and rescued Phillips. There’s a level in Warfighter which is solely “Hey army-man, we have a situation we need to take care of!” and then boom, you’re one of the Navy Seals pointing a sniper rifle at a pirate through the window of a lifeboat, and then you take the shot, and then the level is over. I don’t want to keep saying things like ‘impressively stupid’ but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a disbelieving laugh when I realised what they were doing.
But if there was a single element of Warfighter that embodies just how much my opinion has soured towards it, it would be this same moment, this reference to Captain Phillips. I’ve seen the film and it is by no means groundbreaking – it’s your pretty standard ‘loosely based on a true story’ Hollywood version of a relatively interesting series of real-life events, dramatized with close-ups and expanded motivations and plenty of things that just didn’t happen in real life. Compared to Warfighter, it’s still practically a Citizen Kane-level work of art, but that’s just compared to Warfighter. But here’s the thing; even in Captain Phillips, they were trying to say something.
Probably the most memorable scene in the film for me is when Captain Phillips, who the pirates nicknamed ‘Irish’, is talking to Muse, the captain of the pirates. Muse is, well, musing on how the situation has gotten more complicated than he intended, and Tom Hanks points out that he wasn’t exactly forced into this situation with the line “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people,” and Muse sombrely replies “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.” I’m not trying to elevate this conversation to some kind of masterclass in storytelling, but it’s a nice touch that invites the audience to reflect on the choices – or lack thereof – that these characters had before they ended up in the situation that they are in now.
So, the development team behind Medal of Honor: Warfighter watched this film and thought “Hey, we should recreate that awesome scene at the end where the badass US Navy Seals shoot and kill the brown people!”
It’s like if someone destroyed the Mona Lisa, and then you found out that the whole thing was just a publicity stunt to raise awareness for the next shitty film in The Purge series. Like, they took something that was at least making an effort to have some kind of artistic, cultural value, and they reduced it to… nothing. No meaning, no message – well, I’m being charitable when I say ‘no message’, there have been many discussions from people much smarter than me over whether these games are glamourizing the US military in a borderline propagandistic way, which I feel unqualified to add to – and no attempt to instil the player with any feelings more advanced than ‘Aren’t guns and explosions just so friggin’ cool?!?’
It reminds me of something I said in the ‘Spec Ops is extremely pretentious, Warfighter is way better, I bet I’m not going to regret writing this two years later!’ article about assumptions. I was annoyed because in the Zero Punctuation review on Warfighter, he mentioned giving up shortly after the second or third level, but still confidently asserted that the entire game was trash, the genre was trash, it didn’t say anything interesting and it was emblematic of everything wrong with video games and everyone should just play Spec Ops: The Line and reflect on how miserable they feel for the foreseeable future. As you can probably tell, I’ve turned on Warfighter somewhat but I still stand by a lot of what I said about Spec Ops.
I made the point that, since Yahtzee hadn’t actually finished the game, he may have been pleasantly surprised by the ending, in which the player character saves the day and is given a medal and there’s a big ceremony for him, but his mind keeps flashing back to the horrific things that he’s seen and done and it’s pretty clear he’s experiencing PTSD. Later on, he gets a call from one of his friends in an unspecified military organization who tries to recruit him, but he turns them down, and in a subtle Easter Egg, you can then see a note on his calendar from his wife reminding him of an upcoming therapy appointment, and while the game doesn’t explicitly go all “You maniacs, you blew it up! Ah, damn you!” then it’s clear that the protagonist doesn’t have positive memories of his experiences.
… Unsurprisingly, this is all completely untrue and I was making the point that it was a bit crap of everyone to just assume that Warfighter was as utterly devoid of merit as possible, without actually playing the damn thing, or at least looking up the ending. But looking back, this doesn’t seem like a very well-made point, given that Warfighter truly is as stereotypically bland as all of its critics assumed. It feels like I’ve been caught at the scene of a murder, holding a knife, covered in the victim’s blood, and the first thing I do is go on a tirade about how rude it is of all of you to assume that I must be connected in some way. I do still genuinely think that there is some semblance of a point in there somewhere – remember that time everyone got really mad about Anita Sarkeesian’s non-existent involvement in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst or more recently The Last of Us Part II – but I definitely could find a better hill to die on than the one that turned Captain Phillips into the climax of a Michael Bay-inspired direct-to-DVD film that only gets verbally eviscerated by mid-to-low level YouTubers because it’s not even interesting enough to be torn apart by anyone noteworthy.
So it’s not that Warfighter is so uninspired that it lives down to the expectations of everyone who hated it, and it’s not that it took a work that had some genuine artistic merit and tried to transform it into something as meaningless as itself, but rather a combination of the two. And while the variety is nice enough, being lifted directly from Need for Speed: Most Wanted indicates that the developers didn’t really have any interest whatsoever in creating something original. They took a bland shooter series and made a bland entry featuring a few notable moments cribbed from other, better series, as well as an out-of-place extended film reference that dumbs down the source material to an insulting degree, and topped it off with possibly the most stupid title that a video game has had that doesn’t include the word ‘Revelations’ or ‘Retribution’. Medal of Honor: Warfighter is what happens when you make an entire game out of that Call of Duty tweet boasting that they were bringing white phosphorus into Modern Warfare as a killstreak bonus.
So, if I may end this rambling string of nonsensical diatribes, I would like to sincerely thank Medal of Honor: Warfighter for one thing. Thank you for finally forcing me to acknowledge that Spec Ops: The Line had a valid point, and thank you for justifying why it needs to exist. Even if there hadn’t been a steady stream of completely mediocre modern military shooter games flooding the market, Warfighter is just so aggressively stupid that it would justify Walt Williams’ heavy-handed author tract all by itself.
And while I still very much don’t like Spec Ops: The Line, I at least feel that I have a more accurate understanding of it now that I see the artless fluff it was deconstructing. It is a testament to Walt Williams’ writing that more than 8 years after it was released, no other game has come close to examining the questionable, power-fantasy structure of the military shooter genre, with its endless waves of expendable foreigners, its indestructible Eagleland-flavoured heroes who are all implied to be extremely handsome and smart and amazing and probably very good in bed, and a questionable morality system based entirely around whether or not the protagonist is doing something, in which case it is undeniably good and cool.
Even after all of this, I would still rather play Warfighter again than Spec Ops, because… well, Need For Speed: Most Wanted was just a really good game, and in regards to the other levels, I can at least try to just turn my brain off and pretend that I’m playing one of the hundreds of other functionally identical games, albeit hopefully one that isn’t quite as proud of how senseless it is. But then, what did I expect from a game literally named ‘Warfighter’?
In conclusion, Medal of Honor: Warfighter is honestly quite fun, but it’s also garbage. And the most fun garbage you could find is still garbage, and should maybe have loftier goals than being the best that a terrible genre has to offer before it can be regarded in any possible light as anything close to ‘good’.
P.S. If you’ve noticed something off about the images used in this article, that’s because none of them are from Medal of Honor: Warfighter. I tried to look some up but Warfighter has absolutely no discernible visual features or unique moments so I just threw in screenshots I had lying around from Call of Duty: Ghosts, Black, and Battlefield 3.