If I thought war was hell before, now I'm really in it. After the last tour under the Infinity Ward command, this time I've been plunged into something under the control of a unit codenamed Gray Matter, and whereas my last excursion was well orchestrated and supported - a collision of accepted tactical principles that shepherded me through the fieriest hotspots in Northern Europe, and demanded all my unit's intuition and improvisation to survive - this latest push feels like flash after flash in a series of increasingly searing pans. I was sitting in a foxhole in Bastogne recently with the cold steel of a 30-cal clutched to my chest and Germans with Panzer support swarming across a snow-blanketed valley towards me, and if it hadn't been for my CO's continuous hand-holding I might not have made it out of there.
This feels like a different war. I've completed just over a dozen missions under Gray Matter's command and each culminates in dizzying fashion, continuously lurching - more or less seamlessly, but often unerringly as though I'm treading some sort of divine pre-ordained path - between all manner of disciplines that call upon training that sometimes I've only heard about second-hand. On my first day under the new command I went from quietly patrolling a forest under canopies of snow-topped trees, to ducking out of the back of a jeep and fighting off German armoured vehicles as they chased us back to our entrenchment, to firing heavy ordnance out of a foxhole at encroaching camouflaged troops, to sniping across a valley, and even tackling Panzer tanks as they snaked through the snow like the spectre of impending doom - chilling enough to turn my nose and ears red, despite the warm case of a loaded bazooka pressed against my head and throbbing expectantly as I prepared to take them down.
It's chaos. The odds are never stacked ridiculously against us but death never feels too far away, and the sheer difficulty of making it through some our missions unscathed has led to that continued sense of deja vu that I experienced under my last command, only this time it seems to undermine any subsequent celebration. When an American commander stood next to me after we'd successfully defended a recaptured Chateau against endless German sorties and what felt like an entire armoured division - almost to the point that we'd lost all hope - the sounds of victory in my ears rang hollow. I didn't feel like I'd avoided death enough to justify such lavish praise, although the champagne we borrowed from the shattered kitchen - piled high with the bodies of American and mostly German infantrymen - certainly tasted sweet in the bitter chill of a French winter's morn.
There is at least the sense of fighting alongside others. Hearing some of my friends' old war stories - particularly those who served under the Allied Assault - you'd think the whole war was fought by one man, but I'm under no illusions just how important my squad-mates, and the whole damn army in fact, have been to our success to date. As we raced across snowy fields to recapture Foy from the Germans, looking right and seeing an endless stream of soldiers charging to the strains of an officer's whistle, even as shells blew frozen haystacks apart and the Germans threw everything they had at us, alleviated any sense of loneliness I might have been fostering inside. And when I proved my worth to them, taking down a spotter in the shelled out rafters of a town house as we proceeded across the fields, and later clearing Sgt. Moody's unit a path through the streets with my sniper rifle as they attempted to join us at the Chateau, I felt like I was part of something important.
Not all of them have lived up to the occasion, however. I've seen countless men on my side cut down because they took up ill-advised positions, and some seem to freeze solid in panic as we run through a door to clear a house, often blocking my retreat as a German with a machinegun lets rip and my head bounces around like I'm experiencing my own personal earthquake. Fortunately most of them seem to have enough battle training for me to trust in them, but I feel like sometimes they rely on me too much, as a veteran of previous campaigns, to provide that razor's edge in combat, when really it shouldn't be beyond their abilities to tackle the threat alone.
Some of my other experiences though truly beggar belief. Heaven knows how I wound up as an ancillary on a British bombing run to an industrial district just outside Rotterdam, but I was lucky I chose to wear a parachute. Having taken down around thirty German planes as they zeroed in on our B-17, darting between dorsal, tail and side guns, turning cranks to try and steady our flight as the bullets ripped through fuselage and propeller - one of the most satisfying experiences of my war, and something that really broke up the hellish, almost futile efforts of my earlier and later assignments - I was thrown out of the back of the plane as it finally lost all structural integrity, and wound up suspended nervously in a tree by my parachute cords as a German patrol paced beneath me.
After that I was seconded to the British SAS contingent in the area, as they attempted to derail the Nazi war effort in explosive fashion, and later - probably the crowning moment of my war - I journeyed to Italy with them to tackle a pair of long-range artillery guns embedded in a mountain. We had to blow up a lighthouse on the way - spoiling the gorgeous coastline for generations - in order to con the Germans into opening the doors so we could descend and plant our charges, and there were more than a handful of occasions as we escaped - on bike, foot and boat - that I thought I was done for, but miraculously survived. That sense of deja vu hung in the air again, but the satisfaction of watching the side of the cliff explode in a shower of ruined weaponry was suitably overwhelming.
That feeling I mentioned though, of treading a preordained path, is so much more prevalent than it ever was under our previous command, and even if I can let it go and squeeze it out of the front of my mind, there are still the times when I feel like I'm in a shooting gallery, as endless swathes of Germans pour out of barns and houses to try and silence us with their machinegun nests, sometimes gathering in force again as I stoop behind a tattered and overturned jeep to reload, appearing atop the bodies of the very men I've just put down as if they had been hiding in their back pockets. Fortunately their numbers thin (perhaps they're frightened?) if we keep pressing forward, but it seems safe to say that whoever's in charge of their movements is a bit scattershot in his approach. He has some good ideas - a Panzer hiding inside the half-broken walls of a farmhouse caused us no end of trouble during one mission - but there are times when he either over or under-commits troops. The German resistance, frankly, behaves inconsistently compared to what I've faced before.
In all honesty though mother, I can't complain, because I've survived so far, and when I think back, through all the killing and the lost friends, there will be some memories I cherish. The sight of a pillar of smoke floating across a moon-kissed lake, the gorgeous frosted French countryside, the dancing sparks and epic sights and sounds, which are so much more vivid and expressive than they felt last time I was here, and, though it may sound slightly morbid, most of all the sight of buildings falling apart under the pressures of stacks of explosive. Maybe it's just the pent-up shock talking, but this short, fearsomely sharp episode in my life has left me with many images and sensations that I wouldn't part with, even if I'd probably rather have taken the last campaign on again instead, given the choice between the two.
Still, they say that time is relative, and for me the events under the Gray Matter command feel like they flew past in a couple of evenings, and taken as a whole it's difficult, whatever the weight of shock, guilt and surprise at having escaped so quickly, not to admit that I enjoyed elements of it. In fact - maybe I'm just soulless - I probably enjoyed the whole damn war. But don't let that worry you mother, because I'm coming home soon. All that's left for me is to complete a few exercises with my fellow soldiers. According to orders, we're going to work together on 11 different battlefields in two teams, attacking and defending opposing forts (our CO calls it "Base Assault"), and we're going to work on capturing and holding command points under tank bombardment in an exercise called "Domination". And apparently we even get to drive vehicles this time - I had a quick trip out in one recently and it handled superbly, and should really make a difference to our tactical thinking. But then, it all sounds like a picnic compared to what I remember of my time in Europe.
Then again, mother, you could argue that none of it's been worth it, that I served enough time and saw enough under the Infinity Ward command that this latest escapade under the direction of the Gray Matter unit has been superfluous, and even structurally transparent in some areas. But I wouldn't. The boys who survived Allied Assault called this the fieriest and most frenetic series of engagements since. And I agree. The price I paid was fair for what I did - although I wouldn't recommend it to people who can't cope with regular reloading - and it served as a decent way of brushing up my skills before I'll inevitably fall back under the command of Infinity Ward in years to come. Once again the Call of Duty is strong.
Your loving son.
Will you support Eurogamer?