Game Description: Modern Warfare 2 is a first-person tactical shooter and the sixth entry in the popular Call of Duty series. True to its name and following the lead of its predecessor, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it places players in modern combat settings, as opposed to the WWII environments of the earlier Call of Duty games. This modern approach brings with it new weapons, action and options. Coupled with a variety of gameplay modes including single player, multiplayer and the co-op Special Ops Mode, it is destined to be one of the most popular games of 2009 and a worthy addition to the Call of Duty series.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Review
Above and Beyond the Call of at least One Duty
HIGH Covering a human player with AC-130 armory.
LOW A hole-ridden plot that ends in obvious sequel bait.
WTF Tactical nuke?!
Infinity Ward has its greatest argument for moving away from history's most documented battles in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 . From gothic Russian gulags to a D.C. battlefield that feels like a precursor to Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland, the setpieces are no longer silicon documentaries, but rather extended tours into the developers' frenzied gun-fetish daydreams of national landmarks being destroyed.
The game is of two minds. One offers a faux-high-minded military fantasy. The other, of course, is to provide the perfect multiplayer shooting experience—an honor argued for heralded titles like GoldenEye, Halo, and Counterstrike. The latter succeeds wildly. The former less so, but Modern Warfare 2 swaggers in with nuclear aplomb either way.
When it comes to multiplayer competition and cooperative gameplay, who am I to deny this game's greatness? The controls are almost ergonomic, fitting like a well-worn glove. The multiplayer maps, from war-torn Afghanistan to a terror-ridden airport, are huge, balanced and believable. Online, the player can level up to gain new skills and weapons to customize your character. The plus-figure you see with every confirmed kill feed a narcissistic desire for superiority only the best role-playing games can provide.
Nobody expected any less. The biggest surprise from the first Modern Warfare is the sublime Spec Ops mode. It has been initially compared to Horde Mode in Gears of War 2, a comparison that is both incorrect and unflattering.
Spec Ops mode is the single-player game stripped down to its most elemental, except it can be shared with a friend. They are objective-based missions without the fuss of a story or character motivation, and despite the surge of cooperative play in games, Infinity Ward was still able to innovate. If you're like me and have wished of playing the gunner of a God-like AC-130 warship protecting a teammate through a nightmarish warzone, then our fever dream has been fulfilled. It's an offering you can't find anywhere else. Then there are snowmobile races, helicopter escort missions, and house-to-house, diner-to-diner fighting in Americana. The missions are challenging, hectic and the sense of virtual reward after completing a mission on the hardest difficulty setting is immense.
Modern Warfare 2 achieves glory in online competition and cooperative play when it sheds the pretension of its single-player campaign, which tells the tale of an all-out war between the U.S. and Russia, and the shadow group of international operatives who try to cool the instability.
First I'd like to point out an easy but unfair criticism of the Call of Duty stories; that its writing is reminiscent of the critically-maligned blockbuster filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer. It's better than that at least. It's all very loud and macho, but there's a very natural sense of pacing. Infinity Ward shows great affection for some of its characters, particularly "Soap" Mactavish, the protagonist from the first Modern Warfare who returns as this game's nigh-certifiable superhero, although not its main playable character. The plot and character development thankfully avoid any jingoism. The game's morality is muddied somewhat, making it more intriguing than your standard Nazi caper.
Composer Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight) has a score that swells as the player approaches a burning White House. It's a lot of sound and fury, and it's hard not to get goosebumps. Infinity Ward has an acute sense for player behavior, triggering events and musical cues as the player guides the camera through an open battlefield.
Unfortunately, it's hopelessly mechanical. I couldn't help shake the feeling that I was merely being a cameraman, dutifully pushing a camera dolly to the next perfectly framed shot. It's then that you start to see the puppeteer's strings, the trigger points for events. Everything falls into place so neatly, it shatters the illusion that this is a living, breathing battlefield where anything can happen. "Anything" never does, unless it is scripted to do so.
Infinity Ward treats the campaign as sort of an endgame to the old school hardcore game design of bigger and better. Any sense of dynamics is provided under strict authorial control, which is both admirable, and also quite frankly, a bit predictable. The trick of giving first person camera control to different characters (recalling the presidential assassination stage from part one) is reused, sometimes to great effect like the controversial level in which the player goes undercover in a terror cell's attack on a civilian airport. But the rest often falls flat, especially since Infinity Ward seems to be confused on deciding what kind of story they want to tell.
Some levels, notably the American-based ones, are all about the logistics of the battle. It's about the guy next to you, it's about being told what to do and not asking any questions. It would work if the game kept with this chilly, forlorn mood. Ridley Scott's film Black Hawk Down remains a powerful narrative without any one character dominating it. But the other levels are saddled in the yippee-ki-yay upbeat tones that draw the Bruckheimer comparisons including out-of-place one-liners, sloganeering, Saturday morning cartoon villainy, and madcap impossible escapes of explosions not seen since, well, a few weeks ago with Uncharted 2's Nathan Drake.
So is Modern Warfare 2 a statement, or pure fantasy? It's pure fantasy, for sure, and the developers are likely to agree—but there are inklings of the single-player campaign aspiring to be so much more. The storytelling, however, lacks clarity of thought and vision, which brings up another question of whether Infinity Ward won't take it further, or maybe they simply lack the eloquence.
Whatever the case may be, the game is also a statement on Infinity Ward's strengths. Every trailer they released was not just promotional material, it was sabre-rattling to other publishers, daring them to release another game this week. And it worked. The holiday season is noticeably bare, and Modern Warfare 2 stands tall, with its brilliant, value-packed missions, maps, and promised endless nights of thousand-yard stares and slack-jawed home entertainment. It is a commanding presence in living room electronics.
But most importantly, it's a powerful affirmation for those who define games less as art, and more as a sport of group dynamics that fuels the innate necessity of "must play" human contest. There is no greater argument. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed twice) and 18 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, drug references, intense violence and language. The violence is not over the top, but realistic. The biggest red flag is an early mission in the game where the player is party to a terrorist attack on a Russian airport, where dozens of innocents are murdered.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All essential dialogue is subtitled, though some of the radio chatter is not. Minor audio cues that let the player know where the enemies are coming from are usually not represented, but the game does a good job of guiding the player's eyes anyway.
Around the Blogosphere: Game Bloggers Offer Comments on Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian"
I've already posted my take on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's now-(in)famous "No Russian" chapter. I was not content to simply post my own thoughts on the matter, however. Given the uproar and truly interesting commentary that has sprung up around the game sequence, I wanted to survey a few of my fellow bloggers regarding their own opinions and experiences.
I received a handful of responses to my request for commentary: Some authors had played the sequence in question, some had not. Some felt quite strongly in the positive, others in the negative. Some responses were longer pieces, others were short remarks or pointed me towards an existing blog post. To all who responded, I offer my sincere gratitude.
I'll preface their comments, presented here, with a few disclaimers:
1.) If by some chance you are a game blogger who is reading this post and feel snubbed because I did not reach out to contact you, please do not feel cheated out of an opportunity to comment. This conversation is open to all, and if you would like to add something, I will most likely follow up this post as additional comments come in... or you can add a comment below.
2.) These opinions solely represent the thoughts and feelings of their authors, not my own. In no way do I blindly condone or support a statement simply because I am quoting it here. However, it should be noted that I came away from the emails agreeing with many, if not all, of the authors on various points.
3.) I'm not usually in the habit of posting or re-posting such surveys; this is an isolated case used to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity. Ben Abraham and company do a much, much better job of summarizing game blog posts and opinions on a regular basis over at the noted site Critical Distance. If you do not already visit that site regularly, please do so. It's undoubtedly worth the read! I hope this post is in no way taken to be a step on anyone's toes. Please contact me if you have a problem with something written here, or if you feel that I have misquoted or misrepresented any of these comments in any way.
This was going to happen eventually. From BioShock asking us if we wanted to kill a little girl to Grand Theft Auto's prostitutes, the artistic question of video games is not what you're willing to do but what you're not willing to do. A video game, in all its glorious simulacra, presents us with the quintessential Ring of Gyges. How would you behave if there were no consequences? The airport massacre in Modern Warfare 2 is a lot of different things. It's a PR stunt, it's an artistic statement about making sacrifices for the greater good, but in the end it's mostly about the player themselves. For the players that boast they shot every civilian and could care less about their screams, one has to wonder how well they could handle playing a Half-Life 2 mod like Robert Yang's "Handle with Care" where you are in a homosexual relationship. I have my doubts. What the airport massacre really means, for video games, is that we have about run out of things to shoot that will test your limits. I cannot wait to see what they come up with next.
It's violent, gratuitous, unpleasant, and a very cheap shot. It's also possibly the best example of manipulating of player psychology that I've seen in a long time.
Not one of the people commenting on the "No Russian" level of Modern Warfare 2 online could have been entirely unaware of its content going in. That news had "leaked" days prior to the game's release. Those commentators, many of them having extreme emotional reactions that ranged from anger to revulsion and many shades between, not only had an idea of the content but were also given the option to skip it entirely.
But they didn't, I suspect that even ignorant to the content few players will have selected the option to skip it. Potentially Disturbing content? It's a game; I can handle anything it can throw at me, of course I don't want to skip. The natural belief is that the level will be entertaining in some form even if only that of morbid curiosity, after all games are not supposed to make you feel uncomfortable.
What occurs next is soulless and utterly offensive, however there's still that sense that being a game this will ultimately be in the service of a "greater good" that there will be some justification, some reward. Clearly killing the terrorists doesn't work, that leads to a game over screen, so obviously the correct of action is to play along, maintain the facade, it'll all work out right in the end, that's how games function. A single gunshot as you attempt to make your escape. The ending is pure nihilism, casting your actions over the last few minutes as singularly void of meaning or worth. There was no greater good; there was no entertainment, only death and destruction.
You've been played, you chose to play this level and you got what you asked for.
Infinity Ward couldn't have pulled the player's strings better if they had asked: "Would You Kindly?"
I haven't played it yet, so I can't comment on my experience of it—but I recently had my experience with the first Modern Warfare thrown into question. In playing the AC130 mission, I had begun firing indiscriminantly at the soldiers, who are difficult to make out from enemies. Friendly soldiers flicker only slightly with flares, so I had thought I had unknowingly killed some, and I felt very conflicted. To me, the game had something powerful to say about the indiscriminate, unbalanced nature of modern warfare. In discussing it recently I found out that the mission actually stops if you kill any friendlies —I had misinterpreted the coincidence of my firing, men dying on the battlefield, and the repeating dialog warning you off firing on friendlies as if I had actually done so. The realization that it wasn't actually possible in turn cheapened my entire experience of the game.
I think the discussion around the mission is one of the most fruitful benefits of Infinity Ward's attempt. People are slowly coming to grips with the notion that a game can make you play a role as opposed to just playing with its mechanics. Still, it's clear even without playing it that they have been similarly, perhaps unnecessarily, heavy handed about it. In combining it with typical big budget action sequences, such as the mission based on The Rock, I'm concerned that gamers will confuse an attempt to create an emotionally varied thrill ride for actual thematic depth, much like sequences in the first Modern Warfare. A few philisophical text quotes are no stand in for what games can actually achieve in terms of thematic depth through player agency. But gamers are so desparate for more meaning, they'll take any stand-in. I see it as a sign post in the road of what's to come, and so it helps people come to grips with what games will be, but at the risk of turning off some to the possibilities. Once I play I'll be able to decide if the risk was worth it.
I haven't played Modern Warfare 2, but I probably will at some point in the future. What I want to do in the short space you have provided for me is examine one of the underlying assumptions that we gamers and game critics sometimes make when jumping to defend or attack these kinds of inclusions in games.
The assumption is this; that "it's just a game". This tired old argument used to be regularly pulled out in defence of any game that attracted the sensationalising gaze of the mainstream media. Thankfully, this is decreasing in frequency inversely to the rising level of awareness of games as a serious medium for creative expression (or to use Ian Bogost term, an "earnest" medium). Implicit in our rejection of the "just a game" defence is that games actually do mean something, or can mean something – even to the point of perhaps being considered "art".
But what we seem to have overlooked in our rebuff of the "just a game" argument and in our acceptance of the potential within our chosen medium is that there will come a point where games can make not only a positive, artistic statement but also a negative one. The community is quick to apologise for the violence and mature themes of games like Grand Theft Auto IV and even now Modern Warfare 2, but we haven't come to grips with the fact that if games mean something, eventually we are going to have to start actually examining what they are saying.
It is my belief think when we seriously start doing that, start earnestly examining some of the games we play, we may very well decide that we don't like what we see.
So let's ask what "No Russian" is saying about itself; about its players; about the world at large? I am encouraged to see that some of the people who have played through the level are starting to answer these questions.
I don't have much to say about this specific incident, but I do think it's important that we're having these conversations around video games. I'm encouraged that there are developers interested in engaging players by placing them in uncomfortable situations, even if they might do so for less than-conscientious reasons.* It has become more and more clear to me that a large segment of the gaming populace is growing up and expecting games to fill some of the same artistic and cultural niches as art, film, and literature. The fact that portions of the industry are paying attention and trying to address this need on some level can only mean good things for video games and our cultures' perceptions of their legitimacy. Ideally, at some point in the near future, there won't be so much controversy over every piece of ham-fisted commentary in a video game, but only intelligent and reasoned discourse over the legitimacy of it.
* That is not my assessment of IW, just a general observation.
I'll be quite frank: I'm shocked, although my all rights I shouldn't be, at the media's reaction to controversy. Every few years the media, a watchdog group, or some overly conservative segment of the public, gets up in arms about a video game and uses it as an opening to spew their rhetoric. I remember the Mortal Kombat and Night Trap debates quite well. This time, however, the focus seems to be less on the actual violence, an more on the act of committing heinous acts of terrorism, which boggles the mind.
There are very few instances of pure black and white, pure right and wrong in the world—it's full of grays. Killing is bad, yes, but even the most heroic war vet has blood-soaked hands. Stealing is wrong, but if you're homeless and hungry, it may be an unfortunate fact of life. In order to stymie the forces of evil, you may very well have to drop a couple of nukes.
Modern Warfare 2, much like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, simply demonstrates the unattractive idea that peace is sometimes born from horror. In that sense, Infinity Ward one-upped Kojima in that it showed in great no holds barred brutality what may very well be a fictional take on espionage truths. My only gripe is that there weren't, from what I could tell, children in the scene which would've added more emotional punch.
Some will state it's just the further corruption of our American values; I see it as video gaming making yet another stride in offering content that makes us question our actions. The true horror here may be the Polly-Anna world view held by some members of society.
What I would say in regard to the "Airport Scene" in Modern Warfare 2 is that from my understanding the issue to my mind is pretty cut and dry.
As a visual spectacle I don't find it that disturbing. It's so obviously manipulative that it fails to shock my sensibilities. Besides, when all is said and done the game is not that realistic, contrary to what is sometimes said I doubt anyone would mistake that scene in full resolution for a video of an actual incident.
Further I would say that in play I'm sure I would find the scene mostly annoying rather than affecting. Because it seems that the player simply walks along with nothing to do while cartoons writhe in agony. As such the majority of the scene is entirely fat, teaching you nothing about how the game works and offering no interesting decisions to be made.
Even to observe it as a piece of linear media, it strikes me as surprisingly antiquated. A group of Europeans in suits and flak jackets wreak havoc on an airport with machine guns? What is this, the '90s? The fact that they avoided using the most obvious images of terrorism for the present moment tells me that they wanted to be controversial, but didn't have the guts to take it all the way. To me that makes them come off as hacks rather than provocateurs.
Fullbright's Steve Gaynor very kindly and humbly pointed me in the direction of another (rather excellent) blog post by Tom Chick:
Anything I have to add has been expressed more clearly and eloquently already by Tom Chick on Fidgit which I won't try to one-up.
Similarly, Michael Abbott of Brainy Gamer pointed me towards a piece by Tom Bissell of Crispy Gamer. He has recently written an interesting post about Modern Warfare 2, although on a different subject.
I started my own post about it this morning before discovering Tom Bissell's essay at Crispy Gamer. Reading his take made me abandon my own piece because he basically encapsulates everything I intended to say. The sequence fails on multiple levels, but we shouldn't see it as a failure of conception or ambition, or an indictment of the limitations of games. It's a failure of execution. Games can deliver what Modern Warfare 2 is trying to achieve, but to succeed they need to do it smarter and better than Infinity Ward did in this case. As I said, Tom articulates this perfectly in his piece.
So aside from saluting Tom's essay, I'm afraid I don't have anything meaningful to add to the conversation.
Finally, Trent Polack of Polycat pointed me to a (then new) blog post at his own site. You can read it here.
Game Bloggers on Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian," Continued
As promised, I'm continuing to record responses from game bloggers and critics as they come in.
I am very grateful to author and blogger Jesper Juul for taking the time to write this brief response:
I haven't played the game yet, but watched the video and so on.
Overall, it appears to be a flawed attempt at something that could potentially be interesting. Much has been made lately of the idea that games should give players actual ethical choices. You could imagine a very tragic game that involved the player having to choose whether to sacrifice civilians for a greater good—this would be a deeply uncomfortable and deeply interesting. Modern Warfare 2 is vaguely hinting at this possibility, but appears to fail to give the player a proper context for this or an actual choice, hence the expressive power of this possibility is basically lost, and it ends up just being simply shocking.
It's also very optimistic of the developer to expect no public backlash.
The always-thoughtful Roger Travis of Living Epic pointed me to his latest blog post on the subject. Travis claims most of the critics he reads have come down against the chapter, although I see the reaction as mostly 50-50. He does, however, add a very unique historical perspective on Infinity Ward's manner of storytelling:
It seems to me an undeniable fact that Infinity Ward, who put analogously atrocious action in Modern Warfare 2's predecessor, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, is maintaining a commitment to bringing the players of its games face-to-face with the ethical ambiguity of war. That fact by itself shows a development of game culture that mirrors the development that we can see in the homeric tradition when we look at that tradition diachronically, and pick apart its strata: in the Iliad, for example, the ethical simplicity of tales of glory becomes, over time, the ambiguous story of an Achilles who drags Hector around Troy, in front of his grieving parents, and then kills Trojan youths on Patroclus' funeral pyre. Indeed, this development leads in ancient Athens to tragedy, the ne plus ultra of literary ethical thought, where atrocities are used over and over to expose the fragility of our ethical claims and to strengthen our understanding of why we must make those claims nonetheless.
MW2 reaches in an old, old direction. Its failure to lay hold of the profundity it seems to seek is sad, but the reach itself means much more than I think many have acknowledged.
Nels Anderson of Above 49 tagged me in a tweet that points to his own blog post, which is quite perceptive and has even tinted my initial take on the level. From the post:
"No Russian" falls down because if you don't play this scene exactly how Infinity Ward wanted, they rub your face it in and say, "You'll do it again, just like I said this time." Any attempt to deviate from the intended sequence of events, including getting killed too early, means failure and having to try again.
There's absolutely no reason for this kind of strict control. The outcome of the mission is your character being killed and framed by Makarov.
The scene would have been vastly more effective if firing upon the terrorists, being killed by the Russian SWAT response and making it to the end of the level all had the same outcome. In the case of the former two, a fade to black after being shot and then briefly back into consciousness where Makarov reveals his intentions. It doesn't even need a separate failure state, beyond making the presentation a little dynamic.
In short, you should play "No Russian" just once. Succeed (get to the end) or fail (take too many hits, fire on your "allies"), the outcome should be the same. But this would allow the player to express themselves if they felt as Anthony Burch did, and simply couldn't watch the atrocity anymore. It would set it apart as something different, asking you to sit up and pay attention.
Modern Warfare 2 controversy, Demon's Souls Halloween goodness and Half-Minute Hero
Just a couple of quick bits here… I'm still trying to get all of my must-reviews wrapped up before Dragon Age hits. I have a feeling that unless it's some kind of catastrophic misfire, the next few weeks are going to be pretty involved with that title.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2: So the word is basically out, and the level that has been causing all the commotion has been revealed to be used as a scene-setting device—basically establishing some context for the player's actions in the rest of the game. That was pretty much what I expected, but… it was also relayed that wherever this scene appears in the final retail version, it will be preceded by a warning about "graphic content" and the option to simply skip it and jump right into the part where the player goes back to being a "good guy".
I don't want to shoot my mouth off since the game isn't out and no one really has the full story nor proper context where this controversial segment appears. However, if the content is preceded by a warning and can simply be bypassed with the press of a button, I wonder what value is in including it at all? Although I don't object to the content if it's used in an intelligent way that might spur discussion or cause a player to ask questions on a meta-level, it seems as though any potential benefit is immediately negated by the developer (Infinity Ward) being willing to have players ignore it.
Is it really worth making some kind of bold political or artistic statement if the person making the statement gives the intended audience a warning that it's coming, and the choice to simply not partake of it? At this particular point and in this particular situation, I don't profess to know the answer, though I do admit that it makes me wonder…
… and while that particular question is being pondered, Infinity Ward has put out a brand-new advertisement for Modern Warfare 2 which completely obliterates any confidence I may have had in them to raise the bar. You can see it below, and the juvenile, immature slant of the piece pretty much speaks for itself. (… and what it says isn't good.)
Demon's Souls: Uber-publisher Atlus has just announced that there will be a special Halloween event for players who have their PS3s connected to the Internet. Based on the premise that the "Old One grows stronger" on this particular day, it's been suggested that the game will take on a Pure Black Tendency, weakening players' strength and increasing the attack power of enemies. Also, certain hidden events can only be seen during Pure Black.
Although there has been no specific information other than informing players that they should be online during Halloween, be on the lookout for these things if your world turns Black:
Primeval Demons dropping valuable Colorless Souls appear, Black Phantoms Miralda, Scirvir, Rydell, Satsuki, and Selen appear (all holding rare items to be won) and the gate to the Execution Grounds in the Boletarian palace opens (World 1-1). The likelihood of certain items being dropped by enemies increases as well.
If nothing else, it might be worth it to jump on and pick up some of those Colorless Souls… they're necessary to upgrade the enchanted weapons, and who doesn't need an upgraded enchanted weapon?
Half-Minute Hero: I should be putting the finishing touches up on the review for this little-known PSP title tomorrow. Look for it soon, but at the risk of repeating myself, I will say that I totally love it and anyone who calls themselves a fan of JRPGs or satirically irreverent, intelligent design needs to pick up.
(Incidentally, the latest copy of GamePro arrived as I was writing this, and I was thrilled to see that the staff picked Half-Minute Hero as game of the month over such heavy hitters as ODST, Forza and Mario & Luigi: Inside Story. Fantastic pick, fellows. Kudos.)
Now about that terror attack level everyone's talking about: A conversation with Danny Ledonne
In my review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, I disagree with my peers that the game is not a compelling example for games as art, rather it's perfect for a sports argument. Take 36-year-old David Dague of Chicago. When interviewed by The Associated Press, he said the game's launch is like the start of football season for a sports fan, and the comparison couldn't be more fitting.
But there's another, more obvious landmark the game reaches in the form of its controversial level, "No Russian."
In it, the game allows you to play an American implant into the Ultranationalist Russian terror cell, forced to take part in an all-out assault on a civilian airport in Russia, beginning with an assault rifle attack at a security checkpoint.
It's the game groping for an argument that games can be affecting and relevant art. In the end, Modern Warfare 2 is definitely art, but it's as confused, awkward and juvenile as several other titles you can mention.
Still, I believe it was a brave decision on Infinity Ward's part to portray this horrific act ripped straight from the headlines. Today it evokes most recently the tragic shooting at Fort Hood, where a seemingly disgruntled Muslim Army major opened fire at dozens similarly lined up as in the game, killing 13 people.
It also evokes most recently the shattering Mumbai attacks last year. And it mirrors the 1985 simultaneous attack in airports in Italy and Austria. The Abu Nidal Organization laid claim for that attack involving assault rifles and grenades, which killed 19 total people.
In this new level, it appears the player, despite playing a terrorist, is held hostage to the narrative. They are being forced to kill dozens of innocents. This is no sandbox. Infinity Ward has a figurative gun to your head.
It made me think naturally back to the Columbine shooting, and the video game that incident spawned, indie-created Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Its creator, Danny Ledonne, drew international fire for the creation, despite its intention to force a question on players. He was blamed on CNN for being a part of a subculture that worships terrorists. But his intent was only to ask players hard questions, something he feels gamers are prepared for.
"Frankly I think video games are ready for anti-war video games, and by that I don't mean a game designed by Ian Bogost about protesting outside city hall," he said in an interview with me. "I mean a game, like film such as Born on the Fourth of July or All's Quiet on the Western Front, challenges players to view the moral failure that war constitutes, to become the disillusioned soldier who refuses to deploy."
Although he had not yet heard about the Modern Warfare 2 level, he believes many military shooters like the Call of Duty series "dignifies war-marking and exalts organized violence when executed by the correct factions." It's not surprising, then, that the American military uses first-person shooters to condition its troops.
"SCMRPG calls this violence and its origins into question, forcing the player to introspect into the purpose and meaning of such violence, rather than legitimizing it in the conventional context that Call of Duty does," he says.
It's baffling to him that critics of the Grand Theft Auto series keep silent on military shooters, because they promulgate a pro-military, sanctioned violence ideology. "It is clear that violence can be justified in the minds of some when represented through a certain cultural lens. I look forward to games that challenge that, as some indie Flash games such as Border Patrol, September 12 or Muslim Massacre have by satirizing the neoconservative's position on border security and U.S. foreign policy."
Ledonne goes on to hope for games where you're faced with decisions on whether to follow orders. In the airport scene, there is no such choice. You either watch the horror, or take part, but the only reason why the player's character doesn't just off the terror leader right then and there is to prolong the story.
"Would you rape an Iraqi woman if the rest of your squad was?" he asks. "Would you hook electrodes up to a hooded detainee's genitals if it were deemed standard operating procedure? Would you drop white phosphorous from a helicopter or indiscriminately blow up a building from a predator drone if it were 'just following orders?' Would you tell your wife about any of it when you returned home? These are the questions modern war games should be asking players."
I agree. But first I think there needs to be that first step. As deplorable as it may sound to advocate a simulation of reality-based slaughter, it's a conversation starter, and the conversation needs to be had before video games can address the issues Ledonne advocates. He made a bold statement through his game, and he was reviled for it.
As clumsy as it is, Modern Warfare 2 has too broken the taboo that player-controlled terror attacks can't be done, at least in mainstream, high-budget titles. Infinity Ward and Activision shrink away from the controversy a bit, giving the player an option to skip the scene and making the obvious "American undercover" plot point.
But it's a start, and I applaud Infinity Ward for decision regardless. This level alone has assured the game's place in history, and the taboo needed to be put out there. Now that the door has been opened, I can only hope another developer can evoke that similarly chilling feeling, without having to evoke the TV serial dramas the game is so obviously and embarrassingly influenced by.
That Bay State of Mind: Modern Warfare 2's boom-filled campaign
This past weekend, Roland Emmerich's supposedly dismal explosion-fest 2012 raked in $60 million at the domestic box office. As with Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, it's a film right out of the Michael Bay school of big-Hollywood production: Substitute brain cells with "boom," add a little sappy orchestral music, and away we go to blockbuster status!
Bay's own Transformers 2, perhaps one of the worst and most mindless explode-athons ever made, stands as the top-earning domestic release for calendar year 2009. Reading the lengthy end credits for these films is like looking at the Vietnam War Memorial: You can't help but sigh and say, "What a terrible waste." So much talent... for such a worthless product. These are movies that don't ask anything of the viewer but to sit there and zone out as things blow up all pretty on the screen. You're not really watching a movie so much as witnessing a car wreck. A two hour car wreck. In slow motion. And they're typically very successful. They know what audiences want: escapism wrapped in a neat bow of mayhem and noise.
The above is a rather harsh prologue for a blog post on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but I want to be clear: I'm not saying the campaign for Modern Warfare 2 is as bad as Transformers 2 or 2012. It isn't even bad. As first-person shooter campaigns go, it's definitely in the 95th percentile of enjoyable shooting galleries.
But it's also a campaign that worries me. While playing through the brief solo mode (roughly five hours), I couldn't help but be reminded of the stereotypical Bay film: Things blow up, uber-macho soldiers shout, the player performs wild stunts (like jumping into a helicopter for the umpteenth time), and loud orchestral music plays. It doesn't seem to matter that the plot is poorly paced, makes very little sense, and no characters are developed. If I'm a typical M-rated gamer, all I'm supposed to care about is that I shot people and stuff blew up real purty.
More troubling is the fact that the first Modern Warfare campaign wasn't so obvious in its pandering. By all accounts, it was a more well-rounded story—easier to follow, filled with real danger and heroes for whom to root. By comparison, Modern Warfare 2 has all of the consequences (felt over and over and over; in fact, I'd go so far as to say that the impact of the initial terrorist sequence is mitigated by the overly dour atmosphere clouding the rest of the campaign) and none of the build-up. Things just... happen. The turn of events towards the end is equal parts silly and mystifying, and the denouement signifies little more than sequel bait.
Mission accomplished. Infinity War may have taken a large step backwards where its campaign is concerned, but the critics have already awarded their share of 9.5 ratings, glowing reviews, and premature "Game of the Year" hype. Sales-wise... well, we all know that Modern Warfare 2 is the new Sims. Or possibly Mario Bros. 3.
Compare this to Naughty Dog's recent magnum opus, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which has the graphics, the gameplay, and the story to boot. Uncharted 2 features a magnificent campaign that takes its time to fully flesh out its characters and build intrigue before startling the player with stirring action set pieces. Naughty Dog doesn't need to bludgeon the player with explosions and thumping Hans Zimmer because it has faith in the game's writing and characters to keep the player motivated when the dust of a particularly intense battle settles. Modern Warfare 2, on the other hand, seems content just to keep the player awake, like an ADHD-riddled child made to watch a fireworks display.
Sure, I enjoyed Modern Warfare 2's campaign. It was a brief, albeit not particularly memorable, escapist fantasy. An above-average guilty pleasure in a genre filled with guilty pleasures. But it could have been so much more.... Given the game's budget and sizable development team, I don't think it's so much to ask for more Dark Knight, less Transformers. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that Infinity Ward is paying more and more attention to its similarly spasmodic multiplayer, and the games' storyline will pay the price for being in the same "Please me now!!!" package.
Perhaps Infinity Ward underestimates its audience, or at least the more cerebral among us. It's nice to have a tasty snack every once in awhile, but even more deserving of the massive budget and media attention is a game whose action is earned, not forced. Or at the very least, clearly explained.
I've already given up on Bay and Emmerich. I don't want to give up on Infinity Ward. When Captains Price and MacTavish return, make sure they bring a real story with them.
Thoughts on leaked Modern Warfare 2 footage (Spoiler Alert!)
MEGA SPOILER ALERT FOR CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 2!!! DO NOT READ THIS POST UNLESS YOU DON’T MIND BEING… okay, I'm going to stop shouting now.
So, I'm not really a Modern Warfare fan. Military shooters don't do much for me, and despite all the accolades it racked up, I really wasn't impressed with the first installment. This may seem like heresy of the basest sort to some, but the method of storytelling didn't work for me, and the action didn't, either. Going further, the "big event" regarding the detonation of a nuclear weapon didn't have a fraction of the impact on me that it seemed to generate with basically everyone I talked to. The entire thing left me untouched. Couldn't have cared less.
This morning on Twitter, I saw a link come in mentioning Modern Warfare 2. I don't really give a rip about it and I've been skipping over most of the masturbatory OMG-look-at-this-new-feature news on it, but this particular tweet was from one of my recent follows who I perceive as being a pretty sharp dude, and his basic reaction to this piece of news was essentially "holy shit." That in itself isn't usually enough to get me to click a link, but like I said, this guy has had some interesting things to say, so I checked it out.
My impression? Holy shit.
Before saying anything else, go ahead and watch it now:
It's about eight minutes long, but once you get past the first opening segment, I doubt you'll have a problem staying with it. (Hopefully it will still be working by the time you click on it. Allegedly, Activision has been going around the Internet trying to remove the video where possible.)
So, what's this all about? As this post is being written, details are still extremely sketchy. Some people say that it's an extra mode in the game, whereas some (like myself) are betting that it's a game-opening scenario designed to set the stage for the rest of the campaign, thus providing an extremely graphic form of justification for the military action about to follow. Either way, it's provocative to say the least, and that's putting it extremely mildly. Doubly so, since the player is placed in the role of the perpetrator—that choice in itself being worthy of an entirely separate blog post.
To be perfectly honest, I have to admit that I was quite taken aback. I think it's fair to say that I was actually shocked, even. That's some trick considering how jaded I freely admit to being, and how desensitized I think I am, being raised in the American culture of constant violence-and-sex-enriched media. There may even have been initial traces of disgust... possibly outrage. Over the course of my video game career, I think it's safe to say that I've ended millions upon millions of virtual life spans, but there was something different about this video. The realistic nature of the depiction certainly had something to do with it, but more than that, I think it absolutely taps into what has now become a very common underlying fear for many people- and, unlike certain phobias, fear of terrorism and large-scale violence certainly does have a basis in reality.
However, I'm not here to rail against the game or to make any sorts of accusations against the ethics or intent of the developers. Far from it.
Once past my initial response, my only thought was that I sincerely hope the game uses such powerful imagery for something other than fuel driving another testosterone-fueled, flag-waving us-against-the-inhumans FPS. What kind of message could be relayed or posed to a player after making such a powerful first impression? What kind of thoughts could be introduced, or what kinds of issues could be examined from such an unorthodox, uncomfortable viewpoint? As shocking as this segment may be (and I shudder to imagine the media's reaction once they get wind of it) as a critic who is absolutely in support of the medium’s maturation, I definitely see this as a huge opportunity.
Will Infinity Ward take a difficult high road and make the most of it, or will this sure-to-become-infamous segment of gameplay be seen as some sort of misguided sensationalism? No one really knows what its true function is, and the people already in the loop certainly aren't talking…
[Update: The internet in action! Isn't it wonderful? It seems that Robert Bowling of Infinity Ward (@fourzerotwo) has either pulled or identified a reason for pulling the Youtube video in question. Either way, the video is no longer up due to "concerns" registered. I'd call that a win for sensible gamers everywhere.]
The Brainy Gamer blog featured a terrific post today directed at Infinity Ward's questionable "FAGS" advertising campaign, in which Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels decries grenade spam. It's covert advertising for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, of course, although the acronym with which said message is provided is obviously the source of the most worry.
Abbott astutely covers the seeming non-response by Infinity Ward's target audience:
If we want to teach boys why compassion and civility are essential to their development as men, we must do it one lesson at a time. We can disapprove of EA and Activision's despicable choices, but we shouldn't presume our outrage will impact the underlying reality. It's not about the games or the ad campaigns; it's about how we raise and teach our kids. We have created this callous consumer, and we should expect marketers to target him accordingly. Are companies who sell games and music and body spray complicit in all this? Of course. Are they to blame? No.
Again, said beautifully, and Abbott goes on to say in the comments section that no one should be giving Infinity Ward a free pass.
My one comment in all of this, however, is that Abbott's view about how the gaming audience has received the marketing is somewhat muddled, if not overly pessimistic.
For one, Abbott starts the post by saying that the gaming blogosphere has already unleashed a degree of backlash at Infinity Ward, but then says the YouTube comments for the advertisement in question support the unstated theory that this sort of brazen insensitivity appeals to gamers (who, by the way, are primarily adult in audience, and not "youth," as is sometimes declared).
I don't think Abbott is necessarily wrong, but I do think this sentiment needs some sorting out. Certainly, gaming blogs represent a more pointedly academic or thoughtful perspective than most gamers bring to the table, but that does not mean the "backlash" sentiment isn't present in many gamers—many who are undoubtedly homosexual. I think (or at least I hope) these blogs tap into an underlying sentiment in the reactive, progressive portion of this culture... the portion that wants to clear the air before investigating a bit further as to how an ad like this serves as "cultural artifact" or how the game itself stands alone (and I do believe it stands alone).
Does that mean the outrage somehow washes out support for the ad? Not at all. I think Abbott is striking at something far sadder than "the average gamer" in his post: He mentions how insensitivity is in and empathy is out in our culture, and I think this is true to a certain extent... among conservatives.
I don't mean to turn a discussion about video games into a political rant, but to be honest the word "conservatism" isn't merely political these days. Conservatism in our society has now taken on the form of the man or woman who is self-serving, immediate surroundings first and thinking outside the box a distant second. It isn't a Southern or Republican trend; this has become the mode for all citizens of our country—and perhaps Western democracies in general—who would rather be seen as stoic and impassionate than somehow "weak" for their ability to step outside their own myopia.
I believe that is what allows some to find some sort of comfort in this advertisement. It represents niche thinking to a supposedly niche market (which gaming is not), a warm blanket for those who feel best when they can throw darts at the rest of the world with impunity. I don't think it necessarily has to do with gaming, or the way all games are currently marketed. If you look at Sony's recent PS3 ads, aimed at men and women alike, you'll find something far more humorous, warm, and mature about our current gaming culture than the odd EA "Sin to Win" promotion would evidence. I believe these kinds of advertisements are definitely the outliers.
The backlash is out there... and it will trickle down slowly in response to conservatism. Like yin and yang, it's impossible to have complicity without scrutiny, and I do think the scrutiny will eventually balance out the free pass many have given to Infinity Ward's PR department here.
That said, there is also the issue of whether to point blame at Infinity Ward as a whole. Abbott suggests that we cannot point fingers at the company but then closes the post with this:
The day your son gets a load of "Sin to Win" and decides he'd rather spend his money on another game is the day we begin to turn this around. And the marketing will follow suit. Those PR types know how to hit a moving target.
Well, wouldn't buying another game mean blaming the company? I doubt the enormous team responsible for Modern Warfare 2 itself has much to do with this particular ad, and it's important to recognize that big-budget games are not made by homogenous entities but rather teams of hundreds, if not thousands, of talented men and women who slave over computers with artistry, not advertising, in mind. Suggesting that an informed consumer would reject the product indicates that everyone responsible for the game is culpable, and I do not think this is the case at all (and I'm sure Abbott agrees, which makes his final paragraph all the more puzzling).
Is not buying a game the most rhetorically effective way to reach a company's PR department? In the case of EA's Sin to Win competition, the backlash was so strong that EA found itself on its heels and apologized. I think the best way to reach advertisers is to reject the advertising... not the products themselves.