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.
Read more on the Game in Mind blog.