My gaming has mostly been limited to Starcraft and Halo, and wishing to expand my horizons a bit, I embarked upon the single player campaign for Modern Warfare 2, a game recommended by friends and critics alike. My thoughts on it are decidedly mixed, with a general feeling of ambivalence and discomfort towards the game as a whole.
First off, I found the game’s setup confusing: the player starts out as one character, then after that character dies jumps to another character, then a third, then back to the second, etc. In different “missions,” characters that you were previously playing as show up as your non-controllable companions, with dialogue and everything. It took me a while to understand this and get used to it, it feels very strange, but apparently it is common to the previous Call of Duty games.
The first main mission of the game is a raid on a Taliban stronghold in a village in Afghanistan. The game is hyper-realistic and incredibly graphic, and this mission struck too close to home for me — real people are really dying in situations just like this. The game is not bloodless like Halo or set in some distant past or far future, it is set in the here and now. I’m not normally prudish or over-sensitive, but I found it hard to enjoy this mission, even when trying to look at it as a way of gaining more insight into the real Afghanistan conflict.
If that wasn’t enough, I was next dumped into a ridiculous CIA “deep cover” operation with a terrorist group killing hundreds of innocent bystanders at a Russian airport. The mission objective was only to “follow” the terrorist leader, so I did, shooting in the air so they wouldn’t suspect me but purposefully missing the civilians. Still, it was a painful mission to get through, slow and bloody and disgusting, and when I accidentally shot a crumpled but still alive civilian in the head, I felt nauseous.
At the end of the mission the terrorist leader revealed that he knew all along I was a spy, and shot me in the head. Was it because I didn’t kill civilians like the rest of them? No, apparently this is the end result regardless of how you behave. Which isn’t really very logical — wouldn’t the terrorist leader be worried about having a CIA operative shadowing him with an automatic weapon? But in the end it all turns out to be the work of a crazed Army general, so I guess it makes sense?
I had to take a break from the game after the airport level, and also had to take breaks after the combat that took place on US soil. This, however, really was awe-inspiring. “Walking” through a Virginia overrun with Russians and all the accouterments and materiel of war was an experience that I do not feel can be matched in written or movie form. I felt like I really was in an America transformed, a vision of the Cold War turned hot, or a future conflict at home rather than abroad. It was painful, and troublesome, but remarkable in its scope.
Questions inevitably formed: is this what it feels like to be invaded? Is this what war does to other countries? Could America’s actions abroad ever bring the war home to us? Would we be the least bit prepared? And if war is really like this, how is peace between invader and invadee ever achieved?
But before these questions can be fully fleshed out, we are in the Russian mountains on snowmobile, or breaching an oil platform holding hostages, or somewhere else in the world, seemingly at random, chasing ridiculous clues.
Modern Warfare 2 tells a story with the illusion of choice, but everything is planned and triggered, like most other games. The environments are open so you can explore, but, for example, I ended up getting stuck in a back alley in one level, hidden from enemy gunfire, and the fighting around me went on indefinitely. When I was finally able to get myself out and reach a checkpoint, the story instantly jumped forward, the hostage was captured, and we evacuated by helicopter. But none of that could happen as long as I sat in my alley, even if I had stayed there for hours.
The second-to-last scene in the game is one where I have only one course of action — to throw a knife. As long as I get it going in the general vicinity of the intended victim, the cinematic kicks in that shows me piercing his face and him falling over, dead. It is a powerful image — awful and sickening and without a point. And then the helicopter comes and the game ends, leaving me with this image of death as I go to sleep.
I guess I’m supposed to feel good about getting personal revenge on the man behind the destruction of the eastern seaboard and the deaths of hundreds of thousands or more. But why would I feel good about that? No one got their justice. Those people are not alive again, the destruction not reversed. What a sad, silly, unfulfilling note on which to end the game.
Ninety-six percent positive rating on Metacritic? Really? The technology is amazing, but that is par for the course these days. The story is — compelling? No. Gripping, I guess. The message? I don’t think there is one. I understand that “shooters” are a major genre in gaming. I understand that many people would like a game like this. But if 96% of game reviewers find this sort of thing appealing, I’m frankly happy to not call myself a gamer.