Like many sequels, Modern Warfare 2 faced a nigh insurmountable challenge: to meet and exceed the high bar set by its predecessor. Spec Ops and Multiplayer are refreshing evolutions of the excellent experiences formed in the first iteration of Modern Warfare, and I thoroughly enjoyed them.
But in terms of the single player narrative, it fails.
(Spoilers after the Cut)
It’s not that I’m disgusted by the game’s infamous “No Russian” airport massacre or have issues with the mechanical aspects of the spawn points or enemy A.I. In light of Grand Theft Auto 4, I did not find the brutal terrorist violence of Modern Warfare immediately more shocking – if anything the storytelling twist it delivers was the more intriguing, and as fellow bitmobber Nicholas Kunst commented in Jacob Hinkle‘s “Now Boarding: Terrorism”, ‘it wasn’t an “OH SHIT!” moment… but an “oh, shit…” moment’. Your ‘fresh faced’ ernest enlisted man turned CIA plant guns down hundreds of Russian civilians in cold blood in a ham fisted attempt to earn the trust of one of the most dangerous men in the world, and you fail miserably – dooming thousands if not millions more to the slaughter. An “oh, shit” moment indeed.
But sadly, this was one of the few times where Infinity Ward did something profound and meaningful with the narrative of the game. The return of Captain Price was a welcomed surprise, but at no other time did I feel like I did in the first Modern Warfare: there is no painstakingly replicated, photorealistic Chernobyl or Pripyat to first sneak and later thunder through in a frantic game of cat and mouse. There are no moments of sacrifice where you bravely turn back despite being within an impending nuclear blast zone to save a downed chopper pilot, only to spend your last moments bleeding out under a blooming mushroom cloud. Even the intense first person accounting of a “fictional” coup in a “fictional” Middle Eastern Country is missing.
Somehow, I’m not compelled at all by the ruinous sprawl of Washington D.C. I’ve played Fallout 3, so the destruction is not “new” or “shocking”. 11/13/09′s “4 Guys 1Up” points out the “clean” destruction of American soil – we see no bodies, are not in danger of killing civilians at any point during the events of the Russian invasion. Maybe it was a missed opportunity to instill that crucial emotional resonance into the game. Maybe. I like to think that it’s more a matter of the sequence having no real present day correlation. Unlike the 1980′s (really, anytime during the Cold War), there is no fear or threat of Russian Invasion. What made the first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare truly compelling is that it touched on events that were (and still are, to some degree) unfolding at the time of its release. And with regards to Chernobyl, the designers went to the trouble of painstakingly recreating and placing a narrative sequence into a time and place that were relevant. Somehow, knowing what I’m experiencing is “real” – that the place is “real” – is more compelling, more involving, then simply taking a famous landmark and wrecking it like so many movies and games have done before.
I also found the potential for the International Space Station sequence is lost on me – I think it would’ve been far more intense to be floating, helpless above the Earth, while the world below irrupted into frightened panic and static ridden chatter then to simply be “blown away” by the “big reveal” (pardon the pun). I did feel something when Roach and Ghost died, but it was only a serviceable hatred and despise for your enemy, further turning him into a cardboard cut out villain, full of empty “I’m doing this in service of the greater good” rhetoric that falls flat when mixed with yet another plot to write himself into history as a hero. It’s a pity Infinity Ward did not take the time or have the lucky foresight to actually pull a prominent, heroic NPC from the first game and explore his turn and downfall. And since when did an “international taskforce” like 141 ever exist? (G.I. JOE this ain’t) I found it rather jarring and odd that men from the SAS are now suddenly in the command structure of the American military? At best, Infinity Ward implies so, but there seems to be no precedent or explanation for the acquisition of the special forces of one country into the control of another. It’s incredibly unlikely that such an event would ever happen, whether it be controlled by America or by NATO – such special forces assets are nigh priceless pieces of a country’s military arsenal.
On a pure gameplay level, Modern Warfare is still an excellent, frantic, polished shooter. But the narrative, the memorable and compelling moments that frame said action is missing. We are given but a shadow of what made the first game’s narrative great, and instead must subsist on a few almost-great moments, some flimsy justifications, and a set piece that fails to give meaning or pause to reflect about the events that unfold. But then again, that seems to be the problem with Modern Warfare 2′s story. Infinity Ward took the one foot they had firmly planted in reality with the first game, and pulled it back into fantasy.