If Michael Bay made a video game—thoughts on Modern Warfare 2


— 11:13 AM on November 25, 2009

Since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 apparently broke records with the biggest-ever entertainment launch two weeks ago, odds are you've already played it. Heck, considering the brevity of the single-player campaign, you've probably finished that, too—unless you're one of the folks "boycotting" the game for its lack of PC dedicated servers.

I played it, too. On November 12, the day my Steam copy unlocked, I launched the game and didn't get up again until five hours later, after the credits rolled. Those five hours must have been the most intense I've ever witnessed in a game, and for better or for worse, they may well have redefined what I expect from a first-person shooter. Infinity Ward's latest title felt more like an interactive action movie than anything else, tightly intertwining grandiose cinematic visuals with intense run-and-gun gameplay.

Strip out the gaming element, and Modern Warfare 2 almost seems like the kind of movie Michael Bay might make if he had an unlimited budget and, inexplicably, no desire to include a busty female character. The SP campaign is rife with explosions, fast-paced action, several boatloads of military hardware (not to mention several military boats), and, disappointingly, a mildly confusing and unbelievable storyline. Just like the new Transformers movie.

While I loved the ride overall, Modern Warfare 2's storyline is one of the two things that soured the experience for me. Before I air my grievances, let me give you a chance to stop reading here if you haven't played yet and don't want anything spoiled. You've been warned!

I'm not a picky guy, especially when it comes to action movie plots. I loved all of the Rambo films. Die Hard, Predator, the first two Terminator movies... I love all of those, too. Modern Warfare 2 belongs in a category of its own in terms of sheer implausibility, though. The story trudges along well enough until the airport level, where you (as an undercover CIA operative) infiltrate a group of Russian terrorists and gun down civilians at the Moscow International Airport. While you have a million chances to terminate Vladimir Makarov—the villain you're supposed to "get close" to—and his acolytes, the CIA apparently wants you to murder civilians, instead. Okay, fair enough.

At the end of the mission, Makarov turns around and shoots you in the face, revealing to the world that an American participated in the massacre. Oh snap! In retaliation, Russia launches a full-scale ground assault on the United States mainland.

I could go on about how, say, one of your friends later hijacks a Russian submarine and detonates a nuke above Washington, D.C. to paralyze the invading Russian force, or how Captain Shepherd, the guy you serve under, eventually turns out to be behind everything. However, my suspension of disbelief had long since checked out at that point. Russia invading the U.S. already seemed implausible when Red Dawn did it in the 80s, but now? Seriously? Don't get me wrong; it's pretty original and kinda neat to stage combat missions in the Virginia suburbs around gas stations and burger joints, but I just couldn't get into it. Every time the game attempted to draw me in, my mind tugged me back to reality. "The Russians are invading? Really?"

If you don't share my disbelief, let me just point out some per-country military expenditure figures real quick: France spends more on its military than Russia, and the U.S. spends over ten times as much. Yet somehow, the Russians in the game have enough state-of-the-art military hardware to launch a full-scale invasion of the world's fourth-largest country—and they're winning. I guess that one American killing civilians in Moscow was all Putin needed to flip the "military superpower" switch under the Kremlin back to "on." Who knew?

Now, let me insert a brief disclaimer: I really wouldn't have minded if Infinity Ward explicitly set Modern Warfare in a starkly different alternate reality. As far as I can tell, though, it didn't. The game even starts in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan, for heaven's sake.

Fun gameplay could be a great antidote to the hare-brained storytelling, but here, too, I'm left a little disappointed. While the spectacular cinematic visuals are definitely enjoyable, and you do feel like an action movie hero at times, the Call of Duty series' raw gameplay mechanics don't seem to have evolved significantly since the first couple of games. You still face wave after wave of respawning enemies, moving from invisible checkpoint to invisible checkpoint while taking massive amounts of damage and killing enemy gunmen by the dozen. It's cool, though; your health regenerates within a few seconds if you hide behind a crate somewhere.

At times, progressing through Modern Warfare 2 almost feels like braving a hailstorm. You face a never-ending barrage of bullets, shells, and grenades without much of a chance to stop for a breather or admire the environments—which, by the way, are beautifully rendered despite the game's cross-platform nature. The combat gave me the same "wack-a-mole" feeling as Borderlands, except in this case, killing bad guys wasn't anywhere near as satisfying—not a single enemy shrieked while dissolving into a pool of acid.

Oh, sure, the designers tossed in a few vehicle sections, some stealth segments, and a brief cliff-climbing mini-game to break things up. Sadly, none of that really takes away from the unpleasantly repetitive slaughtering, which accounts for the vast, vast majority of the SP campaign. It's a shame, because Infinity Ward has otherwise cut out so much of the filler that normally permeates first-person shooters, condensing the experience to a breakneck cinematic ride. But instead of making it satisfying to become part of the action, the game almost forces you to endure punishment just to see how the story develops. It's almost as if Michael Bay had his own flavor of Twinkies, which you could only eat while running on a treadmill to burn off the calories.

I would have no problem forgiving unfulfilling gameplay if Modern Warfare 2 were meant to portray real-life urban combat realistically. But you're a nearly immortal one-man killing machine gunning down entire enemy regiments in a world where CIA operatives fire into crowds of civilians with machine guns and a post-Cold-War Russia sees nothing wrong with a full-scale ground invasion of the United States. This is far, far from a serious combat simulator. Why couldn't Infinity Ward just dial down the hailstorm a little, make individual kills slower and more meaningful, and include fewer of them?

Still, I can't get too mad at Modern Warfare 2. It looks, feels, and plays like nothing I've ever played before, and I loved the ride despite its flaws. I think this game may force some adjustments from other first-person-shooter developers, too. If they try to emulate it, we may see the rise of a new genre: the playable action movie. And I could get down with that—especially if someone manages to make it more fun.

   
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