4 out of 5 cookies – totally liked it a whole lot.
Upfront: There will be spoilers in this post.
The hype that greeted this game was understandable, and I will concede that it did live up to expectations. That being said, is there anything left to say about it that hasn’t been said elsewhere? For that matter, is there anything new to say about the first person shooter genre in general? The utter popularity of the Halo series still mystifies me, and I will concede that every single one of the Call of Duty games, including this one, is worth a play-through, but I don’t understand the compulsion of the tens of thousands of gamers who pop them in again, and again, and again. Granted, I am essentially not an on-line gamer, and both of these series garner most of their loyalty not from their campaigns and stories, but from their multi-player experiences. So, to answer my own question, those loyal Halo and Call of Duty fans are not playing the campaigns through again, and again, and again, but rather meeting each other on-line for war games. Even so, for those players, the only thing the new iteration is offering is, essentially,some new maps, locales, environments, and weapons. Which is all well and good, but basically you’re still hiding behind something and popping out to shoot – its just that in the old game you’re hiding behind a barrel and in the new game you’re hiding behind a metal crate. I just wonder if the $60 price tag is worth it.
Back to my original question which was, is there anything new in the first person shooter genre? I think one of the attractions of the first person shooter (known as FPS in gamer parlance) is that but for a few, slight differences from game to game, the controls tend to be exactly the same whether you are playing Halo, or Call of Duty, or Medal of Honor, or Blacksite: Area 51, or Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, or the hundreds of other FPS’s out there; The right trigger shoots your gun, the left trigger helps you aim your gun, and the two control sticks move you around. Easy. Pick up and go. This is not to say that there is not a lot to learn through hours of play to fine tune your FPS skills. After all, each new map is a new opportunity for strategy. I only point out that the essential characteristics of the FPS games are simple and pretty much do not vary from game to game. And so, I would say that the multiplayer experience that keeps millions of people popping in these FPS games even years after purchase is that, like any good sport – like, say, tennis – the initial experience is simple – hit the ball over the net in such a way that your competitor cannot return it. Such a simple premise then becomes much more complex as the competitive nature of humanity becomes involved. In essence, the FPS, like a good sport, exploits the sheer complexity of that which at first glance seems so simple. Take any sport; football, basketball, golf. The bare mechanics of the game can be described in a sentence, maybe two. But it is the endless incarnations of strategy and cunning, the addition of the human mind, that exposes that underneath the simple premise is an intricate network of options.
But Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has promised to be so much more. Some critics have described it as the first anti-war game. Others have braced themselves for the controversy they felt sure would come – and it did, for a whole month, and then went away. Honestly, there was more controversy about the possibility of controversy than any real controversy. (Controversy that, by the way, the game itself anticipated and approached, oddly enough, right up front when you press start. But more on that later.)
Essentially there were two things in the game that supposedly hadn’t been done before – 1. A realistic batch of firefights on our home turf, right here in the good old US of A, and 2. A portion in which you the player are cast in the role of terrorist and the mission is essentially to slaughter innocent civilians.
So let’s start right off with #1. The jump-around-the-world plot does hit contemporary suburbia in this incarnation Call of Duty. You run through a rather impressive McMansion at one point. In fact, if I was rich and in the market to build my own house, I would have an architect design me that house to begin with and then together we would start making my own modifications such as adding a hot-tub and stuff. Such is the graphic detail of this game that I do believe the layout of the house as provided in the game would be more than enough for an architect to work with. You also engage in a firefight in a casual restaurant that looks surprisingly like a Ruby Tuesday I used to wait tables in long ago. By the end of the level the restaurant is smoldering rubble. Here I pause to give props that none of the damage to this restaurant happens instantaneously, rather, it is all gradual. The level starts with the restaurant in tip top shape, and by the end, brick by brick, table by table, wall by wall, if has been effectively dismantled and destroyed. Within the context of the game, this is potent stuff, but not nearly as potent as some critics and reviewers made it out to be. Hell, visually speaking, the entire game Turning Point: Fall of Liberty takes place in 1940’s USA beginning with a Zeppelin attack on New York City, and culminating in a Washington DC disturbingly draped in Nazi flags as the Germans have taken over the entire country. I actually found the White House as portrayed under German rule in that game much more thought-provoking than the battlefield version of DC that we are treated to in Modern Warfare 2. This is not to say that the glitchy Turning Point can even be compared to any Call of Duty game so don’t get your panties in a bunch. This is only to say that on controversy point number one my own opinion is that firefights in the homeland, as cool as they are, are not particularly controversial, nor particularly original, either plot-wise or visually. You decide:
The White House as portrayed in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
The White House as portrayed in Turning Point: Fall of Liberty
So on to controversy point #2 – you, the player, playing as a terrorist, strolling through the airport gunning down hundreds of innocent civilians. This is, in fact, disturbing as hell. For the record, in the context of the plot you are not actually a terrorist, but in fact, a good guy who is undercover so is forced into the role of terrorist in order to trap the baddies. It’s bloody, violent, and you can choose not to partake in the action. It also does ask the smart gamer to take a look at him or herself in a new way. Most gamers, myself included, have slaughtered thousands of people and creatures in video games. What this particular scene does is beg the gamer to ask what the difference is between this massacre and any other massacre that gamers participate in on a daily basis. It’s a good question and a great video game scene. But controversial? Is “Thou shalt not kill” controversial? The commandment itself doesn’t seem to have any loopholes. It’s just four words.
What is controversial is the very fact that it has been labeled controversial. As a matter of fact, when you first pop in this video game and press start you get this warning: “Some players may find one of the missions disturbing and offensive. Would you like to have the option to skip this mission?”
So here’s is an M-rated game full of graphic, intense violence, and sprinkled with salty language through-out – pretty much like any other M-Rated video game out there, but because of an interesting twist with a political message it gets an extra special warning with the option to delete scenes that you may (or may not) find offensive. Interesting. Does this not feel like an extra M in the M rating not for any violence, language, or nudity, but for a message? Is it not, in a way, an extra rating merely for political content or philosophy? It is not the game’s nor the developer’s fault for wanting to warn people up front. It is the fact that they feel they have to warn people up front that is tragic. It tells me a lot about the society that we live in – a society which feels that only a standard, generic warning is needed for limb-blowing-off violence, but if a game hits a single philosophical or political chord, it must have an extra special warning. Would there not have been an outcry if James Cameron were forced to put a special warning on “Avatar” – which, no doubt about it, has a rather caustic and critical message about recent American foreign policy – and then an audience invitation to skip the parts of it that they might find not suitable to their particular political outlook? I think the majority of Americans would find this a disgrace. So, why would we tolerate this with a video game?
Anyway, back to the game. Modern Warfare 2, like every other Call of Duty game, has famous war quotes sprinkled through out the load screens. But this time they have some sly digs at the Bush administration; Rumsfeld quotes about knowing the general vicinity of the WMD’s – they’re either somewhere either North, South, East or West – and Cheney quotes that paint him as nothing less than an asshole.
The plot is non-sensical, as was the plot of the last game, however, by being attentive, one can be rewarded with even more devious political stuff. Towards the end of the game for example, during a load screen, one of the main characters says ‘that the difference between us and them is that we don’t kill civilians’. What is meant by “we” of course is Americans and everyone aligned with us. This, of course, is a fallacy that thousands of Iraqi’s would attest to. As the game closes, it is this same character, who, for the sake of glory and wanting to take credit for all the success of the mission, begins systematically murdering the rest of the squad – including you, the player. A lesson in politics, that. Hardly the rah-rah warfest of most games of this type, Modern Warfare 2 knows that it exists in the same world as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. It also knows that what people, political entities, and your allies say they are and say they represent versus what they actually are and represent are often two different things.
Although on the surface these politics may seem subversive and rebellious, they are not. I once again point to the success of Avatar – a film that wears its progressive politics emblazoned and embedded above its ass like a college whore wears her tramp stamp. The difference here is that rarely has this been done in a game, and even more to the point that the developers felt the need to bury the political tinges so only an attentive player would catch them, and – on to the heart of the matter – apologize for them and offer their removal before the player even begins the game.
Almost all of the great war movies are actually anti-war movies; Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Platoon. And why shouldn’t it be the same with games?
Here’s (already!) a preview for Modern Warfare 3:
And lastly, always fun, some Xbox Live humiliation – video games aren’t always fun, sometimes they bring tears – but, ironically, that’s fun for everyone else!