Delivering a bombastic, explosion-filled experience that would make Hollywood proud, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 certainly does its best to raise the level of action portrayed in first-person shooters to new heights. Unfortunately it also takes a needless mis-step towards controversy in its campaign and ultimately tells a muddled and outrageous story that acts as an uneasy sequel to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Although many gamers and critics have already consider Modern Warfare 2 to be the greatest first-person shooter ever made down to its multiplayer and new co-op missions, I‘ve always played the Call of Duty games for their single-player campaign alone. This sequel to 2007's excellent, if morally-questionable, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, was always going to be a tough act to follow but I was curious to see if they would continue with their believable storyline.
In terms of immediate impact though, the game falls short of the ship-assault mission of the first game, opting instead for convoy mission through on occupied Afghani town. There's no shortage of bruh-ha moments however, and the depiction of the American war machine seems just as unflinching honest as the 'Charlie Don't Surf' level from Call of Duty 4. Just as in that level I was struck by an odd mixture of repulsion and enjoyment. On the one hand the game's sense of place is excellent and the set-pieces involved didn't fail to get my blood pumping. But on the other hand I felt uncomfortable as I watched my comrades celebrate the annihilation of an occupied enemy tenement - giving me an uneasy feeling of disgust.
In some ways I like the way Call of Duty does this. It replicates the perceived notion that American Marines enjoy their work a little too much and in some ways encourages sympathy towards those you’re shooting in the game. A feeling I'm not sure the developers actually intended. But this beginning is quickly curtailed and instead of delving into the interesting subject of the occupation of Afghanistan, the game moves on to other events, never returning to this environment to give it a purpose or a point. The levels in the first Modern Warfare felt a lot more cohesive, with themes running between them all, but this start seemed to raise the level of spectacle to a certain degree for its own sake.
Nowhere is this more blatantly achieved than in the infamous 'No Russian' level that has sparked a wave of reaction on both sides of the moral divide. I won't delve into too much detail, only to say that you have the option to shoot (or not shoot) civilians in an airport terminal as you fulfil your role as an American double-agent. By the time this level ends it's clear that the whole premise for this attack has been formulated because of your undercover status, but the manner in which this scene is portrayed and the mechanics involved are fairly reprehensible and unnecessary. There were better ways of getting this critical plot point across which could have given the game far more meaning and emotional weight that the overwhelmingly offensive feeling ’No Russian’ gave me instead.
From this point the campaign unravels even more. There are plot devices and narrative twists that make little or no sense when viewed in a wider context. Whereas Call of Duty 4 had a much clearer story structure as it followed the pursuit of two major enemies, this game sees the main antagonist barely feature at all except in that one controversial level. It's unclear about three-quarters into the game as to who that main villain actually is, and while ambiguity can work wonders in creating tension and mystery, its use in this game felt awkward and unprofessional.
Modern Warfare 2 also falls into the trap of taking what worked extremely well in the previous game and criminally over-using it. The way Call of Duty 4 made you play as an American Marine for nearly half the game before killing him off in a nuclear explosion was a stroke of narrative genius. It showed how pointless the actions of the military were in that part of the game and it portrayed a sense of mortality that I'd never experienced before in a game. It was the stand-out moment to that game but Modern Warfare 2 over-uses this theme so many times that the effect is virtually meaningless.
Instead of feeling like the actions of my fictional character or fictional army were pointless, I felt as if my actions as a player had been rendered worthless instead. What had been the point of playing this character when it was ended so suddenly and so illogically? I felt as if the game had been using me as a cheap way for getting a plot point across when it couldn't be bothered to do it any other way.
It reminded me of when I took part in National Novel Writing Month. The advice given to keep our word-count fluid and to make sure we completed our story was to include a momentous event whenever we got stuck. This feels like the exact process to writing the story in Modern Warfare 2. As if the writer hit a creative block every 30 minutes and thought that by dropping an exploding sun or flying saucer into the plot, they could help string along the nonsensical story. Using these big events with regular occurrence just made my experience of the campaign tiresome. As the game progressed the constant stream of money-shot moments made everything more confusing and tore the plot into pieces all for the sake of spectacle.
I'll admit that the set-pieces were exciting to play through and the journey to the end of the game gave me just as thrilling a ride that Call of Duty 4 did. But in terms of story and narrative, the last hour was an utter mess. There were monologues that meant nothing and I half expected a cameo from Solid Snake at one point in the vain hope I could pin this on a failed Metal Gear Solid parody.
If there was one part to the game that proved effective and moving then it was the visual spectacle of the American missions. Though the fighting of Russians felt a little staid, the scenes of white picket-fenced America, under the red skies of invasion didn’t fail in giving me the shivers. Coming up from a presidential bunker and seeing the White House, The Department of Justice and the Washington monument all ruined was a moment of eerie drama – a brief glimpse into an American nightmare come true.
But even these scenes ended up by feeling so artificial thanks to the ridiculous plot and the manner in which the levels felt so hermetically sealed from each other. No sooner had I defended these patriotic monuments then the game moved away and never returned to show what ultimately happened. There was no sense of closure or hint of continuation, even for what seems like the middle part of a Modern Warfare trilogy.
Once those final credits rolled I came away with a mixture of negative emotions. I realised that perhaps, in secret, I had put too much expectation on Modern Warfare 2 to continue the same coherent work it had started in Call of Duty 4. Sadly the game feels like a narrative mess, with needless controversy courted by an offensive level that will do nothing to show videogames as a progressive medium. I had expected Modern Warfare 2 to push the boundaries of first-person-shooters to some new level - yet all I found was a derivative work that made the franchise feel old and producing set-pieces for the sake of pure spectacle. Fine for the multiplayer or Spec Ops missions, but in the single player campaign it made Modern Warfare 2 feel like a pointlessly aggressive bully.