Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Blowing Green Smoke: Modern Warfare 2 Review

It’s incredibly hard to judge Modern Warfare 2 in a vacuum. Let’s say a hypothetical Test Subject A was locked in a vault for several months, beginning last June – when MW2 was revealed like the Second Coming to industry journos – and ending Nov. 10, when he/she was finally able to play the finished project. Having equally sampled the game’s three main components, Subject A would emerge blinking from the vault to proclaim: “Hey, that was fun! What a neat game!”

Outside the vault, however, the game’s merits are eclipsed by its commercial success. Modern Warfare 2 sold more than 5 million copies in North America and the United Kingdom on its opening day, earning over $300 million for publisher Activision. People cheer the commercial phenomenon, while the game itself seems almost secondary. Tertiary, if we’re talking about the single-player campaign.

Try to ignore the din of champagne corks hitting roofs – yes, Modern Warfare 2 is good. It’s really good. It grabs the player by the throat and doesn’t let go until its immensely satisfying conclusion.

But it doesn’t advance the genre. If anything, it conclusively proves that sticking to a successful formula guarantees a profit, time and time again.

And – perhaps most damningly – it isn’t better than Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Spoilers lie ahead. But really, if you’ve seen The Rock, nothing in MW2 will surprise you.

Great Expectations

The Call of Duty franchise is familiar to anyone with two thumbs and a consortium of brain cells to process flashing lights and loud noises. Until 4, the series kept itself between 1939 and 1945, leading the player through a series of morally unambiguous WWII battlefields.

Modern Warfare depicted a different war; a quiet, nasty war, fought with silenced weapons and knives. Nothing captured the contrast better than an interlude in which the player covered a spec-ops squad from an AC-130 gunship, dropping high-explosive artillery on enemies who are represented as tiny white smears on the thermal optics. It was novel, exhilarating and slightly chilling.

What made Modern Warfare so exceptional was not its facelift – the gameplay remained essentially the same, with no significant upgrades from Call of Duty 2 – but its brevity. The bombast and high drama of WWII was replaced by moments of detached sangfroid, as in the gunship interlude. Players were done storming beaches. Instead, they kicked in doors, knifed sentries and assassinated arms dealers from abandoned office buildings. Modern Warfare managed to exhilarate gamers without burying them in melodrama.

Cue Strings

Maybe it’s performance anxiety – after all, Modern Warfare snatched Game Of The Year awards from 2007 heavyweights Mass Effect and Bioshock – but Modern Warfare 2 dispensed with modesty in favor of huge, fuck-off Michael Bay-style theatrics. Russian paratroopers invade Washington, D.C. You get to strafe the National Mall with a Gatling gun. You storm the White House, and – get this – save it from bombing by popping green signal flares on the roof. Shameless.

You get blown off the International Space Station by a nuclear missile. There’s a snowmobile chase, a speedboat chase and a pursuit-on-foot through the slums of Rio de Janeiro. By the time their pulse returns to sustainable levels, the average gamer will ask: what the fuck is going on?

While developer Infinity Ward has again proven itself a master of scripted moments, they pushed Modern Warfare 2’s campaign too hard and too fast to be comprehensible. Forget the campaign’s many holes and its ultra-preposterous plot – it could have at least been easy to follow. Modern Warfare’s great triumph was its immaculate plotting and perfectly paced narrative. Its sequel blows out the amps. And our suspension of disbelief.

No Russian

Much has been said about the “No Russian” level, where Modern Warfare 2 tasks the player, a CIA agent, with murdering civilians to protect his cover. Before playing the game, I said Infinity Ward’s decision to make the player a terrorist was groundbreaking, several notches above mere shock-jockeying.

I was right; but I was wrong. Playing through “No Russian” the first time was indeed striking – watching commuters climb over each other to escape my gun was uncomfortable, and unlike anything I’ve ever played before. During the second playthrough, I found myself rolling grenades into crowds for maximum carnage. Maybe I’m a terrible person, but the game does nothing to discourage this. Shoot the civvies or spare them – the game doesn’t care.

Even worse, the massacre has zero narrative heft. Makrarov, the GQ-looking terrorist you take orders from, has no more presence than a plot device. Beyond “No Russian,” he makes one (1) appearance with a handful of lines. The decision to sideline Makarov diminishes “No Russian” and feeds the level’s critics (Hi, Andrew!) with plenty of credible arguments.

Under The Hood

Sure, Modern Warfare 2 batters our nerves with relentless action, and maybe “No Russian” isn’t avant garde so much as it’s barbaric (but still effective, I maintain, goddamn me). But its presentation is unrivaled. Everything from sound to animation to graphics are absolutely top-notch. At a seamless 60 frames per second, Modern Warfare 2 shows how much can be done with the Xbox 360’s aging chipset.

One undeniable strength of the Call of Duty series – Infinity Ward’s entries, anyway – is the ineffable sense of being there. Even if Modern Warfare 2’s core mechanics are sorely outdated (and they are), the game summons chaos, confusion and adrenaline like few other titles can.

Modern Warfare 2 is a fantasy of combat. It leaves out the endless waiting, the homesickness, the strain of life in a land where Everyone Wants To Kill You. It spares us the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And while the fantasy it delivers is pumped-up and retro to its core, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything more entertaining in this generation of games.

I mean, who didn’t love The Rock?