Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Modern Warfare 2 Gets Its Hands Dirty

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the sixth game in a franchise that hasn’t changed in six years. It’s a first person shooter in the purest sense of the genre: a gun bobs in front of your face, and you shoot it. No jumping puzzles. No challenge, really, beyond surviving your march through the level.

And it works. Year after year, Call of Duty games bring home the bacon. You can always count on Game Of The Year editions. Gamestop announced yesterday that Modern Warfare 2 is the most-preordered game of all time, ever, period.

This is a series set in its ways – so it’s nice to see Modern Warfare 2 pissing people off.

Last week, a clip of MW2’s opening sequence hit the internet. It only took Activision five minutes to shut it down, but it was too late. Millions saw terrorists – one of which was the player – open up on civilians in a crowded airport lobby.

Reactions were varied in their severity, but the shock was universal. Infinity Ward’s blockbuster, the inevitable Game Of The Year, was asking you to gun down innocents in cold blood.

Modern Warfare 2, I salute you.

Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.

Context: you’re a CIA agent in deep cover with a terrorist cell. In pursuit of some (apparently) more critical objective, you participate in the massacre of civilians at a crowded airport. Said civilians flee, scream, and cower before your gun.

Perhaps this says something about me, but I was more surprised by the presence of a plot. To their credit, Call of Duty have always been known for terse, minimalistic plots, relying on the salt-and-pepper of good writing and unfussy plotting. The morality drama of an undercover agent committing atrocities to protect his story seems more 24 than anything.

But back to the violence. Discussing the massacre level with Andrew, he suggested it was a bit of shock-jockeying, a potentially strategic leak to distinguish MW2 from a crowded field of holiday releases. I disagree. In my opinion, MW2 was at least partially responsible for the uncrowding of the field, pushing back shooters like Bioshock 2 and Army of Two: The 40th Day. If anything, it needs less visibility, and this Activision press release seems to confirm genuine chagrin on the developer’s part:

The leaked footage was taken from a copy of game that was obtained illegally and is not representative of the overall gameplay experience in Modern Warfare 2.

…At the beginning of the game, players encounter a mandatory “checkpoint” in which they are warned that an upcoming segment may contain disturbing elements and they can choose not to engage in the gameplay that involves this scene. Consistent with its content, the game has been given an “M” for Mature by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. The rating is prominently displayed on the front and back of the packaging, as well as in all advertising.

They meant for this to be a surprise.

For me, the issue of taste is irrelevant. This isn’t the first time innocents have been killed in a game – thanks, God of War – and they die wholesale in film and TV. MW2’s massacre provokes outrage because it puts the gun in the player’s hand. They don’t watch. They participate.

For once, the Call of Duty franchise is using the medium to its fullest potential.

They twice brushed this level of greatness in Call of Duty 4. First, the player spent two minutes behind the eyes of a deposed dictator as he’s thrown in a car, driven to an arena and executed in front of a roaring crowd; later, players stumbled around a nuclear wasteland, watching a mushroom cloud tower into the sky before dropping dead of radiation poisoning. You feel his heartbeat fade through your controller.

And now Infinity Ward is making us shoot civilians. It’s the kind of fly-in-your-face developing that ignores the consumer in favor of delivering a purer experience. The word for this is avant garde. Excepting Bioshock, the genre seldom pushes the envelope this far.

Thus, Modern Warfare 2 lives up to its semi-absurd title. This isn’t World War II, where you storm the beach and raise the flag for Uncle Sam. This is terrorism. This is unfair. This is dirty and uneven and it’s going to leave you feeling wrong.

Many are doubtlessly debating the morality of forcing the player to shoot dozens of unarmed innocents. I ask them: is it any better to watch it happen?