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Wot I Think: Modern Warfare 2

A videogame has been released. Also, the Beatles have split up and Kennedy's been shot. Hadn't you heard?

I haven't hurried, as such, to get my thoughts on this omnipresent game up on RPS, as it's not like it's going to affect anyone's buying decision after all that hype and backlash, is it? But here they are now, after having had some time to digest and absorb now the shouting's died down - for the singleplayer campaign, at least. Thoughts on the multiplayer will be along next week. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, then. Probably one or two things to say about it, I'd have thought...

Modern Warfare 2 is a first-person shooter. I know! It's a game about shooting people! Sounds pretty fun, right? It shouldn’t be so hard to write about something so simple. It’s a game about shooting people – that dance we’ve all been happily doing for 20-odd years. Why should I sit here, stuck for an intro that’s both insightful and entertaining, because the weight of controversy and expectancy around this latest step in that eternal dance is so stifling? Between mercenary publishers, arrogant developers and outraged consumers, so many pounds of flesh have been brutally torn out of what was only supposed to be a fun time. ‘Modern Warfare’. Yeah, it really is. There’s no war more modern than the one that’s raged across the web over the last few weeks.

Modern Warfare 2 is a first-person shooter. It is a game in which you play a soldier, killing other soldiers. It has rather pretty graphics, and it has a frightening amount of money very obviously poured into it – the animations, the incidental details, the acting… These things are only surface, of course, but they make a very real difference. They make the game lavish – at times, excessively so. It very clearly wants to be a blockbuster experience, and it very clearly is.

It is not a game of corridors – it is a game of big crazy action. It pings between war movie and James Bond, as Call of Duty has always done, but bigger, bigger, always bigger. Now unbound by even a pretence of contemporary comment, it’s way off into Tom Clancy territory. EMP bombs, military coups, exploding space stations, rogue agents… events that are theoretically plausible, but so over-the-top that they are, essentially, science-fiction. There's a reason you can't find a review that doesn't mention 24.

It’s hard not to be impressed by its sheer ballsiness and opulence – even during the sick feeling raised by That Level, the amount of detail, the sheer bombast and perfectionism of the presentation, is nothing short of incredible. The highlight, for me, of the entire game is the opening segment – the bloody tutorial. As you wander from basic weapons training to an obstacle course, you get a few seconds to gaze around a busy US military base in Afghanistan. Soldiers you’ll never see again are playing basketball, doing press-ups, fixing jeeps, smoking, talking, loafing, staring, mingling with native friendly soldiers.

It coolly conveys both the hyper-macho atmosphere and the sense of hostility and discomfort we suspect is present in its real-world equivlents. There’s just so much there, so much incidental visual detail packed in, and with clear pride. It's not the only time the game goes to such visual lengths, but it is the best of them.It’s an amazing sight. And you’ll probably only run straight through it without taking any of it in, because you want to get to the next bit with shooting in as soon as possible. That’s Modern Warfare 2 all over, really. It knows why you’re really there, how much of it you’ll probably just ignore – but it does it anyway, because it can. I’m really glad of that, of this solid statement of look what games can do now.

Modern Warfare 2 is a first-person-shooter. You shoot other persons from a first-person perspective. So very many persons. So, so many persons. It’s not as though it creeps close to a Serious Sam-level bodycount, but somehow it seems even more unrelenting. Often, the killing comes so quickly and so clustered that no individual kill means anything. I don’t mean morally, or in terms of mourning for lives lost, but in terms of self-celebration and of acknowledging what you've just done. This is a game that entirely relies on your skill with a mouse (or gamepad, if you must), but it doesn’t give you the space to feel proud about that skill.

There are some quieter, stealthier levels, where whichever returning MW1 character you’re following around offers brief, stoic platitudes for a neatly-executed kill, for your quick, quiet pffft-ack-dead amidst the affectingly eerie silence of a Russian wood or a Siberian snowstorm, and you feel pretty proud of yourself then. Again, MW2 knows how to look and sound great, how to create a sense of world that’s much bigger than the linear spaces you play in, and it's in these quieter moments that you can really appreciate this. These levels are also the highlights of its action, tense and strange, deftly making the first-person shooting feel robust and heroic.

But its other levels, those that are closest to classic Call of Duty, threaten to become gruelling in their intensity. They just don’t stop, don’t let you breathe, don’t let you admire yourself or the crazy detail of the game. There are always more guys to kill, and more guys killing you. That’s war, sure. But it’s not always as fun as it seems to think it is. It’s a short game, but at times it can feel endless. It’s whack-a-mole, as Call of Duty’s always been, but its pacing is a little off this time. The number and accuracy of your foes feels like something from a tactical shooter, one in which you’d use cover and creeping to win the day. But those tools aren’t in here – no leaning, no clinging to cover. Just doing the Doom thing. It’s the inevitable clarion call of many of a dyed-in-the-wool PC gamer in response to a multi-platform or ultra-glossy shooter – why can’t I leeeeeeean? – but the difference here is that the game really feels built as though those abilities are in there. It’s genuinely irritating that they’re not.

It’s hard to pin down why it feels lesser than, specifically, its predecessor, most especially because most of it the time it’s so much more. It’s Hollywood in a way that very little else has managed, without a doubt. This is not a series that has ever been interested in taking first-person shooters away from the first-person shooting, and hence it would be a lapse in judgement to criticise if for not doing so - but MW1 managed to feel novel and forward-thinking nevertheless. It moved confidently and naturally away from trenches and corridors, and it turned you into an active participant in its cutscenes. MW2 does that too, but it doesn’t take it any further. It feels much, much more familiar, despite its ice-climbing and snow-speeding and motorboating sequences.

It doesn’t need to, of course – it only need be judged within the context of linear action games, and it’s a perfectly good one of those. It is a reliably fun first person shooter with an unprecedented level of visual polish heaped on top it, so it’s entirely understandable that people have been looking forward to playing it. The only criticism of it sticking to such aggressively traditional mechanics is that there isn’t anything in here to really justify the Most Anticipated Game Of The Decade status it’s been accorded. Modern Warfare 2 is a first-person shooter. It shouldn’t have been treated as something somehow more than that.

But it has, and I fear that thinking, that lionising may have overcome its creators somewhat. Its plot very quickly abandons grit and military cool in favour of going way over the top while still taking itself seriously, and its lead characters – especially those returning from MW1, who it is horribly guilty of auto-mythologising – become cod-philosophers as well as soldiers, smearing awkwardly purple prose all over the place. It seems to think it’s more important and more grown-up than it is, becoming far too invested in characters who don’t naturally have depth, who were only supposed to be there to guide us to the next ten minutes of fun. It’s the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, it’s the last few seasons of Heroes, it’s the end of Superman Returns…

No. That’s not why we’re here. We’re here for a first-person shooter. The next ten minutes of fun does always come, and it is usually fun - but sometimes the journey to it is irritating and overcooked. Halo 2 is an easy but logical comparison to make – another FPS that forgot what it was, and got lost to self-obsession. MW2’s campaign is massively more entertaining than Halo 2’s – it’s a masterful at keeping things varied, most especially in terms of environment – but the mistakes are the same. People aren’t paying £50 for a story that doesn’t end (and there are far smarter ways to make them buy the sequel). They’re paying for a first-person shooter.

That Level, ‘No Russian’, is guilty of the same thing – misplaced gravitas, forcibly inserting something that doesn’t belong in such an otherwise silly, implausible tale. It’s another instance of the game trying to find more ways to create sound and fury, but really messing up pace and context. No Russian doesn’t achieve anything, doesn’t add anything. It’s just an uncomfortable, gratuitous scene inserted at the wrong point – it’s crazy to place that kind of downer immediately after a thrilling snowspeeder escape – to achieve a key plot beat. The moral dilemma of being a US agent killing innocents in order to convince Russian terrorists he’s part of their team doesn’t exist. Shoot or don’t shoot any civilians, and the outcome is the same: you get killed, the US is accused of killing Russian civilians, and the world goes to war. It’s only there to be a plot twist, to lead to the increasingly absurd events of the rest of the game.

The case for its defence doesn’t exist, just as the case for its banning doesn’t. The game has nothing to say about it or its moral repercussions. It just picks an unpleasantly gratuitous excuse to depict the US and Russia going to war. It didn’t need to get anyone’s knickers in a twist to achieve that. It does so because it’s arrogant, because it knows it can get away with it. There’s no need to be as outraged as many have (the price-gouging, on the other hand, deserved far more of a protest than it got), but anyone claiming it’s meaningful and thoughtful, that it raises important questions about gaming and war, is talking about a game that doesn’t actually exist.

Which is, of course, Modern Warfare 2 all over. The incredible/outrageous/horrible game we’ve been talking about and worrying about and shouting about these last few months doesn’t, in fact, exist.

Modern Warfare 2 is a first-person shooter. Makes a fair few pacing mistakes, but it’s not a bad one, as they go. At the heart of it, underneath the razzle-dazzle and the argy-bargy, it just about retains an understanding of why Call of Duty was such a breath of fresh air half a decade ago – making you a willing soldier in a noisy, excited war movie, not a meathead plodding slowly through monster-filled corridors. I’m glad Infinity Ward haven’t entirely lost sight of that, because I miss the developer they were then.

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