Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – “Can you spot the differences?”
Back when I did my “World at War” review I mentioned how the “Call of Duty” teams, despite taking small strides in terms of capturing the essence of a powerful, dramatic scenario like war, were still clinging to an essentially game-y experience, laden with obnoxious elements, the most displeasing of all being the HUD. Well, someone at funny or die must have read my mind, because they edited a video of what would it be like to “play” – “Call of Duty” style – the Normandy scene from Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. It’s not only a funny video clip, as it ends up posing the same questions I (and others) have been making. Think about it, sooner than you think, we’ll have quasi-realistic graphics in video games, and despite the emotional, aesthetic potential of these superbly rendered images, games remain ever focused on crude notions of “fun”, rather than tapping the possibilities that come with that potential expressiveness. The “Call of Duty” brand is an excellent example of this. Despite their huge success, their creators are still delivering, detailed graphics aside, the exact same game as they were back in “Allied Assault”. And whilst their games are increasingly visceral and continue to establish powerful ambiances with their over-glorified engines and whatnot, all those elements remain effectively meaningless in terms of the interactive experience. It’s still a game about shooting lifeless dummies as well as you can. It’s still the game about becoming a macho warrior. It’s still a game about feeling empowered and invincible. And it’s still a game about saving the world from the big bad men. Admit it, we’re still playing “Wolfenstein 3D”. There is still no point to it, no emotional sub-text or rhetoric involved in the games’ discourse.
Which is why all the controversy surrounding the “Modern Warfare 2’s” infamous “No Russian” level just seems absolutely ridiculous to me. It’s crude, silly and completely out of context in the game. I guarantee you that any emotion you might feel during that sequence will vanish after five seconds of you understanding what’s going on. Under the guise of forcing you to face the horrors of terrorists, the game developers simply deliver the exact same game-y experience, but for one difference, your opponents have no weapons, and bleed more than your typical grunt. They shout screams of horror, but we are talking of the same mass of generic, cardboard beings which you happily kill during normal levels. When was the last time you felt disgusted from killing a cardboard image? Were those you kill real characters, with a story, a livelihood, an expressive behavior… creatures that had some sort of emotional involvement with us players, and maybe the scene would go beyond mere shock value. Video games have done it before, even in the first person shooter genre. To add to the detriment of the scene, those strange ethereal stars and cross-hairs are still flying above them, and it’s still a level in which you have to kill to “win”. The whole matter is as controversial as funny or die’s video. It doesn’t matter at all how realistic the characters look, because they’re still over-glorified targets in a shooting range, as Eurogamer so elegantly put. There can be no drama in killing virtual plastic dolls, let alone when you’re supposed to be some super warrior out to save the world, who just happens to have shot those same models thousands of times before, only with different clothing and less screaming. Killing them is as controversial as watching “Rambo” hack away the innards of some poor schmuck that just happens not to have an AK-47 lying around. It isn’t dramatic. The schmuck is just a schmuck – an impersonal abstraction without any lifelike character, just like any other of the thousands of terrorists in line for a bullet in the brain.
This isn’t the same as saying that “Modern Warfare 2” is just another piece of trash the industry spewed at us. Infinity Ward may take itself too seriously for their own good, they may not know how to write or tell a story that goes beyond the most naive patriotic bull or right-wing of conspiracies and they may not grasp the most basic aspects on how to create a character with some mildly nuanced form of emotion, but… but they do know how to make things blow up. Even Naughty Dog pales in comparison. Which is why “Modern Warfare 2”, aside from the lackluster initial levels, is a trip worth taking, if only for the pure excitement it can deliver. Its authors have gone to great lengths to replicate some of the most enjoyable experiences from many other pop references, from “Black Hawk Down” and “James Bond” to “Resident Evil 5” and “Metal Gear Solid“. Sure, it’s dumb, rude and stupid, but it’s also a superbly well paced, stylish and epic spectacle. Alas, when the game does end, nothing will remain except for the notion that you just experienced the most guilty of pleasures, the kind that leaves aught behind except for a kindling sparkle of warm adrenaline. We’ve seen this before, it was great then, it is great now, but honestly, this is not what we need right now. We need more, and this just ain’t it.