The Call of Duty franchise has always seemed to want to honor veterans and soldiers. The intensity of the first few games made for a fun experience, but since those moments were based on real events, they also had an air of gravity to them. This trend began to fade with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which had a central character die in a rather inglorious way and didn’t shy away from showing the darker consequences of war on individual soldiers. With Modern Warfare 2 Infinity Ward has abandoned its old formula and embraced everything that its subtitle-turned-title represents.
The story of Modern Warfare 2 is filled with plot holes, and characters act out in extreme ways with little apparent motivation. The criticisms of this story are valid, but in the grand scheme of things, the plot is not as important as the mood the game sets. Ben Kuchera, who reviewed the game for Ars Technica, put it best when he described the game as “a tone poem about warfare” (A description made even more interesting when you take into consideration L.B. Jeffries’ comparison of games and poetry earlier this week). The game takes its moniker “modern warfare” seriously, and in doing so, goes to some very dark, morally ambiguous, and morally wrong places. It’s filled with moments of fist-pumping action, but all are contrasted with moments of death and destruction that come to define the tone of the game. By the end, we’re left with the realization that modern warfare is ugly in almost every way.
The rest of this post contains major spoilers for Modern Warfare 2.
Others have written about the infamous “No Russian” level, in which you take part in a terrorist attack on a Russian airport. Regardless of this level’s appropriateness or importance to plot, I find it to be just one of many examples of how this game takes its title seriously. Previous Call of Duty games were based on World War 2, where the battle lines were clearly drawn: the Allies were good, the Axis bad. But in the years since then, terrorism has played an increasing role in global politics, so much so that now a terrorist attack on any country is considered more realistic than an all out war. With this in mind, the “No Russian” level is an apt portrayal of the current state of the world, in which civilians are just as likely targets as soldiers. The battle lines are no longer obvious.
World War 2 was also the last “moral war” that the United Sates was involved in. All the wars since then have been morally ambiguous in one way or another, and Modern Warfare 2 captures this ambiguity by giving almost every character a dark side. There are no true heroes in Modern Warfare 2. The minute-to-minute gameplay is so intense it forces us to focus on the moment, but in retrospect we have to questions to morality of our actions. Most characters have a noble goal, but they go about it in the most violent way possible.
Joseph Allen is recruited to go undercover in a Russian terrorist cell in order to get close to one Vladimir Makarov. He takes part in the attack on an airport, kills dozens of civilians, but his cover is blown and he ends up being killed by Makarov. His body is then used as an excuse for Russia to invade the United States. His intentions to expose an even bigger villain than Makarov were noble, but his violent methods resulted in more harm than good.
There are two ways one can interpret the actions of General Shepherd. Some see him as a grand conspirator who purposefully blew Allen’s cover so that the terrorist attack would be blamed on the U.S. and a war would start, which would spur military enlistment and give him more power. Others see him as an opportunist, as someone who didn’t plan for war, but decides to take advantage of it by hiding the truth about the terrorist attack in order to spur military enlistment and give him more power. Either way, he is not the hero is rank implies.
The closest thing Modern Warfare 2 has to good guys are Soap and Price. But Price unapologetically launches a nuke at Washington DC. It may explode above the atmosphere, sparing the destruction of the city, but the International Space Station is destroyed and the resulting EMP blast causes just as much disruption to the Americans as it does the Russians. Both men then spend the last couple levels hunting down Shepherd, going so far as to make a deal with Makarov to find the General. At this point they’re no different than Joseph Allen: Making a deal with the devil in hopes of achieving some greater good. Their goal of exposing the truth about the terrorist attack is noble, but their willingness to team with terrorists to do so is frightening. After all, when Price tells Makarov “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Makarov then warns him “that cuts both ways,” implying our two protagonists might have to help him one day. Also, while they may kill Shepherd in the end, he’s the leader of the American military at that point, so they’ve only added to the political chaos in the world. Everything they do resolves one conflict while starting another.
By the end of the game nothing is resolved. Soap and Prince are considered terrorists, Makarov is still at large, and the United States is still at war with Russia. Ending the game here is a very obvious set up for the sequel, but it’s also inadvertently symbolic of most political conflicts: Nothing is ever really resolved, violence that fades away eventually flares up again years later.
Modern Warfare 2 is a game with a very dark take on war. It embraces the major differences between modern war and the wars of old in order to emphasize them. The actual story, the excuse for going to war, may be flimsy and unrealistic, but the tone the game sets is hard to shake off, and will stay with you long after finishing it. This isn’t just a game about war, it’s about modern war, and all the uncomfortable ugliness that comes with it.