Revisiting Infinity Ward’s weirdly unsatisfying cultural juggernaut.
This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2.
The Backlog is my sporadically updating effort to chronicle the ongoing journey through my unwieldy gaming backlog. Partly to assuage the guilt over reckless money spending, partly to assuage the guilt of playing video games at age 26 instead of working. Prior entries can be found here.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Remastered
With Serious Sam not doing it for me and wanting something mindless and comfortingly familiar, I downloaded the Modern Warfare 2 remaster I’d redeemed off PS Plus way back the previous August for a two-evening stint. I used to really, really like Call of Duty, which is not something I say with judgemental embarrassment because these were really good games once upon a time! In particular, the Modern Warfare trilogy era was both my introduction to online gaming – having been a PlayStation console player almost exclusively up to then, I was an online virgin who had to wait for the glorious advent of easy-to-set-up wireless broadband – and the thrill-a-minute rollercoaster bombast of blockbuster campaign design which Call of Duty was already making its bread and butter. To put it another way: on the Xmas 2007 in which my brother and I got our PS3, the three games which came with it were Assassin’s Creed, The Orange Box, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Before those, I was playing Cold Winter. (No disrespect to Cold Winter, but it obviously cannot compare to CoD 4.)
Imagine how shot the nerves of 13-year-old Me were when playing through Modern Warfare for the first time. The bombast, the intensity, the setpieces, the scale, the speed at which both enemies and player get cut to ribbons. More than films like Black Hawk Down which I had not seen at the time, I felt most like I was in a war-centric playable version of my then-very-favourite show 24. The game blew my mind in ways that no other game had quite managed to at that point in my life and, I have no shame to admit, was also the first time a video game had made me cry: both in the shock and awestruck terror of the nuke detonation, and the pyrrhic last stand against Zakhaev and the Ultranationalist forces as all the squad mates I’d grown to care for over the course of the campaign were systematically gunned down one by one. Again, even though I had played a lot of video games before CoD 4, some of which even had stories I really liked and worlds that I had gotten swept up in, nothing had quite hit me with that same “everything is different now” force as when I first finished Modern Warfare.
My interest in Call of Duty dissipated within about four months of finishing Modern Warfare 3’s campaign, but that was more due to my changing tastes and lessening desire for the online shooter gaming loop than anything else. Even though I threw any number of smug cynical shots at the series in the years since, I didn’t and still don’t really hold any animosity towards Call of Duty. They’ve carved out their place in the market and, especially after the impetus for purchasing games fell to my bank account rather than my parents’, it’s just not one I feel much desire to drop £55 on anymore. But I do still enjoy myself a nice high-calorie, low-brain engagement, junk food shooter campaign like those CoD used to specialise in every now and again. I only recently got done evangelising about Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall 2, as you hopefully already saw, and the year before I downloaded and blitzed through the remaster of the first Modern Warfare on PS Plus which, y’know what, still holds up! Still the reigning champion of that particular style of gaming!
Yet, returning to Modern Warfare 2 for the first time in a decade was a weirdly unmoving experience. I remembered loving Infinity Ward’s sequel upon release in 2009, the balls-to-the-wall audacious lunacy and shock value spectacle gripping me from start to finish as a natural extension of the original. More, more, more! The infamous “No Russian” level, the frenzied moments of first contact invaders on US soil, the triumphant return of Captain Price and subsequent explosive gulag escape, that reveal of the desecrated Washington Monument as Lorne Balfe’s digitised strings swelled to emotive peaks, Price launching a nuke, the ISS demolition, fighting through the White House, General Shepherd’s betrayal, stepping back into the boots of Soap to wreak bloody vengeance… Even before I revisited the newly touched-up version, I could vividly describe to you all of these setpieces and more; that’s how exciting and shocking I found the campaign. A testament to developers and designers willing to boldly go for it backed up by the biggest budgets, sharpest directorial talents, and unlimited resources that Activision’s too-big-to-fail blank cheque could provide.
Whilst I still admire said audacity and immense spectacle, with a few of those listed moments managing to elicit thrilling goosebumps like in ye olden days, playing through the campaign this time nonetheless left me strangely cold. Again, I had just recently finished Titanfall 2 which was by many of the same developers and designers who made Modern Warfare 2, and revisiting the first Modern Warfare only a year and a bit earlier excited and engaged in much the same way as the very first time. So, why wasn’t Modern Warfare 2 doing much for me? The remaster by Beenox was just as lavish and luscious as their work on the first game, and beneath the bombastic production values the core gunplay was still as snappy, tight and impactful as ever which should really be what matters in a shooter when you get down to it. It’s not a bad game, so why was this just not clicking anymore?
I have a few theories. For one, the difficulty curve for Modern Warfare 2 is wonkier than a rope bridge in an adventure movie. In contrast to my days of facing down Hardened mode by default, I’ve played both Modern Warfare remakes on Regular because I was effectively touristing and didn’t much fancy gritting my teeth through each game’s notorious chokepoints. Even accounting for a lapse in shooter skills over the years, I died significantly more times in Modern Warfare 2 than I ever did in the first one. The time-to-kill in general seems to be much harsher here and is especially exacerbated in the cramped nature of the favelas and the pinpoint enemy assault rifle accuracy in the initial assault on the White House lawn. Also, grenades. I had forgotten that here (plus World at War) was where Call of Duty campaigns’ reputation for enemy soldiers tossing out grenades like candy from a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float was cemented, but oh boy was it ever noticeable this time. Compared to the original where difficulty naturally escalated throughout instead of arbitrarily spiking then dropping, and most maps had allowed for minor freedom of tactical approach instead of demanding one single ordained path you must push through come hell or high water, things felt decidedly more unfair and at times downright cheap.
For two, the campaign of MW2 has a greater tendency towards gimmickry than the first one. Modern Warfare focussed almost exclusively on the core boots-on-ground shooting loop and executed it better than almost any other game in its field has yet managed. The AC-130 mission was the only real mechanical diversion, but one developed enough and deployed at a natural escalation point in the game’s narrative pacing to not come off like a gimmick. Evidently (as detailed in Raycevick’s excellent retrospective y’all should go watch), this was down to limited development resources and time because, now that said core loop has been mirror-shined, its sequel starts flinging in all sorts of mechanical gimmicks. Many more rail-shooter type segments than before, ice climbing control mechanics, vehicle sections, slo-mo door breaches, a CoD 3 style QTE for the finale… It’s not that the variety isn’t appreciated, but the disposable regimented contextual nature of these various mechanics I find a lot more noticeable now, especially when compared to just how tightly-focussed and simply-designed yet consistently engaging that first game remains, and they come just often enough to invoke questions about developer confidence in their own core loop.
Somewhat related, for three, the campaign overall feels a lot more… empty than the first Modern Warfare’s. I feel it lacks a cohesive character, centre or ideology compared to its predecessor. Which sounds ridiculous given that this one has frequently present, often cartoonish villains and the giant General Shepherd twist is meant to function as a pointed critique of the American military industrial complex’s vainglorious addiction to painting itself as the heroic David in every single conflict it inserts itself into. There’s even Captain Price’s big “history is written by liars” speech prior to the final level which might be the single most politically pointed statement Call of Duty has ever made. But I don’t think it hangs together like the devs and writers seem to think it does. It’s complicated too much by Task Force 141’s unquestioned invasion of the Rio favelas, the conservative nightmare picture of fanatical Russian invaders, Makarov’s nature as an overarching trilogy villain meaning he departs the narrative for long stretches at a time, and just the general shark-jump-era of 24 approach to narrative development where every level’s cliffhanger must top the previous one even if it makes little wider sense.
The first Modern Warfare could similarly be levelled with charges of ideological incoherency, particularly since that one actively split its own development team along political lines when it came to reading the messaging that it attempted to provide. But its biggest and most shocking moments – the nuke, the AC-130, the ruthless often-casual brutality of the SAS – did at least come in the service of an attempted anti-war message; this is why every death presented either a famous quote about war from a philosopher or a cold factoid about its weaponry stripped of surrounding context. And when that messaging trod on shaky ground, there were surprisingly above-average character writing for the player’s squad mates to ground the spectacle and provide tangible in-the-moment stakes and motivation. Price, Gaz, Griggs, Nikolai, MacMillan and Baseplate all display just enough character and charisma to make them work on levels deeper than objective expositors; perhaps aided by the decision to nuke off almost the entire American side of the narrative a third of the way in which meant that the scale and focus vitally contracted for the rest of the game.
Aside from Soap going from PC to NPC for all but the home stretch (and resultantly being voiced for the first time), I don’t get that same character from Modern Warfare 2’s cast. Ghost is just a less charismatic Gaz, Shepherd only gets interesting in the very last few minutes, and the Americans are Keith David yelling at the player to do everything whilst the rest act like the colonial marines from Aliens without the vital moment of their empty bravado getting splattered all over the walls. It’s telling that they have to bring Price back at the game’s halfway mark to inject some life into proceedings, like when 24 attempted to reboot itself in Day 4 with all new characters only to give up and reunite much of the old cast by the middle cos it wasn’t working out great. And I’m not stupid, I know that game narratives are primarily written around the setpieces as a means to justify them first and hang together as a narrative second. But Modern Warfare 2’s campaign I feel relies on the shock value of those setpieces too heavily to drive the player’s engagement in ways which don’t stand up so well on replay today. Nearly every mission starting at 11 and rarely stepping off the gas until they’re done, it lacks the pacing and flow of the original which made the core loop so satisfying.
None of this is to say that Modern Warfare 2 is a bad game. Far from it. Gunplay is tight, levels may bottleneck more than in its predecessor (sometimes to their detriment) but there are also a lot of series-best missions in here – especially the one-two punch of “The Only Easy Day… Was Yesterday” and “The Gulag” – Lorne Balfe’s score is damned great, and the presentation in general remains top-notch. (Beenox did great work on the remaster, although the additional animations for a player’s death do make it harder to tell where that fatal bullet actually comes from compared to the original’s decision to drop you instantly and lock onto said responsible enemy as the screen blacks out.) It’s just that this time the game never satisfied like I had both hoped and remembered it doing originally (Halo 2-esque cut to black aside). Maybe that’s a fault of the game’s spectacle-heavy approach to campaign design, or maybe it’s the fault of my changing tastes as I grow older. Either way, it’s no Titanfall 2.
Next time: we take a chronology jump because I have finally played the original Mass Effect.
Callie Petch is smoking all your top fives tonight.