When it comes to videogames, sequels tend to be less like the Godfather II and more like Jurassic Park II: The Lost World. Rather than making something that stands alone, that rips up the play-book and starts over from scratch and, as a result, creates something truly exceptional, you tend to just get more of the same, only slightly bigger and slightly sillier. So instead of "I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart!", you get Jeff Goldblum's child lepping about on monkey-bars and drop-kicking a velociraptor out a window. (Not that I'm making a judgement-call here, both films have their times and places.)
It's kind of hard to tell where Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 falls. On the one hand, it completely obliterates the first game in terms of the scope of the action and the improvements to the multiplayer are just a shade short of revolutionary. It's probably the most beautifully rendered conflict I've seen in a videogame and every level manages to create its own unique sense of tension - from close, claustrophobic fighting through corridors and narrow streets, to giant open levels where you're being attacked on all sides.
On the other hand, it really is dumb as a bag of hammers.
The narrative is all over the place. With the first game. developers Infinity Ward lifted heavily from all the big modern war movies - Black Hawk Down, Jarhead etc. I guess they must have played their cards early. With this new one, we get a couple of bits taken from Generation Kill ("Put the camera down, Spielberg" "CNN's gonna pay loads for this footage!") before they seem to say "fuck it, there's nothing else we can steal" and go all Red Dawn - RED FUCKING DAWN - complete with Russians parachuting down into suburban America. I shit you not.
Now, I love Red Dawn as much as the next guy, but like I said, there's a time and a place for everything. And the time for Red Dawn was thirty years ago, because now it's just a dumb relic of a dumb time. Here's the thing though: the writers make it very clear that they're aware of how dumb this is. The level where you're battling the Russians through a middle American neighbourhood is called "Wolverines!" - you know, an explicit reference to Red Dawn. It's a knowing wink to the audience, like they're saying "hey, we know this is stupid and ridiculous and over-the-top, but it's all just a bit of fun, y'know?"
Which makes the now-infamous airport scene all the more curious.
(If you care about this game, don't know what happens in this scene and don't want to be 'spoiled', then stop reading now. The game came out almost a month ago, which is like ten years ago in internet-spoiler time, so don't complain if I ruin the impact of this scene for you.)
Still reading? Good. If you don't know what happens in this scene, then I'll explain. You're playing an American agent who has infiltrated a Russian terrorist group. The level opens on a crowded airport full of civilians. Your group walks in and starts shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. How you take it from here, is entirely up to you. You can get through the level without killing anyone, or you can do what I did, walk through the level spraying bullets at everything that moved and tossing grenades in every direction. (I don't feel even slightly bad about this because I can tell the difference between real life and videogames). The level ends with the head of your group shooting you and leaving you to die, placing the blame on the Americans for the massacre.
Outside of the game, though, it's a little more confused. Why did the developers feel the need to include this level? Most other games would have been content to tell this part of the story through dialogue or a cut-scene. "ring ring Hey bro, you'll never believe it! The Russians killed a load of people and are blaming Americans and - wait, are those parachutes?" Instead, they actually had you walking through the scene with a gun in your hand. Even if Columbine and Virginia Tech had never happened, this would be an uncomfortable sell. As it happens, they're impossible to escape throughout this scene. And a lot of people are asking why Infinity Ward chose to include it, especially when you spend every other part of the game mowing down various nameless, hard-to-distinguish ethnicities.
Now, here's my take on the whole thing. I don't think that anyone telling a story is obliged to cover all bases. They tell the story that suits them best. Within the context of the game, the airport level makes perfect sense. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games take place in an alternate near-future where Russian ultra-nationalists are in power, and this is just the excuse they need to send the country to war. Placing you in the thick of the action, then, draws you in. Even if you go through the level without firing a single shot, you feel complicit and spend the rest of the game trying to 'fix' your mistake.One thing I found interesting though is that despite the fact you go through suburban and central Washington, there's not one American civilian to get caught in the crossfire. And in those levels where you're supposed to be saving hostages, if even one of them dies, it's game over and you have to try again
As to why the rest of the enemies in the game don't get the same level of attention to their back-story or motives, well that's just as simple. Why should it? From a narrative point of view, what purpose would it serve? Does the fact that your virtual enemy has a wife and child and perhaps dubious motivations change the fact that when he's shooting at you, you're going to pop his head like a melon? It's similar to the complaints labeled at Black Hawk Down, that it was about dehumanizing the enemy. The story was about American soldiers and their point of view in this fight. The film split its time between five or six main soldiers and the story was told almost from their first-person point of view (well, as first-person as you can get in a movie without it being a gimmicky pile of ass. Right, Doom?). If the Somalis had a back-story, the US soldiers didn't know it and so we, the audience, didn't know it. Isn't that why we invented the unreliable narrator?
Of course, this all changes in games like Modern Warfare 2 where you are the narrator, and you are narrating the story of the enemies. We will probably need a new paradigm for this kind of storytelling, but I'm not sure I'm going to figure it out in this (already long-winded) blog post. Don't get me wrong, Modern Warfare 2 is a great game, and the only thing that has helped me kick my Modern Warfare 1 addiction. I just wish there had been some consistency throughout it. The airport level was something completely new to videogames and extremely well done. They laid the groundwork for an amazing story, but the Loony Tunes cartoon violence bullshit they followed it up with just felt a little flat.