The best moment in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is one of near-absolute uncertainty. In it, an electromagnetic pulse has just shut down all electronics and communication systems in the game’s war-torn depiction of Washington, DC. As an Army Ranger, you and your squad, stranded in the middle of a battlefield gone silent, have to navigate your way to a rally point. It’s absolutely dark, drenched with rain, and all the indicators you have used up to this point to identify friend and enemy, from thermal vision to the red dot on your weapon’s sights, are dead thanks to the EMP.
Wrecked aircraft litter the ground, and you creep through the night uneasily. Your commanding officer pauses every time he sees movement ahead, shouting out a code word to try to identify friend from foe. For this brief stretch, you never know who’s going to be a friend and who’s going to be an enemy. In a game known for reckless action, it’s a brief and convincing stretch of horror.
Released 11 years ago, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the sequel to the original Modern Warfare, which turned the military action series into a juggernaut by shifting its attention from World War II to the present, reconfiguring its play around the technology and concerns of early-2000s American military culture. Recently, it got a fresh coat of paint, with Activision releasing a fully remastered version of the game’s campaign on PlayStation 4, and then later on Xbox One and PC. It’s an eminently competent, well-done remaster that makes the game feel like a contemporary release. Which showcases how strange a relic of its era Modern Warfare 2 truly is.
As mired in American military adoration as it is, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a game deserving of at least a little praise. It manages to build authentic dread and disempowerment into what could have been straightforward jingoism, and in the process creates a game that reads as a satire of the early War on Terror, with the heroic frenzy of the game’s early segments quickly devolving into confusion and disaster. Modern Warfare 2 had the unenviable job of crafting a sequel directly out of that narrative, and, possibly as a result of that choice, it fails to cohere as any sort of narrative. It’s a messy, ugly little game, as mesmerizing as it is infuriating.
Its failure is felt most keenly in the part of the game that quickly became the most controversial: “No Russian,” a short level in the first third of the game. The premise is belabored, narratively speaking, but uncomfortably simple in gameplay. You’re an undercover American operative, embedded deep with a group of Russian terrorists (these games, for some reason, are not big fans of Russia). They engage in a horrific terrorist attack: a mass shooting at an airport. In order to maintain your cover, you’re forced to go along with it. The game asks you to engage in the mass shooting (though it doesn’t punish you if you don’t—it’s perfectly viable to play the entire level without shooting anyone not shooting at you, which seems unintentional). It’s meant to be horrific and shocking, an escalation of the disempowering sequence where a nuclear bomb detonated in the first game—a showcase of the idiocy and violence of bad foreign policy and human cruelty in general.
But “No Russian” just … doesn’t … work. The horror of it is forgotten about, in terms of the game’s play, as soon as it’s over. Shooting guns is the solution to every other problem thrown at you, and any political commentary is shunted by the fact that the game reveals later that this was all a setup by a rogue general trying to start a war. Nothing about the level has any broader impact on the way the game feels to play. It just feels crass and stupid; what sort of undercover agent embeds in a terrorist group to not stop them from doing mass murder, anyway? The sequence is disturbing without having any clear reason to exist. It was, of course, controversial upon release, and the remaster includes an option to skip it, which feels like an admission that it was never that necessary to begin with.
In contrast, while the moment that seems designed to critique shadowy American power fails, the moments that most closely fall in line with straightforward American jingoism play the best. Later, Russia invades the United States, tricked into believing that the Americans were responsible for the terrorist attack in “No Russian”—which isn’t wholly inaccurate—and several riveting levels take place during a siege on Washington, DC. It’s here that the post-EMP level appears, and it and everything around it are the absolute height of Modern Warfare 2‘s experience. The familiarity of the terrain—suburbia, fast food restaurants, even the White House—combines with the asymmetry of the level design, which has enemies coming at you from every direction in unpredictable bursts, to make every moment feel vital and frightening. When the EMP bursts and the game rolls full-tilt, for a few minutes, into horror, it’s the culmination of a sense of uncertainty that the game has been building for two hours beforehand. In the best moments of Modern Warfare 2, you don’t know who the enemies are or where they might come from. Everyone and everything could be a threat, and you are underprepared to meet them. It’s one of the only times, in any Call of Duty game since the original WWII classics, that you’re authentically on the back foot.
But the best play also makes, in this case, for the best propaganda. The mythology of uncertainty is essential to the engine of the War on Terror. The idea that there is an amorphous enemy that can be hidden anywhere, among any population, sheltered by any government, unaccountable to traditional structures of power is the logic behind the War on Terror’s most horrific excesses. The Patriot Act, extrajudicial imprisonment and torture—these were actions taken under the justification that America was facing an unprecedented, hidden evil that could appear anywhere, anytime. The mythology of uncertainty was one of the core building blocks of war that never has to end so long as those in power don’t want it to.
That disturbing ideology, in the hands of Infinity Ward and Activision, becomes pure entertainment. Which is why, despite the fresh coat of paint, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered still manages to feel like a relic. Because it is clearly an attempt to engage with the ideology and imagery of the era’s politics and warfare. But it does so in a way that feels, too, entirely of its era. As a work of rhetoric, the game is a failure, its attempted critiques falling flat while its most straight-faced moments sing. It wants to push back against the flow of jingoism in American culture without understanding it or being able to engage with it at the deepest level. As a work of entertainment, it’s either boring or brilliant, depending on what part you’re playing. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is not the sequel the original game deserved. But, as a portrait of a muddled era, where even criticism of the War on Terror felt mired in propaganda, it might be perfect.
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