[If most people just play Modern Warfare 2 for the multiplayer, why does Infinity Ward seem so stuck on storytelling? In this opinion piece, writer Tom Cross makes the case against single-player in the war-focused franchise.]
Infinity Ward's Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has come and gone, although it isn't really gone: it lives on, unstoppable, powered by XBL and the PSN. The game's release may have been highly lucrative (750 million dollars, the last time I checked), but it was also fraught with controversy. Most notable among them were the “F.A.G.S.” scandal (and Infinity Ward's response to such criticisms), the lack of dedicated servers, and, of course, the “No Russian” level.
As Michael Abbott points out, while a small slice of the hardcore demographic and gaming press took offense, a large portion of the game's potential customers were either unaware of or unmoved by any of those issues. For them, the game lives and dies by its multiplayer.
We may natter on about FPS narrative conceits, forced participation, and issues of player agency, but this game doesn't care. It doesn't need to. It's built as a multiplayer juggernaut, and its single player is like some kind of vestigial malformed appendage: it sticks around almost out of habit.
It's an old joke by now that IW moves Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer closer and closer to MMO status with each release. Playing Modern Warfare 2, you can see the changes and signs. Aside from the genre (FPS), this is more and more a pure RPG leveling experience. One wonders when IW will drop all the pretense and just release a multiplayer-only game.
Infinity Ward themselves seem to be doggedly resisting this change. To play this game (and to listen to its developers discuss the single and multiplayer) is to witness the work of people who honestly believe the characters and story they've created are deserving of further installments. It shouldn't be surprising that people think this kind of storytelling is important, but it’s surprising that the unfortunate disconnect between gameplay, setting and writing is explained away, excused, and sometimes lauded.
The plot, writing, and characters of Modern Warfare 2 are all wretched. There are other ways to put this, but none of them communicate my full disgust with the separate parts of this product, and its heft and intention as a whole entity. Infinity Ward has mastered the art of pretentious (not because it is in any way intelligent, but because it thinks it is saying anything of worth or import) military drama, just as it has mastered the art of the contemporary linear military shooter.
As an “entertaining” piece of military schlock, Modern Warfare 2 hits a few good notes here and there. The idea of a massive invasion blasting apart and disfiguring everyday America is a potent one, although as I'll explain later, IW's execution of this interesting situation leaves much to be desired. Likewise, its depiction of a long firefight through a capital in ruins is tense, desperate, and perfectly paced. Even a problematic trip to Brazil (opening with a hugely annoying mission) salvages itself somewhat, delivering a tense, alarming firefight through a crowded market where sight lines are crap and the enemies are plentiful.
Even these deft touches, though, are undermined by the company's unsteady, encroaching sense of dramatic timing and exposition.
The dialogue is obtuse in the extreme, moving from topic to topic with alacrity, refusing to acknowledge that its language and execution obscure all but the simplest epithets and declarations. Everyone talks using the caricature of a caricature of a caricature of military slang and shop talk. Everyone everywhere is always "oscar mike," or every single enemy is “danger close.” This isn't to say that military jargon, shop talk, and slang don't have a place in dramatic fiction. They surely do.
The problem is that in Infinity Ward’s almost erotic fixation with military procedure and lingo (taken from military sources, probably, but also from pop culture like “Generation Kill”), Infinity Ward forgot to put more than a word or two of human dialogue into anybody's mouth. It's utterly incomprehensible, and every single person in the game speaks like this. When people do speak as the average person does, its only in the most hackneyed, tired of action movie cliches, with “those hostages won't rescue themselves” being my favorite by far.
I was surprised and delighted to find that while most of the game was populated by comically-accented murderers from the British Isles, Keith David (as your commanding officer, when you play as an American Army Ranger) and Lance Henriksen (as the main general in charge) play large parts in the game. Say what you will about the two, but their instantly recognizable voices and professional delivery do a lot to allay my hatred for the words they speak in this game (although Keith David is apparently "oscar mike" everywhere, from the toilet to his death bed. A dedicated man, to be sure).
Beard Guy and Mohawk Guy!
I'm not sure who at Infinity Ward thought that we, as players, were in love with Mustache Guy (Captain Price, who is, wouldn't you guess it, alive) and Mohawk Guy (Soap, slightly less annoying than his old commander). Apparently, fans loved these two so much, we have to listen to them growl about tangos, hostiles, ACS's, and how amazingly badass they are for much of the game. Their dialogue ranges from the aforementioned movie cliches to the aforementioned meaningless jargon. It’s constant, forgettable, and often intrusive.
You might think that the sections of the game that feature good voice actors would be bright spots. Instead, we are forced to endure Keith David's game performance as Sergeant Foley, the American soldier who must Oscar Mike everything he sees or hears. The two plots' heroes are forced to defend America when we are invaded by Russians. One thread revolves around “Roach,” a Special Forces agent who is part of a secret task force ordered to halt the rise of a dangerous power, the other revolves around Foley's squad and its missions in the USA.
The task force hangs out in exciting foreign locales and kills foreigners (something the Modern Warfare series, and Call of Duty, delight in), while Foley and his crew protect America from a ludicrous, Boris and Natasha invasion comprised of husky Russians. Shepard spends his time mumbling about war, destiny, absolute power, and how that power never changes. He sounds like a college kid who just read Hobbes for the first time and took the wrong message away from it. All he needs to complete his look are a Bob Marley and some PBR, and maybe a few pretentious comments about human frailty.
Anything not having to do with Foley and DC is shrouded in bad writing, conservative military alarmism, and bad gameplay-story integration. I'm not saying that I didn't expect this kind of foolishness. Modern Warfare may have tried to sell itself as authentic, but it was still a kind of science fiction, it was still operating in some weird version of our universe. This new game is like James Bond mixed with Jack Bauer. Every new mission includes super-x-ray, night vision, invisible, frog men assault squads (actually, those are basically in the game, but they’re tame compared to some of the “modern” stuff). It’s all just as incomprehensible as the dialogue.
War, Um, Never Changes ?
The two main pontificates are Captain Price and General Shepherd, and their speeches are long and offensive, for their smirking avowal of brutal, inhumane tactics, their mindless regurgitation of action movie tropes that were boring in the 80s, and for their continuous camp and stupidity (although that shouldn't fool you into thinking that the "good" guys in his story are anything other than war criminals and morons). I'm surprised the actors could read these lines out loud.
Again, it's not as if I was expecting something even mildly introspective, self-aware, or intelligent. This isn't Indigenes, the The Hurt Locker, hell, this isn't even Three Kings. It's everything bad and wrong about the glorification of American military power, and it's sloppy, lazy storytelling, from start to finish. You’d think that an action game would at least master the art of economical storytelling and exhibition, but the game’s incoherent writing and level continuity make even that low hanging branch inaccessible. It reflects well on no one but the people who designed the gameplay and world upon which these terrible trappings were hung: they know what they're doing, there's no doubt about it.
Still, the level designers and levels aren’t without fault. The missions set around Washington DC are lessons in how not to represent the familiar. This was an opportunity to take various things that the viewer took for granted and upend them. Even the misguided airport level does better, in this area. The point of these DC missions should have been to introduce the alarming abnormal into the presumably normal. I can only imagine that an invaded, ruined suburb that actually resembled those found on the East Coast might have struck a chord with people who lived there, and with people who only knew of such places because of a shared cultural experience.
Taking that kind of safe, welcoming environment and turning it dark and threatening is a time-tested method of unsettling the audience. Not so here. Instead, the locations feel wooden and fake (I’ve never seen suburbs, let alone malls, like these). Each burger joint is separated from the next by inexplicable swaths of parking lot, and the houses and white picket fences feel tiny and squat, especially when overflowing with Russians. It’s as if, in the night, someone came and made all of DC 7/8 size.
The missions are also badly held together, and badly paced. The siege on Capitol Hill is well-made (especially after the awfully, incomprehensible nuclear detonation over DC), but every other Foley mission (and all but one of the covert ops missions lead by “Roach,” your other inexplicably named avatar) is a long, long exploration of botched decisions. Even when the developers are truly flexing their FPS skills and creating something unique (the on-foot escape in Brazil is the best thing the game has to offer), you can sense something bad coming. It comes in the form of laughably serious scripted first person “non” cutscenes, which are, as ever, awkward, transparent, and equally as game-breaking as the cinematics they replace. You’ll watch as your character is murdered several times, since apparently the writers at Infinity Ward love this trick as much as they love the phrase “oscar mike.”
Please, Please, No Russian!
The disconnect between gameplay and narrative is almost perfectly reproduced in the “No Russian” level.
This level, like the rest of the game, disappointed me. As a quick, effective play upon the fears swimming around the consciousnesses and sub-consciousnesses of many people around the world, this scene is no doubt effective and timely. Even if it is badly implemented and badly framed, it still is more relevant to the vast majority of gamers and non-gamers than any meditation on Ayn Rand (underwater!) ever could be. It's use of the "oh look, you are playing a game, we know it, you know it, we know that it creeps you out that we know, and we know that it surprises you that we force you to face your own game playing as a constructed, not natural, occurrence" tactic is capable enough.
Playing “No Russian,” I felt like someone had crystallized everything substandard in Modern Warfare 2 into one level. the writing within "No Russian" itself is bad. It isn’t up to the task of presenting and handling - well - an event with this kind of widespread public emotional impact. From Makarov’s nonsense monologue at the end, to the level’s stupid jokes (all of the flights suddenly switch to “delayed”), to the complete inability on the part of the game as a whole to deliver upon or contextualize this event, the writing and plotting fails “No Russian.” It's the instigator of the Russian invasion of America, the game's single most stupid plot development (even worse than Price's inexplicable missile launching act). Likewise, the game doesn't know what to do with this level from a continuity standpoint; it's shoehorned in between an intense Die Hard 2-esque snowmobile chase, and an assault on America that's straight out of bad Tom Clancy.
It's tonally out of place, and plot-wise, its villain (Makarov) disappears after this mission. It's like they forgot about him, and then gave him five lines of dialog in the second-to-last mission to make up for their forgetfulness. Likewise, the game lets you break the simulation by allowing you to fire on Makarov, who is invincible, and then instantly forces you to restart. If you're going to make me face the artificiality of the game I’m playing, and my own “complicity” in the act of play and the ruse enacted by the developers, actually do that: don't half-ass it, and in so doing, allow me to accidentally (I was trying to shoot a guard) punish me for it. Let me kill Makarov, or run away and make him come find me, or something. If the seams in your game show before I've even tried to find them, you've failed.
In short, regardless of the scene's supposed realism, emotional potency, or immersiveness, it's an especially disappointing part of a bad (single player) product. It only served to reinforce my distaste for the game in general, and the kind of decision-making that lead to this kind of overblown, egotistic junk, even if it was only for one mission.
The game’s science fiction storyline, bad writing, and spotty pacing are enough to tarnish it in my memory, but it commits many more errors within the mechanics of the game itself. Still, the multiplayer is incredible: Infinity Ward is so close to creating an incredibly addictive MMOFPS; another development cycle or two should do it. What’s alarming about Modern Warfare 2 is that Infinity Ward seems dead set on inflicting their bad brand of single player FPS upon us for years to come. If they moved on to a different franchise and genre (as they may be doing), they’ll take their overblown sense of drama, amazing design experience, and broken sense of gameplay narrative and pacing, and slip it into another game. They make single player (portions of) games that “push the envelope” of design in only the most superficial of ways, and they set the standard for the rest of the industry.