I’ve been playing a lot of Modern Warfare 2 this week.. Or it’s been playing me, I don’t know. Some seriously heavy interaction is going on, one way or the other. When I take the MW2 disk out of my 360, I am not the same person who put it in.
In a lot of respects MW2 is a pretty ordinary game. You’ve got a gun. You’ve got some buddies with guns. You’ve got a mission. If you don’t do your missions, you’ve got problems.
But the thing is, there isn’t the usual distance between game and reality that we’re used to in other games. Obviously, some of that’s in the contemporary setting. This is happening, like, now. Hence the Modern part.
But a lot of it’s in the details. Like all the dust in the air, and the carefully scripted radio chatter, and the jumbled, obsessively detailed urban skyline complete with snarled, tangled power lines. When an air strike happens, you can watch the shockwave ripple toward you.
The thing all the reviewers talk about is the level where you’ve infiltrated a terrorist cell, and you go on a mission with them that consists of walking through an airport shooting at unarmed civilians. And yeah, that’s powerful. I mean, I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t pull the trigger. I let the NPC’s do all the firing. It’s a real shocker. It’s fricking traumatic. But it’s not like there’s a lot of ethical gray territory to explore there. Don’t be shooting unarmed, kids.
What really crushed me were the urban combat missions. They start out simple: somebody smacks you, you light him up and put him down. But the further you go the harder and more screwed-up it gets. See, the enemy isn’t wearing uniforms, so you can’t tell them from the civilians. And the level designers have so carefully replicated the tangled, twisted layout of a Middle Eastern city, with all the rooftops and alleyways and balconies and market stalls and such, that you can never tell where the fire’s coming from. After about 5 minutes of this you don’t even care anymore who you’re shooting. You’re so terrified you’re blowing away anything that moves.
You know what? Everybody who has an opinion about war should have to play MW2. Because I have never had a more visceral understanding of where collateral damage comes from then when I was playing it. And the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t even have a handy grenade indicator that tells them when there’s a live one bouncing around their ankles, and which way to run to get away from it. This is a serious comment on, well, modern warfare.
I mean, it’s not War and Peace. There’s a bit where the Russians invade the east-coast suburbs that’s straight-up Red Dawn, and there’s a goofy, Bond-esque snowmobile chase.
But this isn’t Dig Dug either. It’s not a cartoon, and it’s not a fantasy. Too bad, I wish it were.