There are two games that live side-by-side in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. One is an all-time action classic, thrilling and tense and more than a little ridiculous in its recounting of the heroics of war; the other, meanwhile, is a fierce and surprisingly cutting anti-war critique. The result, certainly when I first played it back in 2009, is oil and water. They don’t mix, at least on the surface, and for many that means neither half of the game really lands. The parable is obscured by the action, the action is obscured by the parable, and you’re left with a nagging sense that this is supposed to mean something, between the lines of the Hoorahs and the Tango Downs, but it’s unclear exactly what.
I have struggled to pin down why I love it, some fond nostalgia-tinged memories of multiplayer aside. I’ve always known Modern Warfare 2 to be a mess – a beautiful mess, but still a mess – that’s unquestionably fun and smarter than it looks, but still lacking the requisite nuance to land its point. It took the added sheen of quite stunning photorealism, brought to it by Beenox’s surprise remaster – and, more likely, just another replay of the story anyway – to really figure it out. The impact, now, of emerging midway through the game to a smashed Washington Monument and a White House ablaze, or of breaking free from the Gulag, or creeping through waves of snow, is honestly extraordinary. But on top of that the game’s narrative tricks seem to come into sharper focus, too. The story’s major beats just hitting a little harder, the brilliance shining a little brighter.
It’s worth retreading (and spoilers for an 11-year-old game here, as a heads up). Modern Warfare 2 is a game about American – and specifically American – interventionism, of which it is blisteringly critical. “We are the most powerful military force in the history of man”, American General Shepherd rumbles in the first line of the game post-tutorial. “Every fight is our fight.” Shepherd, of course, goes on to reveal himself as the architect of a false flag operation – clunkily delivered via that mission – that brings about a Russian invasion of the United States and, in Shepherd’s later words, “no shortage of recruits” to the US military for years to come. As others have put it before me, Shepherd is really a stand-in here for something bigger than his role in the game’s own, somewhat tangled plot: namely for the notion of perpetual war itself, for the philosophy of an interventionist global force, a cultural hunger for intercontinental violence.
The Russians in Modern Warfare 2 are the Americans, and the USA is now the ubiquitous invaded state. The airport terror of No Russian is 9/11. (And its crassness now feels more a result of its representation as an “inside job” to provoke war, than what you can do as a player. Perhaps that’s because of the last decade’s gradual erosion of our sensitivity to gun violence, within games and without, and by virtue its innate ability to shock. Or perhaps because now, in 2020, conspiracy theorists feel as clear and present a danger as anything else).
Precarious as that choice of switcheroo may be, Infinity Ward’s means of delivering it is delicious. US-based missions like Wolverines! and Exodus are wrapped in a cloak of apparent lazy sentimentality for American life. Burger joints and strip malls and idyllic picket-fenced suburbia taken straight from a ’50s property catalogue are sacrilegiously razed and engulfed by war. Tanks level mansions, anti-air encampments dug in on golf courses. Later that destruction of small town Americana evolves into the real Michael Bay big guns – “that’s the feakin’ Capitol building, man” – as you fight to take back the White House and light up the WW2 Memorial. The sentimentality and sickly, shed-a-tear-for-the-flag patriotism that looks to be all Red Dawn and Pearl Harbour, thrown together with the thrill and momentum of the action itself. The result is quite a stunning pastiche.
Call of Duty has always been a series that consumes, reconstitutes and reflects the wider culture around it, but in Modern Warfare 2 it feels decidedly more earnest than it has for some time. The references come by way of reverence, to Bay, but also plenty more. A stealthy, underwater infiltration of an oil rig takes place in a mission called The Only Easy Day… Was Yesterday, for a start – the motto of the US Marines but with an added ellipsis that seems to sprinkle more than a hint of Bond. It’s a game that is self aware rather than self conscious – the inverse of the modern Call of Dutys that often rely on self reference, gore and empty shock, entangling themselves in their own lack of perspective. And indeed the inverse of games that mimic film out of pretence and misplaced ambition, seemingly regarding their own medium with mixture of resentment and shame.
Modern Warfare 2 loves the fact that it is a video game. It is the perfect medium for it, for the hamminess and the jingoism, for the unabashed and joyfully over-the-top missions that make up the campaign’s blistering, utterly unsurpassed action. And just as much for the make-you-think twist of its story. A blast from the past, yes – but it’s also just a blast.