First of all, I want to make it clear that I love Modern Warfare 2 to the point of mild obsession. Here’s a recent conversation I had with my girlfriend:
Me: (muttering, staring into space) Pew pew! Pew! Pew!
Her: Are… are you imagining sniping everyone on this subway?
I have considered hiring somebody off of Craigslist to come to my apartment and give me Modern Warfare lessons, so I can finally overcome my crippling fear of multiplayer mode.
But I have to say, I was a little surprised by how grim the main campaign turned out to be. This is a game in which America finds itself impotent in the battlefield, despised by the rest of the world, invaded, betrayed, and generally having a miserable week. In this article, I’m going to look at the plot from a nationalistic perspective. (Pretty much ALL the Modern Warfare 2 spoilers in the world follow, so proceed with caution if you’re a gamer.)
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The first mission takes place in Afghanistan, where a group of Army Rangers is trying to train some locals, without much success. “No offense,” says the Sergeant (voiced by Keith “STOP ASKING ME TO PUT ON THE GLASSES, RODDY PIPER!!” David) to the Afghans, “but I see a lot of you guys firing from the hip and spraying bullets all over the range. You don’t end up hitting a damn thing and it makes you look like an ass.” Keep in mind that this is supposed to be 2016. I don’t know what’s more depressing—that we’re still in Afghanistan after 13 years of war, or that we still can’t get the locals to take control of their own security.
The Rangers roll into a town in a convoy of Humvees, but everything quickly goes FUBAR. Militia attack from the rooftops, and the trucks scatter in a desperate attempt to escape. At this point, nothing you do can help you. No matter how skillful you are with the minigun, your vehicle is going to get shattered by an RPG, and you’re going to have to fight your way out of the red zone on foot. This is typical of the game—even though you personally may kick ass and take names, the mission as a whole is a bloody disaster. All you can do is salvage a bad situation. This is what you fight for in Modern Warfare 2: not victory, but a chance to limit the scope of the defeat.
After you fight your way to safety in Afghanistan, you meet General Shepherd, a leathery stereotype voiced by Lance Henriksen. He’s got a special task for you, and it’s so controversial the game actually gives you the option to opt out of playing it. You probably heard about the infamous “No Russian” mission when Modern Warfare 2 came out back in November. Your character goes undercover with the notorious terrorist Makarov. You follow him and his men out of an elevator into a Moscow airport, and watch them open fire on hundreds of screaming civilians. It’s up to you whether you participate, but shooting the terrorists isn’t an option (I tried).
Some people thought this level was a cheap publicity stunt. Others thought it was a masterstroke. “It was the most powerful emotional experience any video game has ever given me,” Chris Sullentrop wrote in Slate. “I don’t know that I cried, but I was knocked off balance by emotions that I thought I had tucked away.”
Personally, I was just confused. Isn’t the whole point of embedding someone with the terrorists so that they can warn people before airport massacres? Presumably, your character has a way of contacting his superiors. “Hmm,” I imagine them saying in some Pentagon bunker. “The terrorists are planning to slaughter hundreds of people? Maybe we should prevent that. Then again, it would be a shame to blow our cover.” A cynical person might think that the Americans don’t give a damn about preventing a terrorist attack that’s not on their own soil. Shame on you, cynical person.
In any case, not only do the Americans allow the attack to take place, NOT ONLY do they allow one of their own soldiers to participate in it, but as the terrorists are making their escape, they SHOOT you, revealing that they knew you were an American all along. By leaving your body at the scene, they effectively frame the United States for the atrocity. Or so the game claims–I’m not actually sure how this was supposed to work. Did your character have a wallet with a U.S. drivers license on him?
In any case, both the missions you’ve played as an American soldier have been ginormous disasters, and the second one was morally reprehensible. The U.S. Army isn’t look great. But you know who IS looking great? The British.
In between the missions you play as the American, you step into the shoes of “Roach,” part of a special forces unit called Task Force 141. It’s supposed to be a multinational group, but its three main members (Soap, Ghost, and Captain Price) are all Limeys. (Thanks to the faceless, voiceless nature of the character you play, it’s an open question what nationality Roach is.) These Brits accomplish their missions with brutal effectiveness. They infiltrate a Russian airbase to recover a downed satellite module, escaping in true James Bond fashion via snowmobile. In the wake of the airport fiasco, the 141 heads to Brazil to hunt down an associate of the terrorists. Naturally, they get their man.
Meanwhile, America is going the full Red Dawn. It turns out that before the British recovered the satellite for us, the Russians used it to hack our NORAD early warning system. Now Ivan is parachuting into Northern Virginia, and the local strip mall is suddenly a war zone. You’re playing as another Army Ranger, also under the command of Keith “I Was In The Chronicles of Riddick” David. Once again, this is another mission where, no matter how well you play, it can only be perceived as an embarrassment and disaster of epic proportions for the United States. There are MIGs bombing I-95.
Not only do the Russians manage to sneak attack us from the other side of the world, they do so with remarkable success. “The Russians are burning through our defenses and our intel,” says General Shepherd at the beginning of the next mission. The General wants you to fight your way into what was until recently a ritzy suburb, to rescue a “High Value Individual.” Given that these are American soldiers, you can guess how this mission goes. You make it to the HVI’s house, only to discover that he’s already dead. End of mission. Somehow, victory in this game doesn’t feel so victorious when you’re an American.
Meanwhile, the Brits are speeding from success to success. In Brazil, they find out that Makarov’s arch-enemy is locked up in a Russian gulag. They seize control of an oil rig, freeing some hostages in the process. Then they assault the gulag and free the mysterious prisoner… who turns out to be Captain Price, your mentor from Modern Warfare 1. So all in all, everything is going awesome for the Brits.
Cut back to the United States. You’re in a bunker that’s being absolutely pummeled. The fluorescent lights are falling off the ceiling, showering the concrete with sparks. Wounded and dying soldiers lie on cots. There’s a row of black body bags lined up along a wall. Keith David leads you up the steps and into a trench. You round a corner… and there’s the Washington Monument. You’re on the National Mall, and it’s about to be overrun with Ruskies. You fight your way into the Commerce Building and blow up a few enemy tanks with rocket launchers. But since this is Modern Warfare 2, and you’re an American, this can’t end well. Your helicopter goes down, and the mission ends with you trapped in the wreck, down to your last clip, waiting for the inevitable.
And guess who saves your godforsaken American life? Yes, those unstoppable badass Brits. Captain Price, despite having spent the past five years in a Russian gulag, turns out to be not merely battle-ready, but able to launch and control a nuclear warhead. He purposely explodes the bomb in the atmosphere, creating a giant EMP.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, your American character is saved as every helicopter suddenly falls out of the sky, creating enough chaos for your squad to escape. Fighting your way through the office buildings, you come across a bunker with a very familiar seal on it. The other soldiers speculate this must be the President’s secret bunker. Someone pries open the door and… any guesses? Anyone? Bueller?
Everyone is burnt to a crisp. The President is dead. End of mission.
There’s only one more mission you play as an American in this game. You, Keith David, and what’s left of your unit emerge from the bunker to find yourself in front of “Whiskey Hotel,” which sounds like fun, but turns out to be the regular old White House. After fighting your way into the press room, you overhear a radio saying that D.C. is about to be leveled by the American air force, unless they see green smoke from the roof in two minutes. (I don’t think the similarities to The Rock are coincidental. Hans Zimmer, who wrote the score to that Michael Bay classic, also composed the main themes to this game.)
All your experience playing this game leads you to believe that you’ll fail to make it to the roof on time, the air force will kill you and blow up the capital, and Russians will rape cute puppies in front of your corpse. But in what counts as “winning,” you just barely avert the airstrike. The last you see of the Americans, they are looking out over their destroyed capital, talking about the inevitable counterattack on Moscow.
Let me repeat this: no matter how well you play the game, you’re still participating in the worst day in American history, in which we just barely manage to avoid fire-bombing our own capital into dust. All in all, it’s a pretty grim view of America’s military capabilities (and a pretty complimentary view of Russia’s).
But it’s not over. Not even close.
In the next mission, the British soldiers of the 141, under the command of General Shepherd, are going after Makarov at his safehouse. They want revenge on behalf of the Americans, because clearly the Americans can’t get anything done on their own. Makarov isn’t there, but the Brits collect a ton of intel and bring it back to Shepherd. And then… are you ready for this?… Shepherd shoots them, and American soldiers light them on fire. In turns out the American General was the bad guy all along, in league with the terrorists.
I was a little sketchy as to why Shepherd is doing all this, so I consulted the Modern Warfare Wiki. I guess the idea is that he feels that starting World War III is the best way to strengthen America’s military and power in the world. Certainly, it’s a good way to get your defense budget increased.
In the next mission, the game ups the ante on anti-Americanism: it actually puts Americans in your crosshairs. The surviving British commandos are being hunted down by Shepherd’s men, and they have to return fire to escape. Technically, these soldiers are “Shadow Company,” a black ops unit answerable only to Shepherd. Still, they’re Americans, and you’re a Brit killing them with a sniper rifle. Think about the arc this game puts the player through: you start as a Ranger in Afghanistan, and you end up realizing that the American military is behind all the evils of the world and must be destroyed. In the end, there’s a final showdown between you and the ultimate bad guy, who also happens to be the Supreme Commander of the American military. I won’t tell you how it ends, but let’s just say that if you’ve been paying attention to how Americans fare in this game, and how Brits fare in this game, it won’t be a surprise.
Okay, what’s going on here? How come Infinity Ward made a game in which America is portrayed as incompetent, ineffective, and finally villainous? The boring marketing answer is that video games are an international product now. MW2 sold nine million copies in the U.S., and almost 3 million in the U.K. The rest of the world, as you might have heard, currently doesn’t have the highest regard for the United States, and especially its military. Making the 141 a multinational task force gives the game a wider appeal. If you don’t believe me, just asked Paramount Pictures. When they made the movie version of G. I. Joe, they changed the team from an American group to an international one.
But the more interesting interpretation is that it’s not just Europeans who have their doubts about the United States military. Americans have seen our armed forces struggle to win two endless wars, and search in vain for Osama Bin Laden. The name of the game is Modern Warfare, and modern warfare is all about frustration–not having the right intel, resources, or geopolitical clout to get the job done. The game reflects a real fear that the military isn’t able to protect us from danger. Even though our soldiers can demolish any enemy in a one-on-one fight, they will always be too slow to stop the fight before it happens. The remarkable thing about this game is that no matter how well you play, Washington is still in rubble at the end. That’s what victory looks like in Modern Warfare 2.