Saturday 14 November 2009

Modern Warfare 2 - a rant...

I've just watched the pitiful assessment of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (from now on referred to as "MW2"), relegated to the dying minutes of this week's Newsnight Review (shown on BBC2 in the UK on a Friday following the weekday politics show Newsnight).

Newsnight Review is, typically, a quite high brow affair - unfortunately this often translates into outright snobbery when it comes to "lower art forms", as they are perceived by some of the frequent reviewers, such as the miserable old scruffy bastard known as Paul Morley, who this week was looking disdainfully down on MW2.

MW2 has become the entertainment event of all in the history of all forms of entertainment. That's really quite some feat, even going so far as to utterly obliterate GTA IV's handsome sales figures. Make no mistake, this isn't some "toy" - as Morley dismissed it as in his sneering rant against the title - and videogames should rightly be respected as an equal art form to music and film.

The trouble is, there are far too many 'on the outside' who would rather sneer at them, look down upon them, and generally dismiss the culture, technology, and people that surrounds such titles as MW2. Morley was even brazen enough to criticise gamers for dismissing his sort, those who aren't "in the know".

Fortunately, another mature, scruffy looking bloke - but one who'd actually bothered to play MW2 - defended gamers and rightly slated Morley for his hypocritical and incorrect insult. It is the likes of Morley who look disdainfully upon gamers, and videogames in general, and seek to disregard them from the wider cultural mileu.

Well, as is always the way, his generation isn't the hip thing anymore. He, and those like him, have become the exact sort of person they no doubt rallied against in the 1980s who dismissed new cultural tidal waves. That said, videogames are hardly new as they've been around since the 1970s. Next year they'll be entering their fifth decade of existence. Hardly a insignificant sideshow, and certainly not insignificant with 4.7 million first day sales in the USA and UK alone, pulling in $310 million in the process.

Out of the other reviewers on the show, both women, one hadn't bothered to play it at all and wisely stayed out of the conversation. Another, sadly, didn't think to recognise her ignorance and keep her mouth firmly shut (but then again, she struck me as a mouthy chattering class sort, anyway - a type of person you often find cropping up on such review shows gazing down their noses at the viewer). The latter lady, who'd at best only bothered to watch the scruffy bloke who wasn't Paul Morley (I forget his name) play some of it, and then claimed to know exactly what the controversial "terrorist" level was all about.

This is something that has really fucked me off this week. Keith Vaz MP (Labour) was bitching about MW2 in Parliament this week, practically screaming from the rooftops "won't somebody PLEASE think of the children" - forgetting the fact that, in the UK, MW2 is not only clearly rated 18, but it is illegal to sell to children for fear of a large fine or even imprisonment. At some point, parental responsibility must make an appearance - but knowing New Labour's typical mindset, nobody should be allowed to think for themselves, let alone take any personal responsibility. Vaz's ambulance-chasing, nanny state background betrayed him clearly there, and thankfully Tom Watson MP (also Labour) has set out to gather pro-gaming folk together to illustrate reality to foamy-mouthed sorts like Vaz ... who, by the way, couldn't be bothered to remember that it was Modern Warfare TWO that was being released this week. He clearly stated just "Modern Warfare" - which was released in 2007. But such simple distinctions are of little concerns to those who rant about that which they simply don't understand.

Back to the "terrorist" level however, and surprise surprise, Fox & Friends ran a piece on the game - on which, sadly, the pro-gamer side was backed up by someone who, fair play to him anyway, just wasn't suitable for live television. Why can we not have someone who can succinctly and informatively defend MW2 and all other videogames?

You are NOT a terrorist in MW2. You take control of a US soldier who has been drafted into the CIA to go undercover with a Ultranationalist Russian terrorist group. Unfortunately - and there be spoilers ahead - your man is shot dead at the end of the level (called "No Russian", FYI) specifically to frame the Americans for the terrorist attack on a Russian airport. As a result, the Russians invade America. This mission propels the entire plot of the game, and in context it makes a hell of a lot more sense than the usual "ura terr-ist!!!1!!1!one!1!!!1!" line that we've heard more than once in the mainstream news media about MW2.

What's also never cleared up, is that you DO NOT have to shoot civilians. When I played the game I automatically did not shoot any civilians - I always, instinctually (like many), do the right thing in videogames. For example, I've been playing a lot of Fallout 3 in recent months, and I have always done the right thing, sought the most moral outcome, and always helped those in need in the game world.

Similarly, you simply don't have to shoot civilians in this level. You can even skip the level itself - a message asking you if you want to or not, more than once, when you first pop the game into your console or PC.

As I played the game (which I finished a couple of days ago now), I was constantly reminded of the prime time hit show 24. More than once we have seen atrocious acts of terrorism shown on that programme (which is one of my favourite American imports, FYI), and indeed we've seen many characters make morally ambiguous decisions - even totally immoral decisions in the name of achieving morality in the big picture. Sacrificing a few to save the many, a deep moral quandry for anyone.

Why should MW2 not include such a scene? Just because it's a videogame? That's ridiculous, and snobbish.

Paul Morley (yes, that arse again), was also rabidly opposed to MW2 simply because it was violent. So? Videogames don't make people violent, just like music and movies don't make people violent. If they did, there'd literally be countless millions of roaming psychopaths slaying all and sundry - but there isn't. Case closed, quite frankly, because any research "proving" a link is biased, poorly conducted, or has a vested interest in providing such a result for their commissioning masters.

MW2 is an adult game. It may fall under the title "entertainment" (like violent movies also do), but why does "entertainment" have to mean "enjoyable, fun, pleasant"? MW2 is routinely thrilling. It's jaw-dropping in it's scope, in it's relentless action, in it's plot twists (some of which are a bit ropey - the plot does suffer from a handful of gaping holes, and frequently gets lost amidst all the gunfire) ... it's also, entirely, fictitious and unreal.

Films and TV shows recreate violent events using real people. Videogames don't even do that (aside from motion capture, that is). The "people" are no such thing. They're coded Non Playable Characters (NPCs), they're computer generated models - ultimately a series of 1s and 0s. They are not real people, they aren't really being shot, and nobody is actually being hurt.

The slain "civilians" in the "No Russian" level don't exist, they have no family members. The attack is fictitious, taking place in a fictitious airport named after a fictitious Russian terrorist (who has been reclaimed by the writers of Russian history as a martyr and hero, incidentally).

This brings me on to "desensitisation to violence". I would agree that viewers and gamers become innured to on-screen violence ... fictional, faked violence. Violence that isn't real, which hasn't taken place, which is distanced from the viewer, and which is missing the sense of smell and touch, and actual real world immersion itself.

As someone who has watched all the Saw films (except the latest, which I'll get to later on), the gore events of Saw V mean that the gore events of Saw I no longer hold any real power. Or as much power as special make up effects (nowadays documented at length on illusion-shattering DVD extra features) could ever possess.

There is a vast, yawning chasm of difference between reality and a videogame. This has been highlighted very concisely in an episode of Top Gear - the last episode of series 7, if memory serves. Jeremy Clarkson chooses a car and a race course in a videogame (Gran Turismo 2, if memory serves, on the Playstation 2). He does a lap and sets a time. He then goes to the real racecourse and takes a real car (same one as in the game) and does the lap in real life.

Immediately everything is different. The car handles in a completely different way, and as such you can drive the car in the game in such a way that would cause you to spin-off the track in reality. The course itself is generally like the real one, but is nowhere near close enough to reality. The turns feel different, the track surface feels different, there are kinks, turns, bumps, rises and shallows that aren't in the game. As a result of all this difference between a videogame and reality, Clarkson is incapable of replicating his videogame laptime in real life.

Similarly, videogame violence is nothing at all like real life violence, and gamers - who are becoming increasingly varied in age, race, social standing etc as traditional real life society - would no doubt react like any other human being when confronted with real life violence. Fear, discomfort, disgust, horror, any traditional reaction to real life violence would also be experienced by any gamer. Videogame violence is absolutely, categorically, nothing like the real deal. Just like with movies.


This has been a bit of a rant about Modern Warfare 2, all brought on by that shockingly pish assessment of it on Newsnight Review - but thumbs up to the mature, scruffy dude that wasn't Paul Morley. He actually played the game himself, and understood what it was about. He understood the difference between his generation and that of the average gamer (who has, in the UK, an average age of 28), and that videogame violence is no more a threat than video nasties (ridiculously feared during the 1980s), horror comics (reviled by those on the outside refusing to seek understanding during the 1950s), or even boundary pushing music (name any era, frankly).


As for Modern Warfare 2 as a game, now that I've played it I would put it on equal pegging to the first Modern Warfare. The former does some things better and some things worse than MW2, which is likewise.

MW2's plot has some sizeable holes, but in a very 24 style, runs with them anyway and creates a thrilling, enthralling experience. An experience which is so relentless and frantic, that the plot unfortunately gets lost amidst the gunfire, explosions and general epic globetrotting scale of the game on several occasions. There is no real room for a breath, and the fast-paced, heart-poundingly intense action is so unrelenting simply over-cooks things.

The first Modern Warfare gave you a sensation of an unstoppable freight train - but it provided you with all the plot details (from a better written script) required, as well as a good mix of intense action and more relaxed moments frequently enough throughout that a perfect balance was struck.

Modern Warfare 2 is quite literally an unstoppable freight train. With only a few snatched moments where you can take stock of everything that's happening (in richly detailed environments you just wish you could really stop and gawp at now and then, to appreciate the hard work of the Infinity Ward art department). I enjoyed the hell out of the game - with only a couple of moments where I genuinely got fucked off by the punishingly intense pace (and a couple of tricky moments here and there which had my die a few times) - it is a thrillingly intense overdose shot of pure adrenaline that is punched, repeatedly, straight into your eyes with a military boot. It had me on the edge of my seat frequently, my veins and body pulsing with adrenaline as I felt like I was running just as fast as whichever character I was playing as. Indeed, I was rushed off my feet just keeping up with the onslaught of gun-toting bad guys.

So like I said - equal pegging to the first Modern Warfare. Hopefully for the next Modern Warfare (because there blatantly will be one), we'll get a better balance of action, plotting, and quieter moments. A tighter, more sensible script, and a casual mode that is actually fucking casual.

What is it with games designers? So many seem to forget the meaning of "casual". If I'm playing on that mode (as I always do), I don't want to be challenged. I want to enjoy the spectacle of playing the game, to enjoy the graphics, to see all the things I can do, to lap up the story and be thrilled - I want all that without being challenged. If I wanted a challenge, I'd go to a higher difficulty setting. But I don't, so I don't.

So please, Infinity Ward (and others), there is a way to make your games just as action packed on casual mode, but provide a simply entertaining - rather than gaming skill challenging - experience. For example, in MW2, fewer enemies with slightly poorer aim, and you being more impervious to bullets (and less blood all over the screen when you get shot - cool effect, but a bit too much to be honest). However, this also needs to be teamed with an all-round better balancing of action and storytelling, so that neither overpowers the other.

All said and done, I'd give Modern Warfare 2 my respect, franchise fanboy love, and many more hours of my life until the third installment crops up. Utterly jaw dropping, intense and thrilling.

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