Thursday, June 17, 2010

Modern Warfare as Modern Art

Several years ago I happened to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when their featured exhibition was a collection by controversial British artist Damien Hirst. The most striking piece, to me, was a large canvas covered with thousands upon thousands of dead flies - one of a series entitled "Who is Afraid of the Dark?"

The thing was revolting. Several feet high, the canvas induced a feeling of disorientation, almost vertigo, when I stared into it. From a few steps away, it was like looking into a black hole, something that sucked all the ambient light into itself. The stench - whether it was the fly carcasses or the gallons of glue slathered on to fix them in place - was palpable. I remember a distinct feeling of nausea and existential dread.

I have no idea what it meant.

Generally, I'm not an art guy. I leave it to the people versed in the intricacies of visual representation to explain why a square painted orange is worthy of being hung in a gallery. I don't go to museums expecting to understand much. The most I can muster is a vague, but genuine, appreciation for the talent it must have taken to create a work of art.

And that's exactly how I felt when I finished Modern Warfare 2 this week. Confused, somewhat disturbed, but a little awed too.

Don't worry, I'm not about to jump into the art debate, especially not with a game whose plot makes Tom Clancy-branded paperbacks look like Shakespeare. But like that Hirst piece, it's obvious that it took incredible technical skill, coordination, and patience to make MW2 happen.

Believe me, I say this at least partially begrudgingly. I borrowed the game from the library, just to see what the fuss was about. I fully expected to not get this one. My FPS skills are not even close to competitive, so I had no illusions of surviving more than a few seconds in multiplayer. And sure, I'll cop to a hint of a superiority complex. Naturally, I had assumed the majority of the Modern Warfare brand's constituents were frat boys, stoners, 12-year-olds, and/or some combination of the three. My expectations for MW2 were at roughly the same level as my expectations for Snakes on a Plane.

In both cases, I was pleasantly surprised.

Modern Warfare 2 is quite possibly the most technically impressive videogame I've ever played. The visuals are gorgeous, with smooth animation, detailed textures, and a consistent framerate even in the midst of intense firefights. Controls are responsive and intuitive, and missions provide a welcome variety of objectives and environments. The sound design is incredibly thorough, with everything from bullets pinging off metal barriers to squadmates' shouted orders sounding natural and lifelike. The AI for both enemies and friendlies is very well-implemented. And the guns - the true focus of any good shooter - man, do they feel right. Even the few vehicle sequences control well.

Aside from the tiniest bit of screen tearing, I encountered no performance issues or bugs whatsoever. (Granted, I didn't play much multiplayer, so I didn't run into any of the well-publicized glitches.) The rest of the game was so impressive that I hardly noticed the controversial "No Russian" level - which was, by the way, easily the poorest in the game. So poor, in fact, that there may be some credence to the idea that it was tacked on intentionally to generate controversy. Plotwise, the thread advanced in this level could easily have been encapsulated in a cutscene or voice-over.

Speaking of plot: I suppose there's an attempt at a story in MW2, but it's mostly just a collection of awesome, if incoherent, action set pieces. As if to drive home this point, the developers roll the ending credits over a series of animated "dioramas" of the various levels. And the setting of this sequence? A museum gallery.

Still, like the canvas of dead flies, there's something inscrutable and unnerving about MW2. As a general rule, I avoid military shooters, especially the Call of Duty series; call me prudish, but I believe there's something inherently disrespectful and voyeuristic about making real conflicts like World War II, in which both my grandathers fought, into videogames. That doesn't really apply in MW2, which is about as plausible as the film it blatantly cribs its plot from, Red Dawn. Yet it does manage to give the player a sometimes terrifyingly realistic feeling of being in actual combat. That's especially disturbing in the Brazil missions, where you have to murder dozens of heavily-armed militia for largely obscure reasons. Like 80s action flicks, the game relies on an undercurrent of xenophobia for its emotional center.

I'm not sure what the message was in the fly painting. Bizarrely, I'm even less sure what the message is in MW2, if there is one. That the game sold so many copies - and continues to sell ridiculously overpriced map packs - well, there's almost certainly a message there.

What that is? I don't exactly know. But somehow, it's a little unsettling.


  1. Did you play Modern Warfare 1? I haven't played either, but I remember MW1 getting a lot of press and word of mouth at the time of its release for being unexpectedly "serious" on a lot of the issues it raised. I still need to play it to know whether I agree, but there were a few famous bits where you played a soldier and in one case even a civilian who have no choice but to die.

    My take on the terrorist level of MW2 was that it was an attempt to follow up on some of the more "serious" moments of MW1, which is where a lot of its press came from. What's strange about MW2 (at least from what I gather) is that, like you said, aside from the terrorist level it feels like Red Dawn: an absurdly unrealistic Hollywood action movie. This really makes me wonder whether MW1 was some kind of accident, or whether it's even what people say it is.

    In any case, MW2 would probably make more sense as read against MW1, since the two games appear to be in some kind of dialog with each other. I've been meaning to pick up MW1 for a long time, but I have such distane for the FPS genre (and the culture surrounding it) that I can barely bring myself to... partially because I'm afraid it will be good and I'll be forced to admit a game besides beside Metal Gear treats war in an interesting fashion. :P

  2. Great review! It even was mentioned in the German SPIEGEL magazine which pretty much is the most important GERMAN news magazine there is. Here's the link to the article:,1518,784531-2,00.html
    It pretty much compliments your style of writing and believes it to be the future of gaming journalism which currently is mainly focused on hardcore gamers.

  3. Well you are right.
    MW1 was actually very serious.
    For me, it is the best FPS i have ever put my hands on. It felt real, it felt ugly and actually it is somewhere close to an "anti-war-game"
    MW2 as well as Black Ops on the other hand felt like Hollywood / James Bond stuff. I was qite disappointed.
    In MW1 there is this first mission, in which you die as a civilian. You get executed after you saw a military coup. You watch people get executed and end up beeing shot as well.
    These scenes left some kind of a bitter, hopeless taste. The game questioned all the war and killing. This is seen almost never in FPS.

  4. Looking esp. forward the deux ex addition, but these are some excellent thoughts on mw

  5. Thanks for a brilliant review. This sort of intelligent reviewing - paying attention to a game's overall aesthetics and linking it into a larger social and artistic context - is quite rare in gaming publications now.

    Both my grandfathers fought in the War, too - but on the German side, which adds another layer of ickiness to WW2 shooters. Something feels distinctly wrong about gunning down your ancestors in their hundreds as faceless goons. Much better to play something like the Wolfenstein series, which is at least outright fantastic.

  6. Great review! I like how it reflects the spirit of the game and the feelings it arouses instead of going for a detail-ish walkthrough. There should be more review like this one ! I discovered this review while reading the above-mentioned "Der Spiegel"-article where it was cited as a paragon for good, modern reviews full of insights. I shall bear its style and structure in my mind forever regarding my own future game reviews. All thumbs up!