A special series playthrough review – Part Two, The Modern Warfare Trilogy
FBT leaps into the future, when he thinks CoD went a bit shit. Is Modern life rubbish?
CoD I & II thankfully are still great games. I can’t see why Activision shifted away from the era so quickly – I missed out on CoDIII so maybe the setting was getting a little tired, but still; was creating an entirely fictious war in a modern setting wrong or brave? Surely that means a story is key here? I’m playing all those CoD’s to prove story matters in FPS; if you’re going to invent a something you’d better convince me it’s worth fighting for. For me, MW signalled the beginning of the same old experience rehashed over and over. Not that I’m pre-judging it or anything. Let’s get this crap over with.
MW 1 - Whinging before I’ve even clicked on ‘new game’ is text-book pre-judging but the one thing I’m not looking forward to is CoDs multiple perspectives. I want a constant hero I could get behind, not interchangeable arms that exposed how repetitive CoD was. If they provided an alternative take or showed the impact of our actions that would be something, but they’re not different perspectives just different angles - just once I’d like a CoD character to be an innocent bystander trying to escape the madness. Surprisingly then, MW1 does exactly that, as we play the President of Iraqistan or somewhere. Only able to move my head, the about-to-be-new president Al-Fulani shoots me in it; well that was a unique perspective.
The oil-rich country with a new US-hating dictator worries the West; when an SAS team uncovers a connection between Ultranationalists within the Russian Government and Iraqistan - a nuclear weapon - the US invades Iraqistan while the SAS contend with the Ultranationalists who have provoked a civil war in Russia. Holy shit, that’s a story.
The US invasion levels are basically Black Hawk Down the video game. It’s extremely jingoistic fighting as ‘Jackson’ through the streets of Iraqistan but like all good propaganda, I’m swept up and killing with glee as we seek to dispose Al-Fulani; Go Democracy! If I wanted a subtle comment on US war policy I’d have played Homefront or The Line - which I have, and they’re thought-provoking. This isn’t, but it’s hella fun.
The SAS missions, playing as ‘Soap’ are a lot more pressured and stealth based; I seem to spend a lot of time staring at the backside of Price, my commanding officer as we go prone and wiggle about disrupting the Ultranationalists plans with zero presence. Except, I keep swapping a silenced peashooter for a sexier looking local’s gun … I’m less SAS more SASS but luckily, I’m forgiven when I ‘go loud’; you just get yelled at by Price. If you make it.
Flipping between gung-ho and go-quietly can be jarring, as are the occasional shifts into entirely different characters, usually observing or supporting, but it’s not as disruptive as I thought. Because I don’t care about them. And this gets hammered home during the push on Al-Fulani’s stronghold. It’s a huge, exhilarating level, playing as a chopper gunner clearing a path as Jackson fights through the streets, until Al-Fulani detonates the bomb … Jackson succumbs to the blast and it’s a shock. Heroes don’t die. But then I realise Jackson isn’t a hero in the same way a game’s hero usually is; he didn’t do anything heroic, didn’t have a boss fight with Al-Fulani, he was just a grunt - no offence. But, within seconds I’ve forgotten all about Jackson - it’s just another mission end. On with the show.
Some levels are real standouts, like a flashback to Price on a mission in the ruins of Chernobyl - which punctuates a brilliant level where we’re in a running battle while waiting for extraction. That’s a typical shooter mission but the terrain is complex and it’s tough as hell. It could have been avoided if Price hadn’t made us all listen to story time while the enemies closed in, but I wanted context … The US missions, while essentially all the same are always just the right side of ‘shit that was close’. A desperate rush to save the pilot of a Black Hawk down is great, as is the SAS’s final run to stop the Ultranationalists. I keep expecting this to get samey but it doesn’t. MW1 is great. It’s an intense shooter and a pretty good story-arc. What’s going on here?
I think MW2 might be the most conflicted game I’ve played. On the one hand it’s an absolute master-class in intensive, urgent shooters. But it’s also a victim of its own success. This is the game the rest of the CoDs tries to beat, it’s here that I see almost every other game in the CoD series. This is the template, this is the game we’ve been playing ever since.
The SAS chaps are now ‘Task Force 141’, led by Soap, who is a lot more capable than he was in MW1. Because I’m not playing him; instead I’m ‘Roach’, and I’m Private Allen from the Rangers, who’s abilities during an insurgency put-down in Afghanistan gets him assigned to a special mission. I wonder what that can be?
It might have something to do with Makarov, the Ultranationalists’ new leader who gets the Russian people riled up about the West and eventually provokes war. We’re splitting our time between Roach, as the TF141 try to scupper Markov and now Ramirez, an Army Ranger fighting on US soil as the Russians invade. While TF141’s missions are a bit more urgent this time around, and take up the bulk of MW2, Ramirez’s stuff is actually a lot more interesting. Fighting around American Suburbia when the Russkies invade just makes for a more refreshing landscape and a more relatable fight than MW1's Desert Storm or even Soap’s tail-chasing here. So if I’m now Ramirez, where’s Allen? What’s he got up to?
Allen was embedded with Makarov’s men and enters a busy airport - where they slaughter everyone before Allen is left for dead so the US is blamed. As a catalyst, ‘No Russian’ is one of gaming's greatest scenes; a mature, serious look at extremists and how they manipulate fear and anger. It’s grotesque and shocking – exactly how it should be, except for the fact we’re a willing participant in it.
The game asks if you want to skip it, but you don’t, and Activision claimed you can just observe but that’s not true. You’re in a running fight against SWAT teams, and trying to get past them using only defensive moves is impossible; no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay innocent.
The most unpalatable part is that we don’t understand why Allen went along with it. This is where story is critical. We’ve not gained any insight into him or his mission – there’s undercover and then there’s complicit. It makes no sense Allen would let this happen; he goes from tutorial to terrorist, was he turned by Makarov? It may be critical to the plot that I’m a patsy but if I have control, I should have turned the gun on Makarov. Why didn’t I? Only a story can explain – and justify – this. But I’m forced to go along with the atrocity with no context and that makes it uncomfortable. A cut-scene would have done.
Although it's not made clear, the most likely candidate for Allen being exposed is General Shephard. We discover his duplicity too late of course, after watching him immolate Roach; Shep wanted revenge for the loss of his men in MW1. Which is lame, a typical action-movie cheat like they needed a twist at the end. He wants revenge for his men dying by provoking a world war? But then, massacres aside, MW2 isn’t really concerned with complexity. It’s a Boy’s Own Adventure just like CoD I. And what an adventure.
MW2 is epic; there’s not one duff level, not one draggy mission. There’s a great stand-out early on, a fight in a fast food shop - what could be more American than defending junk food? While MW1 recalled CNN’s Desert Storm coverage, MW2 does go Michael Bay; there’s even a The Rock nod where we fight in a shower room after storming an Alcatraz, and Rodriguez’s missions end with us lighting flares to stop a bombing run.
As a story it does the job; just interesting enough to push us through the levels. The narrative is a bit convoluted though, if we had a chance to stop and think about it; the most jarring is where we go to rescue Price from a Russian prison. I just don’t get why we hadn’t bothered to get him before now, why Soap never questioned his disappearance. It’s not even explored. Why he’s needed isn’t clear either, other than he’s the one guy Makarov is afraid of. No explanation why, Soap’s the one who shot his boss in MW1 and Price doesn’t have any info that really helps bring him down yet he suspects Shephard; but doesn't warn TF141 of his suspicions until it’s too late. I’ve just been set on fire Price, anything you’d like to share?
Price decoys us to a submarine and fires it's nuclear weapon so the EMP downs the Russian attack force - a stunning move - but it was a ground war anyway and kills untold numbers of US troops and a passing astronaut. It’s a pretty extreme way to level the playing field. It does give the marines a chance to take back Washington in one of the best running gun battles of the entire series, but still. Price takes being disavowed to extremes.
MW2 is a cracking shooter. But is it a good story? Yeah-no. Plot-wise we’re just chasing Makarov about, and the No Russian scene was crying out for backstory - without it, the threadbare story’s just an excuse for all the shooting. If MW1 was how wars start, this was war where the why no longer matters. Let’s see if MW3 has a happy ending.
MW3 picks up with the Russia-US war in full swing; we’re looking at WWIII and the only guys able to stop it are a disavowed SAS Captain, his critically injured pal and a Russian loyalist. Sure there’ll be some US Grunt who gets sacrificed too; I won’t get too attached to him.
When it comes to the Task Force 141 missions, we’re primarily in the boots of Yuri, starting with helping Price get a critically wounded Soap out the town they’re holed up in when Makarov’s team descend. It’s a decent little re-entry into the MW world as we’re heavily outnumbered and gun our way to an extraction point; this time though, Yuri has control of a remote-controlled mini-tank, kinda like one of those sit-on lawnmowers with a mini-gun attached. It’s fun but an example of CoD shifting away from the men vs men tone and into tech. And that’s about as critical as I can get about MW3 ... I was all set to dislike MW3; this must be the one that started my CoD Clone rants, right? Wrong; my enjoyment never dropped below ‘shit this is good’.
While TF141 makes their escape, we pop over to the US to see how the invasion is going. We’re Delta Force Op ‘Frost’ (real name Derek). Again, it’s another solid tooth-and-nail firefight through Wall Street to knock out the Russian’s comms, leading to a helicopter firefight before we stop off to turn a Russian subs’ missiles on the rest of their approaching fleet, which forces the Russian withdrawal from US soil. Not bad for an opening mission. Go Frost! No, no, I can’t get invested in you, you’re going to die.
MW3 doesn’t deserve to be this good. Each mission is desperate and often futile – the teams fail as often as they succeed and for most of it Makarov has the upper hand which gets you riled up and focused. War is hell. TF141 blazes through Sierra Leone and Somalia trying to avert Makarov dragging the other nations into a full-scale war – via chemical warfare. When we miss the shipment, it’s actually nerve-wracking. Nerve-gas wracking.
It’s then that we hit one of the best missions of the series; a SAS team fighting through the London underground trying to stop one of the dirty bombs. London looks just how the Americans imagine it but despite playing chicken with a tube train, we’re unsuccessful and the bomb is detonated – which we see through the video camera of a dad filming his family. It’s a now-standard CoD controversy scene but unlike No Russian which forced you to contribute to the horror, this you just watch in horror as your daughter chases pigeons towards the van. Kaboom. This is how you do controversy. And plotting.
With the world now at war after the bombs went off around the world, Frost and the Deltas war through Germany and France (knocking down the Eiffel Tower while they’re at it) while TF141 tries to get to Markov. It’s all so desperate you’re almost yelling ‘No!’ when it switches between characters; you’re behind those guys, you want to see the war ended, Makarov dead. We’re doing it for that little girl. When TF141 and Deltas team up for an against-the-odds mission to recover the Russian president you’re totally up for it, and when Price and Yuri stage a personal revenge attack on a Dubai hotel, you’re practically cheering.
The game just really wants you to lose your shit while playing. Even the jumps into secondary characters are stellar – besides the London sequence, there’s exhilarating mini-levels like Makarov’s capture of the president in mid-air resulting in a zero-g gunfight; it’s an all-out, balls-out shooter. TF141’s missions play like the Bank Heist in Heat while Frost’s are every war film you’ve ever watched. Buildings collapse on top of us, tanks roll over us, planes crash on us, everyone’s yelling, everything’s exploding, it’s exhaustingly intense. It’s not art, but MW3 is awesome. It’s a fitting end to what you realise is Price’s trilogy. He deserves that cigar.
And Frost survived! Where is he? The one time a character survives and what, did he just sleep in and miss the Deltas’ final mission?! I took a moment to work out how many arms I’d played in MW that didn’t make it. I lost count.
I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong. I finally ‘got’ MW when played as one game. There’s just enough story to keep you invested – in fact, we’re playing the story instead of the characters. They each play a part, and while all the missions in MW could be played on shuffle and you’d not notice, what MW is saying is who or where doesn’t matter, only the mission. You just Ooh Rah and dig in; it’s all the same once a shot is fired.
Another aspect I dismissed but now realise works, is how rail-shooter linear CoD is. It is a locked down, forward-push game but as I ran down dead-ends, into houses, into grenades, I realised it doesn’t feel like you’re being herded. It’s not about the route, it’s about having the wit and awareness to stay calm while holy hell is exploding around you.
The last criticism I had of the modern era was that it was modern; but freed of the WWII setting, MW doesn’t get weighed down trying to lend some gravitas to the fact we’re playing for fun what men actually died doing. It has parallels with Desert Storm and Gulf War II but lets me play as a modern soldier in a realistic yet entertaining way. I’ve run out of excuses; I love MW. Shit.
Question now is, if MW does everything right, where did CoD go wrong? I swear my belief that CoD recycles itself must have come from somewhere. Ironic then, that the next game is World at War, a post MW1 return to the trenches. Is that going to reset my historical love?
Check out the third part of FBT’s CoD playthrough as he returns to WWII; but will it seem dated now he’s modernised?