War is Bad and Stuff: Modern Warfare 2 Story Analysis

When I played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare at my cousin’s house years ago, I found myself surprised with just how intense the game was.  I was playing the single player story mode, and it was a lot of fun.  I had previously dabbled briefly in the franchise, playing one of the older games set in World War II, but I never really found myself interested in them until Modern Warfare.  I bought the game some time later, and played through the rest of the campaign.  It was an epic ride.  Modern Warfare is like one of those action movies that knows what it wants to be right from the start.  It’s loud.  It’s proud.  And it has explosions.  What more could you want?

But then, what about the sequel?  We hit the inevitable obstacle of “doing what the first one did, but better”.  Because that’s what people want right?  They want what made the first one great, just more refined.  Often in this situation, we get sequels that flop.  But occasionally, we get a sequel that takes us in new and surprising directions, that takes us on a ride that not only equals the first one, but surpasses it in every way imaginable.

Yeah Modern Warfare 2 is not one of those sequels.  Sorry.



The Story


The game starts off with a vague recap of the events from the first game (honestly this only helps those who have already played the first game AND who have a good memory).  And then, someone named General Shepherd starts waxing poetic about war.  He tells us all about how the bad guy from the first game is now suddenly a hero to Russia.  “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” he says.  And it makes me wonder, do we really need someone waxing poetic like this in what is essentially an interactive Michael Bay movie?

The answer is no, in case you’re wondering.

The first mission of the game is fairly standard stuff, a brief romp through some generic Middle East style city that only really serves as the pretense for General Shepherd inducting your character, Private Allen, into a special ops group known as Task Force 141.  Then it’s on to the second mission of the game, which is my personal favorite.

It’s basically a pitch-perfect action movie scene.  It starts on an icy cliff-side, with Soap MacTavish (who you might recognize as one of the main characters from the first game) and Roach, a new recruit (and the player character for the mission).  They scale the icy cliff with picks (with some harrowing near falls of course) before sneaking into a Russian base under cover of a blizzard.  The whole purpose of this mission is to retrieve some satellite module that the Russians stole from the Americans.  But of course, things don’t go according to plan.  After grabbing the module, the two characters are spotted.  After detonating some previously set up C4, the two of them make a mad dash across the base and acquire some snowmobiles.  A hectic chase scene ensues, which ends with a climatic jump across a gorge before meeting up with the escape helicopter.  So yeah, it’s epic.

But here’s where things start to go downhill.

The next mission you might know about even if you’ve never played the game.  It’s called “No Russian” and it became infamous when it was first announced.  The mission has the character from the first mission, Allen, embedded into a Russian terrorist group that commits mass slaughter at a Russian airport.

This mission was reviled by a lot of people because of the graphic nature of it, which is a little silly to me because Grand Theft Auto has been allowing people to kill civilians for quite a while now.  It’s not like anything this mission does is particularly shocking.  But of course, what do I know?  I’m just slowly turning into a psychotic mass murderer from playing all these violent games.  I mean, Fox News said I would.  And Fox News is never wrong or untruthful.

But I digress.  After the mission is over, Makarov (the bad guy) shoots Allen in the face because somehow he figured out that he was an American spy.  He leaves the body for the Russians to find so that they will assume that the United States was behind the attack.  Apparently the CIA really sucks at their job because it was apparently really easy for them to uncover Allen’s true nature.  The fallout of the event is that Russia, being all evil (as it always is with these games), decides to hell with diplomacy, let’s straight up invade the U.S. using that satellite module we stole to somehow disable the entirety of America’s defense network.

Yeah, this game just makes so much sense.

So the Army Rangers have to deal with the Russian invasion, and you get to play as Private Ramirez.  Along with shooting a bunch of people, you get to do everything for your squad because apparently no one else is competent enough.  You also get to defend a burger joint using satellite controlled missiles, so that’s cool.

While all this is happening, Task Force 141 heads to Brazil to find a man inside Makarov’s crew.  After capturing him they discover that Makarov has it out for some nameless prisoner in a Russian gulag.  So the task force travels there and breaks him out, revealing that he is none other than Captain Price (Soap’s mentor, essentially, from the first game).  It’s an interesting twist, but it kinda ruins that whole “he’s dead” implication from the ending of the first game due to the fact that he’s, you know, NOT DEAD.

So then they escape (while the place explodes around them, because…you know), and go off to do their own thing.  Meanwhile, Ramirez continues to do everything for everybody because he’s just a super cool guy like that.  They end up clearing out the capital building in Washington D.C. before hopping in a helicopter that is promptly shot down.  They fend off a huge wave of attackers, and it looks like all hope is lost for them as a helicopter swoops in and shines its light on them…


Task Force 141 is busy mucking with some Russians in Russia.  Price convinces them to go to a nuclear submarine, which he then hijacks and launches a nuke, somehow to the surprise of all his comrades.  It makes me wonder how he convinced them to do it in the first place.  I imagine it went something like this:

“Yo guys we should totally jack this nuclear sub!”

“But why?”

“Umm…because it would totally be cool?”

Anways, he launches a nuke into the atmosphere which sets off a giant electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that shreds the Russian attack force in America.  The funny thing about this is that it’s actually somewhat scientifically accurate (although I doubt the real-life version would be nearly as devastating).  We watch the explosion from the point of view of an astronaut orbiting Earth.  In the process of the nuke detonating, the International Space Station is destroyed and the astronaut is sent flying off into space.  And then we’re thrown back into the shoes of the men on the ground without a word about the astronaut’s fate.

No one cared about him anyways.  He was a jerk, never bought any of his astronaut friends lunch.

The EMP shuts down all the electronics which sends planes and helicopters crashing to the ground, leaving the army rangers wandering a deathly quiet city.  It’s actually a pretty cool little bit, but it only lasts like two or three minutes before the shooting and explosions start up again.  It makes me think of what this game could have done with its story instead of what it did.

Anyways, the army rangers eventually end up on the roof of the White House, signaling friendly planes and averting an airstrike.  This is where their story ends, but not without some comment about burning Moscow to the ground.  Because America.

The Task Force 141 storyline then continues with them splitting up and going to two different locations.  Roach goes with his team to a hidden forest estate where they download some secret files detailing Makarov’s operation.  After a break-neck run down the hill towards the extraction point, Roach meets up with General Shepherd and PLOT TWIST!  Shepherd shoots him in the chest and burns him alive.  Because he’s evil and stuff…apparently.

This then leads to Soap and Price chasing down General Shepherd at his secret location guarded by what I assume are private military thugs (the game never actually explicitly says).  But before that, we get more bad poetry courteous of Captain Price.  “If we die and he lives, his truth becomes the truth,” he says.  So basically history is written by the victors, so on and so forth…nothing we haven’t heard before.

After shooting up his secret base, Soap and Price chase Shepherd down a river with a motorboat and shoot down his helicopter before he can escape (apparently three sniper rifle bullets are enough to make the helicopter catch fire and crash).  The boat crashes and a final confrontation with Shepherd ensues.  He stabs Soap with a knife, then stands over him loading his gun and explaining his motivations.  Because just killing Soap immediately would make too much sense.

Oh, and Shepherd’s motivation for all this is probably one of the most “what in the world” things I’ve ever heard.

Basically, in the first Modern Warfare, a nuclear bomb went off that killed a lot of soldiers.  These were apparently General Shepherd’s soldiers.  “Tomorrow there will be no shortage of volunteers, no shortage of patriots,” he says as he stands over Soap, loading his gun.  So, basically, he started World War III because he lost a bunch of soldiers in an isolated incident.  He started an event that will inevitably kill exponentially more soldiers than he lost in the first place, BECAUSE he lost them in the first place.

……Yep nothing wrong here.  Nope that makes complete sense.

But before he can shoot Soap Price rushes in and tackles him, leading to a fight scene that ends with Soap pulling the knife out of his chest and throwing it straight into Shepherd’s eye (not gonna lie, it’s pretty epic).  A mutual friend of theirs flies in with a helicopter and the game ends there.



Concluding Thoughts


Okay, so this story could have actually been good.  But in the end, it just tried too hard, what with all the awkward prose about the changing nature of war and the subjectivity of history.  It just comes off as unnecessary and stilted.

The gameplay doesn’t reflect what the story is trying to say.  And I mean, AT ALL.  The story tries (at times) to be this deep reflective thing, but the gameplay itself moves so fast and has you changing locations so much that you don’t get a chance to take it all in.  The EMP nuke thing literally destroys the International Space Station and sends an astronaut hurling off into space, but the game just doesn’t even care.  “Screw that guy,” it seems to say as it throws you into another person’s shoes immediately afterward.

The game simply tried to be too serious.  And considering how many popcorn style action scenes are in the game, it just doesn’t make any sense.

And with the constantly shifting perspective from mission to mission, it makes it hard to really care about anything that happens in the game.  Compare that to the original Modern Warfare, where one scene places you in the role of a soldier in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb.  You wander around inside a nuclear dust cloud for about half a minute before keeling over and dying of radiation poisoning.  It’s brutal.  It’s jarring.  It’s intense.

And it’s effective.

Modern Warfare 2 just doesn’t know what it wants to be, popcorn entertainment or thoughtful thriller.  And what we end up with is something in between the two, a weirdly pretentious game that wants to talk about the harsh nature of war while simultaneously glorifying it.  Games can be about deep subject matter, but they have to reflect their message in all aspects, and this game just fails at that.  It tries too many different things, and all it really ends up being is a moderately enjoyable action game with no real soul.  It throws plot twists at you like candy and doesn’t take the time to give you real meaning to them.  A game needs to know what it wants to be.  Otherwise, it just ends up being a muddled mess.


And with that, I end my analysis.  Thanks for reading and have a wonderful week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post.



3 thoughts on “War is Bad and Stuff: Modern Warfare 2 Story Analysis

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