You may have heard that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sold nearly 5 million copies in North America and Britain on its first day of release last week—that's $310 million in sales, what publisher Activision calls "the biggest launch in history across all forms of entertainment."* Nevertheless, the game's more noteworthy achievement is an artistic one: It's a first-person shooter that plays as a tragedy, not a power fantasy. It's the most anti-war war game I've ever played, a murder simulator that won't let you forget the nature of your actions.
If you want to play through the most interesting, the most important, and, probably, the best video game published this year without knowing what happens, put this article aside for now. Like its predecessor, Modern Warfare 2 abandons the traditional World War II combat of earlier Call of Duty titles. The military set pieces in this game resemble, well, modern warfare—you even control Predator drones. The story unfolds in an alternate present-day world in which the Russians (yes, the Russians) react to a terrorist attack by invading the I-95 corridor of the United States, leading to street battles in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and, eventually, key tourist sites in Washington. It's like a video-game mashup of Generation Kill and Red Dawn.
Or something. When the plot of Modern Warfare 2 is comprehensible, it's preposterous. The characters are flat and often indistinguishable. As a narrative, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 does not measure up to the best video games, including the original Modern Warfare. But as an interactive experience, the sort that only games can provide, it's a landmark.
The game begins in Afghanistan, where the fighting is terrifying but thrilling. As in the first Modern Warfare, your game-play failures (which usually result in death) provide an opportunity to meditate on a quotation from a famous writer and thinker. These quotes focus overwhelmingly on the futility of revenge and the dangers of excessive nationalism. While there are occasional pro-war quotes, the deck is stacked for the anti-war side, as John Milton, Albert Einstein, and Voltaire do battle with Nathan Hale, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, who is cited for his certainty on the location of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
At the beginning of the game, these quotes feel like an inoculation, an attempt to counteract the reprehensible message of the game play. That message: Killing foreigners on behalf of one's country is one hell of a good time. In one early bit, I deeply enjoyed watching a buddy slit the throat of an enemy. But soon the tenor of the game play changes, and, remarkably, it has the courage not to be fun. Modern Warfare 2 is immersive, gripping, gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking, disturbing, and thought-provoking—and, yes, unpleasant. The game's perverse achievement was to make me feel bad about myself while playing it, and that's more feeling than nearly every other video game is able to evoke.
This pivot occurs when, for reasons that only become sort of clear near the very end of the game (but that remain ludicrous throughout), one of the game's characters is asked to go undercover for the CIA as an ultranationalist Russian terrorist. As part of a group of four men with guns, you walk toward a security line full of civilians at a Russian airport. And then you kill them.
I'll admit it—I pulled the trigger. The game had instructed me to follow the lead of my fellow terrorists, and I had been told that preserving my undercover status was important for the country. But after an introductory gun burst, I couldn't do it anymore. It was the most powerful emotional experience any video game has ever given me. I don't know that I cried, but I was knocked off balance by emotions that I thought I had tucked away. As the travelers screamed and fled from the indiscriminate slaughter, I strolled through the airport. I didn't fire my weapon anymore, but I watched the three Russian terrorists kill. One of the men shot a passenger as he crawled along the blood-streaked floor and pleaded for his life.
And then I started shooting again. I thought that a guard was going to kill me, so I went after him first. The bullets hit his corpse—he was shot first by one of the other men—and it shuddered on the ground. As we approached a team of riot police, I thought, You don't have to do this. You can stop. You can refuse. You can walk away. I didn't.
For a while, though, I sat there. I picked up a riot shield and tried to hide behind it and let the others do the killing. That didn't work. Then I picked up a gun and tried to fire it into the skull of the lead terrorist. The game wouldn't let me do that, either, wouldn't even let me shoot. The rules of play were clear: If you want to go forward, if you want to keep playing, you have to kill these cops. Do something awful with me, the game asked. And I did.
After that scene, what had played like an old-fashioned shooting gallery was now morally fraught. As the war moved into Northern Virginia with firefights at a gas station and a strip mall, I felt new sympathy for the people whose streets I'd earlier traveled with exhilaration. As I battled the invading Russians, I had an awareness—as I've had in no other first-person shooter—that lives were at stake. I was still killing people.
The thrill of battle was replaced with the fog of war, as it became difficult to tell who was friendly and who wasn't. I couldn't tell whether friendly fire was possible on the Normal difficulty level that I played, but I worried about it. At one point, I walked into a room of fellow Army Rangers and, surprised and scared, I began spraying bullets. While I didn't kill anyone that time, I think—though I couldn't quite tell—that I accidentally killed an ally later in the game. It didn't feel good.
As Modern Warfare 2 approaches its climax, it doesn't let you forget the cost of war. One scene is filled with wounded soldiers receiving treatment near a row of corpses, zipped inside black body bags. When the battle reaches the White House, the action feels serious and intense rather than absurd and fantastical (though I will confess that I tried, in a bit of whimsy, to destroy the World War II Memorial from the air).
Some players will object to the game's politics. By the end of Modern Warfare 2, everyone is a pawn in a pointless war, and there are no heroes, even you. At times, the cynical script seems as if it were written by a 9/11 Truther, as world events are manipulated to create pretexts for war and to garner glory for the generals.
But that's a complaint about the plot, which melds ridiculous twists and predictable action clichés. (The climax involves mano a mano fisticuffs.) This is not a game best enjoyed for its story or for the opportunity to choose your own path. Instead, it uses interactivity to offer an experience that at least feels as if it mimics the confusion, chaos, and misery of battle.
By giving weight to all the death that is meted out in video games, Modern Warfare 2 reinvents the genre of the first-person shooter. The violence in this game is not easy to perform or to forget. After I completed the single-player campaign, I sampled some of the "special ops" mini-games that come along with Modern Warfare 2 and waged a few multiplayer battles over Xbox Live. They were fun. They were also hollow. I'm not sure whether shooting for sport will ever come so easily again.
Correction, Nov. 16, 2009: Because of an editing error, a quote about the sales numbers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 originally and incorrectly used the word environment rather than entertainment. (Return to the corrected sentence.)