The Split Personality of Story in MW2

Spoiler warning: If you haven’t finished the MW2 campaign and care about it, you should probably save this post for a rainy day.

As the dust settles from the year’s tent-pole release of Modern Warfare 2 it feels strange to remember that back in 2007, it’s true predecessor Call of Duty 4 itself launched in the shadow of the similar sized behemoth Halo 3. In this light, the usual eulogizing about “biggest entertainment launches ever” and comparisons to Hollywood ring pretty familiar and no doubt they will again when Halo: Reach lands at some point in 2010.

In some ways, it’s a shame that a year will separate the next iterations of the two biggest FPS franchises as it’s always interesting to compare the two and their respective developers quite divergent philosophies in FPS design. Mind you, gamers and their respective publishers alike will probably be thankful one won’t have as much opportunity to cannibalize the other in terms of their time and money. On the other hand, it will afford both Infinity Ward and Bungie the chance to keep an eye the other, perhaps improving both games as a result. Call of Duty 4 certainly didn’t go un-noticed back at Bungie HQ.

Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t do much to invalidate the fundamental difference between the two games, that of Infinity Ward’s preference for a heavily scripted approach and big set pieces compared to the more emergent AI driven gameplay of Halo. What’s fair to say is that Infinity Ward have gotten more a lot more adept at hiding the “stage door” this time around. MW2 isn’t without it’s sudden difficulty spikes or funneling of the player away from routes the designer didn’t want the player to go down by brute force but the occurrences are fewer in number and less transparent than say the TV Station or the infamous Ferris Wheel in the original.


Yet there is one particular area of Modern Warfare 2 that I consider to be a lot more like Halo 3 and that’s the over-arching story, or more accurately, the flaws in their approaches to it. A very well respected member of the Halo community once offered a criticism of Halo 3 that always rang true for me. The broad thrust being that whilst the in-mission fiction of Halo 3 was well developed, the over-arching fiction of the whole game connecting the missions was not. For me, Modern Warfare 2 suffers from a similar issue even though that’s not a criticism I’d lay at the feet of it’s predecessor. Although bombastic and told from multiple perspectives, all of the missions in the original game feed in to the same thread and converge elegantly with the SAS and USMC winding up working together through to the end.

The story in Modern Warfare 2 however, despite some excellent individual moments doesn’t feel quite so cohesive and lags behind it’s predecessor almost from the start. Whilst always a difficult act to follow, the opening isn’t a patch on the journey from the eyes of President Al-Fulani en route to his execution in COD4. Moreover, this time around the US “Ranger” missions do not mesh anywhere near as well with the rest of the game and it doesn’t help that they are arguably the weakest parts also. Were if not for the setting of a Russian invasion of American soil, they would be even more forgettable than they already are. It’s not coincidental in my view, that the second half of the game feels a lot stronger than the first precisely because the story focuses elsewhere and it’s difficult to shake the suspicion that Infinity Ward might have felt the same way. The story from the American soldier’s perspective is certainly bookended sufficiently but it’s well before the end of the game. I’d be interested to see what missions might have been left on Infinity Ward’s cutting room floor.


Using multiple perspective’s isn’t the problem per se as Infinity Ward have successfully pulled this off in the past. In Modern Warfare 2 though,  arguably all of the best set-pieces and all of the best characters are comprised in the other missions. Be it the snow-mobile chase, the roof-top escape across the favelas, the attack and subsequent escape on the gulag right down to betrayal of Ghost and the water chase at the finale. In comparison, running around a retail park defending a burger bar or the building to building fight down a leafy Virginia suburb feel rather run of the mill. Things take a turn for the better once the Rangers hit Washington but this is largely because of the setting and increase in scale. Understandably, the imagery of Washington in ruins faced with invasion by Russian forces (or even a wholesome American suburb) is potentially evocative for a lot of people, if perhaps less so for the Couch Campus resident Brit but it is in no way the highlight of the game it might be. Strangely, for a game all about big set pieces it feels half baked. Perhaps if Infinity Ward wanted to make a game about an American invasion they should have focused just on that, ala Resistance 2.

To be fair, the sequences either side of the nuke detonation and subsequent EMP blast were very well done, largely because it was a bait and switch. Trapped in the downed helicopter with an impending nuclear impact, most players would probably have not only expected the 24 style turn of events but also a reprisal of the excellent “Aftermath” scene from the original. At the same time as saying “Hah, we wouldn’t make it that obvious”, the scene also justifies the hitherto bemusing actions of Captain Price in launching the nuke in the first place, demonstrating the developers are capable of a decent unexpected (if far-fetched but hey) plot twist when they want to be. It’s not just these that are lacking in the Ranger missions either, it’s the lack of any real characters, decent or otherwise.

Whilst you might argue the toss about the missions either way, it’s definitely only the non US Ranger missions that have any actual characters in. Admittedly this is in part because they are reprised from the first game (even in the case of ‘Ghost’ who is clearly just ‘Gaz’ with a different name) but Infinity Ward opted not only to put them there in the first place but also develop them further in MW2. Next to these, the US Ranger characters are wholly forgettable. Even the considerable talent of Keith David cannot make Sgt. Foley stand out, perhaps suffering from having voiced too many games. Whilst many people may have just heard “Jack Bauer” in COD5 when Keifer Sunderland made his appearance but that in itself might be beneficial in some ways. Here I could be listening to the “Arbiter” from Halo 3, “Julius” from Saint’s Row or “Captain Anderson” from Mass Effect. Who I’m definitely not listening to is Sgt. Foley and it doesn’t help when the dialogue in Ranger missions appears to be limited to the two phrases, “Oscar Mike” or “Hooahhh”. The latter especially being over used to the point where it’s vomit inducing.


If Infinity Ward were a British studio, the disconnect in the effort put in to Soap, Captain Price and Ghost et al vs the Rangers might be understandable but they are of course based in California. Why not develop characters on a par with these for their US audience? It’s not like it wouldn’t be a profitable venture with rumours abound that even a supporting character like Ghost will receive his own spin-off of sorts. Did Infinity Ward consider the setting or “No Russian” to be sufficient or do they consider US audiences to not care about strong characters? Perhaps they just have the same man-crush on Captain Price that the rest of us Brits do but in any event, it’s certainly strange to see such a big imbalance between the two story threads in the same game.

For those that might point to General Shepard as a saving grace of sorts, I would concur he is at least a decent bad guy and the scene at the end of the safe-house infiltration certainly sets him up pretty nicely. But isn’t the Hollywood archetype supposed to be the hammy British evil bad guy defeated by the local heroes?

Perhaps Infinity Ward really are bucking the convention after all :)

Screenshots from PC Game’s Hardware photorealism article.