There are two games that live side-by-side in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. One is an all-time action classic, thrilling and tense and more than a little ridiculous in its recounting of the heroics of war; the other, meanwhile, is a fierce and surprisingly cutting anti-war critique. The result, certainly when I first played it back in 2009, is oil and water. They don’t mix, at least on the surface, and for many that means neither half of the game really lands. The parable is obscured by the action, the action is obscured by the parable, and you’re left with a nagging sense that this is supposed to mean something, between the lines of the Hoorahs and the Tango Downs, but it’s unclear exactly what.
I have struggled to pin down why I love it, some fond nostalgia-tinged memories of multiplayer aside. I’ve always known Modern Warfare 2 to be a mess – a beautiful mess, but still a mess – that’s unquestionably fun and smarter than it looks, but still lacking the requisite nuance to land its point. It took the added sheen of quite stunning photorealism, brought to it by Beenox’s surprise remaster – and, more likely, just another replay of the story anyway – to really figure it out. The impact, now, of emerging midway through the game to a smashed Washington Monument and a White House ablaze, or of breaking free from the Gulag, or creeping through waves of snow, is honestly extraordinary. But on top of that the game’s narrative tricks seem to come into sharper focus, too. The story’s major beats just hitting a little harder, the brilliance shining a little brighter.
It’s worth retreading (and spoilers for an 11-year-old game here, as a heads up). Modern Warfare 2 is a game about American – and specifically American – interventionism, of which it is blisteringly critical. “We are the most powerful military force in the history of man”, American General Shepherd rumbles in the first line of the game post-tutorial. “Every fight is our fight.” Shepherd, of course, goes on to reveal himself as the architect of a false flag operation – clunkily delivered via that mission – that brings about a Russian invasion of the United States and, in Shepherd’s later words, “no shortage of recruits” to the US military for years to come. As others have put it before me, Shepherd is really a stand-in here for something bigger than his role in the game’s own, somewhat tangled plot: namely for the notion of perpetual war itself, for the philosophy of an interventionist global force, a cultural hunger for intercontinental violence.