COD: Modern Warfare 2

Welcome back to my ongoing series of video game reviews! Today, picking up from where I left off last time, is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Having just completed the entire series, I felt it was time to pay tribute to this series and tackle all that was right and wrong with it.

With COD: Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward essentially established a new standard of online gaming and first person shooters. Combining the best in AI’s, graphics, and gaming platforms, this game also had the honor of being the most high-profile “modern” first-person shooter of all time.

Prior to this, all the big name FPSs were either set in WWII or in the future, being either based in historical recreations or science fiction. Hence what was so interesting about this game, it incorporated up-to-date weaponry, tactics, and a storyline that boasted a great deal of socio-political speculation.

And much like the last one, it had its high and low points, which I shall get into now…

Plot Summary:
modern-warfare-russThe game picks up 5 years after the event of the first game (roughly 2016). According to General Shepherd, one the game’s pivotal characters, Russia has fallen to the ultra-nationalists and Imran Zakhaev is now considered a national hero, despite the fact that he very nearly unleashed WWIII on the populace. Meanwhile, a terrorist by the name of Makarov continues to fight Zakhaev’s fight, hoping to trigger another major conflict which will make his nation to force to be reckoned with once more.

The game opens with a Ranger Battalion in Afghanistan, where you are part of an attack (led by General Shepherd) into a contested town controlled by insurgents. After fighting your way across a destroyed bridge, you are required to fight your way to the center of town and clear a school which the insurgents are using as their forwards base. Upon completion, Shepherd alerts your character (PFC Allen) that you are being transferred to the CIA to do an undercover mission.

MW2_afghanistanNote: As I’m sure I’ve mentioned at least twice before, this entire mission was inspired by Generation Kill, specifically the footage of the 1st Recon’s assault on Nasariya and their passage through the town of Muwafaqiyah where Fedayeen were using a school as a fire base.

At the same time, Capt. John “Soap” McTavish has been promoted and is now the leader of the new international anti-terrorism squad known as Task Force 141. No mention is given as to the whereabouts of Captain Price, and given what happened in the last game, it appears as though he might be dead.

MW2_siberiaYour character for this portion of the campaign is Garry “Roach” Sanderon, another FNG with a delightfully absurd call sign. While the Marines are in Afghanistan, you and Captain Price are busy breaking into a Russian airbase in Siberia hoping to obtain the Attack Characterization System (ACS) module from a downed American satellite. After retrieving it, you and McTavish are forced to beat a hasty retreat using snowmobiles.

What follows next is the part of the game that warrants the big advisory at the beginning and which gamers have the option of skipping if they so choose. This inolves part of Allen’s “undercover assignment” where he witnesses first-hand Makarov’s monstrosity as he leads an assault on Moscow’s International Airport, where he and his thugs murder countless civilians with US-made guns.

When that’s over, Makarov shoots Allen (aka. you) and leaves him there for dead, knowing that the thousands of spent shell casings and the body of an American will make it look like the US perpetrated the attack. My advice: skip this mission! It’s gratuitous and frankly creepy. For the life of my I can’t imagine who thought putting this borderline psycho shit in would be entertaining or fun.

Immediately afterwards, Task Force 141 is dispatched to Rio de Janeiro to hunt down the weapons dealer who supplied Makarov. This takes you and your team through the “favella”, Rio’s most notoriously violent neighborhoods, where you are shot at by the local “militia”. Once you have your man, he indicates that he doesn’t know where Makarov is, but that there is one man he hates and fears more than anyone, and who just happens to be languishing in a gulag on the Kamchatka peninsula.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Russian forces get the drop on the Northeastern Seaboard. Having cracked the ACS, they are able to pass into US airspace without Norad noticing, and begin landing paratroopers and armored forces in Virginia, New York, and Washington DC. The second major thread in the game now opens, where you play as Pvt. James Ramirez, an Army Ranger in West Virginia who’s unit is deployed to a suburb to thwart a Russian attack and protect a HVI (high-value individual) who’s chopper was shot down.

After fighting off several waves, your unit is redeployed to Arcadia where you are tasked with retrieving another HVI who turns out to have been killed by Russian special forces. With assaults happening all along the Seaboard, the Russians are getting the upper hand on US forces by capturing key personnel, locations and intelligence.

MW2_gulagOver in Kamchatka, you and Task Force 141 assault the gulag and fight your way through defenders and Soviet-era electrical systems to find prisoner 141, the man who Makarov apparently wants dead. When you arrive at his cell, it turns out to be Captain Price, who is alive after all. He and McTavish have a brief reunion which is cut short as the Navy begins bombarding the gulag early to cover your escape.

Back in the US, you and your Ranger unit are redeployed to Washington DC which has become a smoking ruin. Your mission is to fight your way through the federal buildings on Capitol Hill and retake them from the attacking Russians. The fight takes you from the trenches, through the White House, and finally into the air. After your chopper is shot down, you find yourself cornered and about to be overrun…At the same time, Price makes contact with General Shepherd and proposes a bold plan. With Price alongside, you and Task Force 141 assault a Russian sub base not far from the gulag and seize control of a Russian missile sub. Though the plan is not altogether clear, you and McTavish manage to provide cover for Price long enough for him to get aboard the Russian sub, where he promptly unleashes a nuke bound for Washington DC! The nuke flies into orbit above the city, where it is detonated, taking out the ISS and unleashing a massive EMP.

Inside the city, the EMP knocks every piece of electronic equipment in the area, crippling the Russian assault. You and your unit, which had been cornered seconds before, now must run and find cover as countless jets and choppers come crashing down around you.

Once you resupply, you are tasked with advancing on Whiskey Hotel (aka. WH, for White House) and retake it in one last, desperate assault. Once this is done, you are notified by radio that the USAF is conducting “Hammer Down”, an emergency air assault that will level all capitol buildings that are still in enemy hands. You are then forced to run to the roof and pop green smoke to indicate that the White House is in friendly hands.

MW2_estate2With Washington DC saved, Shepherd is hailed a hero for his foresight in predicting that a war was coming. He is given a “blank check” and declares that he is going to use every cent reigning Makarov in. With this in mind, Task Force 141 splits into two forces, with Price and McTavish checking an aircraft boneyard in Afghanistan while you and the rest are deployed to a safehouse in Kazakhstan.

After taking down the house and downloading Makarov’s computer files, you are intercepted by an air rescue, where General Shepherd himself comes out and shoots you! He then shoots Ghost and his men dispatch the rest of your squad, leaving your burning remains in a ditch as he takes the files and flies off.

MW2_safehouseOver in Afghanistan, Price and McTavish get the words that Shepherd has killed the others and realize he’s been playing them all along. With Makarov’s information now in his hands, he’s effectively cleaning house and making sure he doesn’t get caught so the war can proceed.

At the same time, Shepherd’s forces are descending on the boneyard, looking to kill you and Makarov at the same time. After fighting your way the edge, you are rescued by an old friend – McTavish’s Russian contact Nikolai. Price is also able to contact Makarov and obtain the location of Price’s base in Afghanistan.

As McTavish, you and Price now assault Shepherd’s base and take down its defenders. After a lengthy chase, you manage to corner Shepherd and fight it out; unfortunately he gets a hold of your knife and stabs you in the stomach with it. Producing his gun, he explains his motivations.

MW2_shepherd_baseApparently, he was in command of the Marine assault force that was supposed to take down Al-Asad and lost 30,000 men when Zakhaev’s forces detonated the nuke. His bitterness inspired him to start a war in the hopes of shocking America out of its complacency, which he feels he’s now done. As he puts it, “tomorrow there will be no shortage of volunteers, no shortage of patriots.”

Before he can shoot you though, Price tackles Shepherd and the two begin to fight it out. Shepherd eventually gets the upper hand on Price, and you are forced to pull the knife out of your chest and toss into Shepherd’s face, killing him instantly. Nikolai then shows up with a chopper, in defiance of Price’s order that this be a “one way trip”, and he and Price begin to carry you (McTavish) aboard. The game ends with Nikolai warning you that everyone is now out to get you, but that he knows a safe place to put down and get medical help.

Summary:
I don’t imagine I need to say that this installment in the series has some kick-ass gameplay, but screw it, I still want to! It has kick-ass gameplay! In fact, when it comes to shear badassery, this game has got the first one beat. In addition to more and better guns for yourself, there are also some very cool added features. These include more claymores and the use of Stinger Missiles, but also Sentry guns, laser guided heavy weapons fire from armored vehicles, and even Predator drone strikes. This last aspect is especially cool, as you get to do overwatch on a target and then fire Hellfire missiles at targets.

In terms of the weapons you have access to, there are the usual M4’s, SAWs and M16’s that are standard US Army issue, but also SCARs, sniper rifles with thermal sights, FAMAS’, USAS-12 shotguns, and Steyr AUG’s. But in addition, the Russians also boast some new and impressive gear which you can use too. Of these, my favorites are the Tavor assault rifle and the Striker shotgun. There’s nothing like automatic shotgun fire to make you feel like a bad ass mutha!

And of course, all these features extend into the multiplayer realm which is even bigger, badder, and more detailed than the last. But even if you’re not feeling the mulitplayer community, there is the new Special Ops feature where you get the best of both world, the ability to conduct missions and earn points, but still as a single player. And I can attest that most of these missions, though some are hard as hell, are also fun as hell. And in many ways, they preview things which comes up in the third installments (such as Juggernauts).

As for the downsides… Well, in that respect, this game was much like the first. The storyline seems a bit unrealistic, and is kind of confusing in terms of who’s doing what and for whom. For instance, you’ve got Makarov who represents a continuation of Zakhaev’s agenda, but seems to be operating outside the realm of normal politics. Didn’t they say that the Ultra-nationalists took power? Why then is this man killing his own people? Isn’t that what you do when your kind is NOT in power? Or is he really that desperate for a nuclear war to take place?

And second, Shepherd’s motivations seem a bit flaccid. I get that he’s pissed about the loss of so many Marines int he first game, though they seem to have padded the body count because by my reckoning, most of the Marines got out. They had plenty of warning, but your own chopper turns back to rescue a downed pilot, hence why you die. Still, even if the body count is 30 or 30,000, risking total war with Russia seems like a bad way to stoke the fires of patriotism. As anybody is well aware, Cold War or not, any large-scale confrontation between the US and Russia would still involve their nuclear arsenals, and nobody would be walking away from that fight in one piece!

And another thing, so was he working with Makarov all along or just taking advantage of the man’s actions? This is never made clear. On the one hand, it was Shepherd who assigned Allen to infiltrate their group, so Shepherd DID give them the American body that they left behind to implicate the US. But at the same time, he is openly trying to track the guy down and have him killed, but quietly so the world won’t know the entire war is based on a lie. So what is it then? A collaboration between enemies, or two equally malevolent forces that just had happened to collide?

I for one would prefer the latter interpretation because it would be a fitting commentary on the “War on Terror”. In fact, throughout the game you have quotes from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, the ones which are notorious for being stupid or questionable, which flash across the screen when you die. In that war, we saw a neo-conservative agenda colliding with a Salafist agenda, where two mortal enemies were effectively feeding off each other to the point that some openly suggested collusion. Of course there was no real evidence to suggest such a thing, but it was interesting to note just how much George W and Osama Bin Laden benefited from each others presence.

Ah, but the biggest bone of contention with this game comes in the form of its controversy. In fact, this is such a big subtopic that it deserves its own heading…

Controversy:
For obvious reasons, the shoot-up scene involving the Moscow International Airport caused quite a stir in the gaming and consumer community. Why, many asked, was it necessary to include a scene where the player is forced to take part in what can only be described as Columbine-like behavior? I for one could not believe my eyes the first time I played this game and didn’t realize I could skip the whole thing. Who, I wondered, would actually want to play this mission? Was it really such a good idea to include it all, even if the option was there to skip it? Why not say that it happened between missions?

And would it be at all farfetched to think that some psycho person, who just happened to play the mission, might get the idea to shoot up a crowded public space? The scenes are far too visceral and real, which I found disturbing since the game makers would have had to do their homework on something like this, taking into account how crowded areas are death traps once armed men begin firing automatic weapons, how panicked crowds tend to bunch up, and how they become especially vulnerable when they all run into a bottleneck and become easy targets.

See what I mean? It’s disturbing! It’s the kind of sick freak stuff that made me seriously question the sanity of the game makers and the nature of the game itself. Some will naturally argue that it’s just a game and therefore harmless, bad taste notwithstanding. But I’d say that given the numerous mass shootings that have taken place, not just recently, but all over the US in the past decade, that this was in horrible taste and just plain risky!

Others also questioned the mentality of showing Washington DC burning, with its many monuments shown scorched and even the White House itself burning and full of holes. Personally, I didn’t see the big deal here. I mean, if we’re going to penalize this game for displaying this kind of disaster porn that we’ll have to round up Rupert Emmerich and every other movie producer who’s ever destroyed landmarks in their films. There’s a reason people like this stuff, and it’s not because they secretly fantasize about seeing them destroyed.

If anything, it lends some urgency and a sense of emotional involvement to the story by showing them how things they know and love, or at the very least are familiar with, are being overrun and must be saved. Now that’s just me and I could be wrong, but I found this aspect of the game very cool! How many games allow you to fight in realistically-rendered environments of actual places? This was something that they intensified with the third one and I appreciated it there as well!

So that’s Modern Warfare 2, in a nutshell. Great game-play, exciting and intense, but containing some questionable content. It was a good thing that they stayed away from that for the third game, at least for the most part. Granted there was plenty of violence and they still had to issue the content warning for anyone playing it for the first time, but at least there weren’t any mass shootings where you’re the bad guy and are supposed to be taking part in it! Seriously, Infinity Ward, what were you thinking? Bad software developer!

Rabbletown: Life in these United Christian States of Holy America, by Randy Attwood

Rabbletown: Life in these United Christian States of Holy America, by Randy Attwood

Hello and welcome to the first literary review I have had the honor of doing for a fellow author! On the docket for today, a sci-fi, near future dystopian work known as Rabbletown: Life in these United Christian States of Holy America, by Randy Attwood. Awhile back, this author and his work came to my attention by way of my writers group. Like many of us, Randy has been writing for many years, had an idea and manuscript that was just awaiting completion, and which he recently finished and made available as an ebook and paperback (see links below for info on where to find it).

Author Bio: Randy is a retired journalist, but also worked as the director of university relations for Kentucky University medical center and as the media relations officer for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. He retired in 2010 and now dedicates himself to his writing. He has several titles to date, and Rabbletown is (far as I can tell) the flagship of his fleet.

Plot Synopsis: The story takes place in a dystopian future, circa 2084, where the US has become a fundamentalist state (as the name clearly implies). The how and why of this are explained in the preamble, where ongoing tension between the US and Middle East eventually turn nuclear and result in the full scale devastation of both. Whereas the United States bombs Iran and environs into oblivion using its ICBM’s, the various nation-states and terrorist organizations strike back using backpack nukes and dirty bombs until most US major cities are ruined.

What emerges is, predictably, a renewed Dark Ages where civil authorities are replaced by religious ones, the Evangelical movement becomes the dominant political force in America, and Jews, Muslims and Catholics are either suppressed or eradicated. The president of the US is known as the Pastor President, and all offices (governor, mayor, etc) are also required to take on the title of pastor before their rank. Each president is named in honor of famous Evangelists; the current president is Jerry Falwell V, his VP is Pat Robertson.

In addition to demonstrating their lineage from these current media figures, this is also a clear and delicious stab at the Christian Right and its political machinations! Other names of note include Cheney – a former member of the regime who is languishing in jail after an attempted coup – thus ensuring that the political right are also included in this indictment. What’s more, the civil authorities are known as Inquisitors, who are naturally the enforcers of religious law, extract confessions through torture and regularly stone those who sin.

Foreign policy is similarly medieval in this day and age. Whereas the US has become a Christian Republic, there is talk of the “Caliphate”, presumably a united Arab world, where Christian and Muslim soldiers fight for control of Jerusalem once again. It is hinted in the story that this “Crusade” is not real, merely a political tool that the Pastor Presidents use from time to time to drum up support. Still, the purpose of having it is clear. Whereas politics in the US are now dominated by religion, so to is their view of the world.

In any case, what follows is a story of how one town – Rabbletown, Kansas (a borough of Topeka) – is working to create the country’s greatest Cathedral in preparation for a visit from the Pastor President. The main characters, the Mason Bob Crowley, his wife Cheryl, Pastor Governor Jerry Johnson IV, Healer Elmer, Father Superior Robert, Friar Francis and Pastor Teacher Harold, give us a inside view of life in this future Kansas town, presenting it from various angles and providing exposition of how society works. Their particular POV’s are also important when a seminal development takes place, the appearance of a boy who has a knack for quoting Bible verses and seems somehow… “touched” by the Lord. This boy is none other than Bobby Crowley, the son of Mason Bob.

(Spoiler Alert!): The story begins to truly come together after a series of holy events takes place involving Bobby and a routine stoning. Everyone, from the President to the boy’s father, becomes swept up in a frenzy after news of it spreads, the authorities condemning it as the work of Satan while others proclaim the boy to be Christ reborn. Repression and division follow, with the so-called holy authorities becoming very much the enemy of those who appear chosen and righteous. Needless to say, the allegory is clear. In time, the division between the authorities and believers reaches (ahem!) Biblical proportions, in a scene that very much resembles that of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.

Weaknesses: It is this last part which fell short for me. Given the background and nature of the story, one would get the impression that religion is being cast in a negative light, or at least that it is being mocked for its current excesses and abuses. However, the story also seems to be making the point that religion will be the source of salvation. While this would seem like a keen observation about the duality of faith – the line between salvation and condemnation being so fine – it also makes for an unbelievable ending. Whereas the question of Bobby’s holiness would have seemed best if left vague and metaphorical, there is no doubt about it in the story. Bobby is literally divine, his nature and purpose a force of righteous redemption.

There are some other weaknesses, such as the relevant facts being presented in a matter-of-fact way that leaves the reader feeling spoon fed. The dialogue also comes off as expository and forced at times, something you wouldn’t expect to hear from real people no matter how politically conscious they are. And the intro gives us a full dose of the background which leaves the reader feeling less inclined to read and discover for themselves what’s already happened, what has led the characters to their current situation. And the ending, well its a little predictable given all the Biblical allusions. However, these are hardly fatal and don’t really take away from the overall plot. Really, its just the ending that felt like it misfired.

Strengths: Overall, the story has all the elements of good satire: corruption, decay, selfishness and power mongering; with small, shining lights of redemption amidst it all. The bit about people’s daily lives and how they turn to their PPC’s (Personal Pastor Counselor) is also quite ingenious, predicting the emergence of an internet-based personal religious counseling. The mock history, particularly the part about the Catholic Accommodation was also a stroke a fine art (I shan’t describe, read it yourself!).

And above all, the mockery of the Evangelical movement and its political ambitions feels quite apt. For what can be said about people who seem to think that its a good idea to combine religion and politics, and have little to no qualms about condemning their “liberal” adversaries and all the “undesirables” of society? If they got their wish, would it really resemble anything other than Taliban-style medievalism?

Hence, I recommend Rabbtletown for those people looking for a dystopian read with a religious twist. It’s clever, fun, and a short read which will inspire thought. And, given some tweaking and a little expansion, it could even be a bestseller someday! Hey, you gotta have faith (ba pa ra pum pum!).