The movie and video game industries are increasingly being seen as competitors in the entertainment sector. With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 grossing over $550 million in the first five days since its launch – eclipsing the latest Harry Potter’s $394 million and The Dark Knight’s $203.8 million – it is no wonder that a lot of analysts and investors are banking their money on video games.
But what most outsiders and non-gamers fail to see is that video games have increasingly become cinematic experiences by themselves. The original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was incredibly engrossing, and befittingly called by many as an ‘interactive movie’. Bioshock put an amazing storyline in an eerie setting, building ambience and atmosphere for a player – it was like living out a movie. Splinter Cell: Double Agent gave the player moral choices, dictating the path that the story would take. And Uncharted 2: Drake’s Fortune had graphics and voice-acting that would have made the animators at Pixar proud.
Beyond all its controversies, critical acclaim and box-office success, Modern Warfare 2 furthers this concept of ‘interactive cinema’. Developer Infinity Ward (IW) has made what could best be termed as a socio-economic experiment, seeing how far anyone can push boundaries when the audience is directly interacting with a movie and assessing the viability of producing big-budget games over larger-budget movies. On both counts, IW has a winner on its hand with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
A COMPELLING EXPERIENCE
At the very base of good cinema lie good direction, good acting and a good plot. Of course, there are several other elements that go into making a high-quality production, but these three core features are of paramount important.
The storyline of Modern Warfare 2 picks up where the first one left off, recapping the events in a title sequence. While there is nothing spectacular in the plot, it’s still an imaginative take on how the next big war could happen: an American mass-murderer in Russia gives Kremlin the opportunity to go for all-out battle.
Over the course of the game, there are several plot twists, intriguing sub-plots and some amazing character-development. The player alternates between the role of U.S. Army Ranger Pvt. James Ramirez and an agent in a multinational special ops unit, named Sgt. Gary ‘Roach’ Sanderson. In your journey, you will meet popular characters from the first game – such as ‘Soap’ MacTavish – and encounter interesting new ones, like a covert agent who goes by the call-sign ‘Ghost’.
The voice-acting for all the characters is top-notch, and you will rarely find better performances in the world of video games. The quality of voice-acting can make or break the suspension of disbelief that is essential to letting yourself get immersed in a game, and Modern Warfare 2 does not let that drop for a second.
The essentials of your objectives in the game are quite clichéd: proving America’s innocence, finding the truth behind the entire war and administering justice. Yet, the way Infinity Ward has handled these tried-and-tested elements is what makes MW2 such a special treat.
WHAT? THAT’S NOT REAL?
Delivering a cinematic experience through a video game can never be an easy task. The biggest obstacle to this is the graphics element. A video game is competing against a live-action film, so it always starts off with a disadvantage when it comes to realism.
The first Modern Warfare caused a lot of jaws to drop with its breath-taking visuals. Indeed, no one can forget the camouflage part of the level in Chechnya. And yet, Modern Warfare 2 (MW2) manages to outdo its predecessor by miles, with both giant leaps in graphics technology and small tweaks in the way elements are portrayed.
The characters and their movements, the textures, the guns and vehicles, the art – Infinity Ward has created a visual feast for your eyes. It’s not often that you will find yourself stopping in the middle of a bridge to admire the view, let alone when there are enemy patrols on your tail and you are trying to keep a low profile.
The lighting and smoke effects in the game have no parallel; from dim light to bright, everything looks just perfect. The snow-based levels even have spots that reflect the light harshly, causing a bit of snow blindness.
Yet, it’s the attention to detail that always grabs you in MW2. A soldier standing for a long time shifts weight from one foot to the other; when sneaking up on someone through bushes, the squad leader ahead of you slowly moves a fallen twig aside lest it snap under your feet and give away position; and the blood splatter when you are hit by a bullet looks frighteningly real!
Modern Warfare 2 is still no substitute for live-action, but there is not another game around which has come as close. And at times, that’s a good thing…
THE CONTROVERSIAL AIRPORT MASSACRE
For the past few weeks, the world has been debating the inclusion of a controversial scene in the game, where you play as a terrorist. The elevator doors at an airport slide open, you step out with three of your partners and proceed to mow down everyone in the building with your loaded guns.
Now, this isn’t the first time that a terrorist act has been depicted on screen, or in a video game for that matter. And with games like Carmageddon and Grand Theft Auto, it’s also not the first time you are killing civilians and innocent cops. What is different, though, is that you are playing it from a first-person perspective with this amount of realism. It’s your choice whether to shoot someone or not, and whether to put anyone out of their misery; but the game’s realism goes against MW2 here. It’s almost like the Uncanny Valley effect.
The unsettling aspect of this is really the fact that it’s played from a first-person perspective. You aren’t able to see a third-person character of Tommy Vercetti or Nico Bellic that does the shooting. Even in first person, while you play a character, the other terrorists don’t refer to you by a name, but only by the second-person pronoun of ‘you’. Small things that make a huge difference!
How you look at Infinity Ward’s intentions in including this scene will define your take: It can be looked at as art, pushing a gamer to challenge himself and view a dark side he wouldn’t want to go voluntarily; or it can be looked at as a cheap publicity stunt, garnering ample media and public attention with a controversy that is bound to lead to more sales. What you cannot deny, though, is that this is a scene you won’t be forgetting soon.
What you will take back with you from the airport massacre are the yells and screams carrying above the deafening noise of the gun-fire. The audio element is so critical to the experience of Modern Warfare 2 that it needs to be mentioned separately.
While game-defining tunes have been around for a long time now—Mario’s theme comes to mind first—they are not often crucial to the gameplay. But when you are making a cinematic experience with a game, the background score and the sounds you hear are what will get a gamer’s adrenaline pumping.
Infinity Ward went all-out in this department, hiring renowned multi-Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer for the game’s soundtrack. Zimmer strongly believes that video games are a medium for art, and his efforts show through. A fast-paced score while battling multiple enemies in an urban slum makes you instinctively hold the button to sprint; flat, deep notes greet you when you are looking down the scope of a sniper rifle.
And yet, all of it is so wonderfully gelled into the background that it never dominates the gaming experience, instead only adding to the ambience. These are the little things that add an X factor to a movie and make it great, and Zimmer couldn’t have done a better job in a Steven Spielberg production. The sound that comes from the gun you fire is just as important as the feel of the gun, and MW2 knows that.
FEELS JUST RIGHT
The ‘feel’ of a game is talked about often in reviews. It’s an unquantifiable and largely inexplicable term, yet one of the most intuitive aspects that everyone understands easily. This appeal to a base instinct is a remarkable aspect of video games – one that is often experienced with music but not as often with cinema.
There is a ‘feel’ to an iPhone that makes it cool; a ‘feel’ to a Led Zeppelin song that makes it tight; a ‘feel’ to Pavarotti that makes him commanding; a ‘feel’ to a Mercedes that makes it classy. To appeal to this core aesthetic is beyond just difficult, and every instance of anyone or anything doing that is celebrated time and again.
Modern Warfare 2 packs a punch. It delivers great highs and sombre lows; it gets you involved and makes you care; it challenges your skills and wit; and overall, it goes beyond being just a game. Play the game for its incredible bridging of cinema and games. Play it for its amazing action sequences and addictive gameplay. Play it for the incredible visuals and the inspired soundtrack.
But beyond all that, Modern Warfare 2 has a solid ‘feel’, and that alone makes it a game that no one should miss out on.
Genre: First Person Shooter, Action
Developer: Infinity Ward
PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360