What makes Modern Warfare 2’s Story Great?

What makes Modern Warfare 2’s Story Great?


It takes something special to be regarded
with fervent enamour 10 years after its introduction to the world. In the gaming industry with
thousands of new entries in that time, and 10 in the Call of Duty series, the regard
held by me and countless others reflects just how good a game Modern Warfare 2 was and continues
to be. 10 years on from the release and still people
discuss Modern Warfare 2’s infamous ‘No Russian’ mission. For everyone who pains
to recall General Shepherd betraying his country and killing Ghost, so many other’s grin at
the thought of discovering prisoner 627 to be Captain Price.
From driven characters to brilliant imagery, there is so much to love in Modern Warfare
2. So many aspects of storytelling which culminate to deliver a gripping narrative experience
which is as memorable as it is impactful. This video will attempt to dissect Modern
Warfare 2 and discuss the worth in its story while reliving some of the amazing moments
that make the game so unforgettable. For the single player portion of any game
to have success, the story must be of a high quality. Modern Warfare 2’s story is a composition
of characters who illicit feelings from the player, scenes which immerse the player in
the world, narrative which compels the players, and a handful of other devices such theme,
symbolism, pacing and tone. Likewise, the three components of causality, character,
and conflict are married together to further story in a way which is meaningful and exciting.
There are also non-narrative aspects to consider like the soundtrack, which whilst I can’t
discuss at the lengths I can the story and still provide coherent points, I can note
as being spectacular and will try to mention in suitable places.
It still impresses me that despite having an engaging multiplayer to which hundreds,
if not thousands of hours can be devoted – perhaps one of the absolute best multiplayer experiences
– that the campaign received similar love, time and effort to perfect.
Because unlike in multiplayer where the player’s experience will vary from match to match,
and much of the enjoyment comes from one’s friends; the adventure of the story should
be unified across the player base. Of course players will interpret things their own way
and react differently to situations, but mostly the core experience will be the same. That
reflects why the single player must be watertight and inclusive of those aforementioned technical
features. The story is titled: For the record. The expression
‘for the record’ means information which is to be shared publicly, perhaps has a great
deal of worth, certainly in the beholder’s mind, and is usually memorable. This title
symbolises a story about uncovering the truth with repercussions for all of humanity. Were
it real, the story would be chronicled from an outsider’s perspective, but in Modern
Warfare 2, the participants at its heart have their own story which they feel needs recording.
The early line of monologue, history is written by the victor, conveys this idea well.
At the outset, even before the player has set foot on the ground, Modern Warfare 2 builds
anticipation and gives the player a taste of what’s to come. A cinematic gives direct
reference to the key story moments from the original Modern Warfare while the camera pans
across the globe. The graphics show a filtered map of the world, with the main visual interest
coming in these snippets from Call of Duty 4. The imagery reflects a display one might
expect in a conflict briefing room. We’ll return to this idea later. The intro sets
the theme, that this is a story about a modern conflict, and that the tone is fairly serious.
It presents a technological feel, which ties in with the modern theme of the game.
In the mission Cliffhanger, the player is tasked with recovering an ACS module, hardware
that contains compromising information on America’s security network. To achieve this,
the player is given a heartbeat sensor and their partner, thermal sights, which appear
in subsequent missions alongside night vision equipment and drones. Later in the mission
Second Sun, a nuclear warhead is used to create an EMP, thereby shutting off the technological
side of the game. Electronic sights go dead, and vehicles fall out of the sky. Between
this mission and Whiskey Hotel, there is no transition screen, merely a loading bar. This
further promotes the idea of a video feed which has been knocked-out by the EMP.
Another theme of the game, and one which is announced to the player in the latter half
of that same opening cinematic, is vengeance. Specifically, General Shepherds lust for vengeance.
Shepherd is bitter that his forces were wiped out by a nuclear warhead in the original Modern
Warfare and says, “The world just stood and watched.”
In this briefing prior to the first mission S.S.D.D, Shepherd presents that Russia is
focusing on becoming a nationalist, militaristic, superpower. Imran Zakhaev, who was the antagonist
in the previous instalment, has become somewhat of a demigod since his death. Vladimir Makarov
replaces him. It’s abundantly clear that Shepherd, a career soldier and holder of the
highest rank in the US Army, vehemently opposes this happening. However, despite detesting
what Russia has become, Shepherd shares many of the Eastern power’s values. He is a patriot
who will die for his country and is happy to boast America’s position atop the military
plinth. As I discuss how his character develops, we’ll see how the similarities between his
interests, and Russia’s are no coincidence. Very early on, we learn Shepherd harbours
hostile feelings towards the Russians. Here, the motivations which influence his later
decisions are shown to us. What may not be so clear, is the symbolism in naming this
character Shepherd. A shepherd – a sheep herder – is a leader, a guide, and an organiser.
They get things done, and those below them, they are the sheep. The player is a sheep.
For the first two acts of the game until Captain Price comes in and takes hold, the player
across multiple characters follows the orders of Shepherd. As sheep are so often presented,
they also follow each other without free thought. So often, this is how the military forces
in Modern Warfare 2 are portrayed. To further highlight the symbolism in Shepherd’s
name, come the end, the members of his private militia refer to him as ‘Golden Eagle’.
If a shepherd is a leader, an eagle is a maverick. The moniker reflects a change in the character,
or at least the way he is presented to the audience. He may always have been like this,
but at the outset at least his actions seem honourable and partisan. Yet when he argues
with Captain Price – a character beloved by the player base – and kills Ghost, Shepherd’s
faulted, roguish character is exposed. If this needed cementing, just look at his demeanour
during the final scene where the player fights Shepherd. Or, how other characters remark
that Shepherd doesn’t care about danger close, reflecting his callous nature.
Whilst it may be oblivious to the player on a first playthrough or one without consideration,
but we could consider Shepherds part in the mission No Russian as foreshadowing. Having
watched Private Allen in S.S.D.D. and Team Player, it is Shepherd who sends him into
Russia where Allen dies at the end of No Russian. This decision conveys that Shepherd is calculating
and not averse to sacrifice in pursuit of his goals which helps the player understand
his path later in the game. Overall, this is brilliant character development,
and development of the antagonist at that – something which can too often fall by
the wayside. A well written antagonist, which is what Shepherd becomes, is a good motivator
for the player and helps the player comprehend the character’s choices. Shepherd’s motivations
are set out at the start and drive the plot forward. It could be argued that marks should
be deducted for his overuse of clichés most notably in his monologues, but that aside,
he is a superb character. It is actually these monologues which often
take place over the mission transition screens, in which Shepherd primarily appears. He bookends
the story by appearing first in S.S.D.D. and Team Player, and then reappears 13 missions
later in Loose Ends and then Endgame. He is ever with the player in voice, but unlike
Captain MacTavish for instance, not in person. Captain MacTavish who was the playable character
in the original Modern Warfare is one of the main or named characters, depending on how
you choose to think of them, who fight alongside the player. The others are Ghost, who like
MacTavish is part Task Force 141, and Sergeant Foley and Corporal Dunn of the U.S. Army Rangers.
While Shepherd’s development takes place in between missions, these characters experience
the story alongside the player and in a way, act as guides. Their actions and dialogue,
both with the player and amongst themselves, tell their stories. By virtue of being on
the same side, these characters are inherently the good guys and we’re ingrained to like
the good guys. But in storytelling, it’s always better to show, not tell. We’re not
supposed to like these characters because that’s what the writers want, but because
we genuinely like them. Their chatter, banter and interactions endear
them to us. Players of the previous Modern Warfare game will know some backstory of MacTavish,
but otherwise knowledge of these characters is sparse. But that’s not necessarily a
bad thing. Backstory is after all, best left in the back. There would be little reason
to include it from a story perspective if it didn’t bolster the narrative. Forcing
backstory in for the sake of making these characters more believable or deep would slow
down the pacing and feel out of place in a tightly edited game. That said, it’s worth
acknowledging that at times the characters of the US Army Rangers can seem flat. This
isn’t for a lack of great dialogue, rather the lack of time available to develop them
to a greater extent. However, seeing how people have reacted to the death of Ghost, I’m
not sure more depth was necessarily needed to create noteworthy characters.
Because in their own way, these characters are both likeable and memorable. Their presence
is welcome in the torn, deserted streets of Washington DC. Even Corporal Dunn who I don’t
need to argue isn’t as memorable as the other accompanying characters has his moments.
Coming across an unidentified group, he pleads for them to answer the call-sign and distinguish
themselves as friendly. When Ghost screams frantically as Price fires the ICBM, we feel
the horror in his voice. A nuclear warhead has just been launched, the most devastating
weapon we have, and whilst in the moment the intention isn’t clear, the magnitude of
the action most certainly is. Likewise, the way Ghost reacts when Shepherd shoots the
player shows how he cares for his allies. The excellent delivery which makes these scenes
special must be credited to the voice actors, the sound direction team, and the writers.
Without them, these moments wouldn’t exist. Unlike the character’s I’ve just discussed,
Captain Price is only introduced towards the end of the second act. He benefits where most
others don’t by being a mainstay in the Modern Warfare series and having a prominent
position in the previous instalment. However, in terms of this game, there is little time
to develop his character moving into the third act. I think the dramatic reveal in The Gulag
is a terrific way to bring him into the fold and instantly endear him to the player. In
the build-up to the reveal, Prisoner 627 is presented as crucial to taking down Makarov,
and in the end, Price indeed turns out to be pivotal in the story. I mentioned earlier
than those who follow Shepherd’s words are sheep, well it isn’t long before Price stands
out amongst the herd. His bold dispute with Shepherd tells the player he’s different,
and for that he becomes ever the more compelling. Finally, with his image appearing on a most-wanted
broadcast, Price’s rallying speech in the transition to Endgame is prophetic and profound.
By this point it’s probably assumed that the player is on Price’s side, but in my
opinion, this monologue is one of the best pieces of dialogue in the entire game. One character I would have liked a little more from is Makarov. Makarov is presented
early on as the adversary and flaunts his credentials for the role in No Russian. Knowing
that Private Allen was an undercover agent and realising how that could be used to his
advantage conveys him as scheming and intelligent. But until his safehouse is raided in Loose
Ends, he drops out of the immediate narrative. Everything is presented as the means to get
to Makarov – chasing Rojas in Brazil, and then Prisoner 627 in the Russian Gulag, but
he feels distant. Between No Russian and The Enemy of My Enemy when Makarov’s forces
fight Shepherd’s, he doesn’t appear at all. I think this is a shame as his build-up
is admirable considering the time constraints but he is left to fade out rather than being
given a real ending. He does however appear in Modern Warfare 3, which show a connection
between the games in the series and how the writers could have been thinking ahead.
Some might think in a game which can be completed in four hours, that so many characters might
be overbearing. This is a good point to address that Modern Warfare 2 follows two paths and
two protagonists – Roach and Private Ramirez. Four if you include Private Allen and then
Captain MacTavish come the end. From a gameplay perspective, this allows Modern Warfare 2
to feature a wide variety of levels. From a narrative perspective, it introduces varied
scenes which add different pacing and tones to make the world feel more believable and
the story more dynamic. The death of Ghost is a good example which
highlights the benefits of this narrative structure. In most games, after the player
watches Ghost burn in a fire alongside them, it would be the end. But because the player
can play as another character, they can avenge Ghost and Roach with a powerful motivation
to fight against Shepherd. In this moment, the multi-protagonist story shines brightest
for were the game structured more conventionally, it wouldn’t be possible.
The separate paths also help highlight how this is a global conflict. From beginning
to end, the story takes place in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Brazil, America, the ocean,
and even space. One scene which best conveys this sense of
scale is from the mission Second Sun. For myself at least, the name alone conjures a
vivid image of a second intense, blazing heat source in the sky. It’s an impactful metaphor.
In this mission, the perspective changes from Private Ramirez in a downed helicopter in
the burning ruins of DC, to an astronaut doing an EVA outside the ISS. The player isn’t
given much control over the astronaut, but the view of the world and the universe further
afield is amazing. In terms of scale, it is easily the biggest scape in any Call of Duty
game. The scene is slow paced and, as much as an
EVA can, seems menial. The dialogue between the ISS and mission control appears routine
until mission control asks the astronaut to look to the East. What the player sees creeping
into view, is the ICBM launched by Captain Price in Contingency. As the conversation
staggers, it becomes apparent that mission control realises the severity of the matter.
The scene’s slow start gives the player time to indulge in the world’s image. Whilst
we know there’s conflict on the ground, the greater depiction of the land shows no
scars. However, as the pace increases and fear sets in, the nuclear warhead explodes,
the lights of America’s East Coast go dark, and the astronaut is consumed by the blast
wave; we’re shown just how quickly things can go wrong. The once pristine earth has
been besmirched, and from the perspective of the astronaut, we’re given a sweeping
view of this. Whilst it isn’t hinted at, it’s also imaginable
that fellow astronauts aboard the ISS might not be American or Russia. This conflict between
two nations could already have consequences for those of other nationalities. It might
just be a thought exercise, but it shows how war affects all of us. Scenes which can provoke
this kind of speculation and wonder can only be constructed with adept writing.
The imagery aside, one aspect I love most about this scene is the pacing. As I’ve
discussed, it starts slow which allows the player to get a feel of the atmosphere, and
then heats as the action unfolds. The manipulation of pace for this effect occurs throughout
the game. Similarly, the increased cadence of the music bolsters tension in such moments.
A great example of this comes in the mission Cliffhanger. As alluded to previously, it’s
a stealth mission, or begins as one, at least. Alongside MacTavish, the player as Roach must
navigate their way through a Russian base in the Tien Shan mountain range. It’s calculated
and methodical, and takes place under the cover of snow. But once the ACS is collected
and MacTavish is caught, albeit briefly, the mission goes loud, kicked-off by an explosion
and transitions into a fast vehicle segment on snowmobiles. As the characters escape,
they are informed by the allied forces collecting them that their helicopter is low on fuel.
This, all while the player is being shot at. This creates tension. Will MacTavish and Roach
get to the evacuation site in time or not? The downhill terrain in the vehicle section
increases the speed before a fantastic if not fanciful jump adds to the electricity.
It’s dramatic and hectic. The end of the mission, The Hornet’s Nest
plays to the same beat. The name alone suggests ferocity, and it doesn’t disappoint. Once
more as Roach, the player is forced to escape a Favela. They’ve succumbed to poorly constructed
shanties and been split from their team. This friendly isolation against hundreds of irate
locals sets the scene and tone. Roach twists and turns through claustrophobic spaces to
escape as he once more makes a dramatic leap to grab onto the dangling ladder of a helicopter.
If we weren’t rooting for Roach, it would almost be nice to think about how the Favela
militia got so close to defeating such an elite soldier. But they don’t, because by
the skin of his teeth, Roach gets away. Here, the music playing in the background is triumphant
– almost like a reward for getting away. Had there only been a couple, slightly angry
men chasing the player; reaching the helicopter wouldn’t have felt the same. It’s the desperation and pace which make this scene so exciting. Time and time again, the pacing and build-up of action make the scenes so alive and memorable.
It’s weaved throughout the game, but I just couldn’t discuss the pace without looking
at my favourite moment of the game. One which I have come back to so many times.
At the climax of Contingency, the allied Captain Price launches an ICBM towards America from
a Russian submarine. This act is the real twist and drama of this mission. Ghost’s
voice changes from perplexed to desperate and then shocked. It informs the player that
this act is completely of Price’s own volition. In the background sirens blare, and the player
is given predator missiles to destroy the enemy with. The fact such powerful ordinance
is being deployed at close range with frightening disregard for safety could be seen to convey
the high stakes of the situation. Even ignoring my odd fascination with ICBMs, I still love
everything this scene brings to the game. What’s noticeable is that almost every mission
ends at a high pace. It’s this rush of excitement which encourages the player to delve deeper
and continue playing. But not all missions conclude on such a note. The end of Whiskey
Hotel is my favourite scene which goes against this trend. The player has stormed the broken
White House and overhears that the building will be destroyed unless green flares are
spotted on the roof to signal friendly life. Fighting through enemies, the player rushes
through the iconic building to prevent its destruction. This part is lively and forces
the player to sprint with little regard for opposition lurking in the shadows. But upon
reaching the roof with vibrant flares in hand, the music slows, and it doesn’t take long
before the soldiers are discussing their revenge. The tone of their voices however lack animation
and from the White House roof the player gets a final chance to look at desolate city. This
is a moment for reflection not to be interrupted. Earlier the player was down in trenches, and
now they stand atop this monument. In part, it symbolises a turning point and depicts
America back on the rise. The importance of saving the building likewise cannot be overstated.
Even for those like myself with no connection to America or the White House, it is instantly
recognisable. America is synonymous with the idea of freedom, and for the soldiers to reclaim
and save what might be America’s most distinguishable building, shows that freedom will always prevail.
Whiskey Hotel, and missions, Second Sun, Of Their Own Accord, Exodus and Wolverines!,
all take place in America. In one way or another, we are all accustomed to America. So much
media is set in the country, that even those who have never visited can find familiarity
in the landscape. Setting so many missions in a familiar place makes the scenes more
impactful and easier to absorb. We can all recall or imagine ourselves in streets of
homes similar to those in game, at restaurants like Burgertown, or perhaps, airports like
the one in No Russian. The setting of missions such as Just Like Old Times and Cliffhanger
are alien on the other hand. They encourage our imagination to explore and create a visual
interest. In Takedown, almost immediately the player experiences civilians ensnared
in the commotion. We’re encouraged to feel like this could be you, or I. And in populating
these scenes with non-combatants, the fight becomes more tangible. It also adds emotion
to the battlefield. As does the atmosphere and ambience. Each
piece of music crafted for a particular scene helps to immerse the player in the setting.
Sometimes the music is proud, and at others sombre. Yet it always feels complementary
and never intrusive. It’s a delight to listen to the music, especially on a second or third
playthrough when you know a favourite piece is approaching. But it’s not just the music
which is used to illicit emotion. Rain in Whiskey Hotel emphasises the sadness of watching
a capital city die. A friendly naval bombardment in The Gulag brings urgency and alarm to proceedings.
Comparatively, its sometimes the lack of sound which benefits the scene. When Roach goes
down in Loose Ends, the sound has a muted characteristic to it. This invites our other
senses to step forth and see the enemies swarming us. Then, when we hear Ghost’s reassuring
voice and the buzz of helicopter machine guns, the moment is more impactful because of the
sound elements which come alive against the quiet. One more point I’d like to make concerning pace refers to the transitions I mentioned
earlier. Between missions, they tick a couple boxes. As evidenced by a small bar slithering
across the picture, they’re loading screens. Downtime in which the hardware readies itself
for the next mission. Modern Warfare 2 differs from some games by adding cinematic interest
during this time to keep the player engaged. But more interestingly, they further the narrative
and develop the characters. I won’t jump back into the character discussion here, rather
I’ll note that this otherwise dead time is exploited to advance the plot. Some details
have a bit too much nuance to be included during gameplay where they might be overlooked
or just wouldn’t fit into the structure of game. But because the transition scenes
include several important details, I don’t think they should be skippable. To bypass
them is to forego crucial elements of the story. These transitions are slower paced
and show a greater perspective which contrasts them with the intimate hand-to-hand combat
of gameplay. For some, this might be a reason they’d want to skip the transitions, but
for myself it’s reason to watch intently. I deliberately saved discussing plot for the
end, because in my opinion it’s the one factor which sometimes lacks in an otherwise
complete narrative experience. Plot can be difficult to differentiate from story, which
as I hope to have shown, I believe is complete in Modern Warfare 2. But one cannot exist
without the other. Here I will try my best to succinctly illustrate the difference.
A global conflict occurs between Russia and America. – This is a severely basic synopsis
of the game’s story. Seeking retribution for his lost soldiers,
General Shepherd orchestrates a global conflict between Russia and America so he can become
a national hero. – This is a basic outline of the plot.
I am of the view, that story is more important than the plot. What use is there in having
a well-researched, leading plot, if the story is bland and uninteresting?
At first glance, the plot has its merits. Quite a lot in fact. It plays on the resolution
of the original modern warfare and the consequences of the dramatic nuclear explosion scene which
bereaved Shepherd of his soldiers. This motivates him to get revenge, to give their sacrifice
worth. To me, this sounds interesting. It provides a reason for the story to exist.
The plot propels the greater narrative to its conclusion and ties together the various
scenes. Modern Warfare 2’s plot however suffers
from spates of implausibility. Courses of action and scenes which whilst spectacular
to observe, and thrilling to play, seem unfeasible in the world modern warfare exists in. Our
world. It is not a fantasy, but it is fiction. And in fiction it’s possible to draw on
creative licence to deliver a better story. If the characters walked and talked like real
soldiers, not to mention consistently took bullets like humans, and if bureaucracy and
decisions based on finance dictated the path of the game, then storytelling would be very
boring. Yet despite believing this, Captain Price’s
almost superhuman ability to hack a nuclear submarine in the space of a minute, wanted
criminal Makarov’s ease in entering an airport while armed, and the lack of any prior or
future reference to the VIP in Exodus; can all be called poorly worked elements. But
they are fabulist moments born for the story, not out of a writer’s laziness. After all,
had the CIA agent inserted into Russia killed Makarov in ‘No Russian’ as would seem
sensible all considering, nothing of the brilliance which is Modern Warfare 2 would have transpired.
At times it’s clumsy yet explainable, in its worst moments its far-fetched. The degree
to which a player excuses or is lenient towards the lapses of reality is personal. Some might
not notice the plot holes, and others may ignore them, but I think ignoring the plot
would do the game a disservice. Because whilst the plot may be crooked in places, the story
it holds up is fine and imaginative. The story develops as it does for a reason, and although
that reason isn’t always sound, it is creative. And isn’t that what makes fiction what it
is? Conclusion
Infinity Ward had to nail so much in the campaign to not only make it stand out amongst its
competitors, and against the acclaimed multiplayer, but an attraction all these years later. The
Call of Duty franchise makes its mark in the multiplayer arena, but Modern Warfare 2’s
story is just as memorable as any experience I’ve had online.
If I had to pick one aspect which I’ve covered to stand out amongst the rest, I think it
would be the imagery. To really recognised the depth and significances of Shepherd, it
took me a few playthroughs. That’s also true for a proper gauging of the pacing and how
it intensifies the dramatic moments. But the contrast between beautiful mountain ranges
and a shattered city are striking. The vibrancy of the Favela against the arid wastes of Afghanistan
is a wonderful visual stimulus which keeps the game fresh. I think I’ve always appreciated
this, as I have the sound design and voices because I’ve never taken too much notice of
them which tells me they seamlessly fit into the story.
I hope in another 10 years’ time that people are still enjoying this game and I sincerely
hope you’ve enjoyed my look at Modern Warfare 2’s story. Thank you for listening.

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