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A soldier crouches in a field, wearing a ghillie suit, to blend in with his surroundings in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2022) Image: Infinity Ward/Activision

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Modern Warfare 2’s campaign is a masterpiece, in the worst way

Reversals and refractions

I feel like it’s in the spirit of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to try to be as dispassionate and schematic as possible, so to begin with, let me outline that there are 17 missions in this campaign. Six of them are good. Five of them are what we might conversationally describe as “OK.” Three of them are bad. And the other three are some of the worst that the creators of Call of Duty, be they Infinity Ward, Treyarch, Sledgehammer Games, or others, have ever produced.

By this forensic appraisal, Modern Warfare 2’s campaign is generally, verifiably OK, in the sense of being neutral. If this were a set of Bluetooth headphones or an 18-button mouse, and I were advising you how to invest in a new and broadly competent electronic device, Modern Warfare 2 would be a “buy” recommendation. I could hereby confirm the product you receive from Activision is worth the exchange of your $69.99 — or $23, if you approximately slice Modern Warfare 2 into thirds, and take the campaign solely as its own product.

A soldier stops to look back over his shoulder, toward the camera, while wearing night-vision goggles in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2022) Image: Infinity Ward/Activision

But writing in the spirit of Modern Warfare 2 — as in, schematically, dispassionately, edgelessly — means also writing about it in a way that, throughout many of its aforementioned 17 missions (at a rate of around $4.11 per mission, again excluding multiplayer), is to be hoodwinked or fooled; to play ball with developer Infinity Ward, which repeatedly tries to convince you its game is anodyne and convictionless and not trying to do anything provocative. It swears.

Its writers deploy a technique whereby every playable character, protagonist, or in-game comrade repetitively congratulates, praises, and encourages one another:

“How do we get him back?”

“By breaking in.”

“And that’s why I love the Ghost.”

Or, in the same cutscene, some 60 seconds later:

“While Rudy finds Al, I’ll use the cams to help Ghost plant charges in key areas.”

“Diversions and sabotage. Nice, Johnny.”

“I learned from the best, L.T.”

“Alejandro is the toughest dude in the regiment,” says Rudy during the rescue mission. And then Price appears and blows up a helicopter so Rudy, Alejandro, Ghost, and Soap can escape. “Who’s that?” Alejandro asks. “A friend,” replies Ghost. “I like him already,” says Alejandro. Combined with that tagline from all the teaser trailers — “The ultimate weapon is team” — it’s like all the characters in Modern Warfare 2 belong to some kind of modern man’s emotional support group, where they vow at the beginning of each meeting to always reinforce one another’s confidence and offer positive affirmations. It seems silly and facile and just like bad writing, but I think it’s actually a really shrewd technique on behalf of Infinity Ward: The shining light of the protagonists’ teamwork and comradeship becomes this kind of beard or smoke grenade to hide, or at least mitigate and make acceptable and innocent-seeming, anything the game does that might be considered controversial or distasteful.

Soldiers from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2022) sitting in a helicopter, bathed in red light Image: Infinity Ward/Activision

See, Modern Warfare 2 will do all this sportive, kindly teamwork stuff, but then it’ll go the other way, and seem to, as it were, stamp on these pedals labeled Meaning and Theme and Imagery, and suddenly you’re crossing the Trump wall over the U.S.-Mexico border, or playing as the actual missile that kills Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. But then there’s a reversal or a refraction, where everything you think you just experienced that may have been meaningful or thematic or pertaining to any kind of real-world image gets transfigured and undermined. It’s kind of genius.

The general, though he’s Iranian and has white hair, a white beard, and a death by missile strike, is not Soleimani but “Ghorbrani.” The mission where you just bombed a Mexican town, which each of the characters remark was full of civilians, is followed by a mission where if you accidentally shoot a civilian, you’re disciplined by the game and forced to restart. The greatest example of this kind of narrative sleight of hand, this fantastic trick of making you think you have seen something and then insisting that you haven’t, somehow without actually removing the thing you thought you had seen, comes in that aforementioned border mission. As Mexican special forces, you cross into a U.S. in which people shout at you to get out of their yard, and you’re eventually apprehended by the American police, who then realize who you are and let you go, saying, “It’s hard to tell you boys apart from the cartel.” And for a moment, it’s as if Modern Warfare 2 is saying something — it would take a long time to articulate, but something — about race and prejudice. But then you go into another house, and there are people shouting and screaming at you to get out of their yard, and they’re Hispanic.

I mean, do you see the genius in that? Do you see how Modern Warfare 2 says something, and then unsays it, but in a way you might not notice, but also leaves the writers, developers, and the entity of Call of Duty an escape route from any accusations of intent or subjective belief? In a postmodern world of alternative facts and the end of the metanarrative, where it seems like there are no answers, truth, or anything you can fully believe in or trust, and everything shifts all the time, I think Modern Warfare 2 is a kind of masterpiece. And now I imagine them using that quote, “Modern Warfare 2 is a kind of masterpiece,” on a poster or something later on, and everything around it won’t matter.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released on Oct. 28 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS4. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.