Any serious gamer is reading this with bleary eyes and nursing blistered fingers, because they've been playing Modern Warfare 2 since its release last week (myself included).
The game raked in an estimated $310 million for 4.7 million copies in its first day alone, according to PC World, which would make it not only the fastest-selling video game in history, but doubling the $155 million opening weekend of last summer's blockbuster movie The Dark Knight. No small feat, that.
But the success of the game was a foregone conclusion. What's so out of place in this story is a tale you've likely heard by now: the ability to play as a terrorist in one of the game's levels.
(For the spoiler-conscious, tread lightly from here on out.)
The game's now-infamous "No Russian" stage, set five years in the future, features you as a gunman in a group stalking travelers through a fictional Moscow airport (Zakhaev International should sound familiar to fans). And I don't mean shooting at the odd airport security guard: You mow down unsuspecting civilians and then relentlessly pursue survivors as they flee helplessly through the terminal.
Developer Infinity Ward's defense of this mayhem is that your character is a CIA operative infiltrating the cell, and that he is warned his mission will cost him his conscience. They have wisely included numerous warnings that there are parts of the game that may be disturbing, and allows players to opt out. Maybe I'm getting a bit too old for this, but after playing through the 10-minute stage, which also involved lobbing explosives at riot police and executing the wounded as they tried to drag themselves or others to safety, it strikes me as a true turning point in video-game violence, an oft-debated subject, to say the least.
The BBC's Marc Cieslak perhaps summed it up best: "I wasn't shocked by it but I felt a little bit saddened. I thought the games industry had moved beyond shock tactics for shock tactics sake. And that's what I thought about this particular level: it was controversial for the sake of being controversial. I didn't think it necessarily needed to be included in the game."
The hardcore nerdery has been defending the massacre as central to the plot (indeed, it sparks a Red Dawn-style Russian invasion of Washington, D.C.), but this is missing the point.
Besides hoping the CIA wouldn't truly empower an agent to slaughter hundreds of foreign nationals, I couldn't help but feel the entire narrative structure of MW2 strayed from the formula that made the original's single-player campaign a success. Previously, you fought only armed combatants on various battlefields, and despite a few darker undertones illustrating how and why governments would carry out illegal assassinations and interrogations, the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare promoted the theme that you were doing the right things for the right reasons, even if they seemed wrong. Not so much, this go-'round.
This mars an otherwise superlative game, which carries on the title's best traditions in great ways. But the argument that simulating the murder of the innocent as part of a largely nonsensical plot is necessary for narrative cohesiveness is ridiculous, bordering on vulgar. In fact, Australia considered banning the game, which is rated M (17 and older) in the U.S. and 18-plus in the U.K., but only 15-plus in Oz.
Perhaps the stage should have made you a survivor under attack, running to escape those very same terrorists. That would be more believable, more visceral and more amenable to the idea that, in the end, you're supposed to be one of the good guys.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.