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Modern Warfare 2's infamous airport stage wages battle on good taste

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 jgillin@tampabay.com.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is creating quite the buzz, having sold 4.7 million copies on Day One. Some facts and reactions about the game:

• Thousands of gamers across the country, many dressed as Call of Duty characters, queued outside GameStop stores on Monday night to get first dibs. Of the 70 people in line at a store in Mankato, Minn., only one was female, and she said she was buying the game for her father, according to the Mankato Free Press.

• "No game this year will be more controversial and more easily misrepresented," writes Seth Schiesel in the New York Times. "That is because it revolves around the most provocative, forcefully uncomfortable and emotionally disturbing scene yet built into interactive entertainment. Rather than survey the battlefield from a clinical distance, the game thrusts the player into the harrowing experience of modern terrorism."

• From one gaming message board at ing.com:

gigablast35: The graphics are so realistic i actually feel like i am in a war.

EmissarySiskoDS9: If this game really made you feel like you were in a war no one would choose to play it!

• The Australian Council on Children and the Media called on the government's classification board to review the game's "15 and older" rating. "We understand that it's a game," the group's president told the Sydney Morning Herald, "but … we're not far off when you look at the images that you could actually put it on a Channel 9 news report and you'd think maybe that is real."

• In Great Britain, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has called on the government to prosecute retailers selling the game to children under 18.

• The score was created by Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer, known for movies such as The Lion King and Gladiator.

Asked by USA Today whether there is legitimacy in this art form, Zimmer said: "Absolutely, that we can't even question anymore. When movies first came out, maybe they were in black and white, and there wasn't any sound, and people were saying the theater is still the place to be. But now movies and theater … are each legitimate art forms. And now this new thing, it's interesting. We still call it a game. The word has a slightly sort of downmarket quality, that word. It is a trivial word. But remember, as a musician, we play all our lives, so the idea of playing something and being involved in something is actually quite powerful to a musician. The participation is the thing."

Ben Montgomery, Times staff writer

See for yourself

Watch the first half of Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" stage at tinyurl.com/yfur8ap

Modern Warfare 2's infamous airport stage wages battle on good taste 11/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 5:06pm]

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