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Modern Warfare 2 

Modern Warfare 2 is the multiplayer shooter of the future.

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According to the Department of Defense, approximately 200,000 American troops were deployed to fight wars in the Middle East in 2009. According to Microsoft, approximately 2.2 million individuals fought each other in Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox Live in 2009. Clearly, when it comes to staging a war, Modern Warfare 2 is the most successful effort of the year.

No other game delivers the smooth and balanced combat that the Modern Warfare series has come to prioritize. Virtual bullets of every caliber fly through the game’s imaginary spaces, zinging, whistling and whooshing as they trace smoke trails and trajectories across the game’s mix of cramped and cavernous spaces. The only time I was able to see something without being able to shoot it was when my rocketpropelled grenade failed to reach the giant Jesus statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro.

Modern Warfare 2 rejects the wanton mayhem and surreal weaponry of most shooters. There are no alien fusion blasters or micro-laser pistols, and gravity always works in the usual manner. The cities, buildings and war zones that the game depicts are scrubbed free of the obvious sniper spots and catch-me-if-you-can runarounds that characterize most shooters. Modern Warfare 2 is a combat simulation, and the constraints of reality are the game’s defining artistic choices.

But because MW2 is trying to be photo-realistic (a term that the previous Modern Warfare featured prominently on its packaging), every flaw glares more than it should. My character doesn’t cast a shadow, despite the shifting glints of light that catch on his hands. And I can’t press myself against a wall or peek around corners, which I can easily do in both real life and any other shooter game currently published. But I’m not complaining too much. If Modern Warfare 2 were any more realistic, there wouldn’t be enough Americans left alive to die in the Middle East.

THE GOOD: One level in Modern Warfare 2 stages a terrorist massacre of a bustling commercial airport, and casts the player in the role of an undercover agent assisting the terrorists. The level can be skipped with no penalty, but its visceral and provocative realism makes a strong case for the artistic power of videogames. Wounded travelers drag themselves across bloody floors while others, screaming, try to pull their loved ones out of harm’s way. It’s up to the player to decide whether they live or die. As Plato wrote in The Republic, “Poetry should be able to damage the great majority even of good men.”

THE BAD: The artificial intelligence is dynamic and responsive, but not necessarily intelligent. From atop a Nate’s Restaurant (sort of a CGI version of TGI Friday’s), I was able to make an enemy squad run in circles around the parking lot simply by scaring them with grenades and random gunshots. Moreover, it’s easy to predict the maneuvers of the computer-controlled enemies and comrades after playing through a level — which might be why Modern Warfare 2 has succeeded primarily as a multiplayer game where people, not machines, do the thinking.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Modern Warfare 2 is the multiplayer shooter of the future.

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