The screaming is the soundtrack to post-traumatic stress; the visuals like snuff CCTV footage lurking under some evil stone in a dark corner of the internet (albeit undermined somewhat by the curiously small palette of civilian character models being gunned down). One man who takes a shot to the stomach crawls along the ground on all fours, blood pouring from his fingers. Finish the job, watch or walk on: these are your options. The removal of player agency is at once frustrating and brilliant: through it, the limitations of the first-person-shooter's purpose and themes are revealed. In a genre that limits you to interactions sent down the barrel of a gun, for perhaps the first time in history, Infinity Ward makes you wish for a bandage instead.
The magnitude horror of the scene could be seen as little more than attention-grabbing - something to help the game stand yet further away from the throng of me-too rivals - and in truth it feels incongruous to the rest of the game, an ugly, shocking aside to the bold silliness elsewhere. But in addition to that, it's also arguably necessary to inflate the plot for the dizzying fever pitch that follows. By creating a catastrophe of such impact, Infinity Ward justifies its next move, one that is, in many ways, more shocking than the previous one.
The image of a burning American flag is enough to cause anguish to patriotic hearts and minds. But a burning flag above the door of an American house within a white picket fence, in a Washington suburb, is enough to move armies. The image that marks the start of the next level plays upon the nation's deepest fears of invasion, the threat of losing its national identity, something that, for a nation of immigrants, is often a fate worse than war.
It's an ingenious move. In taking the fight to American soil, and in actualising combat in the familiar respectability of middle-class life, Infinity Ward moves to explore rare themes in gaming. Its previous game, while praised for its gunplay, won no accolades for nuanced politics. Modern Warfare 2 also starts with Cheney-era rhetoric, celebrating "the most powerful military force in the history of man" before claiming, "every fight is [America's] fight, because what happens over here matters over there." These statements stick in the throat somewhat. But after the airport massacre, the tone shifts. As you sprint towards the White House, the sky above thick with murderous, parachuting Russians, Modern Warfare lives up to its name, revealing a US military defiant yet on the back foot.
As with the nuclear explosion at the start of the third act in the first Modern Warfare, the story beats are absurd (at one point you find yourself firing upon insurgents holed up in the Department of Justice) but through this gross amplification, it reflects America's deep-held fear and paranoia at losing its position as top global military dog, of nuclear fallout and of old, Cold rivalries re-ignited.
That Modern Warfare 2's biggest strides have been made in storytelling is unsurprising. The previous game's execution of the first-person military shooter template was nothing short of exemplary. And so the developer manages to build upon those victories, albeit in the tiny increments its previous triumph allows. The gunplay is slick and comfortable, the tactile kickback from weapons matched by sound design that allows you, with a decent pair of headphones, to pick out enemy movement with uncommon efficiency.
Level design flits impressively from corridored environments to expansive play areas, demanding fresh tactics. For example, gameplay constantly switches from house interiors to exteriors when you're flushing Russian soldiers from the streets of Washington, forcing you to switch from Rainbow Six-esque CQB strategies to careful use of exterior cover. These moments reveal Infinity Ward's expertise in designing environments that allow interesting combat scenarios to develop naturally.
Despite this, the game emphasises authored spectacle over emergent play. While it fails to match the cinematic assuredness of Uncharted 2 in this regard, the deeper interactivity of Modern Warfare's set-pieces often makes them more potent. Racing through a decaying gulag as it collapses on top of you, or duelling with a helicopter from a dinghy atop white rapids, are memorable moments, and will no doubt endure. At times the game will slip into a bullet-time mode, requiring you to take out enemy targets before they murder hostages, moments that help to upset the familiar rhythms in interesting ways. In every case, the execution is peerless, ensuring ideas that would appear tired or weak in the hands of less competent developers shine and excite.