The Infinite Zenith

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II- Part IV Review and Reflection, An Expected Betrayal and “Disempowerment Fantasies” Done Right

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” –Arthur Ashe

Upon returning to base, MacTavish, Garrick and Vargas are surprised to find Graves and Shadow Company taking over Vargas’ base of operations. Vargas is captured, but MacTavish and Riley manage to escape into a nearby town. Here, MacTavish and Riley are separated from one another. MacTavish watches Shadow Company slaughter civilians in their search for any Los Almas cartel. He manages to evade them, finding materials along the way that he fashions into makeshift tools. After acquiring a knife and gun, MacTavish cuts around the patrolling Shadow forces, only dispatching those he has to, and manages to link up with Riley at the church. The pair manage to escape and regroup with Parra, Laswell, Price, and Garrick, before launching an operation against Shadow Company’s prison complex, where Vargas is held. After clearing the prison of patrols and planting explosives on Shadow Company vehicles, Garrick and Soap manage to locate Vargas. They free him along with the other Mexican Special Forces operators and escape from the prison. Price contacts Laswell, learning that a few months earlier, while Shepherd had ordered Shadow Company to deliver American-made ballistic missiles to Urzikstan and support the rebels, Russian PMCs had hit the convoy transporting the missiles and made off with them. In the aftermath, Shepherd had the incident covered up and explained that with Task Force 141 too close to the truth, their assignment had ended. Incensed, Price promises to go after Shepherd once they eliminate Graves and find the remaining missile. In Modern Warfare II‘s third quarter, Shadow Company and General Shepherd’s true intentions are revealed to players. Longtime Modern Warfare fans will have seen this coming, since 2009’s Modern Warfare 2 similarly had their incarnations of General Shepherd and Shadow Company betraying players, as well. However, here in Modern Warfare II, the betrayal is far less shocking than it’d been originally; Modern Warfare II‘s execution is done in a way that reduces controversy while at the same time, giving players a similar experience to what Modern Warfare 2 had previously provided and setting the stage for players to fight a much more trained, better-equipped foe.

Immediately after players watch Graves order Shadow Company to hunt down MacTavish and Riley, Modern Warfare II places them in MacTavish’s shoes. Alone and without any support, MacTavish must link up with Riley and escape the area. However, since MacTavish had taken some damage in the process, and in his haste to get to safety, he is injured and without his usual equipment. Nowhere else in Modern Warfare II do players feel vulnerable; previously, a group of enemies simply meant throwing a M82 Flash Bang grenade out and mopping them up with whatever one had available to them, but in his weakened state, MacTavish can’t even walk steadily, much less fight. This is what some people call a “disempowerment fantasies”, which are characterised by scenarios where one’s “desires are complicated, or where there’s something to complicate the player’s objective”. It is argued that people “can have powerful experiences about learning to accept dissatisfaction”, and this is what makes the disempowerment fantasy something that more games should explore. However, in its base form, this makes for uninteresting games that promote the “lying flat” mindset, of giving up because one’s situation cannot be practically improved. Games falling into this category discourage self-improvement and inspiration. However, Modern Warfare II, a Triple-A title, shows precisely how games can show vulnerability and difficult situations in a mature, insightful manner. At the beginning of the mission, MacTavish is deprived of his entire arsenal and is injured, forcing players to be mindful of their surroundings. However, as MacTavish explores the level and begins crafting items to aid his survival, he betters his circumstances. Making a door pry allows MacTavish to open locked doors and crack open Shadow Company supply cases. Eventually, MacTavish finds a knife, giving him a fighting chance, and after taking down a Shadow Company operative, confiscates his pistol. Similarly, the door pries give MacTavish access to a Stim Shot, which suppresses pain and allows him to move with precision. Now armed and in reasonable condition, players are more confident in making their way to Riley. Although a direct firefight is still ill-advised, Modern Warfare II puts power back in the player’s hands as a reward for having played with ingenuity and a mindfulness for the environment. This is how disempowerment is handled: the game strips power from a player and gives them the agency to reacquire it, in turn showing how people can be empowered to better their circumstances. Modern Warfare II, despite being a first person shooter, manages to convey the dynamic between vulnerability and agency more effectively than something like Reigns: Her Majesty or Change: A Homeless Survival Experience – although games journalists may disagree, the reality is that good gameplay and solid game mechanics can tell stories more effectively than narratives deliberately crafted to take power away from players in an attempt to guilt or lecture.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • The notion of losing access to one’s entire arsenal is not new, and in games like Modern Warfare II, it forces players to get creative in order to complete their objective. For instance, under normal circumstances, it’d be easy to smoke the Shadow Company operators here with a flashbang grenade and a withering hail of 7.62 mm rounds from an LMG, but at present, MacTavish can’t even aim straight, so it’s much easier to simply avoid direct confrontation and instead, lure them off for a silent takedown. This approach is meant to remind players to be mindful of their environments in a game where map knowledge is an essential to performing well.

  • As MacTavish pushes further into the town, the opportunity to better his situation will present itself. The idea of crafting in a first person shooter isn’t revolutionary, but in the context of Modern Warfare II, it adds a new step for the franchise, showing how even in a series known for its wild firefights, the campaigns can still present players with more creative gameplay mechanics in order to emphasise a certain point. After making door pries, MacTavish is able to access more of the town, and similarly, being able to make smoke bombs and trip mines allows for one to deal with the armed Shadow company operators. Here, I find a Lockwood 300 double-barrel shotgun, which offers excellent stopping power at the expense of stealth.

  • There are two safes throughout this mission, and the first safe (code: 10-10-80) contains a suppressed .50 GS, along with a throwing knife. Although one is limited to 7 rounds, the .50 GS’s suppressor makes it handy for picking off lone patrols. The turning point in this level occurs after MacTavish finds a stim shot, which brings him back to full health. Reloading, aiming and movement becomes significantly after this point, and while one’s still limited to a small arsenal (making it better to avoid firefights), it does feel as though one finally has a fighting chance.

  • Thanks to the extra firepower conferred by the Lockwood 300, I was able to confiscate a Bryson 800 from a downed Shadow Company operator, and this allowed me to continue to make my way to the church. The Bryson 800 is presumably modelled after the Mossberg 500, being a pump-action shotgun with an eight-round capacity. At close quarters, its stopping power is unmatched, but a lack of range means that in most scenarios, it’s not too effective. By taking all of the other options away, a Bryson 800 was a sight for sore eyes.

  • Here, I sneak through a mechanic’s garage en route to the sewer entrance. A second safe here (37-60-80) gives players a crossbow, but with limited ammunition, I ditched it immediately. I’ve affixed a sight to my shotgun to help with target acquisition, and while having a sight makes it easier to aim a sidearm, it’s actually not necessary for the shotgun, which can be reliably hip-fired. It was at this point in Modern Warfare II that my campaign kept crashing, and in the end, I deduced that a bad game save must’ve been the culprit. I restarted the mission, and the crashes went away. I am curious to know what causes are: online guides suggest everything from clearing the cache and verifying game files to reinstalling the game, but some of the methods would be quite tedious to utilise.

  • Moving stealthily through the rainy night and silently dispatching Shadow Company operatives actually opened Modern Warfare II up to a more meditative experience. This is a facet of stealth games I’ve always enjoyed: while patiently waiting for foes to line up and reach better positions, my mind usually wanders, and this creates a moment of calm that seems quite out of place in a Call of Duty game. While I sneak around here in the dark, I’ll comment on the well-designed crafting system: quiet moments allowed me to put together a variety of tools to make it easier to get past some segments.

  • The door pry is probably the most useful of the tools, allowing MacTavish to get through locked doors and force open Shadow Company supply crates. Throughout the town, other supplies can be found: MacTavish can fashion makeshift smoke bombs, trip mines and Molotov cocktails, utilising them to get through especially tricky areas. The presence of a crafting system at all in Modern Warfare II‘s campaign foreshadowed the fact that crafting and inventory management could be a later part of the game, and now that Warzone and DMZ‘s beta are available, it turns out the campaign’s crafting system was a clever way of warming players up to the fact that there’s more to Modern Warfare II than running-and-gunning.

  • For me, I found the Molotov cocktails to be the most useful: they’re relatively quiet and can burn groups of foes to death, making them an excellent resource for clearing out  crowds without resorting to a direct firefight. Assault rifles are noticeably absent from much of this level – in most levels, players will start off with some sort of automatic, so taking away these weapons was to really drive home the point that until he can rendezvous with Riley, ingenuity and situational awareness will be MacTavish’s best friend.

  • One aspect I really enjoyed about this quieter level was the fact that, despite the gravity of the situation, MacTavish and Riley still retain their sense of humour, using it to lighten up what is otherwise a very demoralising ordeal: Shadow Company’s betrayal and their subsequent massacre in town was probably meant to evoke a sense of hatred in players, but without the means of dealing with them directly, one only has their wits about them. The exchanges between Riley and MacTavish are light-hearted and do much to breathe humanity into the two characters, setting them apart from the soulless Shadow Company operators.

  • In this way, when players do get the means of fighting Shadow Company on even terms, it wouldn’t feel wrong to light them up. After slipping by a contingent of Shadow Company operators, I would end up reaching a canal leading into the sewers underneath town. The water effects in Modern Warfare II never ceases to amaze, and here, as I round a bend, I overhear a pair of soldiers talking. The fact that Riley and MacTavish are making their men disappear strikes fear into their hearts, and for the briefest of moments, I felt a bit of pity for the operators who found themselves wandering into a horror movie.

  • After swimming underwater and taking down an armoured Shadow Company operator, I managed to get my hands on an M4, the first assault rifle I’ve had all mission. Despite only having one full magazine and five rounds in reserve, it felt great to have a versatile automatic weapon again. Whereas I was able to affix a sight to the shotguns and pistols earlier, there are no supply crates with spare sights nearby; despite being limited to only the iron sights, by now, I’ve become quite comfortable with using iron sights in games, so an M4 was a game-changer.

  • Upon reaching the plaza, MacTavish will finally have a chance to take the fight to Shadow Company. Here, armoured operators accompany regular operators, and because of the extreme scarcity of ammunition, it’s unwise to engage the armoured foes even with headshots. Instead, the time has come to put the Molotov cocktails to use: the armoured Shadow Company operatives are only more resilient against bullets, so using Molotov cocktails allows one to quickly dispatch these enemies without consuming precious ammunition.

  • Once MacTavish reaches the church, this mission draws to a close. Although seemingly far removed from the usual gameplay one might expect from a Call of Duty game, this level was a remarkable experience for mixing up the experience and immersing players into MacTavish’s situation in a new way. In doing so, Modern Warfare II demonstrates that it is able to show players both sides of the coin: being disempowered and utilising one’s ingenuity and skill to get out of such a situation is a very encouraging message to convey.

  • Once MacTavish and Riley meet up with Price and Garrick, the time has come to mount an assault on the black-site prison Shadow Company is using to incarcerate Vargas. MacTavish starts the mission armed with a suppressed EBR-14 and a suppressed X12 pistol. The EBR-14 is a superb weapon, being equipped with a thermal sight for making out enemies in the dark of night, and in practise, it is able to one-shot even the armoured Shadow Company forces if one lines up a headshot. On the other hand, the X12 isn’t particularly useful, and once things really get moving, it’s better to switch to something with a bit more punch.

  • After scaling the prison wall, the next stage of this mission is to use the CCTV cameras and guide Riley through hordes of Shadow Company soldiers with the aim of placing explosives on their vehicles in order to create a distraction later down the line. Generally speaking, players won’t have to worry about Riley, since he lives up to his moniker “Ghost”, and is able to sneak through most situations undetected. Of course, carelessness will get Riley killed, causing the mission to end, but this segment of the mission felt like a mini-game puzzle, requiring some creative thinking and an eye for detail to complete.

  • The CCTV segments of Modern Warfare II are reminiscent of a similar scene in Modern Warfare, where players must guide an embassy staff member to safety. However, Modern Warfare II‘s presentation is a direct improvement over its predecessor, adding a system that allows MacTavish to give Riley commands. This lets players to clear out lone patrols easily and lure groups of operators away from one another for either elimination, or creating an opening one can sneak through. I would imagine that Modern Warfare II allows players some degree of freedom in deciding how they wish to approach things here.

  • Once the explosives are placed, Riley will link up with the strike force and join MacTavish on the actual attack on the prison itself. By this point in time, I’d decided to dump the X12 for a more suitable weapon: initially, I picked up the Lachmann Sub (the MP5), which had a suppressor. After using it to dispatch several Shadow Company patrols, I discarded the Lachmann for the more powerful M4, which came with a hybrid sight and an M203 underbarrel grenade launcher: there were also TAQ-56 (SCAR-L) rifles lying around, but the M203 was enticing, as it gave me the potential for a bit more firepower.

  • Since it’s a firefight from here on out, a suppressor is no longer relevant, standing in stark contrast with the previous mission, where MacTavish had lamented the lack of a suppressor and quipped, “my kingdom for a suppressor”. This line is derived from Richard III’s famous “My kingdom for a horse”, which spoke to his desperation for a horse and an irrational preparedness to give up his kingdom. Literary guides indicate that today, this line simply means that one is willing to exchange anything, even something of great value, for some small thing to satisfy an immediate need.

  • Shakespeare had meant the line to be utilised when indicating how priorities shift: as circumstances change in Modern Warfare II, having a suppressor is no longer the best idea, and during the mission to rescue Vargas, I found myself switching over to other weapons dropped from defeated Shadow Company operatives because they offered the capabilities that best suited the moment. Here, I take one last look at the room housing the cells Vargas was imprisoned in prior to Task Force 141 freeing them. With Vargas back, the time has come to liberate other members of the Mexican special forces, as well.

  • After an intense firefight, I ran out of ammunition for the M4 and looted a TAQ-56 off one of the fallen Shadow Company units before making my way over to the prison’s mess hall. MacTavish comments on how it’s time to make a mess, and my curiosity got the better of me. I did some reading and learnt that the mess hall is named after the Old French mes, meaning “portion of food”. It eventually made its way into English in the thirteenth century, where it came to refer to any cooked meal. I’d therefore imagine that the contemporary meaning of “mess”, in referring to disarray, came from the fact that mess halls were often noisy and lively places.

  • MacTavish ends up helping Task Force 141 and the Mexican special forces in messing up the attacking Shadow Company operatives. By hiding behind cover, I picked off foes with a combination of fire from the TAQ-56 and the EBR-14; the latter was especially useful in landing one-hit kills against the armoured operatives, while the M203 on the TAQ-56 I ran with was great for stopping entire groups of enemies. More so than Modern WarfareModern Warfare II places an emphasis on larger-scale firefights, and this is one area where the campaign of Modern Warfare II especially excelled.

  • While Modern Warfare was fun, I missed the wild firefights that Call of Duty had become known for, so seeing them return in Modern Warfare II meant I found the campaign here more enjoyable than its predecessor. In fact, even though I’ve still got a few missions left before I complete Modern Warfare II, I’m already thinking about replaying some missions in the future (something that Modern Warfare‘s campaign didn’t inspire me to do). After exiting the mess hall, I’m back out into the dark of night. It’s time to extract before Shadow Company can round up or execute friendlies.

  • The explosives Riley had placed on various Shadow Company vehicles earlier come in handy now: unaware that they’ve been had, Shadow Company rides out into the night in a bid to stop the escapees, only for MacTavish to break out a detonator and turn these vehicles into smoldering hunks of metal. I’ve switched back over to the M4 for the breakout’s last segments to see how it handles compared to the TAQ-56; in the short time I’ve had to use these weapons in a side-by-side fashion, the M4 feels a little more consistent.

  • While not shown in this post, I encountered Shadow Company units carrying riot shields in this level. Out of vain curiosity, I picked one up and tried it out; it feels a little tougher than the iteration seen in Modern Warfare 2, where the glass would begin cracking, Modern Warfare II‘s riot shields don’t seem to take any visible damage when hit. Like earlier games, they can be used to batter enemies to death, and there’s an achievement for getting three kills with the riot shield. My priority now is not getting achievements in Modern Warfare II, but the campaign is enjoyable enough for a return later down the line.

  • Once Task Force 141 and Vargas’ men make it to the wall, MacTavish will be asked to provide covering fire. Earlier, I had found several long-range rifles up here, but because of the mission parameters, I left them alone. With stealth no longer a concern now, I swapped over to a weapon I’ve not fired since the open beta days. Beyond the Signal 50, there’s also an REV G-80 here. While I imagine this is useful for anti-vehicular roles, having already fired the REV G-80 previously, I figured it’d be fun to give the Signal 50 a go.

  • The Signal 50 and its .50 calibre rounds allows it to deal some real damage, acting as a fun way of wrapping up the mission to rescue Vargas and his men. Once everyone’s exfiltrated and returned to Vargas’ safehouse, Price and Laswell explain that the sudden turn of events had occurred because Task Force 141 had gotten too close to the truth: the American ballistic missiles had originally been part of an unauthorised transaction, but when Russian PMCs unexpectedly hit Shadow Company and took the missiles, General Shepherd buried all evidence of this ever happening.

  • Although it acts as a more substantial explanation for Shadow Company’s betrayal relative to how Modern Warfare 2 had presented things, Modern Warfare II hadn’t given players the full impression that Task Force 141 was getting close to the truth. On these grounds, I would guess that Garza might’ve known about things, which is why her capture became inconvenient for Graves. Small plot holes like these can usually be resolved with a bit of lateral thinking, and for the time being, players are given a chance to see the chaos for themselves.

  • For this mission, players take on the role of a Shadow Company operator armed with an M16. Despite the player’s best efforts, the convoy carrying the missiles will be overrun. Looking back at these events, and Shepherd’s approach towards addressing the fallout, I am reminded of how real-world governments tend to cover up mistakes. All governments are guilty of this to some extent, and while it may be justified as keeping the citizens from panicking (or the media from overblowing things and creating a scare), politicians will accuse others of covering up their mistakes when they themselves do the same thing, resulting in a tu quoque fallacy.

  • A quick look around finds that one can avoid falling into this trap by acknowledging their mistake (a concept that seems foreign to most people in online debates) and then provide a clear-cut explanation of what is being done now to address a given issue. In the heat of the moment (especially online), it can be easy to forget this. In the context of Modern Warfare II, the Americans were presented as well-intentioned, but when things go south, they resort to less-than-legal means of concealing the truth. In this way, Modern Warfare II suggests that liberal democracies may occasionally do evil and then sweep it under the rug, whereas autocratic nations are more forward about the acts they commit.

  • Atrocities or coverups are never justified, and in response to these questions, I’d reply that the liberal democracy approach is no better than the autocratic approach, before appending that I’d rather see nations focusing on improving things for their people, versus diverting so much funding towards building up their arms and destablising other nations. With this, I enter Modern Warfare II‘s final quarter: with Task Force 141 now going off the books to take out Shadow Company and stopping the remaining missile, I am looking forwards to seeing how things conclude.

Despite lacking the same impact as Modern Warfare 2, Modern Warfare II‘s campaign is still immensely captivating. In its third quarter, Modern Warfare II shows the flipside to private military companies; their ability to operate outside of the constraints governing a nation’s armed forces had previously meant they were able to move the needle quickly and hustle to get things done. However, every silver lining has a cloud, and when the mission called for it, Graves and Shadow Company are all too happy to betray Task Force 141. Whereas Task Force 141 has players fighting for a cause, Shadow Company simply fights for a paycheque, and therefore, have no allegiance to any morals or ideals. More so than Modern Warfare 2, Modern Warfare II speaks to the dangers of PMCs, and illustrates precisely why things like the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893 exist. In scenarios like these, where it’s difficult to differentiate between good and evil, Modern Warfare II suggests that trusting oneself, and then one’s comrades, is a good starting point. Messages like these might feel obvious, but amidst the chaos in the world resulting from politics, foreign affairs and the tendency for subsets of social media users to count themselves as experts in these areas, it can become quite difficult to separate fact from fiction and determine who is trustworthy. Much as how MacTavish starts by trusting himself first, following Graves’ betrayal, people may find the overwhelming flow of information, both truths and untruths, easier to manage if they were to take a step back, assess their priorities and decide for themselves if people on the internet hold any sway over them. In this way, it is possible to regroup and regain one’s footing amidst an ongoing tempest. While Modern Warfare II might be a first person shooter with a major multiplayer piece, and where the aim is to simply shoot stuff with awesome guns, the campaign is able to convey a surprising amount of depth: although players will doubtlessly have blazed through things so they could unlock the Union Guard M4 for use in the multiplayer, the campaign does tell a story that’s quite thought-provoking in places, worthy of a revisit. In my case, however, I’ve still got a pair of missions before I cross the finish line, and I’m looking forwards to wrapping up my experience here.

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