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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains the series’ most uncomfortable mission yet

There’s something uniquely mean-spirited and depressing about Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (2022)’s campaign. The Call of Duty series has always had issues with its pro-foreign occupation stances, but the sequel to the 2019 reboot hosts one of the most harrowing moments in the entire franchise. It’s a moment that isn’t an edgy, marketable feature on the box art or making Fox News headlines like previous games in the series have had.

No, it’s more understated and subtle, but sticks out all the same for its troubling implications.

Borderline

The fifth mission in Modern Warfare 2’s campaign, “Borderline,” sees two Mexican Special Forces agents chasing a terrorist over the border into the U.S. and through a rural town. When they cross the border, the two remark that they don’t have any jurisdiction in the U.S., but can’t let the terrorist just get away, so they’ll sort out the legal details later and make sure to be careful.

They eventually break into a house that they think the terrorist fled into and start kicking doors down in their search as the owners of the house confront them for barging in. Your partner escalates things by roughing up a woman who is rightfully upset that you’re there and the remaining two civilians pull out guns of their own to shoot at you because, as far as they know, you’re two unknown, heavily armed intruders who are kicking doors in and pointing guns at people.

An image from Modern Warfare 2 of a gun being pointed at a civilian inside a house from the "Borderline" mission.

As soon as they do, your partner gives the go-ahead to open fire on them. You kill the two civilians inside their own house and then just move on. The tone doesn’t shift and no one grapples with the fact that they, the “good guys,” just killed a handful of regular civilians. Instead, your partner offhandedly says something about getting medical attention for them, but you can see them laying face down, riddled with bullets in pools of their own blood. After that, the level just continues as normal.

What’s really worth fighting for

This is an extraordinarily grim look behind the curtain at what Modern Warfare 2 has to say about the people trying to stop global catastrophes and the role that civilians, the people they’re trying to save, play in it. The game has no issue telling you that “to do good, you need to do bad,” it’s mentioned several times with remarkably straight faces in the campaign and is even offered as loading screen advice, but “Borderline” shows to what end Call of Duty believes that.

There are plenty of scenes in Modern Warfare 2 where characters disobey orders (doing “bad”) in order to do what they feel is right. Killing civilians, however, isn’t simply bad; it’s indefensible. There’s no way to slice it any other way. Call of Duty knows that it’s wrong too, and all it takes is a look at the original Modern Warfare 2 to see that. In the infamous mission from the game’s campaign, “No Russian,” the terrorists kill numerous civilians inside an airport in a scene designed to get across just how evil they are and what’s at stake if the heroes don’t stop them. In the reboot, however, we don’t see the villains kill civilians. Instead, two of the main characters do and hardly bat an eyelash.

Modern Warfare 2 (2022) shows that the main characters don’t actually care about saving people from terrorists since the game has no issues with turning them into terrorists themselves. In any other game, in any other series, a moment when main characters kill innocent people would be a major turning point like in Spec Ops: The Line. Maybe they’d reckon with what they’re doing and why or they’d show a single ounce of remorse or regret for their actions. In Modern Warfare 2, however, they just move on and get to spend the rest of the game adventuring around in the name of saving civilians from dying at the hands of terrorists, something that they themselves have literally done.

De-escalation

There’s a moment later on in the campaign when the main characters have the terrorist in custody and say “you’re the commander of a foreign terror organization” to which he responds “I can say the same to you” before the conversation abruptly moves on. That’s the extent that a game ostensibly about terrorism is interested in talking about the actual terrorism we see on screen carried out by two player characters. It’s surface-level and shallow and seems to serve as good enough for Call of Duty, but it’s certainly not enough to address the disconnect between the intentions of the narrative and the actions of its characters.

The series has often included uncomfortable moments where characters do morally grey things, leaving it up to the player to decide how they feel about them. Based on the quick conversation mentioned above, it feels a little bit like Modern Warfare 2 wants to talk about that, but the moment is so brief and the actions that the characters take in “Borderline” are so dark that there’s no nuance to what happens. “Borderline” doesn’t take a morally grey stance in the way that it treats civilians; it takes a black one.

An image from Modern Warfare 2 where the player is pointing a handgun at a civilian with text reading "hold LT to de-escalate civilians" written on screen.

You can get through “Borderline” without killing civilians if you’re quick to aim down the sights of your weapon at the two men who draw guns on you. Modern Warfare 2’s definition of “de-escalation” requires you to point loaded weapons, finger on the trigger at concerned civilians which, while it doesn’t leave them dead on the floor, shouldn’t be treated as some great “there’s a peaceful solution” counterargument for the scene since most players will be getting through it on their first time with violence and bloodshed.

If you kill the two civilians at any time other than when your partner tells you to, you get a slap on the wrist and are sent to the previous checkpoint after the game tells you that killing civilians is wrong and “not tolerated.” How quickly things change, however, when it apparently needs to happen to continue the mission, despite being entirely senseless and bleak. If it’s not tolerated, then it shouldn’t be tolerated and isn’t an example of Modern Warfare 2’s cast “getting their hands dirty to keep others’ hands clean,” they’re just getting them dirty because they know they can get away with it.

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