Editorial 45: Modern Warfare (2019)

The last Call of Duty I actually wanted to play was Black Ops 2. After that, the series became an afterthought thanks to Activision pushing out a new title each year. CoD played like no other, laying the groundwork for all shooters since the very first game. 4A Games perfected the formula with Metro and shooters would not be what they are today. The latest release, Modern Warfare (2019) is the first game I bought in a long time un-ironically (had to play Ghosts just to make sure). You can tell Activision understood the need to return to normalcy after years of monotony. My only gripe is with the game’s story.

I have no problem with the inclusion of white phosphorous or the Highway of Death allegory. The gaming press before launch made a big deal about the game having WP as a Killstreak because they had nothing better to do. Yes, it is not a great weapon before or after you use it, but it is useful when you want to start a fire that wont spread or need to set off munitions. The Highway of Death allegory meant nothing overall, but the reaction to it inspired me to write this.

MW (2019) is military fiction, but it is so far outside conceivable reality it is fantasy. The word “fiction” is a misnomer because the genre is grounded in the real world. The story makes sense if you do not think about it; were I not researching Russia’s history as a military power, I would not be writing this. And before I continue, I do not have a pro-Russia bias. They make the best guns and women next to Czechs, but they have a history no normal human being could overlook. I am not going to be offended for them; they are quite skilled at doing that on their own.

Less than five years after the Soviet-Afghan War, Russia became the target of the longest insurgency in its history. The Chechen Wars were a continuation of the kind of warfare that lost them tens of thousands of men years before, but in a form no nation can afford. Chechnya is located in North Caucasia, within Russian borders, and directly south of the country’s industrial heartland. Further south is Transcaucasia, the Middle East, and Turkey, a cornucopia of would-be adversaries that could take advantage of a compromised sector if need be. There were two Chechen Wars and an insurgency that went on for about fifteen years, including a hostage situation whose outcome changed how Russia would approach terrorism.

America dealt with similar problems in Vietnam, but post-Perestroika Russia had far less time to catch up after their own Vietnam. The country was and still is somewhat Third World having been under Communism for roughly eighty years. Before then they were barely up to par with Europe or America; the Japanese were able to defeat them in 1905 and they just came on to the world stage. The deck has been stacked against Russia for about a century and only recently have they figured out how to play to their strengths.

The key to contemporary Russia’s military success is a balance of diplomacy and police action. They dealt with Chechnya by appealing to pro-Russia moderates among the secessionists while assassinating-the-shit out those they could not flip. With terrorism, no one is taken alive and hostage takers are killed through the hostages. There are stories out of Dagestan where homes are raided and suspects shot on site. Crimea was annexed while Ukraine was in the middle of political upheaval without firing a shot because the country was fearful of a localized “fascist” takeover. Russia gained a further foothold in Ukraine by assisting secessionists in Donbass, a war that continues today. And in Syria, I am willing to bet there are less than a thousand Special Forces and Air Force personnel assisting President Assad.

This tells us Russia is not willing to engage in large-scale conflict, nor could they maintain it without employing depopulation tactics like in Afghanistan, to the further detriment of their already tarnished image. In the event an insurgency or escalation seems likely, they go through diplomatic channels. In Donbass, they organized a semi-successful ceasefire with Ukraine after President Trump took a firmer stance compared to his predecessor. Chechnya was turned into a federal subject under a puppet, Ramzan Kadyrov, and I predict the Donetsk and Luhantsk People’s Republics in Ukraine will follow suit.

I would also like to point out to certain American readers (you know who you are) that Russia’s tactics do not include nation building or destabilization. They would never and cannot rig elections for a country of our size, nor could they influence an election via memes or “hacking.” The most they would do is resort to conventional intelligence gathering and espionage, whereas Soviets were quite fond of assassination. This whole “Russia got Trump elected” horseshit was conjured by sore losers in the corporate-controlled media to stagnate our government in an investigation that led to fuck and all. If you actually believe this shit, get yourself committed.

Conventional warfare is not an option for today’s Russia. They would only take action if success was guaranteed and they could do it quickly. Back in Crimea, Russia stole the region from Ukraine in less than a year because there was so much upheaval during Euromaidan. The same can be said for Donbass, Syria, Chechnya, and Georgia.

In American military fiction there has always been the “great enemy” trope among others. Russia is the cunning main villain, Arabs are terrorists, Africans are warlords while Afrikaners are mercenaries, South Americans are drug lords or despots, and American politicians are corrupt middlemen. These tropes defined military fiction from years’ past with some reoccurring today in one form or another. They are extremes based in reality that seem outlandish, but make sense when you keep in mind it is still fiction.

In the first Modern Warfare Russia was a mutual ally dealing with internal strife. The second game made them the enemy after an ultra-nationalist regime takes over and launches a sneak attack on America’s east coast, followed by an invasion of Europe in the third game. The first was perfect military fiction whereas the last two skirted by because it was able to justify Russia’s aggression. The HBO show Chernobyl put it best when it referred to Russia as a country “obsessed with not being humiliated.” The incredible “No Russian” mission in MW2 was the catalyst for the invasion because that mission was seemingly carried out by Americans as it was engineered to be by the real antagonist.

Contemporary Russia is similar to Imperial Japan. It is modern, but cannot sustain a long-term, large-scale war with another superpower. Had Japan not attacked Pearl Harbor, they could have taken over China and been on par with America in a matter of decades. After Pearl Harbor, however, they ran rampant through the Pacific for six months before we pushed them all the way back to the Home Islands. In MW2 and 3 the invasion lasted about a week or two before the East Coast was liberated. It was also probably the same in Europe where only major cities were occupied, but I played that one days after it came out and never again.

The first three Modern Warfare games had stories that worked within the confines of military fiction, but the latest reboot makes almost zero sense considering the current state of Russia. Logic was likely sacrificed to push the story’s allegory for the Syrian Civil War and to play on the “Russia Scare” currently consuming a number of mentally ill Americans. MW (2019) suffers the same problem as Bright where it was more interested in saying something instead of thinking about its own world. I am pretty sure the writers had a cursory understanding of military fiction from movies and Tom Clancy books, but did not bother to understand what made them work.

The overarching set-up of the story is Russia has been occupying a small country the size of New Jersey called Urzikstan in the northeastern corner of Turkey. The war has lasted 20 years with a strong insurgent movement that has resulted in routine reprisals with neither side making much headway. In the middle of it all emerged a terrorist group called Al-Qatala that stages a brutal attack on London in the second mission. However, AQ was a red haring being used by rogue Urzik insurgents to get back at the leader of the occupation, General Barkov.

Pretty standard stuff when you do not think about it. When you do, the whole enterprise collapses in on itself. As an allegory for the Syrian Civil War it kind of makes sense. For one thing, it is said Urzikstan is in a civil war with AQ at odds with the insurgents (one coded as ISIS and the other YPG), but the Russian occupation is pushed as the primary antagonistic force that is doing the most damage. AQ was well defined as the Islamic Extremist allegory with the best missions featuring them as the enemy.

The story has a strong anti-chemical weapons theme where Russia uses them on the Urziks and later vice-versa. To the writers of MW (2019): ever heard of the Geneva Convention? The Soviets were quite brutal to the Afghanis, but they were not dumb enough to use chems and I doubt any nation, big or small, would use them today. However, I see what you were trying to do considering Assad’s alleged use in Syria. Yeah, he got a few angry letters from the UN, but President Trump made sure he got a proper punishment after taking office… allegedly.

Furthermore, it is strange that Russia would bother occupying a country like Urzikstan given its size and political situation. It would have made more sense and fit the allegory if Barkov was working with either the insurgents or a third element like a pro-government force. It seems all there is are AQ and insurgents. On top of that, there is no reason why Russia would go to the trouble of wasting twenty years trying to control a country via anti-partisan tactics in a comprising part of the world.

Urzikstan is situated along the Black Sea (practically owned by Russia), directly south of Georgia (almost Russia), and a neighbor to Turkey (who hates Russia). That country and Transcaucasia as a whole serves as a buffer zone to the Middle East. Were they closer, it would open up the Russia to attack from Western powers that are entrenched throughout the region. Is there some resource in Urzikstan they are desperate enough to exploit that they resort to total war? Do they want to install a puppet regime to increase their sphere of influence? I have no idea because it seems to me the game is more concerned about saying something profound instead of explaining itself.

All of these shortcomings could have been justified had MW (2019) made General Barkov divorced from Russia. In the game he appears pretty well off with a large estate in Moldova and chemical plant in Georgia. He does not even wear the RusFed flag on his uniform, nor do his troops. Like Zakhaev from the first MW, he could be a warlord with connections who decided to lead a conquest of Urzikstan like Slavic Caesar. Maybe you end up working with Russia to help put him down because he is making everyone look bad. Sure, you are essentially repeating the first game by appealing to logic, but with the added allegory to current events, people would have looked the other way.

Modern Warfare (2019) is still a video game and no one will give that much a shit about the story unless they are not focused on the game element. Other than Metro Exodus, there is no better shooter on the market right now. The feeling of going through missions and doing what we have been doing since the very first Call of Duty has never felt better. I could not recommend picking it up enough. I just wish the same effort applied to the gameplay was put toward the story.

Editorial 42: Metro Exodus

Not long ago I was a videogame reviewer when I lived in Orlando. I would not have considered myself a games journalist; I have dignity, but I did not have a great time to say the least. It is far more fun to play videogames than write about them, which explains why real games journalists are cowardly degenerates. I would either make up nonsense I did not give a shit about or outright lie to meet the required word count. The only articles I am proud of are my review of Doom (2016) and an analysis on BroTeamPill. Everything else belongs in the garbage. That being said, I find it difficult to not write something about Metro Exodus.

When we think of the post-apocalypse many imagine barren blasted wastelands patrolled by raiders in makeshift cars and revealing attire. Road Warrior and the like have taken over our imagination of what the world would look like following a nuclear holocaust. The genre has been so impacted by this collective understanding there are hardly any deviations across cultures, except for Russia. Obviously, I am sure there are other localized interpretations, but the current benchmark for the Russian post-apocalypse comes from Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro trilogy.

Set in the Moscow Metro the story follows Artyom, one of thousands of people living underground 20 years after World War 3. In an effort to survive with little to no resources and under constant threat from mutants, the Metro is divided among a handful of factions that look to the past to survive the future. There is the egalitarian Hansa, the communist Red Line, and the fascist Fourth Reich. Everyone is trying to take over while the Spartan Rangers keep to the margins of society, taking down anyone or anything that threatens the Metro.

Metro 2033 was the first book and first game in the series. Originally released in 2010, I played the Redux version some months ago, and before that Last Light, the sequel. Both experiences are very different, but the core design ethos of the series is still there. Half-Life 2 set the standard for all first-person shooters, but I think Slav developers like Metro’s 4A Games perfected it.

The series is known for their immersion. You really feel you are underground not just because of the atmosphere and technical tricks, but how you progress from level to level. You as Artyom walk through long stages that have different ways of progression, either loud or quiet, with little to know direction. The developers were mindful to use light sources to guide players in a natural, unconscious fashion. On top of that is the sense of claustrophobia and danger. You have to maintain the power in your flashlight and keep a supply of gasmask filters in the event you stumble into a toxic area or journey to the surface. The tension is ramped up thanks to the fantastic sound design that make monsters scary and stealth heart pounding.

Metro Exodus continues the series traditions while taking a massive risk. After a certain revelation I will not spoil, Artyom, his wife Anna, and a handful of Spartan Rangers escape Moscow by train. When they find out Russia is not as desolate as they once thought, the group decides to search for a place to settle down and give the people of the Metro a proper future. With a greatly overhauled karma system, what happens along this journey depends on your actions.

Each level is the size of a small open world with points of interest that offer supplies to craft perishables and work/rest stations. Exploration is encouraged and not restricted by linear progression. You can start a level, go just about everywhere, and the characters will even bring up that you already visited certain areas. Character requested items are located throughout that can boost your karma if you get them. There is absolutely nothing stopping you from striking out on your own and if you follow just the main missions, you will miss a ton of extra content and negatively affect the ending.

This works in tandem with the game’s character development. The way you figure out where to go or to search for items is by interacting with your comrades. You do not speak as Artyom, but when you hover around characters they will talk to you. If you played the original games, this is how you gained karma between shoot-outs. When you listen in Exodus you not only get side objectives, but also learn about the characters and build rapport. Though not quantified in a way similar to Mass Effect 2, you get to know them like real people, and enhance your experience. For your wife Anna, not matter what, listen and interact with her whenever you can.

Gunplay is vastly improved. No one makes a better military shooter than Slavs and Exodus plays like Call of Duty made by artisan craftsmen. Every shot feels like it has so much power with each squeeze and with accompanying sound effects that sell the sensation. Modifying your weapons is far more fluid and easy. The more parts you gather from enemies, the more you can change. When you trade one gun for another in the field, you can take those parts and save them for when you get the same gun again. There are also several customization options. You could turn a revolver into a rifle or the Kalash into an RPK. There is so much you can do and the only drawback is you cannot replay the game and keep all of your attachments from your first play through.

I hope that changes in the future.

It is easy to call Exodus a “fans only” kind of experience. Newcomers will not be aware there is a karma system or how it works without research and miss out on some important character moments. It would be a learning experience, as it was for me. Where I was used to the claustrophobic tunnels and mild survival elements, I had to contend with wide-open spaces and a lack of resources to create what I needed to stay alive. Couple that with great character interactions and gunplay and you get a fantastic experience that is well worth your time, fan or not. It is certainly a more worthy purchase than Anthem or that new Far Cry expansion I cannot remember.

Movie Review: Child 44

Movies that take place in the Soviet Union are few and far between. You could cite Enemy at the Gates as one example, but war films show nothing of actual life in the former communist state. Reading about the oppressive world behind the Iron Curtain is one thing; seeing it on film is another. The closest you can get is a documentary on North Korea, however produced and staged it may be. Does Child 44 give us a detailed glimpse into the dissolved socialist regime?

Taking inspiration from the case of notorious serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, 44 is a paranoid suspense thriller set in Stalin era Russia. The squalor of living under an oppressive regime, at the height of its so-called prominence, permeates throughout the runtime. More potent than the look is the constant, tense feeling the main characters are never safe, always watched by people they thought they could trust.

Just to clarify, I know the film is based on a book I have not read. Any changes made upon adaptation are lost on me.

The story follows Leo, played by Tom Hardy, a war veteran and officer in the MGB investigating the murder of a child. After finding out it and several other murders are being covered up by propaganda, Leo risks his life and career to bring the killer to justice.

44 is less about catching a mass murderer and more about catching a mass murderer, in a world where the idea of murder is considered subversive. The conceit of the film is murder cannot occur in a communist state, thus the child victims of the story are dead as a result of “accidents”. If one were to talk about it in the context of anything but, whether it an official or normal citizen, that person is silenced.

Most of the drama and tension comes from Leo and his wife Raisa, played Noomi Rapace, trying to overcome the intrusiveness of a totalitarian society. They lose everything because of falsehoods and knowing information that would help more than harm. It is a perfect example of how a government’s delusion that its culture is perfect can ultimately destroy itself, using tactics that perpetuate incident instead of help. This makes the film frustrating to watch because you know every character knows the truth, but it is those in control that decide the fate of the people you root for.

Sadly, it reminds me of The Longest Ride and how the problems of its characters could have been solved with a simple phone call.

Hardy brings his all to the role of Leo. He plays the character with as much grump and battle-worn grizzle as sympathetic empathy. He comes off as a tired vet that would like nothing more than to retire, but has experienced enough to overlook the strict, oppressive dogma of his job, and engage most situations with modest open-mindedness.

One of the first scenes was a perfect example of his contrasting beliefs. After holding up a family for harboring a fugitive and catching said fugitive, Vasili, played by Joel Kinnaman, executes the husband and wife, leaving two daughters behind. Leo nearly kills Vasili in response, referring to the children that are now orphans, not unlike his upbringing. This moment created an incentive to sympathize with Hardy’s character, a cog in the totalitarian system that got the husband and wife killed.

On that note, Kinnaman made a great turn in the power hungry, sociopathic villain role. One could argue his somewhat stilted performance was less than admirable, but it can be forgiven considering the character. Vasili is so obsessed with overcoming this image of cowardice, he falsifies official documents to get Leo in trouble, and claim his position.

The main fault of the film comes in the form of Rapace. While her character is a very good female role, not much is explained about who she is. We know she has a one-sided estranged relationship with Leo and she is a schoolteacher, but we have not any more information about her past or what she is like on a deeper level.

The same applies to Gary Oldman’s Mikhail. We are given superficial details and nothing more. The man gets top billing along side Hardy and Rapace and is present for barely a quarter of the film.

Child 44 is a nice film to send off the season before summer. Of course there is one week left, but it is well worth your attention. It does more than the typical suspense thriller by taking place in a world not seen often in movies, with a hefty dose of political drama. Skip Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and see Child 44 instead. Then again, why are you even thinking about seeing that trash?