Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Left 4 Dead 2
There is a moment in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 that made me gasp and drop my controller in genuine horror. It comes during a level in which your heroic character, U.S. Army Ranger Private Joseph Allen, has infiltrated a group of Russian terrorists and must participate in an act of evil for the sake of completing a righteous mission. I can?t say I didn?t ask for the shock: In an unusual move, the game allows the easily offended to skip the level if they want to. I can be touchy about videogame violence, but I accepted the challenge anyway, and didn?t regret it. Modern Warfare 2, an experience as thrilling as it is unsettling, is one of the best games of the year. The latest installment in the acclaimed Call of Duty series of first-person-shooter games, Modern Warfare 2 blends Black Hawk Down, Red Dawn, and the TV series 24 to create a crackerjack and challenging interactive entertainment. The premise: A psycho Russian nationalist frames the U.S. for a terrorist attack, prompting Russia to invade America. The scope is epic (Afghanistan, Moscow, Washington, Rio de Janeiro, Virginia, the Caucasus Mountains), and the plot twists are too good to spoil. The combat is terrifying. Certain stages — defending a bridge in an Afghan city, surviving a firefight in the Virginia suburbs — evoke the mind-crippling chaos of Saving Private Ryan?s D-Day sequence.
Indeed, the whole game is about the challenge of adapting to mental and moral disorientation. The pre-mission training mode emphasizes the importance of being spare with your bullets and strategic in your thinking. A bravura set piece on a snowbound enemy base hinges on realizing that stealth and restraint are the keys to success. But just when I found myself feeling all proud of my well-honed discipline, there came the stage that tasked me with murdering hundreds so that millions might live. It disturbed me, but it felt right for the story and forced me to mull over tricky ethical questions. What if this really happened? Could I do this? Should I do this? What would be the cost? Modern Warfare 2 made me appreciate the mettle of real soldiers. It also made me grateful that the closest I?ll ever come to war is a videogame. At least until the Russians invade.
If Modern Warfare 2 is a harrowing journey into darkness, Left 4 Dead 2 is pure thrill-ride escapism, a kill-the-zombies game filled with outrageous violence and deliciously seedy B-movie flavor. Unlike the Resident Evil games, there is no elaborate sci-fi-mythology puzzle to crack; the L4D franchise is all about onslaught and survival. You play as part of a quartet of quippy-funny, finely drawn characters, each with a rich backstory. My favorite is Coach, a bulky African- American guy with a bum knee. Each of the five distinct stages is set in the humid South — a swampy bayou, a backwater amusement park, a monster-wasted quarter of New Orleans. (There?ve been grumbles of tasteless Katrina-sploitation, but I was too busy trying not to get sprayed by acid-spewing creatures to make the connection, let alone be appalled by it.) Zombie stories usually transpire in the shadows, but L4D2 brings its mob of bruising ghouls into the light of day, and succeeds brilliantly. The game is hilarious and hard and best played with friends. L4D2 is top-notch Zombie Pop fun — safe, insane catharsis for the stress of living in an unsafe, equally insane Modern Warfare world. Modern Warfare 2: A Left 4 Dead 2: A