Activision has confirmed that the leaked footage of the Modern Warfare 2 opening is authentic (though skippable), and the Australians don't like it one bit. (Again: Spoilers!)
As with before, there are spoilers for MW2 in this post. Read on at your own risk!
Earlier this week, we got a look at some leaked footage of the first playable portion in the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The scenario was, shall we say, controversial - players were put into the shoes of a terrorist attacking an airport, gunning down innocent civilians as they fled in terror for their lives in a brutal and rather disturbing massacre. While many expressed the opinion that this was a hoax - that there was no way Infinity Ward would put something like this in their game - it turns out that it is, in fact, the Real McCoy.
An Activision-Blizzard spokesperson confirmed to VG247 that the sequence was real and provided some context to the mission, though gamers would be given a warning that it would potentially be very disturbing, and would have the option to skip it altogether:
"Yes [it is real]. The scene establishes the depth of evil and the cold bloodedness of a rogue Russian villain and his unit. By establishing that evil, it adds to the urgency of the player's mission to stop them.
"Players have the option of skipping over the scene. At the beginning of the game, there are two 'checkpoints' where the player is advised that some people may find an upcoming segment disturbing. These checkpoints can't be disabled.
"Modern Warfare 2 is a fantasy action game designed for intense, realistic game play that mirrors real life conflicts, much like epic, action movies. It is appropriately rated 18 for violent scenes, which means it is intended for those who are 18 and older."
In and of itself, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. While many may feel uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering civilians like this, that seems to be the entire point of the matter: By asking the player to do something they find reprehensible and unnerving, Infinity Ward strikes a much harder chord in portraying the villain in question as an unmistakably evil foe - arguably much more poignantly than if the developers had simply shown the massacre in a non-playable cutscene. I think it has the potential to be a tremendously successful and memorable sequence of storytelling, quite easily on the same level as the acclaimed "Shock and Awe" mission in the first Modern Warfare.
That said, while I'd like to pat myself on the back for predicting that the sequence "[had] 'moral outrage' written all over it," that's not exactly a hard prediction to make, and it is in fact already happening: Several parties in Australia have raised objections to the sequence, as reported by GamePolitics.
The Australian Council on Children and the Media has called for a review of the game's MA15+ rating, with the group's President Jane Roberts telling Australian news The Age:
The consequences of terrorism are just abhorrent in our community and yet here we are with a product that's meant to be passed off as a leisure time activity, actually promoting what most world leaders speak out publicly against ... We understand that it's a game but ... we're not far off when you look at the images that you could actually put it on a Channel Nine news report and you'd think maybe that is real.
If that material was on the internet about how to become a terrorist, how to join a group and how to wipe out people - that would be removed because it would not be acceptable.
Meanwhile, notorious Aussie lawmaker, South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson - known to many as the main reason why the country lacks a proper 18+ rating - seemed to agree that the sequence promoted terrorism. "Expecting game designers to be responsible by not glorifying terrorism will always lead to disappointment."
On the other hand, some critics were more sensible. Electronic Frontiers Australia spokesperson Nicholas Suzor argued that this sequence highlighted the need for a R18+ rating for videogames. "Films often show the villain's perspective and, by doing that, they get across the character's story and the heinous nature of people who carry out atrocities. Games, too, are becoming more expressive, and are telling more involved stories ... We may make an argument that these sorts of topics are not suitable for children, but I don't at all accept that it is unsuitable for adults."
Suzor, I think, has the most reasonable argument here. I don't think anyone would argue that this sequence is not appropriate for children (despite all those 'Tweens wanting the game for Christmas), but it should certainly be something that adults could cope with. I honestly can't see how Atkinson or Roberts could possibly imagine that this sequence promotes or glorifies terrorism in any way - from what we've seen, the game makes it clear that these are the orders and actions of evil people, and the intention is for the gamer to feel sickened and disgusted, not proud and enthused.
Somehow I get the feeling that this is only the tip of the iceberg - we're not out of the woods yet. As long as no official censures are taken against the game, Activision and Infinity Ward are probably in good shape for the moment - after all, publicity is publicity, and a massive controversy might just get more people to go pick up the game.
Edit: To clarify, Modern Warfare 2 hasn't been refused classification in Australia yet - the review board can't re-review its own submissions; it'd have to be submitted by an external party. For the time being, you'll still be able to buy it when it comes out.