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I picked up a budget-priced Xbox 360 Platinum Hits edition of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 (a.k.a. GRAW2) on a whim this past Sunday, opisthorchiasis as I had some spare cash in my wallet and the hankering for a decent “realistic” shooter game.
Tactical shooters — in which frantic run-and-gun antics are eschewed in favor of methodical planning and squad management — aren’t usually my cup of tea. I play videogames to escape from the petty drudgeries of everyday life, not to play shift manager to some virtual paramilitary franchise.
To its credit, and my pleasant surprise, GRAW2 was able to streamline the tedious micromanagement aspects I associate with the genre. Squad and support commands are fluid, intuitive, and can even be ignored altogether if you’re the type who prefers a “lone wolf” approach.
As a result, the single-player campaign is a highly entertaining series of tactical puzzles in the form of firefights, punctuated with a couple of vehicular “rail” shooter sequences, in which a team of American cover-ops “Ghosts” employs a selection of toys from the DARPA wish book to wage an oversight-free battle against evildoers.
Mexican evildoers, to boot, as the game is set in and around the border city of Juarez, a major hotspot in a hypothetical civil war between the Mexican government and a rebel movement opposed to globalization. It’s not that far-fetched a scenario, given the Zapatista uprisings and the ongoing instability caused by the local criminal cartels. (It also didn’t escape my notice that the desert wilderness and urban ruins of a fictionalized Mexico make passable analogues for real-life scenarios that might be a little too controversial for the public to swallow.)
Not that I was expecting nuance from an official Tom ClancyTM product. I read The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising when I was in high school, in those crazy days before Clancy limited his output to signatures on the bottom of licensing contracts. Even though the balls of my geopolitical awareness hadn’t yet dropped, I found the novels to be vaguely offputting fetishizations of American military-industrial know-how. The books represent the Cold War not as a stochastic danger zone, but as the dry transcript of the Rand Corporation’s Dungeons & Dragons night…only with Jane’s Guides used in the place of the Monster Manual. (“The Abrams has a better effective range than a T-80, so therefore the Rhine will automatically be secure!”)
That weird atmosphere of unreality, heightened through earnest attempts toward “authenticity,” does pervade the in-game world of GRAW2 from the very beginning, but the other, clunkier shoe doesn’t drop until an hour or so into the single-player campaign.
The Mexican rebels who hate America, NAFTA, and some pending regional security pact (also know as “Let the U.S. Military Fuck Around in Your Country at Will Treaty”) turn out to be part of a wider Central American revolutionary movement that has taken control of the Panama Canal, some Pakistani missiles, and some “missing” Soviet nuclear warheads.
It was around the time that the rebels invaded El Paso (because everyone called in sick at Ft. Bliss that day, I guess) in order to shut down America’s totally functional missile defense system that I realized that I was witnessing neo-con porn at its most hardcore. The plethora of threats from folks who hate America for its awesomness, the glorification of “off the books” military action, the bombastic portrayal of WMD threats that overlooks the more chillingly mundane reality — all the planks of the platform were laid down nice and tidy. The digs at congressional vacillation and the the liberal media were just icing on the exceptionalist cake.
When a giant American flag appeared in the background during a helicopter chase sequence, I shot a mouthful of ice tea out of my nose.
A dash of self-awareness could have mitigated the absurdity, but the game insists on playing it straight throughout in what might be the most astonishing bit of unintentional parody ever created. It extends right down to the in-game dialogue and characterizations, which were lifted verbatim from Bruckheimer’s Omnibus of Action Movie Cliches.
The protagonist, Ghost Recon field leader Scott Mitchell (Clancyese for “Dirk Hardbody”), is a hard-nosed, tough as nails sonuvabitch who bears an uncanny resemblance to Master Man and speaks in the constipated grunt that has become the default voice for modern action heroes. (Real men don’t eat fiber-rich foods, apparently.)
Here’s a (slighly paraphrased) sample exchange between Mitchell and his peers:
WMD Guy: Feels like old times, Captain!
Mitchell: If by “old times,” you mean “Mexico City, three days ago.”
General: “IF YOU TWO ARE DONE WITH THE LOVEFEST, WE HAVE A MISSION TO CONDUCT!”
The General in the above dialogue is Mitchell’s commanding officer, and the real star of the game. He combines the looks of Douglas MacArthur (right down to the indoor sunglasses) with the oratory skills of “Macho Man” Randy Savage (though a trifle less restrained).
For someone who chose a career in a field where unpredictability is the norm, the General has a very difficult time accepting that events on the ground are subject to change and is prone to screaming “UNACCEPTABLE!” through the comm-link when bad news arises. He also possesses keen powers of deduction, as shown in his late-game realization that “missile + warhead + offline missile defense = rebels planning a nuclear missile strike on the United States.” I’m certainly going to sleep better at night knowing such a rare genius is looking out for my safety.
As a game, GRAW2 is a well-crafted diversion capable of generating an afternoon’s worth of entertainment. As a popcult artifact, however, it is a surreal glimpse into a fantasy world that operated as reality for the better part of a decade. Quaint and farcical, yes, but still profoundly disturbing to behold.