Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was, in a word, superlative. Fawned over by critics and rabidly defended by its massive fanbase, the game was an instant blockbuster that topped sales charts and spawned an online community the likes of which are rarely seen outside of timeless classics like Counter-Strike and StarCraft. Developer Infinity Ward is aware of the microscope that Modern Warfare 2 is under. Only a few flaws show up under even the greatest scrutiny, though. Modern Warfare 2 is an unqualified triumph.
MW2 takes the concept of action-packed first-person combat, plops a live grenade at its feet, and mows down its friends with an incendiary minigun. If you have time to breathe, it’s because you’re being flanked. Every reload is a tense few seconds of unwelcome defenselessness. Each enemy dispatched yields a surge of adrenaline that soon gives way to fear as his allies eagerly unload in your direction.
To excel, you have to master the use of various tools, starting with smoke grenades, thermal vision, Claymore mines, and Predator drones. It’s extremely helpful to familiarize yourself with each weapon class; assault rifles, LMGs, SMGs, pistols, and explosives all have vital roles. In the co-op Special Ops mode (and the single-player campaign, to a lesser extent), even more diverse skills come into play. Targeting allied support units like Stryker APCs, defending hardpoints with sentry guns, and directing the overwhelming firepower of an AC-130 or helo-mounted minigun are all necessary.
Modern Warfare 2’s competitive multiplayer offering is the soul of iterative design. New ideas arise like third-person play and death streaks, but nothing substantially affects the core gameplay. On the other hand, the tweaks are almost uniformly great. Weapon-specific unlocks, cosmetic titles and callsigns, and upgraded “pro” perks contribute to a dramatic increase in the depth and breadth of persistent progression. The strategic variance of each map invites hours of study and experimentation. Included due to the mountain of feedback, the playlists (preset rotations of maps and modes for groups to play through) offer delightful bouquets of varied-yet-similar gametypes for all tastes.
To get a sense of how the subtle changes to Modern Warfare’s online formula have profound effects, consider Headquarters Pro mode. In the original game, a team simply had to gain uncontested control of the hot zone to earn a point. Now, you’ve got to hold it for a short time to score. With this simple alteration, the mode is about positioning and teamwork rather than twitch skills and a mad rush to the designated spot. Locking down an area for half of a minute is a much different task than briefly clearing it. Infinity Ward went for this kind of change rather than rocking the boat with player-controlled vehicles or some kind of persistent world battlefield, and it works. Modern Warfare is arguably the most beloved online FPS of this generation, and MW2 surpasses it in nearly every way.
The most significant change in this sequel is the addition of two-player co-op in the form of Spec Ops missions. The lack of co-op in the story-based campaign is disappointing, but Spec Ops successfully adapts what Call of Duty does best to a cooperative setting. Most of the missions involve the kind of spectacular setpieces that Infinity Ward is known for, while still capturing the tension of a battle against overwhelming odds. These single-shot challenges range from providing aerial overwatch for a buddy on the ground to assaults on fortified enemy positions and stealthy infiltrations. Since there are no AI companions in Spec Ops, it all comes down to you and your buddy’s skill and rapport. Spec Ops deftly captures the spirit of teamwork that all the best co-op experiences have, from Left 4 Dead to Rainbow Six.
It’s easy enough to storm a collapsing and Russian-infested Golden Gate bridge with a skilled friend at your side on Regular difficulty. Cranking it up to Veteran is much harder, but still very doable. Staying alive on a tight urban street against a dozen swarming, aggressive, flanking foes while waiting for your buddy’s helo to circle back around to a decent firing solution is much harder. Taking down the super-tough Juggernaut enemies (we’re talking multiple assault rifle clips to drop) blitzing your limited cover while being suppressed by snipers and machine gunners is a brutal challenge. Spec Ops offers all this and more. Only elite players will complete all of the Spec Ops scenarios on Veteran. The process is fantastic entertainment regardless of skill level, though.
To a greater extent than the other modes, the campaign suffers from the fact that Modern Warfare’s spectacle has lost a little of its shine. The pacing leaves something to be desired, with some sections feeling like slogs through clearing streets and houses while waiting for the next awesome setpiece. Lackluster ally AI often results in cheap-feeling deaths when your compatriots fail to shoot the guy right in front of them or forget to clear a room they pass. The high points, however, are as powerful and impressive as anything. One particular scene, which I can’t discuss without spoiling, will be one of the defining gaming moments of this year. I would still lay out the purchase price for the single-player campaign, but it’s definitely the least impressive of the three ways to play Modern Warfare 2.
There’s not a lot to complain about here. I still disagree with gaining quantitative advantages via perk upgrades in multiplayer, the AI missteps in the single-player are irritating, and the controversy over the lack of PC dedicated servers is a shame. They’re not anywhere near enough to make more than superficial dents in the game’s overall brilliance, though. Modern Warfare 2 is a masterpiece of careful iteration, with an unmatched presentation and a well of content that will take months to run dry.
Upon starting a new game, players are given the choice to opt out of a morally gray mission with no penalty to their Achievements or Trophies, and with no effect on the story. The option is there for a good reason – the mission in question makes the player a part of truly heinous acts. If you’re on the fence about letting your child play this M-rated game, this will likely push you over the edge. On the other hand, the mission draws the morality of war and espionage into sharp focus in a way that simply shooting the bad guys cannot. It is presented and handled in a mature way that avoids feeling tasteless. By choosing to skip this controversial scene, you’ll be missing the most emotionally affecting moment I’ve experienced in a game this year, and possibly ever. The subject matter is mature in a fashion that goes far beyond a topless lady or a messily curb-stomped alien; it deals with issues like the relative worth of a human life and the idea of heart-rendingly difficult sacrifices for the greater good. If this mission felt in any way exploitative or tasteless, I’d be the first to call for Infinity Ward’s head. The skill with which it is handled in the game, however, makes me proud that our medium can address such weighty issues without resorting to adolescent black-and-white absolutes.
What’s Up With PC?
Infinity Ward says that the PC version is functionally identical to the PS3 and 360 builds that we played for review. However, we were unable to spend hands-on time with the PC game. When we have that opportunity, we will revisit Modern Warfare 2 and publish a separate review if there are any substantial differences. Until then, please consider this our definitive review for all platforms that the game appears on.