Reviewed: November 10, 2009
Released: November 10, 2009
Six years ago Infinity Ward launched what would become the greatest FPS franchise in the history of gaming. Since then the torch has been passed around to other studios, most notably, Treyarch, and Call of Duty has made some sort of appearance on every console, PC, and handheld available. You can even play it on your phone. The one consistent theme throughout was the semi-factual portrayal of events from WWII, but Infinity Ward changed all that in 2007 with their release of Modern Warfare, taking us out of the history books and into the headlines of tomorrow’s newspaper.
Modern Warfare featured modern day soldiers in modern day settings using modern (almost futuristic) weapons. It brought a breath of fresh air to the franchise; grabbing gamers with a story and missions that could actually be taking place overseas at the very moment they were playing the game. It also introduced a whole new multiplayer experience complete with ranks and perks, a system so elaborate and engaging that thousands are still playing Modern Warfare online even as you read this.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has finally launched and millions of gamers are being called back to active duty to pick up where Modern Warfare ended. This is the first time the series has seen a direct sequel, but even if you have never played the original, you are still given a brief recap of events before you are deposited in the training mission boot camp level.
Before we go any further let me get my one and only complaint with the game out of the way. I found the story in Modern Warfare 2 to be extremely minimal and incoherent, almost an afterthought. Throughout the single-player campaign you are bounced around the world, playing multiple characters in multiple locations with very little narrative other than the mission briefings and some introductory text that appears when the missions begin. For those who require no backstory to their killing spree, this won’t be a problem, but personally, I enjoy a good story and Modern Warfare 2 is probably the weakest of the franchise, despite the one or two “holy shit” revelations during the campaign.
But back to boot camp. Here, you will learn (or get a refresher course) on how to shoot correctly, and navigate a clever obstacle course with pop-up targets of good and bad guys that you must identify and shoot. Your performance here will dictate the recommended skill setting for the game, which you are free to override. It's still amusing to see the game actually try to talk you out of playing on Veteran. It’s also around this time that you will get another foreboding question – something about the option to skip some upcoming missions that may be “too disturbing”, even for the M-rated target audience. For those who haven’t seen the leaked footage or read all the hoopla about these scenes I won’t spoil your surprise, but I do encourage you to not turn this off or skip these scenes. They are the most through-provoking and disturbing moments in my 30 years of gaming and probably the closest you may ever come to matching some of the emotions our real soldiers experience on a daily basis.
The single player campaign is divided into three acts with 18 missions and a special Museum bonus level after the credits. On Normal the game took me just over 8 hours to finish and you can expect 10-12 hours on Hard. I can only guess that Veteran will be at least a 20-hour challenge, as I have already identified and am dreading some incredibly tough battles that lie ahead.
For those with an eagle eye for detail, there are 40+ pieces of Intel scattered about the game. I’m ashamed to admit that after two passes through the story I hadn’t found a single piece, and even after being told where the first Intel was (on the boot camp level) it still took me two minutes to find. I’m not a big fan of Easter egg hunts, especially when those hunts take you out of the emotional level of the moment, so I would reserve these quests to separate and dedicated play-throughs with a strategy guide, and only if you really care about the achievements.
Modern Warfare 2 brings the battle home with a full-scale invasion of the U.S. Fans of the movie “Red Dawn” will certainly enjoy their chance to defend American soil as well as the local burger joint and an upper-middle-class neighborhood not to mention, Washington D.C. Meanwhile, other forces are at work plotting an elaborate jailbreak and tackling the Russian terrorist threat from other angles. This is where the mission structure starts to interlace and the story starts to fall apart. Every mission in every chapter is stunning, like an entire movie made up of action set pieces, but much like those summer action blockbusters, the story can get lost in the spectacle.
Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t really advance the genre or build upon the gameplay basics of the previous game. Instead, it merely refines the controls and tweaks the AI to offer a much more realistic experience than we’ve ever seen before. Part of this has to do with level design. We now find ourselves in much more common and relatable environments. We feel just as “at home” defending the local strip mall, as we feel alienated and slightly paranoid when making our way through the troubled streets of some foreign urban warfare zone where any seemingly innocent bystander can pop-up behind a fruit stand with an AK-47. The settings dictate the tone, which in turn dictates your strategy and the way you play the game.
Infinity Ward breaks up the traditional on-foot gameplay with a couple of stealth levels complete with ghillie suit, one in sand and one in snow, and even some vehicle moments riding shotgun in a Humvee, hanging out the side of a chopper for an aerial assault on a prison fortress, and even an exciting zodiac chase down some whitewater rapids.
I was disappointed that Infinity Ward chose not to offer a cooperative campaign, especially after Treyarch proved how enjoyable it could be in World at War. Instead, Modern Warfare 2 gives us Special Ops missions. These are short but challenging scenarios that you can play alone or team up with a friend online or in split-screen mode. Having tried both I seriously recommend you play with a friend, especially on Veteran. Playing cooperatively gives you the advantage of healing each other, provided you can crawl back into physical contact range within the allotted time, however if you both die, it’s mission over.
Spec Ops missions reward you with one to three stars based on your chosen difficulty level, or based on completion time in events such as the obstacle course in The Pit, or the snowmobile race in Race. There are five groups of challenges ranging from Alpha to Echo, each with five challenges, except for Echo that only has three, but those are the toughest three in the game. The gameplay potential with these missions is endless, especially when you factor in the missions where one person is navigating hostile territory on foot while your partner provides air support from an AC-130 or a low-flying attack chopper. The level of coordination, cooperation, and communication required is only matched by doing this in real life.
Competitive and team-based multiplayer gets a huge boost in content, almost to the point of absurdity. With 17 custom multiplayer maps, 14 game modes, most of which have to be unlocked by ranking up, there is no shortage of potential, and by trickling the content based on rank, they will definitely keep you playing. When was the last time CTF was locked until you reached level 16 in a multiplayer game?
Fans of collectibles will be in heaven with 22 pages of unlockable artwork, emblems, and insignia that can be combined to create your own custom Call Sign. Since nearly everything you do in this game earns you some sort of kudos there are hundreds of call sign components you can unlock through gameplay allowing infinite call sign designs, so get creative.
If you loved the kill streaks from Modern Warfare you’ll love the expanded kill streaks that kick in when you pass level 10 and can unlock new rewards when you exceed that three-kill mark. Four kills in a row earn you an airdropped Care Package. Toss out some smoke and a chopper swoops in with a box of goodies, ammo, or some other random reward. Just make sure you get the contents before the enemy does. Things get really hot when you nail that fifth kill and can launch a Predator Missile then steer it toward your opponents using a nose-cam view. It only gets bigger and better from there. Seven kills gets you a Harrier Strike, nine kills gets you a stealth bomber attack, 11 puts you in an AC-130, and if you can make it to 25 kills you get your own tactical nuke. Thankfully, kills earned during your kill streak don’t apply toward your next.
On the other end of the spectrum are Death Streaks, which are rewarding when you continually die with no kills. This is a great system that gives newcomers or players who just suck a small reward when they find themselves outmatched, and it is not nearly as easy to abuse as the old Martyrdom system from the original Modern Warfare. Copycat is the primary reward after three deaths and no kills. This allows you to play with all the weapons and perks of the character who just killed you, even if you haven’t earned those rewards for yourself. Painkiller gives you a 10-second boost to your health after you spawn back into the game just in case the enemy is waiting for you.
Perks are bigger and better and there are more of them including new Pro Perks. Each Perk has a challenge associated with it and when you complete that challenge you unlock the pro version that makes it even better than before. The sheer number and variety of perks is far beyond the scope of this review and better left for your own discovery. You won’t be disappointed.
The standard experience system is in place that allows you to rank up through skillful gameplay. The better you do, the faster you rank up, and when you hit level 70 you have the option to Prestige and do it all over again with the notoriety of having done it once before. Rank is a key component in unlocking new content at nearly every level of gameplay. Even in Spec Ops, you must earn stars to unlock new and more difficult ops. If you found the challenge and potential of the original Modern Warfare seemingly endless, you haven’t seen anything yet.
When it comes to presentation Call of Duty has always impressed but it wasn’t until the first Modern Warfare where gameplay truly approached the realm of being photorealistic. The same can be said for Modern Warfare 2 only to a much higher degree with expert character modeling and fluid animation so rich in detail you can see gear and weapons being independently animated with real-time physics. I was surprised to find that the game actually supported 1080p (not many non-Sony games do), but sadly, this resolution presents a few hiccups in the framerate that you won't find on the 360.
The environments are stunning, some approaching postcard quality. The first time I did the stealth mission in the snowy forest I was blown away by the mountains and the pine trees coated with snow. Other levels like the suburban missions in the U.S. and the Washington D.C. missions with shattered monuments and fiery red skies are as disturbing as they are spectacular. Cutscenes are equally as momentous using game-engine graphics that seamlessly end with live gameplay. There are plenty of high-tech mission briefing screens, always in a state of motion with panning maps and scrolling text, just like you would see in a major movie or a pentagon briefing room or command center.
Lighting and special effects are on full display with excellent use of night vision goggles and infrared cameras on the AC-130. The visual effect for the riot shield is amazing with bullet holes like refract the light and distort the image, and the new blood effect when you take damage has to be seen to be believed. It is so much better than just having the screen tint to red. The blood droplets actually impede your view.
Sound effects are as good as ever, probably better if its possible to top the perfection that was Modern Warfare. Battle chatter is still in effect allowing you to hear the enemy as well as your own troops. This system has and continues to offer total immersion in the battle experience. There is plenty of radio chatter from your squad and HQ that will guide you through the mission and push you toward additional objectives.
The true awesomeness lies in the accurate acoustical representation of each and every firearm depicted in the game. While I have never heard these fired in real-life I am assured that the guys at Infinity Ward have, and they got to record them all in glorious detail. The sounds are so real that the trained ear will quickly learn when the enemy is firing an AK-47 at you just from the sound it makes. The Dolby Digital sound placement is so exact and perfect it will dazzle you with its realism. This is some of the best sound design you have ever heard, placing you smack in the middle of the war. And nothing can prepare you for the epic score that Hans Zimmer has created for the single player campaign. This is cinematic gaming at its finest.
Trophy hunters will be interested to learn that you won’t have to venture online to add to your gamer score. All of the Trophies can be earned in the campaign mode playing on the various difficulties. There are a few Trophies for Spec Ops and those missions are certainly easier to complete with a partner, especially on Veteran.
No one is trying to hide the fact that this game was developed first and foremost for the Xbox 360. Even the PC version falls short of Microsoft's console version, but the PS3 is a near-perfect match of the 360. I did have some issues with the online multiplayer as far as the speed of matchmaking and the flow of gameplay. There was certainly more lag (not much but some) on the PS3 and the voice chat was garbled quite a bit, but I mute everybody but my friends anyway. It all comes down to what system you own and which system you have the most friends to play with or against.
This concludes your debriefing on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. To recap, the story is minimal at best and really doesn’t offer anything in the way of a compelling narrative, but you will no less be driven to play through mission after mission, act after act with an almost blind obsession just to see what they throw at you next. Infinity Ward delivers the “greatest hits” of action movies with references to Cliffhanger, Red Dawn, The Rock, and even Spies Like Us. You’re fighting in the arctic one minute and crossing the desert the next, or you might be performing a rescue operation on a terrorist-controlled offshore oil platform or infiltrating a Russian submarine base. Who knows? Just hang on for the ride of your life in what is easily the best game of 2009 and perhaps the most anticipated title in gaming history.