Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

November 17, 2009, Author: Brian Gourlay

When Modern Warfare 2 came through my letterbox, I have to admit I felt a bit conflicted. I mean, the hype machine for this game has been gathering pace for a period of time I genuinely can’t remember ever having happened before. We’ve had controversy about the retail price, dedicated servers, digital distribution and civilian massacre, but pre-orders poured in all the same and it all culminated in a supermarket price war and a movie style premiere with Dizzee Rascal DJing. This isn’t a game, it’s a monstrous year long fire breathing media circus that’s actually consumed the product it was trying to promote. So I have to admit I was a bit skeptical as to whether the game, or any game in fact, could possibly live up to the frenzied hype that Activision had so ably whipped up.

Of course it doesn’t, the only way it could would be if Spec Ops turned out to be a simulated boxing match against the X Factor judges. Where my gloves were filled with hammers… and they didn’t have any protective armour… and they were all tied to chairs. Unrealistic ambitions aside, Modern Warfare 2 had built up so much hype that there would be uproar if it was just an out of the box extension to the first game. Even though it would still be an improvement over World at War if it was, how much actually has changed since Soap MacTavish was airlifted out of Russia all those years ago?

Return of the Duty
For the first time in the Call of Duty series, Modern Warfare 2 is a direct continuation of another game in the series. This means most of the characters who were left alive at the end of the first game (although admittedly there weren’t many) return here. The main thread of the plot is told from the perspective of Sergeant Gary Sanderson, also rather unfortunately known as Roach, who is part of Task Force 141, essentially a renamed Rainbow Six.

You’ll also take control of Private Ramirez, a squad member of a team of U.S. Rangers who are dealing with a conflict on the east coast of America; these sections take up around the same chunk of the overall gameplay as the US Marines missions in the original Modern Warfare. Task Force 141 is led by Captain “Soap” MacTavish, the protagonist from Modern Warfare, and they’ve been tasked with jetsetting around the globe to bring Vladimir Makarov to justice. Makarov used to serve under Imran Zakhaev, who Soap popped in the head at the end of the first game. Keeping up so far soldier? Good.

Infinity Ward have just about struck the right balance of new characters and fan favourites from the first game (ALL of them, wink wink etc. etc.) with a bit of an over reliance on already established characters. MacTavish, ridiculous mohawk aside, is an outrageously badass character (and not just because he’s Scottish!), and it’s cool to see the rookie you controlled in the first game bossing you around and just generally being awesome. Makarov also fits the bill of maniacal evil doer very well, early on in the game you’re given a pretty lengthy and bloody insight into just what he will do to further his cause (I’m sure you’ve heard of the airport mission) and why you have to stop him. Modern Warfare 2’s cast is just as strong, if not stronger than the original, and lightyears ahead of Jack Bauer and friends in World at War.

Sure, the characters aren’t exactly deep (apart from a few very well executed twists) and most fall into uber macho caricatures, but the dialogue is immaculately written and voiced, and pretty much every member of the Task Force gets to perform one act of ultimate badassery to get you to fall in love with them. Or in the case of Soap, about 90 acts of ultimate badassery. Trust me, taking out a snowmobile driver with an ice pick was just (don’t say it Brian, don’t say it godammit!) the tip of the iceberg (You moron).


"This still beats a night out in Glasgow"

The story itself is quite frankly bonkers. The amount of twists, turns, deceptive location changes, and of course acts of ultimate badassery that are crammed into the disappointingly brief runtime is really quite dizzying at times. The sheer frantic pace of the story progression makes it difficult to really take stock of everything that’s going on at times. The briefing style cut-scenes do help a lot to give your current mission a bit more context, but I often found myself too flabbergasted at recent events to actually comprehend on what was being said half of the time.

Overall, while the actual plotline is only marginally more sophisticated than a Michael Bay film and only acts as a way to get you from one epic gunfight to the next, the narrative is pretty satisfying. The characters and dialogue in particular are a textbook example of cinematic presentation. It could even be said that a lot of the set pieces that the game relies on so much would have fallen flat if it weren’t for the intensity that is achieved thanks to the excellent dialogue that is peppered among them, but thankfully that’s nowhere near the case.

A quick note about the airport mission that is hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. This entire section is the catalyst for the story as a whole, and it certainly packs a punch with the end in particular coming as a shock. However, it is in very bad taste and the fact that there are warnings regarding the mission shows that Infinity Ward were aware of this. I wasn’t absolutely outraged in the way that Keith Vaz pretends to be to get his name in the news, but whilst I can see an argument for including the mission, for the sake of avoiding the controversy the mission could easily have been altogether less gratuitous.

It’s bigger, badder… and a little bit bigger still
As with every Call of Duty, pretty much the entire experience in Modern Warfare 2 is heavily scripted. It’s actually pretty amazing that they’ve managed to get away with it for so long, since there’s a very noticable lack of dynamic AI. Enemies will get behind cover and run away from grenades, but other than that you really just move from one scripted set piece to the next.

So just why has there not been an absolute uproar about this lack of innovation? The fact is, every set piece is so explosive, intense and most significantly, exceptionally well presented (and disguised) that you’ll often find yourself in awe at the visual and aural feast that you’re experiencing rather than noticing that the enemies act in the same way every single time you play. There’s no evidence of the “actors” in each scenario getting into position, everything has in fact been controlled so tightly that each scene seems to be entirely natural and real, although there’s usually a distinct “trigger, content and end” to each set piece which can be quite transparent sometimes.

It’s obvious that Infinity Ward are much better in this aspect than Treyarch however since the cracks were embarrassingly plain to see in World at War. Modern Warfare 2 is still guilty of putting you in those notorious infinite enemy spawn point situations, but they’re few, far between and organised so that you’ll very rarely find yourself having to rush into enemy fire just to get the endless well of bad guys to dry up.

The set pieces themselves are absolutely exhilarating, with so much military hardware thrown into the mix that they look like a combination of Rambo, Transformers 2 and every Command and Conquer game ever released. The scripted events in Modern Warfare, despite not bringing anything new to the genre, were critically acclaimed for how well they came across  and Modern Warfare 2 expands on this in most ways. As you’d expect, there are more explosions, more spectacular deaths and in general everything is bigger and flashier.

There’s also a bit more variety in each section now, although nothing that deviates from the tried and tested formula too much. Within an hour you’ll have fought Afghan militia in an abandoned school, played through the stealthy Cliffhanger mission which has been doing the rounds for a while now (which is just as much fun as I hoped it would be) and played the now infamous airport mission. A few vehicle sections have also been included and while they’re more than passable, I think Infinity Ward have understood it’s not why anyone wants to play the game, so they’re pretty quick and painless as a result. While mixing up the methods of killing is a welcome change, I think the biggest improvement when it comes to the action is down to the environments themselves.


All of the best plans start with "Quick! Towards the flaming castle!"

In most of the missions the level design, while still forcing you down certain paths and bottlenecks, are more expansive and open. The first example of this is Soap and Roach’s adventure in the Antarctic, but the blizzard still makes everything feel a bit claustrophobic. Soon after that however you’re defending a village outside of Washington D.C. and the size of this level enables a lot more scope for sneaky flanking moves and thinking on your feet. These kind of sections show up a few times in the game, and while the corridor style gunplay is still most prevalent throughout, it’s nice to have them broken up with a bit of open ended warfare. The locations in the game are also nicely varied thanks to Task Force 141 jetting around the globe in search of Makarov. From the streets of Afghanistan to the suburbs of America and even a short section in space (!), every level is thoughtfully laid out and packed with lots of little details to admire when you’re not getting shot at.

Speaking of getting shot at, there’s also a pretty wide ranging arsenal of toys that have been put at your disposal to return fire with. Most of the new weapons are massively destructive, and my personal favourite is the Predator missile, which you get to direct towards enemies as it falls from the sky. Small arms also seem to pack a bit more of a punch now; they make more of a bang, give off more of a kick and the newly more destructible environments make them seem more satisfyingly powerful. In the theme of being part of a ragtag group of Rambo clones, you can also dual wield certain weapons. At first I treated this with an exasperated “Wow”, but to be honest it just seems a bit out of place. I imagine anyone who jumps into an urban conflict on the streets of Brazil with sawn off shotguns akimbo isn’t going to last long. Sure it adds to the cinematic grandeur of it all, but this isn’t Max Payne guys.

When it comes to FPS games, as far as I’m concerned the only way to get the full experience is to play it on the hardest difficulty. On Modern Warfare 2 this is a bit of a prickly issue, since Veteran difficulty is so difficult at times that it borders on being just plain cheap. I’ve no problem with being killed after one or two shots, I appreciate that kind of realism; I do however have a problem with enemies being damn near omniscient and unerringly accurate. There have been plenty of times when I would try to sneak into a good position, only to find every single Russian soldier training their guns at me before I’ve even got into sight. It’s not so much of an issue in the midst of an open ended conflict, but when it comes to the scripted events I often found myself only progressing through trial and error, which is never a fun experience. Even getting hit once often results in a downward spiral towards a less than glamorous death. The screen gets washed out in obstructive blood pattern, making it difficult to see a foot in front of you, never mind the guy who is popping you full of lead. There’s been many times when I’ve taken a glancing shot to the foot, only to blindly run into an enemy killzone as the screen became a sea of blurry red. While playing on Veteran is still a rewarding experience, it’s a shame that Infinity Ward decided to mask the lack of sophisticated enemy intelligence by just turning them into god-like killing machines.

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