Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360)

What more can be said about the so-called largest entertainment launch in the history of mankind?

It's tempting to boil down Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to a vaporous obligation, an experience that divides gamers into the haves and have-nots. But that's putting blind faith in a product based on its advertising blitzkrieg. Aren't we supposed to be discerning consumers?

The climate around Modern Warfare 2 is now adequate, a month after release, for a steady-handed dissection of gaming's latest chart-topping champion -- far removed from the pre-release hype. This critique won't convert the detractors or embolden the fanatics, but it will hopefully read as an alternative education on the latest Call of Duty, a game that flirts with failure as much as it tastes success.

War. War never changes.

We're now at the sixth main entry in the Call of Duty franchise and the second Modern Warfare title. The games have upped the adrenaline in each release (including CoD substitute developer Treyarch's Call of Duty 3 and CoD: World at War), and at this point the franchise can almost out-Michael Bay the actual Michael Bay. But is this what we want? Yes, according to the numbers and charts. Modern Warfare 2 is exactly what gamers want, and want more of. And that's precisely what we'll be getting. Case in point: Electronic Arts has jumped back into the big budget FPS arena, and they're out for blood with a "me too!" modernized Medal of Honor title set for release in 2010.

To be fair, I've never wanted the Call of Duty series to be anything but a set of flawlessly produced cinematic action games. Infinity Ward was founded under that mindset when key members of 2015, Inc., the studio behind Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, split from Electronic Arts to make games their way. From the beginning, Infinity Ward wanted to outdo Medal of Honor, the most movie-like shooter series in the early 2000s.

The most hardcore ride to a paintball match, ever.

There's no doubt that Modern Warfare 2's filmic set pieces will stick with me. From outer space to suburban Virginia, to Pacific Ocean oil platforms and the Middle East, this is quite the Carmen Sandiego (or Matt Lauer) treatment. I applaud Infinity Ward and Modern Warfare 1 and 2 writer Jesse Stern for taking such a risk by juggling multiple locales in a brief, six-hour campaign. However, the spastic story makes for forgettable personal interactions amongst the more memorable explosions. I don't exactly care that Soap is back. I wasn't floored by the surprise return of a main character from Call of Duty 4. New characters like Ghost are cookie-cutter archetypes seen too many times before. And I certainly can't forgive recycling the "Let's shoot this player character in the face to kill him off" plot mechanic. The twists in Modern Warfare 1 worked because of their initial shock value. No one expected the nuke to actually go off and kill Sgt. Paul Jackson. But thanks to Call of Duty 4, the expectation of death appearing at any moment during Modern Warfare 2 dissolves what was once a clever tool. Stern and the other writers might find this life-and-death uncertainty to be "emotionally charged," but it instead comes off as simplistic and tired.

While I don't expect deep, philosophical pondering from Call of Duty, I do expect the series to show me things I've never seen in a videogame before. And in that regard Modern Warfare 2 more than succeeded. I'd never felt so uneasy playing a game as I did when firing on civilians in "No Russian." I've never dodged a land mine in slow motion before. I also can't say I've pushed through a crowd of enemies with a riot shield. And I certainly haven't breached and cleared, in slow motion, a room filled with explosive barrels and terrorists guarding hostages. Modern Warfare 2 is simply bursting with numerous classic moments like these.

Then why am I so frustrated at the single player story? Because this is the industry's future. This is what we encourage; because we're addicted. We think that as long as the gameplay is tight it doesn't matter if the story is weak. Infinity Ward can't be faulted for being good at what they do, and this review is no place to sit in my tower of perceived superiority, but gamers aren't advancing the medium forward -- they're hindering it. Astronomical sales beget more games like Modern Warfare 2, which sounds absolutely fine in the short term. But when you consider the uneven plot of Modern Warfare 2, and realize this was just a giant action flick, the potential for more of it makes my enthusiasm slip into apathy.

Infinity Ward's next project: a realistic remake of Ice Climbers.

Still, Modern Warfare 2 was fun. Pure can't-put-it-down-even-though-it's-3 a.m. fun. I finished the campaign twice, once on Veteran even, and marveled at the visceral gameplay both times. Infinity Ward is at the top of its game with the latest in the franchise. But is this all we want from our sequels? Just because something was "badass" doesn't mean it's worthwhile. Games like Modern Warfare 2 -- all flash and polish -- are brittle, fleeting even. These games do well until the sequel comes along. Because think about it: Will Modern Warfare 2 be a replayable game 10 years from now, a game that will defy age and achieve a Tetris-like status? The recent Call of Duty 1 re-release on Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network has brought up this question, as reviewers tend to comment that the game, while an impressive feat of development during its time, hasn't aged well. The original title is still playable, but its impact today is in showing us how far gaming has come in six years. So I'm sure Modern Warfare 2 will play well years from now. But who's going to care when we're pre-ordering Call of Duty: Future Warfare 5?

Some gamers might fail to see my point in criticizing Modern Warfare 2, and will likely say I'm overreacting or being hypocritical. I'm aware sequels are what drive the industry, and more of a high-quality series is generally a joyous thing. But that's why I feel a few jabs at Modern Warfare 2 are warranted: We need to expect more from these $60 blockbusters, so why not start with the current king? Asking little of talented people is ruining a portion of the film industry, where cheap remakes and bare-minimum sequels are encouraged by ignorant audiences.

Then again, a lot of Call of Duty players don't care what either Infinity Ward or Treyarch do with their stories. It fascinates me that many of Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer gamers haven't finished the campaign. Try checking random players' Modern Warfare 2 achievements: some haven't even progressed past "The Pit."

Plot is only a back-of-the-box feature to these types, something read but never experienced. They just want the multiplayer.

Looks like someone's finally taking out the Whale Wars crew.

Back in the saddle (on a slightly different horse).

If you loved Call of Duty 4's genius multiplayer, be thankful: Modern Warfare 2 adds enough to the same experience to feel new again. The riot shield, third-person perspective matches, death streak rewards and customized killstreaks are the most impressive additions, and each helps you feel even more in control of your online soldier.

And despite a recent crop of frustratingly abundant bugs, multiplayer remains a major reason to purchase the game. You still gain experience, you still make your own classes and you still unlock new weapons and perks on your way to the increased level cap of 70. Infinity Ward took a risk and failed with its handling of the single player plot; however, they built upon the strengths of Call of Duty 4's online portion to improve the original concept.

The pull of Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer is strong at first. Playing with friends every day can encourage an extreme investment in the process of ranking up to keep up; unlocking gear, tweaking perks, testing attachments and completing challenges can melt the hours away. It's so fast-paced that there's rarely time to realize you're trudging through frustration and anger for a small bit of satisfaction via the occasional killstreak or "Oh man, did you see that?" moment.

I only start losing interest once I've played the same maps, killed the same classes and defeated the same tactics hundreds of times. So I'd be ignorant if I didn't recognize how much value Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer mode has when I've played it for nearly three days total. It's expected that the well will run dry after so many return trips.

But Call of Duty multiplayer is frustratingly ironic in its insistence on rewarding the lone wolf player. The gameplay is too fast -- too hectic -- to provide the sense of camaraderie Infinity Ward wants in its single player campaigns; originally in opposition to Medal of Honor and its invincible soldier defeating battalions of enemies alone. Online players with the most kills in the first two Call of Duty games were those who didn't work with their teammates -- opting instead to hide, camp and snipe. The same mentality applied to Call of Duty 4, and continues to apply to its sequel. While I do believe an organized clan can dominate any battlefield situation online, Call of Duty team games have never felt truly organized.

So to fill the co-op gap in their own Call of Duty titles, Infinity Ward took cues from Treyarch's Nazi Zombies to create the new Special Ops mode. The result is my absolute favorite part of Modern Warfare 2.

Spring Break 2009: Overdressed at Lake Havasu!

Table for two.

Special Ops is a one to two player co-op mode containing 23 missions split into military alphabet categories, ascending in difficulty from Alpha through Echo. The goal is to collect all 69 stars (I hope someone at Infinity Ward is proud of that), which are rewarded based on the difficulty each mission is completed on -- one for Regular, two for Hardened, three for Veteran. Missions pull from locales seen in the single player campaign, meaning there are snowmobile races, stealth missions, blow-up-everything challenges and extremely difficult breach and clear tasks to name a few.

I have a hunch this is the future of Call of Duty, or at least a very important part of its growth. In a way, Special Ops feels like a series of tiny user-created mods for a PC title like Operation Flashpoint or ArmA II. You and your partner actually rely on each other to beat these challenges, and it's imperative to keep an open line of communication and plan your tactics in advance. All of the current missions are substantial enough to take a week or two to complete at Veteran difficulty.

Cooperative gameplay is extremely popular right now, but Special Ops manages to cement its own place amongst a slew of similar experiences. It isn't Left 4 Dead, it isn't horde mode and it certainly isn't Nazi Zombies. Those examples encourage a sort of long form experience; horde mode and Nazi Zombies have checkpoints within a persistent gameplay session, and the Left 4 Dead games are about working toward an end goal across multiple chapters. As an alternative, Special Ops missions can be finished in anywhere from two to 15 minutes depending on the specific task and your pacing. Each mission is independent from the others within its difficulty class (i.e., don't expect to see two snowmobile races on Bravo's list). It's such a fast mode that I can see doing one or two of these with your pal during a lunch break from work -- assuming you work near your home, or have an amazing boss who lets you play your console at work.

Infinity Ward's unique take on co-op gaming is a welcome surprise considering the studio's pedigree of making gigantic scenarios to showcase their development skills. Say hello to "micro-op" gameplay.

Soap!

All things considered, Modern Warfare 2 is a behemoth of a game. And while I do believe it will easily be replaced by its eventual sequel, I can't pretend like it didn't provide hours of entertainment. Be it my fleeting addiction to the multiplayer or the clever co-op of Special Ops, there's a lot to like about the latest Call of Duty. Let's just hope Modern Warfare 3 finds Infinity Ward able to write a story just as impressive as the graphics engine will be.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is available for a suggested retail price of $59.99 on the Xbox 360, PC and PS3. The reviewer reached 100% completion on both the campaign and Special Ops modes, and registered nearly three days worth of time played in multiplayer. He feels slightly embarrassed by that fact. A copy was given to the reviewer as a gift by an independent party.

Recommended for:

  • Call of Duty diehards, of course
  • Shooter fans
  • Multiplayer enthusiasts who like RPG elements
  • Activision would want me to say "everyone," right? Well, practically everyone bought it already.
  • Special Ops

Not Recommended for:

  • Those who appreciate good writing
  • Gamers tired of another batch of bombs, bullets and buddies fighting the good fight
  • Anyone who hasn't cared about Call of Duty up to this point -- MW2 isn't enough to convince you to join the masses

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