I can't remember a single time in the history of gaming that so many titles cleared the way so as to not compete with one game. You sometimes see this phenomenon occur in film, where movie studios will swap releases around so as to stay out of the way of the summer blockbuster behemoth or the winter Oscar-bait, but it has never happened in gaming … until now. Basically every big game set to be released in November moved into early 2010 in order to clear the way for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and that was likely a wise move. While this may not be the end-all-be-all video game experience, Modern Warfare 2 is a game that dares to be reckoned with, and it has the staying power to keep gamers occupied for a very long time.
MW 2 is set five years after the conclusion of the first game. Unfortunately for our heroes, the Ultranationalists from the first game have seized control of Russia, and Imran Zakhaev is hailed as a hero. Obviously, this adulation has led to simmering hostilities between Russia and the U.S. The spark that truly lights the fire, however, is when an American planted as a spy within the terrorist organization run by Vladimir Makarov is betrayed and killed during an operation at a Russian airport. Blaming the Americans for killing scores of Russians civilians, the nation unleashes a surprise invasion of the U.S., leading to hell breaking loose in and around Washington, DC.
Players will spend the rather brief single-player experience jumping between an Army Ranger platoon and special operations Task Force 141. The Rangers are on the frontlines during the Russian invasion, so their levels play out in a very intense and often close-quarters manner. The Rangers are often sent out to clear vital targets or push through enemy lines, so players will spend most of their time in heavy firefights that never seem to let up. In many ways, these are the more traditional Call of Duty levels, forcing players to face off against seemingly insurmountable odds in pitched battles between the standing armies of two different nations.
The segments featuring Task Force 141 play out quite a bit differently, and this is also where most of the personality can be found. While the Rangers squad is full of generic military grunts, 141 is led by fan favorite "Soap" McTavish, and the members of his squad are just as crazy and lethal as he is. These levels are often slightly more stealth-based, with the player picking off foes from afar or breaching and then clearing rooms before the bad guys get a chance to shoot back. Don't worry, though: There are still plenty of opportunities to fire off a bunch of bullets because things almost always end up going wrong, and you'll be forced to make a desperate last stand more than once.
The single-player in the original Modern Warfare was memorable for two key reasons: the intensity and certain levels that left a deep and lasting impact. While the first ingredient is here once again, the memorable moments are mostly missing, or are memorable for all the wrong reasons. For instance, perhaps two of recent gaming's most impressionable moments occurred in the first game, when players were forced to endure a nuclear blast and then the subsequent death of a main character, and the stage where you took control of the gunner's seat on an AC-130. These were experiences that had really never been done before, and they were hardly the only ones in the game. The kidnapping and execution of a politician (as seen by players through the eyes of the kidnapped man), the attempted assassination of Zakhaev and subsequent desperate flight for safety, and the hits just kept on coming. Sadly, there were really no moments like that in this iteration of the franchise.
Well, that's not entirely true. There is one indelible moment in the game, but it's memorable more for the disgust and crassness than anything else. I'm referring to the airport stage, which has been a source of controversy since it was unveiled. This particular level asks players to engage in the mass murder of innocent civilians while posing as an undercover agent within a terrorist cell. The idea is to show the lengths we must sometimes go to in order to prevent greater tragedies, but I just can't imagine any government with a mole inside an organization allowing an event such as this to be perpetrated. The cold-bloodedness of it all is rather sickening, as is the fact that you are meant to blast injured people as they desperately try to drag themselves to safety. It's one of those moments when you're thankful that game designers are doing something to push the envelope, but you sincerely wish they had done so in a less barbaric manner.
To their credit, though, Infinity Ward and Activision knew this stage would bother some people, so the opportunity to skip it has been built into the game, and for that, I am grateful. While many gamers will likely just remind themselves that this isn't real and there's nothing to be upset about, a level such as this could be genuinely damaging to some folks. Thankfully, those people won't have to experience it and can simply move on to the rest of the game.
Ultimately, the single-player experience in MW 2 is short, intense and somewhat controversial, but it's truly not the main attraction. The original brought RPG elements to the shooter genre, and this brilliant character leveling system has become the new standard. Whereas old shooters were havens for a very select group of hardcore gamers, nearly every new FPS is copying the blueprint laid by Modern Warfare in the hopes of drawing a similar crowd. Wouldn't it stand to reason that Infinity Ward's own sequel would raise the bar in nearly every respect?
Starting out in the MW 2 multiplayer segment, gamers are given a couple of weapons, a few game modes and a very limited set of perks. Playing in matches and performing well allows players to level up through the ranks and begin unlocking the real meat of the game. New weapons, perks and even entire game modes are doled out as you climb the rankings ladder, and the constant drip of new content is enough to hook almost anyone.
For the wily old veterans, there is more than enough new content to convince them to upgrade to MW 2, as if they needed any incentive in the first place. New weapons, attachments and challenges will have hardcore players mixing and matching and coming up with plenty of different classes as they explore the ridiculous number of maps in the game. Also, the customized kill streaks and death streaks are a great touch, giving players total freedom over how the game rewards them for performing well or assists them when they're struggling. There are few games that feature maps this well-designed, class balance this tight and this much freedom of customization all in one package. Truly, there isn't a thing in multiplayer worth complaining about.
Furthermore, if you do manage to eventually tire of the competitive multiplayer, there's still the brand-new and highly worthwhile Spec Ops mode to occupy your time. These scenarios, which can be played by one or two players, serve as a nice sidebar to the single-player story and are a welcome break when you're tired of blasting buddies and want to hook up with a friend to see how well you work as a team. While playing through the challenges, communication and team spirit are absolutely critical if you hope to succeed, and there are some great moments to be had as you pick off a baddie who's sneaking up on your friend or lure a group of foes into a gunship ambush. While this easily could have been a throwaway mode or something you simply checked out once and then left forever, Spec Ops earns its place in the game and will easily be an option you come back to again and again because it's just so darn fun.
Given the care and attention lavished upon the competitive and cooperative multiplayer in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, it's clear that Infinity Ward sees the future of the Modern Warfare series in that particular component. What that means is you'll end up with a game that doesn't show much in the single-player experience, but once you take it online, it's going to be difficult to put down. If you love online shooters, then this is a game you simply must own, and even if you hate them, Modern Warfare 2 might just change your mind. Gear up and say goodbye to the family because you're being deployed, and given the game's depth, complexity and quality, your tour might not end for a very long time.
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