Infinity Ward's daring vision for the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare dramatically shifted it from the battlefields of World War II and into the headlines of the real world. The hype gripping its sequel has elevated expectations to an extremely high level, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has perhaps done one better by not dropping the ball … but first, the bad news.
No one buys an FPS for the story, but developers such as Valve and Monolith often disprove that adage. Infinity Ward had deftly juggled Allied and Soviet viewpoints within its Call of Duty franchise, and Modern Warfare set the stage for a Tom Clancy-esque, post-Cold War conflict. Knowing what they are capable of only makes MW2's story that much more confusing, especially considering that the talent behind it was responsible for the first Modern Warfare.
I found it best to think of MW2 as a set of individual missions, since the broken story is utterly shell-shocked by the action. It takes place five years after the events of the first game, but you wouldn't know it with how little the story tells you.
Setting a victimized superpower on the path to war quickly turns what could have been an interesting play on current events into a ridiculously bizarre list of excuses in failing to use a brain. One particularly chilling and controversial scene, trussed with plenty of warning alongside the option not to play through it, ultimately suffers when the story fails to carry it. After the first Modern Warfare gave us a believable monster and turned the plot into an international detective story with bullets galore, MW2's villain comes off as Nuclear Man to its predecessor's ultranationalist Superman.
Shows such as "Sleeper Cell," movies like "Traitor," and even Replay Studios' Velvet Assassin, which forced players through the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, aptly demonstrated far more poignant moments of sacrifice and self-doubt than MW2's controversial scene. Some might argue that such a scene stands out as another example of "games as art."
Pieces of the plot feel blatantly borrowed from last season's "24," when Jack Bauer had already stopped terrorists from seizing the MacGuffin, allowing them to hack the United States' defense network at will and eventually spinning these elements into a heavy-handed effort to relive the Cold War in the wrong era. Modern Warfare 2 is a huge game, and with it comes an opportunity to further its own mythology. Fortunately, the no-holds-barred action quickly smothers the threadbare plot beneath plenty of burning steel and hails of bullets. That's what most people will likely pay attention to.
Once I separated the missions from the story, each one felt like an exciting set piece filled with plenty of finger-blistering action. Although it lacks the punchy excitement of Modern Warfare's keynotes, such as escaping a sinking freighter or slinking through the abandoned ruins of Pripyat, the thrill ride of fighting through an occupied favela in Brazil or staging a rescue mission on an oil rig above the freezing waters of the North Pacific encapsulate what the series does best. Surviving a harrowing gunfight deep inside a prison built within a medieval castle or fighting your way through the alleys and living rooms of suburbia while staring down iron sights never really gets old.
Adding to the experience are desperate radio chatter, blinding snowstorms patrolled by soldiers with itchy trigger fingers, and Hans Zimmer's thundering soundtrack rumbling behind every dramatic explosion. Notable voice acting from Keith David as Sergeant Foley and Lance Henriksen as the all-knowing General Shepherd round out what you'll be hearing, and despite the hokey story, their roles keep the player focused on what is at stake in each mission.
The heavily linear and scripted single-player campaign is also a short game that can easily be finished in six hours. It can take longer if you opt for the Hardened or Veteran difficulties, and its general formula of sending hordes of enemies into your face until reaching a certain point hasn't changed all that much. At the same time, its recycled gameplay hasn't gotten any worse for the wear, either, thanks to the relentless pacing of its presentation. Those who were hoping for a little more — such as a few more hours of mission time to help the story — will feel as if this is a mission pack.
Most people will purchase MW2 for its multiplayer component, and Infinity Ward's smart decision to not reinvent the wheel definitely pays off. Instead of forcing too many new rules into the game and risking everything that made it addictive in the first place, it builds on what had come before without dramatically changing too many of its core concepts.
Really, that is all anyone can really ask from a sequel — that is, as long as you're not on the PC. For those who have never played the first Modern Warfare, its sequel provides plenty of reasons to match reflexes against the rest of the world with plenty of incentive-driven gameplay.
First, and perhaps most importantly, you can mute everyone, although this isn't an obvious option. By going into the multiplayer menu in MW2, I found that I could set the voice volume to zero, which only left the chattering gunfire, heavy thump of exploding grenades, and the in-game, pre-recorded yells of my team and the enemy. I can only hope that a future firmware release for the PS3 will allow me to hear only those on my friends list who want to play and not the occasional audition for "American Idol" done to the sound of a toilet flushing.
The fast-paced gunplay and gritty action take on a whole new degree of intensity online, which is probably what veterans were hoping for, as it sticks closely to what made the first iteration so accessible. For those who are new, Infinity Ward's online action mashes together the frenetic gunplay and competitive edge of going face-to-face with someone smarter than the title's often suicidal AI.
The game is part FPS and part role-playing; enemies killed and objectives completed all earn you experience points, similar to RPGs, which level up your rank online. It also unlocks more goodies to customize your class, alongside a host of other bonuses that can dramatically shift how you handle yourself online.
This system feeds right into its addictive pursuit of unlockable weapons and passive abilities — perks — that can change the way you play the game. New weapons are also unlocked, and each weapon has its own set of in-game challenges that award experience for completing them. Attachments, such as silencers and scopes, can also be unlocked in this way, and every weapon has its own set of upgrades, thus adding even more options to the arsenal. Perks, such as "Sleight of Hand" can be equipped to make reloads faster, "Commando" extends the reach of your knife, and "Ninja" can make you invisible to enemy radar.
The initial classes can also be customized and saved with specific loadouts, especially when new weapons become available at the higher levels. There's a maximum level count of 70, after which the player can opt to Prestige, which resets them back to the beginning but awards a unique identifier to their profile for — you guessed it! — prestige. While it might seem ridiculous to start all over again, you would be surprised just how many times certain players use this option, if only because it provides an additional challenge.
Not every game type is unlocked at the start with only a tiny number, such as your typical Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes, available until you level up further. Getting online is as easy as picking the desired game type and then letting Infinity Ward's network do the matchmaking, which is as automated as it gets. It's virtually "idiot proof" in making it easy to pick a game and "go," but I would have preferred to view a list of active games as opposed to being blindly attached to a random existing game.
Online performance wasn't bad, but there were times when I wasn't able to connect to a game, and that was during the day during off-peak hours. Sometimes the lobby would simply "close" without explanation and dump everyone out of the game. Host switching keeps the game going when the game host drops out, and there are the occasional bouts of lag, but it still performed consistently well for most of my playtime. I wasn't sure if the problems were PSN-related, or if there were still a few bugs nibbling away with the game or IWnet to be stomped out.
Most matches are typically 6v6 affairs, and there's even one that allows you to duel 1v1, but the largest mode supports 9v9 players. It's a far cry from other PS3 titles that support up to 32 players per map, such as Killzone 2, or 60 in Resistance 2. Its determination in sticking to its sometimes claustrophobic and squad-level combat model, though, works as well as it did with the first game.
The system's inability to balance the teams is still an issue, especially since you still can't opt to switch out to try and do it yourself. Often, players can be stuck on losing teams from one match to the next unless they leave and try to find another game, especially if everyone else on their team has left the game. I've been on teams of six or eight and wondered where the enemy was, until I realized that most of them had left, leaving behind only two or three die-hards. This can be frustrating for newcomers, especially when they go up against those who have played the first game.
One of the biggest changes, aside from the new maps, is custom killstreaks. In the previous game, killing three enemies in a row would unlock a special, in-game ability such as calling in a UAV to show where the enemy is on the map. Chaining together a higher number of kills opens up even more advanced, one-time options, such as airstrikes and helicopters that hover over the battlefield to rain death on your enemies. MW2 allows you to customize just how your killstreak awards should go, adding an additional layer of personalization.
Leveling up will unlock extra "killstreak" options that you can select from a list. While you can only tag three at any one time, each with its own kill chain requirement, there are plenty to choose from, including many new ones. Among the toys that Infinity Ward has given to its fans: piloting an attack chopper's gun, guiding a Predator drone-launched missile, and setting off a nuke to automatically win the game by wiping out everyone on the other team.
There's even a killstreak reward that allows you to drop a "care package" into the field, and whoever gets to it first gets a random surprise. Perks have also undergone a change from the first game, with improved variants opening up additional possibilities and encouraging more play. Dying even has perks, such as being able to steal the class from the person who killed you, equipping you with whatever he had at his disposal regardless of your level.
Co-op isn't available in the single-player mode, but the game does offer Spec-Ops mode for two player co-op across a variety of challenges. It's a reasonable compromise given how linear the SP is and how it is structured, and it provides even more fun for players who want to team up and tackle the bad guys together by earning stars that unlock even more scenarios.
It's no surprise that Modern Warfare 2 will be the biggest thing to come down the FPS pipe this year, and by sticking to what works, Infinity Ward has managed to accomplish one of the most difficult goals of a sequel: delivering what its fans want.
If multiplayer fun is all that you care about, add another point to my score because Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 certainly deserves it, although the reaction will vary wildly depending on who you ask (especially among the most vocal players and clans within the PC community). As a whole, at least on consoles such as the PS3, Modern Warfare 2 is a thrilling, if not entirely coherent, care package for itchy trigger fingers.
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