It has been a rough couple of weeks leading up to the launch of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Infinity Ward has been hit with endless criticism due to their apparent abandonment of PC gamers and controversial advertisements. It seemed strange that the developer who created Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which received dozens of Game of the Year awards and was considered by many to be one of the best shooters ever released, would suddenly find itself on gamers' bad side. It was as though they were beginning to crack under the pressure of creating a follow-up to one of the highest rated games of all time, and the burden to deliver an experience as good, if not better, for their fans. Luckily, these strange occurrences were no more than minor hiccups, and with Modern Warfare 2, the developer has proven again that they are truly masters of their craft.
Modern Warfare wasn't just good, it was shockingly good. Gamers expected BioShock and Halo 3 to be obvious shoe-ins for game of the year, but didn't think that the Call of Duty series had enough relevancy to really compete for such a title. In a way, it set the tone for the following years of gaming. While the story was short, it was so captivating that no one complained. Whereas the multiplayer in CoD4 wasn't really all that different, it was so refined that it is still one of the most played games online. It set bars wherever there were any to set, and effectively showed other FPS makers how it’s done. With Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward seems to remember what made the original so popular, something developers too often lose sight of.
Because of this knowledge, they've taken what works and stuck with it, all the while adding enough content that anyone complaining about it being an incremental upgrade is simply lying. The tried and true gameplay from Modern Warfare remains intact in the sequel, adding only a few small changes to the core gameplay and style. A handful of additional weapons and gear expand upon the traditional offerings, letting players use thermal scopes to look through smoke and riot shields to defend against machine gun fire. It might sound strange, but it really doesn’t feel like they’ve tried to one-up themselves. They have, but it never feels forced, something that all too often befalls sequels. Vehicles also work their way into the Modern Warfare series for the first time, giving a few sections of the singleplayer campaign even more variation.
Another welcome addition are door breaches, which insert yet another action movie cliché to the list. After slapping on an explosive to a door or wall, the players blast open a hole to shoot through, slowing down time to allow for precise aim. It’s used in a number of different missions, and makes clearing a room of enemies or precisely freeing a hostage feel much more epic than spraying machine gun bullets through a doorway. It’s a simple addition, but it works, and helps expand the feeling of being in an elite Special Forces squadron. All in all, very little is changed in Modern Warfare 2, but when the engine and core gameplay was so good that even Treyarch couldn’t screw it up there’s really not much that needs changing.
When it comes to story, Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t pull any punches. It also doesn’t require intimate knowledge of the original, so anyone who hasn’t played it isn’t going to be lost. Just as was the case with the first, players will find themselves exploring all reaches of the world and assuming command of a number of different characters. While this method of storytelling can often work against a video game, it has become a series staple that actually helps the narrative of Modern Warfare. War is big, and doesn’t contain itself to one city block or beachhead. Warfare in the modern era means a skirmish in one country to find information on a battle in another, and MW2 has done a great job at seamlessly blending different storylines into one cohesive blockbuster tale. Wonderful graphics and tremendous voice acting aid in this, breathing life into every single character to step foot onto the battlefield, making every death all the more traumatic.
No matter what character is in the spotlight, the story’s general focus is hunting down Vladimir Makarov, the new leader of the Ultranationalists. It is often said that taking down a leader is pointless, since someone worse will just take his place, and that’s exactly what happened in the five years between the titles. After Imran Zakhaev was shot dead in the original, much of Russia treats the fallen terrorist as a martyr, erecting statues in his honor; something Makarov uses to take advantage of the tumultuous international conditions. Taking him out requires more than one pair of hands, and the player will find himself working with a number of different people including a few familiar face, Soap McTavish. The first time the character, who remained silent throughout the events of Modern Warfare, opens his mouth to reveal his thick, Scottish accent it’s almost shocking. It’s also a welcome change of pace to work with the character, as he didn’t really get much development the first time around.
The journey to take down Makarov sends players down some morally dark roads, never flinching when things get decidedly disturbing. Infinity Ward has crafted an impressive story for Modern Warfare 2 that trudges through ethical ambiguity that other games would have avoided altogether. Some segments will undoubtedly be deemed "controversial" and that's because, well, they are. In fact, they've planned ahead, offering the ability to skip one mission that will likely receive the most heat, hopefully quieting protests before they spark up. They didn't take the safe road, which should, if nothing else, be applauded, and they did it while providing some of the best interactive action available.
The only issue with the story is its length – a light, five hour campaign. On harder difficulties there’s likely another few hours and it’s interesting enough to justify a second (or third) playthrough, but no matter how it’s spun five hours is simply less than the average game. Luckily, the time spent playing is much, much more than average. It’s hard to describe the events that take place in the story without spoiling the experience or resorting to movie poster clichés by calling it “an action packed thrill ride,” but that’s a testament to exactly how exciting it can be. There’s hardly a time to take a breath inbetween stunning action segments, and time walking from one location to another in Halo or driving to a new mission in Borderlands is spent running across rooftops in Rio or fighting off rappelling enemies on an oil rig. It’s an incredibly dense game, with impressive, cinematic storytelling and non-stop jaw-dropping moments. It might not be the longest singleplayer game of the year, but it’s without a doubt one of the most extraordinary.
The fact that the singleplayer isn’t even half of the Modern Warfare experience also works in the game’s favor – the staying power is in its multiplayer. Modern Warfare has been one of the most played games on Xbox Live and the PlayStation network since it was released, and while it’s safe to say that Infinity Ward felt pressure to deliver an enthralling singleplayer experience, the same could be said tenfold for multiplayer. Just as is the case with the story, they approached it in a somewhat conservative way, finding ways to drastically improve the experience without actually making any drastic changes. The original succeeded for a number of reasons beyond simply being fun to play. Constant, incremental upgrades and instant gratification from on-screen indicators made it nearly impossible to stop playing, always pushing on to get one more level. It taps into the same part of the brain that sees MMORPG players dying at their keyboards after 72-hour play sessions, only built on the back of the best FPS engine currently in the industry.
In other words, not much needed fixing since there wasn’t really anything broken. The largest problem in MW was with games falling apart due to the host leaving, something that was only an issue from time to time. Now, the game simply pauses, finds a new player, and migrates control, starting up after a quick countdown. It’s not as good as, say, dedicated servers, but it’s absolutely serviceable, and patches up the largest leak in the ship. This is good, because the ship is a bit weightier this time around. A few new playlists populate the multiplayer section, and some of the returning offerings have seen minor changes that will most likely go unnoticed by all but the CoD elite. Beyond traditional Deathmatch there are, as expected, several other modes that provide their own spin on Capture the Flag and King of the Hill, as well as an interesting option to play in third-person, if the mood strikes.
When it comes to content in multiplayer, the name of the game is customization. While creating a class is still a major feature, and there are several new Perks (and upgraded Perks) to choose from, the entire process has been expanded significantly. Besides unlocking dozens of different titles and emblems, the ability to customize Killstreak rewards is offered. This gives players access to over a dozen different options, like being able to lay down sentry guns, call in stealth bombers, and gain control of helicopters. Just as before, they work well together, since the more powerful the Killstreak reward, the more likely the next will be reached fairly quickly. Compared to the rewards in the first game some can feel a tad bit cheap - the harrier in particular seems more powerful than it should be considering how easily unlocked it is - but it’s not too much of an issue, since anyone can technically use them, and unlocking more powerful rewards isn't too difficult.
Other complaints on the original’s multiplayer were in balance, and players feeling as though low-level items are a severe detriment, meaning higher ranked players can pick off new players with their super-advanced weaponry. This is addressed in two ways: Deathstreaks, and better default classes. Deathstreaks work in exactly the opposite way that Killstreaks do, rewarding players with minor enhancements for unsuccessful play. After a certain number of deaths, players can pick from a handful of different boosts, like a bonus to health or the ability to steal an opponent’s load-out. This means that if the only reason players are losing is because of their gear, they can simply take up an enemy’s arms after a few deaths. The other, simpler answer is better default classes, which start players with weapons that actually aren’t unlocked for many levels, with the detriment of a lack of customization. It’s a simple, graceful fix to an experience that really didn’t need too many improvements.
But don’t think that is everything Modern Warfare 2 has to offer. The inclusion of Special Ops mode is the single largest addition to the package despite being the least hyped. It’s an obvious attempt to fill the gap left by the lack of cooperative play by giving players the ability to join together to take on different challenges with a friend. They come in a wide variety of types, usually drawing inspiration from epic moments from the story and given specific parameters and time limits. It’s like a mixture of Horde mode from Gears of War 2, the Challenge Rooms from Arkham Asylum, and the co-op in Uncharted 2, with each of the 20+ missions giving a different experience. There’s a nice mixture of stealth gameplay, hold-and-defend mission types, and even an AC-130 mission for anyone who has trouble getting it unlocked in Deathmatch. On the easier settings it’s, as expected, fairly easy, but completing the harder missions on Veteran will challenge even the toughest FPS gamers, and is nearly impossible without a friend and good communication.
It’s hard to find much to complain about in Modern Warfare 2. Infinity Ward has done so much right that most faults are negligible by comparison. If there was anyone who actually didn’t like the original, Modern Warfare 2 sports enough improvements that the few stragglers should be won over handily, and the additions aren’t drastic enough to isolate those who might consider themselves purists. The story is compelling, the multiplayer is addictive, and Special Ops mode comes out of the gate swinging, prepared to shock gamers with a feature most likely didn’t know existed. The package, on the whole, is spectacular, there’s no two ways about it. Infinity Ward has managed to outdo themselves with this sequel, a tremendous feat in its own right. If the games of 2009 were stacked up against each other, there’s no question that Modern Warfare 2 would be incredibly close to the apex, fighting viciously for the top spot and, for many people, getting there and continuing upward. This is what gaming is supposed to feel like.