HIGH Covering a human player with AC-130 armory.
LOW A hole-ridden plot that ends in obvious sequel bait.
WTF Tactical nuke?!
Infinity Ward has its greatest argument for moving away from history's most documented battles in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 . From gothic Russian gulags to a D.C. battlefield that feels like a precursor to Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland, the setpieces are no longer silicon documentaries, but rather extended tours into the developers' frenzied gun-fetish daydreams of national landmarks being destroyed.
The game is of two minds. One offers a faux-high-minded military fantasy. The other, of course, is to provide the perfect multiplayer shooting experience—an honor argued for heralded titles like GoldenEye, Halo, and Counterstrike. The latter succeeds wildly. The former less so, but Modern Warfare 2 swaggers in with nuclear aplomb either way.
When it comes to multiplayer competition and cooperative gameplay, who am I to deny this game's greatness? The controls are almost ergonomic, fitting like a well-worn glove. The multiplayer maps, from war-torn Afghanistan to a terror-ridden airport, are huge, balanced and believable. Online, the player can level up to gain new skills and weapons to customize your character. The plus-figure you see with every confirmed kill feed a narcissistic desire for superiority only the best role-playing games can provide.
Nobody expected any less. The biggest surprise from the first Modern Warfare is the sublime Spec Ops mode. It has been initially compared to Horde Mode in Gears of War 2, a comparison that is both incorrect and unflattering.
Spec Ops mode is the single-player game stripped down to its most elemental, except it can be shared with a friend. They are objective-based missions without the fuss of a story or character motivation, and despite the surge of cooperative play in games, Infinity Ward was still able to innovate. If you're like me and have wished of playing the gunner of a God-like AC-130 warship protecting a teammate through a nightmarish warzone, then our fever dream has been fulfilled. It's an offering you can't find anywhere else. Then there are snowmobile races, helicopter escort missions, and house-to-house, diner-to-diner fighting in Americana. The missions are challenging, hectic and the sense of virtual reward after completing a mission on the hardest difficulty setting is immense.
Modern Warfare 2 achieves glory in online competition and cooperative play when it sheds the pretension of its single-player campaign, which tells the tale of an all-out war between the U.S. and Russia, and the shadow group of international operatives who try to cool the instability.
First I'd like to point out an easy but unfair criticism of the Call of Duty stories; that its writing is reminiscent of the critically-maligned blockbuster filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer. It's better than that at least. It's all very loud and macho, but there's a very natural sense of pacing. Infinity Ward shows great affection for some of its characters, particularly "Soap" Mactavish, the protagonist from the first Modern Warfare who returns as this game's nigh-certifiable superhero, although not its main playable character. The plot and character development thankfully avoid any jingoism. The game's morality is muddied somewhat, making it more intriguing than your standard Nazi caper.
Composer Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight) has a score that swells as the player approaches a burning White House. It's a lot of sound and fury, and it's hard not to get goosebumps. Infinity Ward has an acute sense for player behavior, triggering events and musical cues as the player guides the camera through an open battlefield.
Unfortunately, it's hopelessly mechanical. I couldn't help shake the feeling that I was merely being a cameraman, dutifully pushing a camera dolly to the next perfectly framed shot. It's then that you start to see the puppeteer's strings, the trigger points for events. Everything falls into place so neatly, it shatters the illusion that this is a living, breathing battlefield where anything can happen. "Anything" never does, unless it is scripted to do so.
Infinity Ward treats the campaign as sort of an endgame to the old school hardcore game design of bigger and better. Any sense of dynamics is provided under strict authorial control, which is both admirable, and also quite frankly, a bit predictable. The trick of giving first person camera control to different characters (recalling the presidential assassination stage from part one) is reused, sometimes to great effect like the controversial level in which the player goes undercover in a terror cell's attack on a civilian airport. But the rest often falls flat, especially since Infinity Ward seems to be confused on deciding what kind of story they want to tell.
Some levels, notably the American-based ones, are all about the logistics of the battle. It's about the guy next to you, it's about being told what to do and not asking any questions. It would work if the game kept with this chilly, forlorn mood. Ridley Scott's film Black Hawk Down remains a powerful narrative without any one character dominating it. But the other levels are saddled in the yippee-ki-yay upbeat tones that draw the Bruckheimer comparisons including out-of-place one-liners, sloganeering, Saturday morning cartoon villainy, and madcap impossible escapes of explosions not seen since, well, a few weeks ago with Uncharted 2's Nathan Drake.
So is Modern Warfare 2 a statement, or pure fantasy? It's pure fantasy, for sure, and the developers are likely to agree—but there are inklings of the single-player campaign aspiring to be so much more. The storytelling, however, lacks clarity of thought and vision, which brings up another question of whether Infinity Ward won't take it further, or maybe they simply lack the eloquence.
Whatever the case may be, the game is also a statement on Infinity Ward's strengths. Every trailer they released was not just promotional material, it was sabre-rattling to other publishers, daring them to release another game this week. And it worked. The holiday season is noticeably bare, and Modern Warfare 2 stands tall, with its brilliant, value-packed missions, maps, and promised endless nights of thousand-yard stares and slack-jawed home entertainment. It is a commanding presence in living room electronics.
But most importantly, it's a powerful affirmation for those who define games less as art, and more as a sport of group dynamics that fuels the innate necessity of "must play" human contest. There is no greater argument.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed twice) and 18 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, drug references, intense violence and language. The violence is not over the top, but realistic. The biggest red flag is an early mission in the game where the player is party to a terrorist attack on a Russian airport, where dozens of innocents are murdered.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All essential dialogue is subtitled, though some of the radio chatter is not. Minor audio cues that let the player know where the enemies are coming from are usually not represented, but the game does a good job of guiding the player's eyes anyway.