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

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Infinity Ward
Genre: Shooter
Release Date: 11/10/2009

Being a reviewer on a game site, I will occasionally get handed a game put out by the equivalent of a mom and pop publisher. These are small-run, unpopular games that earn me confused glances when I either discuss them with other gamers or try to trade them in at Gamemart or wherever. (See what I did there? No product placement for YOU, Gamestore!) This week’s review, the not at all unanticipated Modern Warfare 2 is kind of like that, only the complete opposite.

We all know the COD games, we know they set the bar for graphics, but how does this one hold up?

Read on to find out…

Story/Mode

Storyline may be the only place this game loses any points, and it’s not going to lose many. I know I’m one of like ten people who play through the game solo first and multiplayer later, so I can at least cattily judge here a bit. The events of the game take place five years after the events of Modern Warfare. Zakhaev, the dead bad guy from the last game, has been turned into a national martyr/hero in Russia and world tensions are at an all-time high due to, well, I guess nukes going off and NATO forces sticking their beaks in everyone’s butts. Of course, with terror cells, you knock one down and a worse one rises up in his place. This game is no different. Zakhaev’s lieutenant, Makarov, has taken up a terror campaign much, much grimmer than his forbearer. You play the game as a variety of characters, including new recruit PFC Joseph Allen, who was hired into the CIA from basic training (and yes this game has another training sequence), “Roach” Sanderson, a heir apparent to Soap from the first title, and PVT James Ramirez on the US front. I’d prefer not to give any plot spoilers, which is going to make dissecting the plot a little trickier, but such is life. The missions start off with a great touch of realism and portray a pretty accurate recreation of Desert Storm part two. I had an overwhelming sense of déjà vu playing the opening levels, as they are spot-on homages to the HBO series Generation Kill. The levels even share some of the names of episodes, and I SWEAR I saw Iceman at the base. The opening levels are an attack on a bridge with mortar teams on the opposing bank followed by a jaunt through an occupied city in a humvee. This is, shot for shot, the beginning of Generation Kill. As far as television series to rip off, though, it would be hard to find a better source for a modern warfare game than that one.

As the game progresses, however, that verisimilitude to modern war goes out the window. This edition of Call of Duty starts gritty and then turns into an over the top action movie (although not the action movie, “Over the Top,” which is good.). Death-defying prison breaks, snowmobile chases, an arbitrary plot twist toward the end… I think I even said out loud at one point, “this is going to end in a fist fight, isn’t it?” Sure enough, it does. The game feels a bit more like something based on the newer, grittier James Bond flicks than it does one based on actual military tactics. I should say, though…I love the new Bond, and the game does a GREAT job creating such insane, holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened moments that a lack of realism doesn’t ultimately work as a detriment. Once you willingly suspend some disbelief, the game is just fun and oh-so-fucking-cool.

HOWEVER, now we must address the “controversy” of the level “No Russian.” After the first couple levels, you are recruited for a CIA deep cover in Makarov’s gang. He takes you along to shoot up a Russian airport. It’s a bit of a departure for the series, sure, and frankly feels like it would be more appropriate in a Grand Theft Auto game, but the main problem I had was that it just feels forced. It feels a bit like a deliberate and unnecessary attempt at stirring up controversy. I understand its place in the plotline, as it is used to set up the US so that Russia will attack (and attack they do, leading to another great movie reference – Red Dawn), but, seriously, CIA agents killing civvies? By the hundreds? I know they do some black ops on occasion, but Christ, slaughtering hundreds with only a tossed-off line about how, “this may affect your conscience, but it’ll save lives in the long run” as your moral compass just seems too stretched. That said, the level IS kinda fun…

There are three major game modes this time around: Special Ops, Story, and Multiplayer. Story and Multiplayer are of course familiar to anyone who has played the series, complete with their variability in game mode such as difficulty level in the game and a wide variety of fighting scenarios for multiplayer. Special Ops is Modern Warfare‘s version of 2-player co-op play. There are a large series of short missions you can fight through with a buddy, either online or local. The missions are short and have difficulty options, and are ultimately frivolous and fun. Unfortunately, there is no option for a multiplayer co-op story mode, which is always one of my favorite things to do, as it’s the only way I can get achievements for harder difficulty levels, but the Special Ops mode does a great job taking away the sting of that lack of play mode. One of the complaints against the game has been the lack of party chatter in multiplayer online, and this is a minor distraction considering how many apparent racist homophobes like chatting while playing online in team chat mode, but I think its ultimately a very minor complaint.

Story/Mode Score: Good.

Graphics

Call of Duty games have long since been the standard by which others are judged and this incarnation is no exception. Levels and characters alike are all expertly detailed and rendered. Backgrounds on levels look absolutely gorgeous, interactivity with objects is fantastic, and the weather is perfect. Levels in the snow do a superb job recreating the dull haze of a snowstorm without a loss of detail. Human figures move, act, and react more realistically than even the already superb original Modern Warfare. I never experienced any issues with slowdown, no matter how many Brazilian gangsters were on screen trying to shoot me. (¡chingalos!)The effects of blood, gore, and grenades are all visceral and draw you into the action. Call of Duty 2 set the bar and Modern Warfare raised it. This sequel continues the trend.

Graphics Score: Unparalleled.

Sound
I’m a sound engineer, of sorts, (bad sorts), so I pay quite a bit of attention to sound textures, mixing, and music. One of the fantastic sound setups in this game is the gunfire. I imagine the sound designers are using actual samples of current equipment, because all the guns sound distinct to the point where you can differentiate enemies from friendlies just based on the sound of weapon fire. This comes in real handy on multiplayer maps when they jam your damned radar. I was able to pretty accurately track down and differentiate enemies just based on the 5.1 surround sound placement and the cadence of the guns. Of course, finding them is one thing, and shooting them is another. I can apparently hear a lot better than I can shoot. Broad sides of barns sound fantastic! Music is similarly well done, there is no longer an issue of the anachronisms I detested in COD. Since this is a modern war, anything goes. There is some use of diegetic music in the earlier parts of the game, which is great, because I imagine most US bases are blasting 50 Cent or whomever on their down time. The more score-based music in the game is your typical orchestral swells, which are worked into the gameplay seamlessly; tense situations are well anticipated by whatever AI is manning the DJ booth and the score will swell appropriately. Voice acting is similarly well done, with a few voice actors returning from the previous game and Lance Hendrickson doing an excellent job as a US general. Battles are filled with little quips and chatter from your teammates, and it all feels very fluid, realistic, and adds to the game considerably.

Sound Score: Unparalleled.

Control & Gameplay

Nothing in the controller scheme has really changed from any of the previous incarnations of COD. Since I’ve already reviewed two of em, I won’t rehash those, except to say they are fantastic for a shooter and become second nature very quickly in the game. What I do wish to discuss is the greater variety of environment interactivity in this version. While it certainly applies more to the story mode than the multiplayer mode, there is a lot more depth in just how you get into and out of extraction points or how you get out of harrowing situations. The game includes more than just the “drive a tank” level, there are repelling points, scaling an ice wall, snowmobile races (remember when I compared this to Bond movies?), zodiac races, etc. The improved level of detail involved in shooting through surfaces is excellent; different guns have different penetration depths on different objects. The result is, sometimes you can shoot through the wall, sometimes you can’t, and it all makes physical sense.

Control & Gameplay Score: Unparalleled.

Replayability

While the story mode itself is rather short (a mere seven hours or so to play through), there is some replayability value on a lot of the levels as they are just plain fun. There is always objects to unlock, stuff to find (yes, I found the blowup doll in the bathroom.), and higher difficulties to attempt. The reason people keep coming back (the original MW came out two years ago and those servers are still packed) is the multiplayer. MW2, like its predecessors, has a leveling system that unlocks new call signs, insignias, weapons, and abilities the further you level. The game does a fantastic job allotting small improvements for leveling without overwhelming us poor little low-level guys with unfairly equipped opponents.

Replayability Score: Classic.

Balance

Balance on this game is great. Yeah, there are the expected selectable difficulty levels that go from somewhat challenging to insanely difficult, but the key to winning points for balance is the multiplayer. There is always someone out there who’s a better shot, and its fun to go try to find “Ëœem. As I said in the replayability section, too, awards for higher levels are also balanced enough that there isn’t an overly unfair advantage to having them – especially since the team selection AI seems to divide up parties by level fairly equally.

Balance Score: Great

Originality

Docking points makes me a sad panda, but this game: 1) is the sixth in a series and 2) cribs pretty liberally from sources like Generation Kill. The storyline and plotting are all familiar variations on the spy movie one-bad-guy-out-to-rule-the-world tropes, so this game isn’t going to win many points for originality, but the sheer audacity to go quasi-superhuman in what used to be a realistic war sim is an interesting and, to me, unexpected move.

Originality Score: Poor.

Addictiveness

Considering how quickly I banged out the single player and that I’ve been sitting at work all day wanting to go play more, I’d say this game rates up there on addictiveness. The little morsels they dangle for reaching the next level in multiplayer are *just* good enough candy that you want to stick around for one more bite. Boy, that felt like a forced metaphor considering I’m diabetic, didn’t it? Anyway. I first signed on to multiplayer around 5pm the day after release and there were a slew of people already at level 50, so I am clearly not the only one who needs this game like sweet, sweet heroin. Or candy. Whichever.

Addictiveness Score: Classic.

Appeal Factor

If I may quote the AV Club’s Scott Jones, COD games are, “the sole other title that average gamers give a damn about besides Madden.” While “gamers” in the sense of the word that encompasses the staff of this here site is a fairly select group, the type of gamer that describes people who buy COD is pretty much anyone who owns an Xbox 260. Except for those two or three people who bought the system for the family games described on that one Wal-Mart commercial. Modern Warfare 2 is the pinnacle of war games and, as such, appeals to any and all boys, which is like, what, 140% of the gamer market?

Appeal Factor Score: Unparalleled.

Miscellaneous

OK, I am, in many ways, still a 13 year old boy. I like cartoons and I don’t like waking up in the morning. The only things on my Christmas list this year are toys. Seriously, fuck new socks, even if I need them. Desperately. (so many holes!) So, naturally, I bought the super soldier version of the game, or whatever it’s called, that comes with fully functioning night vision goggles. So here in the land of miscellany, we shall discuss the utility of said goggles. I expected them to work, but not well, maybe a 10-15 foot functional radius. Such is not the case. They work fantastically well considering how cheap they were and have an effective range of about 100 feet or so. Well worth the additional $90 or so, assuming you also love fun, useless toys. The other cool thing – and I think this comes with the next step down version of the game as well – is the inclusion of the original, previously PC-only Call of Duty, now titled “Classic.” It is a fun little single-player XBLA game that really puts into perspective how far enemy AI has come in a few short years. It’s also a pretty easy way to earn some achievement points, and it’s a simple but fun game to boot.

Miscellaneous Score: Unparalleled

The Scores
Story: Good
Graphics: Unparalleled
Sound: Unparalleled
Control and Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Great
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Unparalleled
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled
FINAL SCORE: CLASSIC GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary:
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is exactly what you’d expect from the next installment: quite possibly the best looking game out there and a great multiplayer shooter with a solid story-based single player to back it up. The additional mode for this game, Special Ops, is a fun little 2-player jaunt that provides both challenge and sheer entertainment. If you’re willing to flex your suspension of disbelief a little bit for the single-player storyline, this game should not be passed up.

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