Game Review: Modern Warfare 2

November 10, 2009

Everyone suspected that the original Modern Warfare would do well, but no one predicted it would become the best-selling game of this generation. It brought the war into the present with all the technology that comes with it, and redefined online console shooters in the process. Now a couple years later, Modern Warfare 2 is here. With expectations sky high, does it have the moxie to impress?

Set a few years after the end of the first game and the death of Zakhaev, Modern Warfare 2 is a direct sequel. His old comrade, Vladimir Makarov, has picked up where he left off, trying to re-establish the terrorist organization as a threat to global security. The game almost goes overboard in its attempt to make you hate Makarov, with one gratuitous scene, in particular, that will strike some nerves. But if disliking the antagonist was the directive, then mission accomplished.

You play from the perspective of several different soldiers, with Gary “Roach” Sanderson dominating the majority of play. As you put your life on the line for Task Force 141, you’ll come in close contact with several pivotal people from the first Modern Warfare, including Soap McTavish, who is now your commanding officer. Lead characters come and go like the wind, and the same goes for locations, which range from Afghanistan to Rio de Janeiro. The missions set in America really make the story hit home as you go from one pre-fabbed house to another clearing out enemies in suburban Virginia or attempt to defend the landmarks of Washington DC. Betrayal, redemption, and surprise permeate the prose. It will keep you guessing until the end, but it doesn’t build much of an attachment to the soldiers you control and too much of the story is told through generic mission briefings.


The single-player campaign is split into 18 missions. There are several more than the first Modern Warfare, but they’re all much shorter, making for a game of basically the same length. For those who didn’t play Call of Duty 4, you’re looking at around seven hours of play depending on your skill. It’s still a bit too short for our liking, but at least the multiple difficulty settings change the game significantly.

What’s here is definitely improved from the first. Gone are the long gauntlets of soldiers to mow down, and in their place are moments that would be right at home in a summer blockbuster. The game never really lets up for one minute, with dozens of set piece moments that come in a wide variety. While a lot of the mission objectives are of the escort, defend, or seek and destroy variety, there are several instances of utilizing vehicles to your advantage. There’s just a lot more variety to the campaign in general and the pacing is torqued up.

Most importantly, the game has a much more open feel. You have a lot more latitude in how you complete missions with multiple paths through each area, and the feeling of being shoved down a predetermined path is drastically diminished. With this comes more challenge. Enemy locations are much less predictable and we were surprised at how many times we were flanked or attacked from behind. It goes a long way toward making the game feel more realistic.

Authenticity has always been a hallmark of Call of Duty, and that doesn’t change here. There are over 30 real weapons to choose from, with some having alternate firing options. You also get the opportunity to dual wield handguns, and the campaign does a great job of allowing you to experience the entire arsenal by default. Portable turrets play a big role as well.

Of course the multiplayer is why there are still hundreds of thousands of people playing Call of Duty 4, and while Modern Warfare 2 is nowhere near as groundbreaking in this regard, the developers have expanded on the foundation significantly. There are 15 new maps included on the disc. While the Xbox 360 version will be getting the first DLC map pack exclusively for a period of time, there’s still plenty of land to smear with the blood of your foes. New game types are pretty rare, though you do get capture the flag this time around along with a new mode called demolition where you have to activate bombs scattered around the map and then defend them until they explode. There’s also a third-person mode, but it’s basically a novelty as the game hasn’t been altered in any way to make better use of the perspective.


Experience points and perks were the real boon in the first Modern Warfare along with custom classes. All these concepts return with an added twist, and an extra 15 levels to attain. You can still assign up to three perks per soldier—selecting one from each category--but you are sometimes rewarded with extra perks based on your play. Die several times without a kill and you’ll get a timed health boost, for instance.

In short order you unlock the ability to create your own classes in addition to the ones supplied, and you can customize the rewards for killstreaks and deathstreaks based upon your style of play. The final new component is the ability to customize your call sign and rank emblem, with some humorous possibilities. More an evolution than a revolution, smart additions, like server migration, have been made to the competitive multiplayer to drastically improve the experience and ensure an unhealthy addiction.

The last piece of the design puzzle is the cooperative spec ops mode where you and a friend can play through 23 unique scenarios online. As you complete them you’re rewarded with stars to unlock more with the number of stars you’re awarded governed by the difficulty setting. Each player can select their own level of challenge, but you only get the stars for the lowest setting. Some of the missions are genius, with one player in the sky and another on the ground spotting targets. Others involve defending points or clearing locations of enemies, and you can resuscitate your partner with the time limit, again, governed by the difficulty. Two players may seem like a small number, but the missions have been built with this in mind, making the tandem system work extremely well. Spec ops is addictive, and on the harder settings, command a great deal of coordination to complete.

While the single-player campaign is brisk, its design has been improved on just about every front. The same goes for competitive multiplayer, where small tweaks pack a much bigger whallop than you’d think. Toss in spec ops and you have a game that will give you a tremendous amount of play time per dollar.

There was a whole lot of shooting required in Call of Duty 4, and while you still get ample opportunity to unload magazines in Modern Warfare 2, there’s also a lot more variety. You’ve seen the snowmobile chase and the ice wall section, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The ruthless pacing has you escaping across a rooftop one second and executing an amphibious attack the next. It will constantly keep you guessing, but each section of the game is so arresting and frantic that you don’t have time to even ponder what might come next.

The gunplay utilizes the series’ patented--and generous--auto lock targeting using your iron sights. It’s not particularly realistic, but the game has been constructed with it in mind, and it’s probably the only way you could take on this many enemies at once without wanting to snap your controller. Weapons fire like the real thing, with recoil, bullet penetration, and gravity all taking their toll on accuracy.

Adding to the challenge is a heavy concentration of civilians. Makarov isn’t afraid to make a residential area a battle ground, and you’ll have to navigate scrambling innocents with an itchy trigger finger at several points.

The riot shield is a new implement of war, and its ability to absorb vast amounts of punishment really turn the game on its side. Whether you use it to charge into battle and melee, or set up a defensive barrier for your brothers in arms, its flexibility is surprising.


While you tackle most missions with fellow soldiers at your side, Modern Warfare 2 ignores team tactics. You cannot instruct them in any way, shape, or form. It’s a little disappointing, but the AI does an adequate job of handling each skirmish. The lone chance to influence squad mates comes in the form of excellent slow-mo breaches where you have a finite amount of time to identify targets and eliminate them before hostages are killed.

Modern Warfare 2’s gameplay strikes a near-perfect balance between the known and unknown. With unpredictable enemy placement, grenades tossed around like candy, and explosive elements at every turn, it’s a frenzied experience whether you’re playing alone or with friends. Every last element has received a lot of attention, ensuring that no mission or gameplay type is a throwaway. You won’t be able to stop playing.

When Call of Duty 4 was released it set the bar for what multiplatform games could look and sound like. Modern Warfare 2 uses the same engine, and while it still looks absolutely stunning, the wow factor has been quelled a bit. That said, there are some scenes in the game that make the most of the engine’s capabilities. The amount of detail in each level is only matched by Uncharted 2, with village markets so littered with minutiae that people walking by will do a double take and grenade physics that will make a smile come across your face.

The lighting engine will literally make your jaw drop at many points, yet if you get up close and personal some of the shadows suffer from pixelization. While the continued reliance on long briefing cinemas is a disappointment, the in-game cinemas provide you with a chance to play director and frame some of the most dazzling scenes to your liking. The level of violence has definitely been ramped up, and some scenes are so starkly brutal that those with weaker constitutions will have to turn away. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions look identical, with both running at a blazing rate despite the absolute madness that takes place on-screen. There are a few wrinkles here and there, but it manages to retain its crown as the best-looking game to be released for more than one console.

Militaristic music sets the tone nicely with the expected complement of snare drums and swirling orchestral builds. The voice acting is great despite the rungs of script required to make sure that your comrades are always full of context-sensitive chatter. Few games can match the presentation found in Modern Warfare 2.

Get ready for one wild ride, as Modern Warfare 2’s campaign typifies the phrase “short but sweet.” The air of unpredictability and the care that was paid to each separate element puts it in lofty company. The multiplayer hasn’t received an overhaul, but considering most shooters are still playing catch-up with Call of Duty 4, the tweaks and twists make it the best multiplayer shooting experience in the industry. Few games manage to meet such high expectations, so do not hesitate to lock and load this one into your collection.

Source: Infinity Ward