Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Review: This Means WarS

Sergeant Gary "Roach" Sanderson answers the call of duty in the highly charged Modern Warfare 2, developer Infinity Ward's immediate successor to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Modern Warfare 2's single-player campaign picks up five years after the events of the previous game, telling the bloody story of a new conflict between multinational military squad Task Force 141 and Russian Ultranationalists under the leadership of terrorist Vladimir Makarov. It's a relatively short ride, a package fleshed out by the longer-term draw of Modern Warfare 2's expansive—and destined for popularity—multiplayer suite as well as the cooperative two-player Spec Ops mission mode.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has been billed as the "most anticipated game of the year" by its publisher. The PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game has been pegged as the year's biggest, bestselling blockbuster by analysts. But is the game good? And is it a worthy successor to the multi-million selling Call of Duty 4?

Loved
A Thrilling Single-player Campaign: Like Infinity Ward's previous Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2 is an explosive roller coaster ride of an action game. It peaks with frenetic chases and bottoms out with slow, steady sniper mission and, with a campaign length on par with Call of Duty 4, never overstays its welcome. On my first playthrough on Hardened difficulty—one notch higher than standard challenge—it took me just over 7 hours to complete. That may be brief in comparison to Modern Warfare 2's peers, but the pacing is tight, with regular doses of hyper-violent spectacle. That said, the single-player campaign has its faults, mostly from a storytelling perspective.

Awesome Presentation: Modern Warfare 2's globe-spanning adventure features some awesome sights and sounds. From the game's amazing voice over work to its booming audio to its well-designed set pieces, the game's single-player levels—and the multiplayer maps built upon their foundation—feature impressive attention to detail. Levels set in the exotic favelas of Brazil and in familiar suburban streets present the player with locations they've likely never done battle in, a fine contrast to the bleak and barren environments of Afghanistan and Kazakhstan. The game doesn't waste much time expounding upon plot or reason, mostly barking orders at the player between missions as intel swoops by on a mostly black screen. It just does it with top notch voice talent. Character modeling has made an impressive leap, with character faces now having... character.

Spec Ops: If you're not quite ready to venture into the foulmouthed multiplayer noob-slaying frenzy that is Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer mode, the cooperative multiplayer Spec Ops mode offers a stellar two-player experience. Most missions can be played solo—not that you'd really want to—but a few require a buddy. And they're the best of the lot, putting one on the ground, the other in hovering aircraft—an AC-130 in one, an attack helicopter in the other—raining down gunfire upon swarms of computer-controlled foes as the ground-based player works his way across a map. Some of the later Spec Ops challenges can be painfully hard, particularly on Hardened or Veteran difficulty, but most of the challenges are a treat to play with a friend.

A Massive Multiplayer Buffet: Fourteen multiplayer modes may sounds like option overkill, but most of Modern Warfare 2's game types are variations on the familiar, including Capture The Flag, Team Deathmatch, the bomb-planting/bomb-defusing Demolition and the base-capturing Domination. The most enjoyable of these modes, personally, was the Headquarters Pro mode, which spawns capture points throughout the round, targets that teams must hold and defend. It's a mode that requires, for better or worse, active communication among teammates, making for a thrilling and sometimes frustrating experience. Layered on top of the broad game type offering are 16 multiplayer maps, dozens of unlockable weapons and attachments, per-weapon, per-perk and per-item Challenges (that will take dozens of hours to fully complete) and a level progression system that's incredibly addictive.

Streaks & Perks 2.0: Adding to the variety of Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer are expanded attribute enhancing Perks, which can be unlocked as players progress and the second-tier "Pro" versions of Perks that make players even better. For example, the Sleight Of Hand Perk, which lets players reload quicker, adds the ability to aim faster via scope or sight with Sleight Of Hand Pro. Also expanded are the rewards players can deploy from racking up kill streaks, which included UAV radar detectors, counter-UAV radar jammers and randomized, air-dropped care packages. At the higher, more ridiculous end of the kill streak reward scale are EMP blasts, stealth bomber strikes and game-ending tactical nukes. New to Modern Warfare are death streaks, which give players on the losing side an opportunity to level the playing field. Player-created custom classes let players define almost everything about their online personality and play style, letting you choose which perks, streaks, weapons, and equipment suit you best.

Its Zimmerific: It's not often that I'll take notice of a game's musical score to the point where it sticks with me, where upon revisiting a level I relish the musical accompaniment as I did with Modern Warfare 2. Beyond the pumped up fanfare, the game's soundtrack ranges from a brooding, disturbing drone to a sweet, somber ballad, the drama solidified by the musical efforts of Hans Zimmer and Infinity Ward's audio team.

Host Migration Is One Thing: Modern Warfare 2 brings with it a strong multiplayer backbone—at least on the console side—featuring ample game set up options and speedy entry into populated games. But it's the multiplayer mode's host migration that saves the game, keeping multiplayer matches going when a host bails. In our experience with host migration, upon losing a multiplayer match host, we were back into the action within seconds, not dumped into a lobby from which everyone quits. From our real-world experience, games have been mostly lag-free affairs, though some experiences were unmistakably spotty.

Hated
What Just Happened? Brush up on your Call of Duty 4 single-player if you care about the story-driven events of the sequel, because the delivery of Modern Warfare 2's plot assumes you know it well. The game's single-player campaign can be scattershot and confusing, mostly as a result of the game's hastily delivered orders via intermission and comm transmissions. At the end of the campaign, I was left wondering what the hell just went down and how the key players in Modern Warfare 2 got wrapped up in this conflict. The game's campaign mode also suffers from treading on territory that feels familiar to the first, with some storytelling tricks feeling recycled or just plain overdone. Just how many times can we sprint to an escape helicopter anyway?

Makarov: Modern Warfare 2's antagonist Vladimir Makarov puts the player in a very uncomfortable, disturbingly violent situation that may offend or upset some players—probably a very tiny fraction of the blood-lustful Call of Duty playing population. This can be skipped from the get-go without punishing the player, but... who's going to do that? While in context the level that made me hate Makarov helps to justify the events of the game, it doesn't make it enjoyable.

Abandon All Hope Ye Noobs: Call of Duty fans new to the multiplayer landscape of Modern Warfare 2 may want to find some skilled, friendly teammates to play with. Public multiplayer matches can be a bloodbath for the low-ranking noob, a frustrating, sharp learning curve that's made more punishing by some of the game's killstreak rewards and higher-level unlocks. Spending much of a round being liquefied by AC-130 rounds, Predator missiles or Pave Low fire from above is not uncommon, something that may sour one's enjoyment while playing online. Players may be rightfully concerned about the balance of the game's killstreaks, which, if you're not well-versed in Modern Warfare multiplayer, can be intimidating. Fortunately, options for setting up private matches that disable killstreaks and perks, are easy to access. New users may find it similarly frustrating to not have total access to all of the game's multiplayer modes from the get-go.

Modern Warfare 2's single-player storyline doesn't deliver the same highly charged thrill of its predecessor, despite offering memorable cinematic moments and a massive spike in collateral damage. But Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a tough act to follow, an uncommonly taut campaign delivered in less time and with a then-fresher modern coat of paint. The variety of environments in which one plays through Modern Warfare 2's campaign adds wondrous distinction to the game, even if some of the series' previous stand out storytelling tricks feel more like Modern Warfare tropes.

Fortunately, Infinity Ward has expanded impressively on the game's multiplayer components. Competitive multiplayer is flooded with content, a deep collection of well-crafted modes, maps and unlockable goods that will likely keep players committed to Modern Warfare 2 online well into level 70 and beyond. Spec Ops mode offers an outstanding bite-sized mix of mission-based levels and two-person multiplayer, a cooperative mode that both rewards and challenges. Together, the three pillars of Modern Warfare 2's package make for an impressive experience.

Modern Warfare 2 may not innovate or raise the bar as impressively as Call of Duty 4 did in order to grant it automatic game of the year consideration. The better praise it may deserve is that it's likely the game that many will be playing well into next year.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on November 10. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through single-player campaign on Hardened difficulty, through 80% of Spec Ops cooperative mode and tested multiple online game types on Xbox 360 at an Activision sponsored event over the course of two days. Additional time was spent with a retail copy of the title at home, dedicating additional time to the game's online mode.

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