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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Modern_Warfare_2_cover Trivia:

-While in development, the game was meant to be based on real-life events, but further planning was brought to a halt due to events in the 2008 South Ossetia War and the Mumbai terrorist attacks

-Infinity Ward chose only to test the game’s multiplayer suite in an internal beta, believing that an open beta was unnecessary unless the internal beta “did not provide adequate feedback”

The Short Version

Look, I’m really torn about this game.  I want to like it, and I think there’s some genuinely good design here, but it’s also significantly flawed.  If you bought it back in 2009, you’re probably not regretting it; it is, after all, a solid, technically impressive installment in the franchise.  If, however, you are a newcomer to Modern Warfare 2I personally advise renting it or buying it as cheap as possible – it really doesn’t feel worthy of full retail price.  It’s a mess of an experience, and a varying level of disappointment depending on your expectations.

The Long Version

There’s no doubt much of my development as a gamer can be attributed to my introduction into the world of modern shooters, since it was around that time that I really took interest in gaming as an artistic medium rather than simple entertainment.  I began to experiment with new genres, trying games old and new, making what some would call “unwise” purchases to gain an appreciation for the best games.   Gaming became a window into various realms of possibility for me, and shooters were the building blocks to that discovery.

As it happens, Modern Warfare 2 happened to have been one such shooter I came across, and boy was it a shooter.  I’d experienced the roller-coaster ride that was Call of Duty 4 not more than a year before, so I went in with certain expectations of balance and quality, believing that I’d be getting a refined version of what had come before.

I bring this up so you know where I’m coming from, particularly in regards to expectations.  If you go in expecting a refined Call of Duty 4, then Modern Warfare 2 will feel both familiar and foreign at once, and not always in a good way.  The best way to approach this game, and likely the only way to consider purchasing it, is to view it as a shinier iteration of a larger series; not simply a continuation of Modern Warfare, but a glossier and more substantial ball of trademark Call of Duty action than any before it.

Before I elaborate on the good and bad, I thought I’d just throw up the SPOILER WARNING sign for safety’s sake.  I realize that we’re discussing a 2009 game several years after its release, and I will tread carefully around anything truly substantial to the story, but I will need to discuss some aspects of the plot and story to convey exactly why it may or may not work.  Besides, be honest with me – is anyone really willing to split hairs over me spoiling this particular story?

Anyway, on with the review.  Modern Warfare 2‘s campaign, for those interested and who didn’t just jump into multiplayer, begins with a summary of the current state of affairs: it’s been five years since the end of Call of Duty 4, the terrorism-inclined Ultranationalists from that game have become the relatively stable government of Russia, and an ex-Ultranationalist called Vladamir Makarov is stirring up trouble in Europe.  Cue Task Force 141, an assembled group of American and British Commonwealth soldiers dedicated to combating international threats.

The story is mostly focused on the exploits of the 141, but the plot begins in Afghanistan in the midst of urban warfare – a topical choice, given current politics.  From there, it takes the player across the globe, leading on a roughly linear tale up until the first of a few big twists comes into play.  The campaign is divided into three acts, and in theory this divides up the story evenly: Act 1 introduces us to this unstable setting before throwing it into chaos, Act 2 serves as the action-filled “meat” of the story, and Act 3 closes us out in style.

See a problem yet? Like I said, the theory of a clean-cut story is nice and all, but here it’s just organizing an enormous mess of a story.  When I consider Modern Warfare 2 and its various story beats, I get the impression that half of Infinity Ward wanted a balls-out action game while the rest wanted a sharp and relevant political thriller.   That conflict of perspectives between mindless entertainment and meaningful drama – being the sticking point for the Bourne films – might work in better hands, but no one at Infinity Ward is clever enough to pull off something so provocative.

The first twist for instance – be glad I put up the spoiler warning earlier – is an excellent example of how not to merge the two mindsets. Putting the player in a no-win situation wherein they must aid or abet terrorists in the controversy-inducing “No Russian” mission is certainly clever on paper and could subvert what one expects from a blockbuster title, but then the mission devolves into a frantic, cover-based firefight with security officers who are actively assaulting the player and are, as such, not as compromising to kill.  Thus, even with the possibility of guilt weighing on the player, they will still be more pre-occupied with surviving the firefight than with considering their actions or registering the decent sleight of hand said mission ends with.

All of which is to say the game’s mixed about what it wants to do.  Its characters talk up a good game but ultimately fall short of being well-developed or interesting, the twists are interesting in theory but lack conviction and sort of fall flat, and the cutscenes are detailed but far too cluttered with information and too reliant on exposition that doesn’t match with the on-screen imagery.  I can, however, give credit to two things: a certain badass moment during the Brazil string of missions that Captain MacTavish deserves props for pulling off, and a twist that – while being far too clever and creative for this game – does open the floor to a pair of jaw-dropping scenes and discussion of the merits of non-conventional wartime practices.

Unfortunately, the game keeps going after that point, leading to the third big shocker moment that really breaks the story.  If there was any sense of relating to the characters, or of at least understanding their reasoning without fact-checking, this basically tosses those sentiments out the window.  Instead, what we are left with is a sense of regret, depression, and a lack of faith in human morals – hopefully things no one was aware enough to pick up on.

I’ve ragged on about how the story trips over itself and feels disjointed, but therein lies the biggest issue: the story’s the most interesting talking point.  Anything and everything else I could possibly say about Modern Warfare 2 is already common knowledge, stuff that people far wiser and better educated than I have thoroughly broken down.  It’s a formulaic first-person shooter intent on one-upping its predecessor by going bigger and broader; that means more explosions, more gunfights, more vehicle sequences, more awe-inspiring light shows, more ruthless enemies.  Essentially, it’s “shock and awe” without the “awe” part of the equation.

In terms of its design, well, it’s a console-friendly shooter.  The controls are smooth as usual, and the new additions like dual wielding weapons and riot shields do add a certain element of strategy to proceedings, if that’s your thing.  The level design has seen a much-needed update in the form of adding multiple paths – in addition to a roster of locales ranging from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to the frozen peaks of Kazakhstan’s mountains.  This helps keep the action varied and provides for a number of scenic shots, but it’s ultimately overcome by the all-hell-breaks-loose nature of gunfights wherein the screen become coated in blood whenever the player sustains sufficient damage.  It’s distracting and disorienting, and more than a little unnecessary.

Speaking of unnecessary, the enemy AI has seen an increase in cheap design.  It feels as though Infinity Ward equates honest challenge with overzealous, unrelenting grunts who only rest to reload and who feel the need to bottleneck player progression.  The “greater range” of paths only serves as a brief respite from being blasted and shot from every direction, since opposing soldiers will inevitably find a way to gang up on the player regardless of whether they enter through a window or a doorway.

Fortunately, thanks to regenerating health, a modest checkpoint system, and pacing like a Lamborgini running on nitrous, it’s possible to get through a level with minimal frustration.  Addressing the pacing for a moment, I’m thankful that Infinity Ward’s “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to storytelling convinced them to structure the campaign as efficiently as possible.  There’s no breaks in action, and few lulls; instead, it’s go-go-go from checkpoint to checkpoint, ducking into cover when the time comes, firing at other pieces of cover where bullets are coming from, and running like a madman whenever a contrived time limit comes up.  It is, essentially, an homage to 80’s action flicks.

And no, I’m not even using that as hyperbole – the entire second act of the campaign is one big tribute to Red Dawn, complete with a mildly-amusing mission title and some Easter eggs.  Without spoiling the why of it all (or trying to analyse the how of it all), this portion of the game serves as a grim juxtaposition to the clandestine operations of Task Force 141 with images of a ruined American suburb flooded with invading soldiers.  This entire “America F’yeah” sequence of events, to its credit, does display some great imagery and is unabashedly nationalistic in tone; in fact, I’d argue it does the “American Homefront” angle better than Homefront.

Another thing that really worked were the stealth segments, few and far between as they were.  It’s nothing too exceptional and perhaps it was merely solid in a game far less so, but the first mission involving Task Force 141 – where careful movement through a snowstorm and use of a motion sensor were necessary – really felt like a step in the right direction.  That sequence and two others like it made the game feel more like a proper successor to Modern Warfare‘s excellent Pripyat missions, if only briefly.

Honestly, taken as a purely sensory experience, Modern Warfare 2‘s campaign is the sheer definition of mind f**k.  It starts with heated gunfights in Afghanistan, then graduates to riding down snowy slopes and charging across rooftops, before settling into a groove of slow-motion shooting gallery scenes and explosive escapes from collapsing structures.  Here, the single-minded linearity actually aids the overload of visual information by keeping things running at a steady pace; it’s just a shame that it’s all superficial, and couldn’t have been attached to a more intelligent game.

Leaving the campaign, we come to the game’s more marketable modes: its online multiplayer suite, and Special Ops.  The former is same as always, with some new perks that allow rookie players to get into the action without feeling too overwhelmed or picked on.  I know about the troubles surrounding the PC version’s lack of dedicated servers and the bugs plaguing all versions of the game, but honestly the biggest issue is that it’s typical high-octane, camper-happy gunplay on display here.

Special Ops mode, however, is a more creative and therefore welcome addition to the franchise.  In the vein of the post-credits mission from Modern Warfare, Special Ops features 23 self-contained missions that can be played through online or off with two players.  Each mission has a range of three difficulties to surpass, and the variety of mission types throughout the mode isn’t bad at all.  Some missions play like isolated segments from the campaign, while other focus on classic objectives like killing waves of enemies or planting explosives throughout a compound.  It was nice to see some genuine effort in game design, and I could imagine many developers using this as a foundation for future games.

From a technical standpoint, Modern Warfare 2 is about as flawless as a mainstream shooter’s going to get.  The IW 4.0 game engine is absolutely gorgeous, with every environment and texture rendered in high-definition.  The lighting in levels is used to create a range of visually stunning scenes, and the character models are damn near photo-realistic in a way that isn’t verging on uncanny.  In a game where explosions and colour dominate much of the experience, it’s nice to see some self-control and quality design.

I can’t say whether or not the soundtrack is any good, just that it isn’t memorable.  I only remember the opening and closing themes because they’re the same, and they’re shown off in particularly dramatic fashion.  The voice acting, however, is quite excellent; in fact, it’s pretty shocking to learn that Lance Henriksen – freaking Bishop from Aliens – voices Lieutenant General Shepard.  That kind of talent, as well as the admirable work of Kevin McKidd and Billy Murray, deserved a better outlet.

Modern Warfare 2 feels like a cautionary tale for all potentially great developers: go in with no plan and plentiful overconfidence, and you may find yourself with a misshapen product.  The game isn’t bad per se, escaping scathing judgement just on technical proficiency alone, but it does indicate that perhaps Infinity Ward should ease back on the obsession with how they tell their stories and reevaluate what kind of stories they’re trying to tell.

3-stars-out-of-5

Recommendation: Rent It

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