Infinity Ward have certainly made a name for themselves in a relatively short time. Many of the team were veterans of EA’s Medal of Honor series and although their first game (the original Call of Duty) was widely acclaimed, it was their first “next-gen” release Call of Duty 2, coinciding with the Xbox 360’s launch that really made their reputation. With Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare they raised the bar even higher for the genre. So much so that Bungie's ODST release was criticised for being too stale and many AAA titles have pushed their launch dates back to after Christmas to avoid being dwarfed by this year's biggest release. But does it deserve the hype it's receiving, expecting to outsell even the mighty GTA IV?
So anyway, if you’re reading this you probably killed Russian ultranationalist and general nutter Imran Zakhaev in CoD4: Modern Warfare, and now Vladimir Makarov (one of Zakhaev's former lieutenants) has started a campaign against European unity by committing numerous acts of terrorism. As in previous Calls of Duty MW2 has you playing as various characters from both the US forces and the British SAS, and is constantly straddling two positions - mixing ridiculous-but-fun action sequences with gritty, often horrific imagery of modern warfare. This is punctuated heavily throughout by the main story, a fast-action tale that is full of dramatic moments, heroic rescues, double-crosses and betrayals which plays out like a Tom Clancy book on steroids, as read by a heavily caffeinated Denis Leary.
In one mission you're racing down a hillside on a skidoo, gunning down enemies with a machine pistol in one hand, culminating in an unbelievably death-defying jump over a crevasse. It’s a sequence that they’d have rejected from a James Bond script for being too silly. The next mission sees you, as a deep cover agent, taking part in a terrorist massacre at a civilian airport, slowly strolling through the concourse firing from the hip into crowds who are rushing to find cover and get to safety. You can even hang back and finish off the 'survivors' who lie slumped against pillars, clutching their bellies, or crawling desperately to safety. This was totally unexpected - shocking even - and really catches you out after all the tongue-in-cheek fun you'd been having previously. I’ve never seen deader-looking dead people in a game either, they lay there, mouths agape, eyes staring, in realistic pools of blood. This much-talked about mission alone arguably pushes the genre somewhere it hasn't been before.
But after that mission it all kicks off as the Ruskies invade the US and take the fight to suburban streets. I appreciate the variety and banality of the locations but having a last-stand on a fast-food chain roof does take away some of the atmosphere that the darker missions created. And the voice acting doesn't help - everyone (over)acts like a baddie from a Bond film and it does pull things into the “silly” category again.
Mood aside the levels are fantastic to play. Each mission, even the sneaky stealthy ones, is packed to the brim with action and movement - as soon as you recover from an enemy assault with everything but the kitchen sink you barely have time to take everything in before you're sent off to take the offensive. The story is highly cinematic and switches regularly between controllable and non-controllable scenes mid-mission. MW2 also has many scenes that would be cut scenes in other games, but this time you play along, often taking control of the action seamlessly at a key moment. Visually the game is incessantly impressive, a feast for the eyes with highly detailed and well-animated character models and realistic locations. In some shoot-outs you’ll feel like you’re completely outnumbered as bullets ping and ricochet around your ears – as usual the game sounds amazing, and the rousing and emotional music score by Hans Zimmer is superb. One weak point is the “blood splash” effect that’s added to the screen as you take damage. This looks nothing like blood, a lot more like runny jam or cherryade, and is quite ridiculous. The gradual ‘red-out’ for CoD4 was a much better visual representation and why they changed it to this is a mystery to all.
Within each mission IW have worked hard to vary the type of challenge to the gamer so you'll not only be facing enemies on foot, vehicles and in the air but levels will switch rapidly between close-quarters combat, clearing buildings and narrow corridors, to combat in large open spaces. Outside you can snipe or advance around the flanks with cover so the choice of game style is still there for the player. Sometimes the game will test the player by taking away all weapons bar a couple with minimal ammo, or removing all technological items you rely on, forcing players to quickly adapt. Some levels do expand into wide open areas but as good as the game is at convincing you otherwise, it’s still extremely linear.
One mission in particular seems to be designed to play like a cover shooter, and one thing that MW2 does seem a bit behind the times with is its lack of a cover mode, despite the yelled warnings you get every five seconds to 'take cover!'. There are plenty of FPSs that have cover systems that work fine and given the volume of enemies in MW2 the game is infuriating in places where you think you're in cover but still get killed by someone in front of you.
Considering the game is all about “Modern Warfare” the AI on both sides is still rather primitive. Your allies – some of whom are invulnerable for plot purposes - will constantly run past enemies, stand close to them and do nothing, even block your shot and generally be the most useless soldiers since the Terracotta Warriors. I know I don't want the AI to kill everyone for me, but I also don't want to run forward and be shot in the arse by an enemy standing right in front of my team. On the rare occasions they do cover you you’ll always be eternally thankful, and you certainly can’t fault the “virtual co-op” on the heavily-scripted levels that feature Captain MacTavish (voice acted by Kevin McKidd), Captain Price (Billy Murray), Sergeant Riley (Craig Fairbrass, who also played Gaz in Call of Duty 4) and Sergeant Foley (voiced enthusiastically by Keith David). On the other side, although most enemies will spot you and rain bullets accurately in your direction as soon as you raise your head on a level, use cover effectively and chuck grenades to flush you out of cover, many will also run aimlessly towards your sights or stand up in plain view and shoot at you, which can make things look a bit silly, especially when they're supposed to be crack Russian shock troops. However, once again the incessant intensity of the action, the quality of the motion capture and ragdoll effects that result in no two deaths looking the same masks a lot of failings in this area.
There's no mission with the infamous AC-130 Gunship from CoD4 (although it does appear in a Special Ops mission) but there are some other gadgets to play with this time around, from a Aliens-style “heart monitor” motion sensor attached to your weapon to a UAV loaded full of missiles that you control from the air right down to the point of impact, which is great fun.
On all difficulties except Veteran players shouldn't have any problems getting through the game, except for a couple of areas where survival is up to luck rather than skill, and it's a shame that despite all of the improvements made to the gameplay the developers still can't give us a campaign that lasts into double figures hours-wise.
To extend the lifespan and also to counter the criticism about a lack of co-op IW have included a 'Special Ops' mode, which gives you short missions to play co-op, similar to the 'deep and hard' mission on the plane at the end of CoD4:MW's credits. This isn't just a small add-on as there are quite a lot of missions to get through (although most locations are lifted from levels/scenarios in the main storyline so not much originality is required here) and trying to get the full 'star' rating on some of the levels is enough to keep you coming back and replaying them. I played Special Ops mostly split screen co-op which was good fun and technically impressive, but dependent on you having someone about to run through the missions with. I couldn’t find many people playing it, which is a shame, given the size of the online community you’d think there would be enough people to play co-op millions of times over...
We can only presume the lack of potential co-op partners was because everybody’s playing the meat of MW2, which is, as with the original CoD4 Modern Warfare, the multiplayer mode. This is where the bulk of the improvements appear to have been implemented; the RPG element of the first MW has been ramped-up so there are more weapons to customise with more attachments - such as the heartbeat sensor mentioned above and the ability to carry a gun in each hand for extra firepower. One of the fun new 'weapons' is the Riot Shield some gamers will remember from their Counter-Strike days. At the beginning it doesn't seem great as you cannot fire while holding it but in cramped urban levels it is invaluable as you shuffle through doorways with two or three teammates using you as cover and taking down the enemy. It even deflects bullets and these can ricochet back and kill the enemy!
The upgrades or 'perks' have also been stretched and tweaked to avoid over-powering certain combinations. The best options are available from the start and the unlockables are really there for choice or as rewards for completing some of the many new challenges. A helpful addition is the inclusion of power-ups which take effect if you die more than three or four times in a row without killing anyone, essentially levelling the playing field for new or less skilled players. However compared to some of the other perks they are largely ineffective and Martyrdom, where you drop a live grenade as you die, is useless whereas in the last game it was almost a guaranteed kill.
In addition to clan tags there are all sorts of community tags that you can add to your profile such as emblems and logos that are unlocked as you progress and complete challenges. These types of things added no value for me and I simply can't see the point of them - perhaps these are aimed at clans or the swathes of under-18 racist Americans I have already encountered playing this game online? In the multiplayer menus there is a lot of information thrown at you but IW are still using the same online interface from the last game. This makes finding out what you've unlocked extremely fiddly and considering you unlock a couple of things after nearly every match it gets a bit annoying. Also you'll find yourself completing multiple challenges you didn't know existed, which does kind of defeat the object of them being challenges to work towards.
There are more levels online than in the previous MW2 (although some look suspiciously like rehashes of CoD2 maps), with statements from IW that there will be at least TWO map packs available, so fans of the multiplayer will be busy for a long time. The levels are a mixed bag and aside from a few sniper-only levels they vary greatly from open areas to close-quarters combat. The maps are much larger and there are many more buildings and hiding places which players can exploit rather than sitting out in the open. The multiplayer feels like it’s been polished and tweaked but fails to bring anything new to the genre and is unlikely to tempt any newcomers if they didn’t like this sort of gaming before.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is one of the best FPS I've played. The story mode is engaging, relentless and great fun and the online mode should keep me entertained for 40-50+ hrs - I've already racked up 16 hours in the first week of release online alone. However it's not the perfect ten AAA that I was expecting. Although the missions are great they do feel hammy and silly at times which tends to ruin it, the AI doesn't work as well as it should and the campaign is, once again, too short.
This is the first game to retail at £44.99 since the Xbox 360 came out in 2005 and if you don't like playing online then you're paying for a few hours (6-10 depending on how much you stop and smell the roses) of story campaign and some co-op missions, which you will probably have to play online as well unless you have a friend or family member to play the split screen mode with. To justify its inordinate hype, this franchise needs more substantial single player content or at least a cut-price version available for those who want to play MW2 but aren’t interested in the online side of the game, of which there are at least as many as actually play the deathmatch and multiplayer modes. The curve of innovation has started to shallow with MW2 so I'll be interested to see in what direction they take MW3 if they still want to be the market leaders...