For Call of Duty (CoD): Modern Warfare 2’s London launch, publisher Activision-Blizzard invaded Leicester Square and rolled out a camouflage carpet in movie premiere heartland. That’s as good a symbol as one could hope for the game’s militaristic bombast and for gaming’s pop-cultural ascendency.
Modern Warfare 2 inspired controversy and anticipation in near equal measures in the weeks running up to its release. The game faced the hurdle of living up to the standard set by its critically revered predecessor, CoD 4: Modern Warfare, which still has a fanatical multiplayer following.
The new first person shooter (FPS) also attracted a great deal of negative attention in the run-up to its launch. Leaked video footage of a “terrorist level” inflamed the international tabloid press, while gamers angered by a lack of dedicated server support in the PC version threatened to boycott the game. Cocksure as a 1980s action hero, Modern Warfare 2 has swaggered through the minefield without taking a scratch.
Sales have been stellar, with publisher Activision-Blizzard reporting that the game sold nearly 5m copies in just the US and UK on the first day it was available. Reviews have been equally strong, with the game scoring an average of 95% on Metacritic. It’s well worth the hype.
Modern Warfare 2 was developed by Infinity Ward and continues the thread from CoD 4, the first game in the series to focus on contemporary warfare rather than World War 2. (Last year’s World War 2 shooter, Call of Duty: World at War was developed by Treyarch). The single-player campaign picks up five years after the events of CoD 4, with the world once again on the brink of disaster.
Playing as a number of special forces troops throughout the campaign, the player follows the fight across the globe from the favelas of Rio and the suburbs of small town America, to the icy wastelands of Russia and the blighted deserts of Afghanistan.
The vaguely comprehensible plot of geopolitical intrigue and international terror is clumsily handled. But to be fair, it’s just the hook on which Modern Warfare 2 hangs its stunning set pieces.
The campaign is taut and expertly crafted, though it doesn’t pack in quite as many shocks and surprises as CoD 4. There’s a great deal of variety in the missions — from stealthily infiltrating an enemy base and assaulting an enemy stronghold head-on, to outrunning enemies on a snow mobile and desperately defending a position from a rooftop.
Though the game is packed with exciting moments and jaw-dropping sequences, the action is almost too relentless. It’s a white-knuckle ride on a rollercoaster that only hurtles down slope, with no time to catch your breath.
I completed the campaign in about six hours on the regular difficulty; those masochistic enough to play the punishing veteran setting could probably stretch the first play-through out to eight hours or more.
A welcome addition to the franchise is a Special Ops mode — a series of short scenarios that you can play solo or with a friend in your lounge or at the other end of an online connection.
Snowmobile races, holding off enemy invasions, defusing bombs, and clearing a level of enemies are just a few examples of Special Ops objectives. This mode will keep players occupied for hours as they try to beat their previous times and earn the highest possible ranking for each mission.
But the most important part of the package is arguably the competitive multiplayer. CoD 4 is still the king of competitive multiplayer shooters; with Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward has refined an already excellent formula to perfection. With a range of customisable settings, a wide selection of competitive modes, dozens of weapons, and tight map design, Modern Warfare 2 offers enough depth and content to keep one busy for dozens of hours.
CoD 4 added a series of twists to the multiplayer formula by allowing players to earn experience for wins and kills to ‘level up’ and earn new weapons and perks. Infinity Ward has tweaked these weapons and perks for balance, and added some new ones into the mix.
Perks are a set of passive skills that allow players to deal more damage with their weapons, be invisible to enemies’ radar, take more bullets without going down or carry additional weapons and equipment. Each player can select three perks suited to his gameplay style.
Another feature that CoD 4 introduced was kill streaks — rewards for players who achieve a number of kills in a row. These range from revealing all enemies’ positions on the radar to sending a helicopter in to gun enemies down. Modern Warfare 2 offers some powerful new kill streak rewards, including an airborne predator missile strike and a tactical nuclear bomb for the player that gets 25 kills in a row.
The multiplayer isn’t particularly newbie-friendly; until you find your feet, you can expect to be mercilessly pummelled by veteran CoD 4 players armed with the best gear and perks. The kill streak rewards are so devastating that a team with two really good players can make short work of less experienced rivals.
A new mechanic called “death streaks” offers some welcome aid to inexperienced players. Once you’re gunned down several times in a row without scoring a kill yourself, you can copy the perks and weapon load-out of one of your rivals or can respawn with double health, for example. This can briefly turn the tide for a struggling player.
As compelling as the multiplayer is, I have found match-making on Xbox Live to be somewhat slow and erratic, though I’m sure a patch will be incoming soon.
Infinity Ward has, as always, done a superb job with the technical aspects of the game. The environments are lavishly detailed, the character animations are fluid, and the lighting, explosions and smoke effects are spectacular. Whether you’re stalking enemy soldiers in the middle of a blizzard or fighting for survival in the harsh glare of the Middle Eastern sun, the visuals immerse you in the action.
Modern Warfare 2 is designed for performance rather than beauty — the game is breathtaking in motion, but many of the textures don’t stand up to closer scrutiny. On consoles, the game runs at a sub high definition native resolution to ensure that it can maintain a crisp frame rate of 60 frames per second — double most other shooters on the market today.
The sound is equally impressive. Modern Warfare is the first video game to feature a score by Oscar-winning composer, Hans Zimmer. Zimmer’s captivating score makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a Hollywood action film. The explosions and gunshots are pleasingly beefy, too.
Modern Warfare 2 is a game that no fan of console single-player or multi-player first-person shooters can afford to miss. Whether the game is worthwhile for PC gamers is harder to answer. Infinity Ward has cut many features from Modern Warfare 2 that PC owners are accustomed to, including the ability to input console commands and to install user-created mods.
Most disappointing is the removal of dedicated server support, meaning that the communities that have built up around servers hosted by the likes of Saix will be torn apart because everyone now needs to use Infinity Ward’s match-making service.
Even worse, gamers will need to get used to shakier network performance since the game is hosted on peer-to-peer connections. CoD has long been the competitive shooter franchise of choice, but I suspect that many serious SA clans will be staying with CoD 4 or World at War rather than upgrading to the new game. — Lance Harris, TechCentral
- Reviewed on Xbox 360. Also available on Windows PC and PlayStation 3