WORDS BY: Paul Curthoys
There are no surprises in Modern Warfare 2, and yet there are countless surprises. It doesn’t hit the crystal-clear note of perfection that the last game did, but it’s one of 2009’s very best games. You know exactly what you’re getting from it (brilliant multiplayer, insanely intense single-player), and yet you don’t (the new co-op mode is genius).
Modern Warfare 2 left us with mixed feelings, even though most of the feelings in that mix could be roughly translated as “that was f---ing awesome!” But for a series that sets and achieves such high standards, we were surprised and disappointed by how many times the single-player stumbled and fell short. The highly controversial “No Russian” level aside, the single-player gets off to an awfully slow start. The initial missions in Afghanistan, while fine, are the kind of typical Call of Duty fare we’ve all played a million times by now. The intensity is high, the dialogue’s heroic, and you move through the battle as just another cog in a swarm of victorious firepower. But it lacks an OMG kickoff, like the leap from the ship to the chopper that so memorably opened Modern Warfare. A routine, paint-by-numbers beginning is not what we expected.
“Cliffhanger” and “Wolverines” are more like it. In the first, you and Soap penetrate a snow-covered base in what’s really a perfect Call of Duty mission. There’s cool gear (ice picks and heartbeat sensors), there’s stealth in the blizzard and a tense shootout when Soap gets captured, and it all ends with an unexpected, mad snowmobile dash.
“Wolverines” (the first op inside the U.S.) also achieves that captivating combination of hair-raising moments and holy-crap military hardware. Between nervously dodging the BTR (the Russian tank), sniping from the roof with thermal scopes, and then raining death from above and below with a Predator and a Stinger, we almost forgot to breathe.
The campaign builds steadily toward a triumphant finale, and Act 3 is 100% unadulterated awesome. We love unforgettable sequences like launching from the sub to storm the oil rig and dangling from the chopper to snipe while the Air Force recklessly bombs everything in sight. And though Modern Warfare 2 has its fair share of incredible moments like these, they’re sandwiched between too much filler. Slogging through the sequences in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro feels like work, not fun. Aside from the great stakeout-gone-wrong opening, these missions are standard FPS stuff — move forward, check roofs and corners, repeat. The cool is MIA.
The other single-player letdown comes from the bizarrely improbable, almost loopy story that threads the missions together. **(SPOILER ALERT!)** A tight, compelling tale made the first Modern Warfare riveting, but in Modern Warfare 2, even the most willing player will find their disbelief shattered. A Russian invasion of the U.S. that goes practically undetected? Nuking D.C. to save it? And starting a war with Russia in the first place to, uh…um…we never could figure that one out. Without that feeling of this-could-happen realism, Modern Warfare 2’s story lacks edgy allure. **(END SPOILER ALERT)**
No Russian? No Thanks.
Here’s our take on this highly controversial sequence. We imagine Infinity Ward wants us to feel frozen by shock during the optional “No Russian” level — to, in some tiny way, experience what an undercover agent might feel when faced with massacring civilians in order to keep his identity concealed. Except that’s BS. The sequence is interactive, yet we’re locked in a box with only one outcome. Since the situation is so much bigger than that, as are the emotions it triggers, the scene is robbed of its intended impact because we can’t explore even a few of Pvt. Allen’s options. Why not let him try to briefly hide and contact Shepherd? Or at least provide a cutscene that deals with the consequences of breaking cover and killing the terrorists? But because what we’re put through is so inherently shallow and yet so raw, the whole thing feels crass. It wants to give the story a mean ol’ edge, but it lacks the proper weight to respect the fact that we just had to sit through hundreds of innocent people being gunned down with casual brutality. And by not paying off after tapping such a painful nerve, it becomes just another Happy Meal for Fox News. Worse, it takes some of the wind out of the story’s sails. If such a narrow outcome was needed to keep the plot going where it needed to go, then it should’ve been handled in a cutscene. “No Russian” was a significant storytelling error.
Fortunately, the rest of Modern Warfare 2 is simply magnificent, and besides, that’s where you’ll spend the coming months, if not years, with this game. The new co-op mode, SpecOps, completely captured us. It excerpts highlights from both Modern Warfares and gives you mini-game–like goals: kill all enemies in a certain time, ghillie up and sneak through an area undetected, or just blow up all the wrecked cars on a bridge. The only thing missing is matchmaking — why not help lone wolves find others to enjoy this mode with?
At least you can play most of these set pieces solo, but they really shine when you work with a friend who enjoys coordinating tactics and working as a unit. The star of the show are the two levels where one of you mans either an AC-130 gunship or a helicopter turret, providing overwatch as your partner runs the gauntlet on the ground. It’s incredibly fun to meticulously clear enemies away from your buddy with the devastating ordnance of both aircraft, and it’s equally tense and exciting to be on foot, proceeding cautiously and calling out targets to your friend. The level of coordination is as rewarding as all the fireworks, and we wish the game had 10 missions like these, not just two. DLC…please?
We also expected big, gigantic things from multiplayer, and Modern Warfare 2 delivers them. Put plainly, it’s the best FPS multiplayer on Xbox 360. Every map is lovingly designed to max out its replayability — we tried to find a dud that we didn’t like…and failed. The rank and XP structure provides steady rewards for the time you put in, and being able to customize your kill-streak rewards is a fantastic addition. Our favorite new feature, though, is a small but great thing: showing the match-winning kill cam to the whole room. Brilliant.
We also appreciate how the new deathstreaks help noobs dig themselves out of a hole, and how even smaller refinements — grenade spamming is less effective; opposing forces can now have aircraft up at the same time — pay off in big ways. Between all the playlists, all the dense angles of fire packed into every map, and the constant incentive to level up, this multiplayer’s got the sturdiest legs we’ve ever seen.
Modern Warfare 2 is easily one of the year’s best games. Because it’s more iterative than innovative, though, it’s not quite as perfect as we’d expected, but it is a terrifically fun, nerve-wrackingly intense spectacle that you’d be crazy to miss.
+ SpecOps co-op mode is a hugely fun new feature.
+ Best FPS multiplayer to date on Xbox 360.
- Ludicrous story; too many filler missions.
? Just how will Soap and Price return in Modern Warfare 3?