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A few months ago, it looked like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 would be called simply Modern Warfare 2. I still call it MW2 for brevity's sake but the notion that this is not a Call of Duty game is just nonsense. It features the deep multiplayer and smooth, cinematic single-player that COD fans are used to, as well as a few great modifications.
MW2 is the first true sequel in the series, in that it directly continues the storyline from another game. It picks up where Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare left off. Ultranationals have seized control of the Russian government and consider Zakhaev, the crazed fellow you offed at the end of COD4, to be a martyr. The new Cold War between the U.S. and the ultranationalist Russia quickly becomes a shooting war due to the actions of Makarov, a former lieutenant of Zahkaev. Specifically, he stages a terrorist attack and blames it on the United States.
By now you've probably heard of the controversial scene where you play a member of a terrorist squad shooting up an airport. The game actually gives you the option of skipping it if this sort of thing will upset you too much. You don't have to shoot anyone during this sequence, though you will have to watch all of the carnage: civilians gunned down by the dozens, crowds screaming and running for their lives, the wounded crawling on their stomachs. It's disturbing, certainly, but it's meant to be. No doubt some cable news pundit will state that this scene is training you to be a terrorist but the effect is actually the opposite: you really, really want to kill terrorists.
They do at least a couple more of these "first-person storytelling" scenes in the campaign but much of the plot tying your missions together is told through voiceover on the loading screens. This can be tough to keep up with at times, as the story moves quickly and you bounce between two different characters (a U.S. Army Ranger and a British commando) on opposite ends of the globe. Infinity Ward told COD4's story in much the same manner but that game had a much less complicated plot so it worked better there. MW2 contains a lot of plot twists and that's a good thing but I just wish the story had more room to breath. The terrorist airport scene demonstrated a very engage, effective way to deliver plot and it seems like it could've been used a bit more.
The campaign takes you through a variety of locales such as Rio de Janeiro, Russia, and Virginia. Each of these places looks completely different than the last and presents new tactical challenges for the player. The narrow streets of Rio provide enemies with countless ambush points while the snowstorms in Russia reduce your visibility to almost nothing. Despite the level of polish on these environments, even the heaviest firefights failed to slow the framerate.
As with other COD games, MW2's campaign is heavily scripted and linear. The scripted events - falling ceilings, crashing helicopters, etc. - still managed to dazzle but what was more satisfying about the single-player experience was how familiar gameplay situations from COD4 were tweaked to make them fresh. There's an obligatory rail-shooter sequence early on, sure, but you'll pilot vehicles on two occasions as well. You'll shoot Javelin missiles at tanks like you did in COD4 but you'll also get to control a Predator drone with a briefcase remote and rain down manually-controlled missiles on enemy armor, all the while making sure you're out of harms way from advancing foot soldiers. These things have been done in other shooters before but nonetheless, introducing them into the already-stellar COD formula makes the campaign that much more of a treat.
The single-player campaign takes about six hours to complete, which means you should expect to see a lot of "Games are just too short these days!" editorials flying around the Internet this week. The low level of player choice means you'll probably only play it through once, too. Still, it's a tight campaign with very little filler or repetition, which is something that can't be said about many 10+ hour single-player games. It's not as though MW2 is limited to a single-player component, either.
Rather than adding co-op support to the campaign, IW created something called Special Ops mode. Spec Ops mode is a bit like Uncharted 2's co-op, in that it's a series of standalone challenges loosely based on moments from the campaign but with no actual story content. For example, one Spec Ops challenge tasks you with fighting your way through a market and defusing a bomb. Each challenge can be tackled with one other player via split-screen, system link, or online connection. There's no matchmaking for online Spec Ops, though, so those of you without friends are out of luck. That's unfortunate because some of the most entertaining challenges require two players.
There are five tiers of Spec Ops mode, each with five challenges. At first you only have access to the first tier ("Alpha") and you unlock the others by earning stars. For the most part, you'll get 1 to 3 stars based on what difficulty you complete a challenge on. It's a bit disappointing that you can't get bonus stars for certain performance goals, like Batman: Arkham Asylum did with its challenge rooms. It'd be a cool test of your abilities if you could earn an extra star for, say, completing a challenge by firing less than twenty bullets or only getting headshots. Even without that, though, Spec Ops mode is a lot of fun. It allows you to jump into some of the best moments from the campaign (or scenarios reasonably similar to those moments) instantly. You can't see what challenges are included in locked tiers so you'll probably feel compelled to unlock all of them just to see if there are any amazing challenges hidden at the top tiers (which there are).
Many veterans of the COD series might not touch the campaign or Spec Ops mode, instead jumping right into the game's extremely deep competitive multiplayer offering. The basic formula from COD4 is still in place: playing multiplayer matches earns you XP and with each level you gain access to different weapons and perks. Perks are ability enhancers that allow you to, for example, reload faster or scavenge ammo from dead enemies. With each level you also unlock new challenges, side goals that earn you bonus XP or new add-ons for your weapons. Getting 25 kills with a certain machinegun will get you a grip add-on for the weapon, allowing you to fire it more accurately. The game allows you to craft five custom classes with the exact combination equipment and perks you want.
In COD4 and follow-up Call of Duty: World at War, killing three/five/seven enemies in a row allowed you to unleash progressively better killstreak abilities. With COD4, three kills enabled a radar sweep of the map, five kills let you direct an airstrike, and seven allowed you to call in a helicopter. MW2 doesn't restrict you to the same three killstreak abilities, though. Instead, you select three from a list of 15. Among the new killstreaks are a placeable sentry gun and an EMP pulse that knocks out all enemy electronics. Each of these special abilities has a set kill requirement, so there's some strategy with what killstreaks you choose to enable. You can pick three killstreaks that only require 3, 4, or 5 kills or go for the more powerful abilities that require 15 or even 25 kills in a row. What this new level of customization does is allow you to tune the game to your skill level, ensuring that inexperienced players will get killstreaks while also giving advanced players a reason to keep their killing sprees going for as long as possible.
While all these new high level killstreaks are cool, things get out of hand when several are used concurrently. With COD4, only one helicopter could be in the air at a time but in MW2, you might have a stealth bomber, helicopter, and harrier laying waste to the opposing team at the same time. It's bad enough to be losing a game - getting hit with a missile every five seconds is just demeaning. You can use anti-aircraft missile launchers to take them down, though the more potent ones aren't available to you until higher levels.
Still, Infinity Ward does try to accomodate newer players and keep them competitive. The most significant way of doing this might be "deathstreaks." A deathstreak is an ability that kicks in if you've died a certain number of times in a row without getting a kill. Painkiller, for example, gives you a temporary health boost after spawning if you've died three times or more in a row. Once you end your dry spell, the game gives you a lump of bonus XP so you're still leveling at a steady clip even if you suck. Also, one of the easiest killstreaks to get, Care Package, drops a crate on the map that may give you a much more powerful killstreak to use. You can steal other people's Care Packages, too, so you don't even need to be skilled enough to call in your own - just skilled enough to shoot someone in the back and grab their loot.
Newbie or vet, the competitive multiplayer's going to keep you entertained for a long time. Though favorites like the P90 and Desert Eagle make their return, there's plenty of new weapons to unlock. Secondary weapons are no longer limited to handguns, either; that slot can now be occupied by a number of shotguns, missile launchers, and machine pistols. There's about ten different add-ons to earn for each weapon as well, including silencers and thermal sights. If you rack up enough kills with lighter weapons like pistols and SMG's, you'll earn the ability to dual-wield them. The RPG-like progression of the multiplayer, with a shiny new upgrade always on the horizon, gives the multiplayer an extra allure.
The full assortment of game modes from COD4 are back, offering the staple experiences of multiplayer shooters: assaulting/defending points, planting bombs, and capturing flags. Though there's a sizable amount of modes, there aren't many new ones to speak of. After reaching a certain rank, you can play a few different modes in third-person perspective but that's really more of a novelty than a new gameplay experience. Demolition mode is the only notable addition for me; one team attempts to blow up two targets in a time period while the other defends. The simple tactical issue raised here - "Should our team attack/defend both at once or just one?" - is enough to spice up the usual gunfights. MW2 features an assortment of new maps, rather than retouched versions of old ones, so playing the old game types isn't as tiring as you'd expect.
Call of Duty is an annual series with a proven formula for success. It seems unlikely that any new installment within this generation of consoles will really shake the series' foundations and present something revolutionary. Modern Warfare 2 does polish the old formula to a shine, though, providing solid single-player and competitive multiplayer action while introducing a formidable co-op component. It's still the gold standard for multiplayer and droves of you will still probably be playing it in 2011 when Modern Warfare 3 arrives.
Players: 1-18 Players
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Developer: Infinity Ward