Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Retrospective Review

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The elevator doors let off a soft ping as they close. A voice speaks quickly, purposefully, in Russian. I hear someone zip open a duffel bag, and a light machine gun is handed to me in the darkness. All around me, I hear the sound of bolts being pulled back, breeches charged with lead and brass. The sound of imminent death.

The lights come on. A short man stands before me, dressed in a dark suit and bulletproof vest. His gaunt face wears a permanent 5 o’clock shadow, underneath a shock of black hair and dark eyes.

“Remember,” he says to the group of armed men standing around me, “no Russian.” The doors give another ping and they open wide. We’re at a crowded terminal gate full of travelers slowly working their way through a security checkpoint, luggage and passports clutched tight. As if on cue, our weapons come up. I’m staring down the sights at a crowd of faces, too many to make any one stand out. There’s no air to breathe, the room is silent as a tomb. Then the men around me open fire, everything light and noise as bodies fall. Without thinking, I squeeze the trigger.

Modern Warfare 2 had a lot to live up to when it was released back in Fall of 2009. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare exploded when it was released two years previously, yanking the series out of the grim trenches and beaches of the Second World War, and starting an industry-wide scramble to set first-person shooters firmly in the 21st century. As Nic recently pointed out in his retrospective review, the success of Modern Warfare set off a flurry of copycats hoping to cash in on the era of the modern military shooter.

For the most part, Modern Warfare 2 follows the same formula that we’ve come to expect from the Call of Duty series. 5 years after the events of the last game, the Ultranationalist party of Russia has come to power despite their leader, Imran Zakhaev, being killed by a team of British SAS and American Marine operatives. After a radical Ultranationalist stages a brutal shooting at a Russian airport, and pins the blame on American Special Forces, Russia invades the United States in all-out war.

You fill the combat boots of Gary “Roach” Sanderson, a former SAS operative now working for Task Force 141. Little is known about this shadowy group of killers, who’ve made it their mission to hunt down Vladimir Makarov – the man who orchestrated the attack on the Russian airport, plunging the world into World War Three.

All well and good, but at times, the plot feels more than a little pulled-thin.

Whereas Modern Warfare felt like a highlights reel of every great war movie set during a current conflict – seriously, if you closed your eyes, you’d swear you were in Black Hawk Down during some segments – Modern Warfare 2 takes more obvious inspiration from the over-the-top action thrillers of the 1980’s and 90’s.modern warfare 2_gallery_01
It’s no surprise that one of the missions in the middle of the game – during which you hold out against Russian forces from the roof of a diner straight out of Pulp Fiction – is named “Wolverines!” It’s an obvious, almost cheesy, reference to the Patrick Swayze/ Jennifer Grey Reagansploitation flick Red Dawn.

Hell, watch closely during a mission to raid a Russian Prison (in the interest of spoilers, I won’t say why you’re there), and you’ll notice an almost exact copy of the shower ambush from the 1996 Alcatraz action film The Rock.

Fair enough, but even cornball action has its place in videogames. But does all this make the game better? In a word – no.

While you certainly feel like a hero from a John Woo film on occasion, blazing away with dual-wielded uzis while villains rush you from every angle, the overall pacing and story suffer from misdirection, a meandering plot, and a constant sense of being led down a pre-determined path.

At times, the plot seems as if it’s been deliberately stretched thin in order to justify sending the player to a new “hot spot” the game developers wanted to showcase. Why exactly would an ultranationalist Russian terrorist like Makarov need to shop around for guns for his terrorist attack  from a Brazilian arms dealer in the first place? No time to explain, I suppose, off to sunny Brazil we go! It’s a stitched-together patchwork of set-pieces and it feels like it, a collection of cool moments hanging together by the loosest narrative thread.

Modern Warfare 2 follows the old adage about joining the U.S. Miltary to a T – Join the Army. Travel the World. Meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture. And kill them. It’s all very “America! Fuck yeah!”, and after a while the overbearing macho patriotism of the whole thing becomes tiresome.

All right then – take Modern Warfare 2 for what it is, rather than what it is not, and you’re still left with a highly addictive, fun, entry in the first-person-shooter genre. It’s worth noting that Modern Warfare 2 takes the previous installment’s sense of gun porn to a whole new level. Though you’re still only able to obsessively tweak your weapons’ accessories in multiplayer, you’ll find a much more diverse arsenal at your disposal than before in the single player campaign.

For some, that much choice can feel overwhelming, but it’s to Infinity Ward’s credit that the choice of which weapon to use flows naturally with the pace and range of combat. Whether you opt for picking your enemies off with a sniper rifle, hammering away at them with a light machine gun, or dual-wielding machine pistols for victory, combat remains intense. modern warfare 2_gallery_02

Sadly, diverse as the mission environments may be, they lack the innovative “wow” factor that made the first Modern Warfare feel like a breath of fresh air. The critically acclaimed sniper mission from the first game is here repackaged as a handful of brief stealth sections, which usually devolve back into run-and-gun shootouts once you’ve had a little time to feel like a modern ninja.

Modern Warfare 2 even overuses one of the most jarring moments from its predecessor, when the player’s character dies – once from a televised point-blank execution, and again from stumbling around in a nuclear holocaust. The writers of Modern Warfare 2, on the other hand, gleefully kill off player characters so many times that for a while it almost becomes hard to keep track of what character we are supposed to be playing as at that moment, and overusing the gimmick means that, far from being a surprise twist, the scenes are robbed of their dramatic impact thanks to over-familiarity.

To a certain extent then, Modern Warfare 2 plays it safe, sticking to a formula and going for over-the-top action sequences and Hollywood blockbuster moments rather than innovative levels or gameplay elements. Sure, you’ll get a chance to use a heartbeat sensor to track enemies in the snow, and another level will see you using thermal vision to snipe soldiers through a smoke screen. The problem is that after a while, it all feels a bit drawn out. The levels and story pacing are rolled out so quickly, you really feel like if you blink you’ll miss a key plot point.

Obviously, the moment on everyone’s mind – including a number of tabloid newspapers – in Modern Warfare 2 is the mission in which you’re forced to participate in Makarov’s terrorist attack against unarmed Russian civilians. While it could be argued that the level is a self-reflection on the nature of killing in the digital realm, and you’re not forced to participate (you can opt to skip the scene entirely, and events play out whether you pull the trigger yourself or not) it feels tasteless.

But where Modern Warfare 2 really drops the ball is in it’s handling of the level’s aftermath – the Russians invade America’s soil and, by golly, we’re gonna drive them right out! There’s no moral question raised – one minute you’re part of a group laying waste to innocent lives, and then after a brief cutscene, you go right back to killing the Russians who’ve presumably come to avenge that attack. It’s sadly lacking in depth, and for that reason, feels merely “shocking” for shock value.

Of course, the same can’t be said of the multiplayer, and Modern Warfare 2 continues the series’ reputation for excellence while building on the additions seen in the first Modern Warfare. Perks and Multiplayer XP make a return, allowing you to ascend the multiplayer ranks and unlock new weapons and gear to customize. Kill streaks now give you even more unlockable goodies – including access to a C-130 gunship.

Most notable, however, is the new Special Ops missions – basically a set of increasingly-difficult missions that you can tackle co-operatively. A few of them can be played alone… but God help you if you go down that route. The missions featured in Special Ops, including one in which you and a buddy can take turns sprinting across an enemy killzone while your friend rains fire from a C-130 gunship above, almost feel a bit more thought out than the missions in the campaign. With the story already established in the single-player, the Special Ops missions feel as though Infinity Ward could devote their full attention to solid gameplay. Really, it’s one of the game’s strongest selling points.

Sadly though, Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t live up to the high bar set by its predecessor. While the game’s multiplayer and co-op modes remain very strong, the short campaign, muddled single-player story, and lack of any real innovation doesn’t make it stand out from the pack. It’s certainly worth playing, but don’t expect to be blown away. Modern Warfare 2 is still a solid entry in a dependable series, but in hindsight it’s hard not to think that it was also the point where the series started to feel more like a product than a genuine attempt to move the genre forward.

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Peter Yankowski

Peter Yankowski

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Peter Yankowski is a freelance writer and blogger. When he's not getting blasted out of the digital skies by Messerchmitts, or cutting work to carve a twisty New England road, Peter writes about gaming news, history in games, and military geekitude.
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