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Video Game Review: Modern Warfare 2

November 18, 2009 | By Herija Green | comment on this post
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Intensity in Tent City… well, actually it’s more of a shanty town.

Before 2007, the Call of Duty series had always been grounded in pseudo-historic World War II lore, using the weapons and locales of that time period. But then, developer Infinity Ward went outside the box and brought things into the present with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Along with a superb and varied campaign, it also brought a new level of customization to the multiplayer experience. Even with the release of Call of Duty: World at War last year, Infinity Ward’s masterpiece still managed to remain among the most played online games week in and week out.

Amid incredible hype and anticipation, Activision and Infinity Ward released Modern Warfare 2 last week and, amazingly, it has managed to deliver a three-pronged assault on the gaming world that not only meets the lofty expectations that have been heaped on the sequel, but exceeds them.

Controls (5/5)

There haven’t been many changes to the Call of Duty control scheme over the years, and Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t see fit to rock the boat. Holding down the left trigger still looks down the sights and pressing the right trigger pops the caps. Your right bumper will throw frag grenades, while the left throws secondary ones (such as flash bangs). If you’re close enough to an enemy, you can click down on the right stick that you use to look around to unleash a fatal melee attack with your knife.

You’ll also be switching weapons (Y), reloading (X), jumping (A) and changing your position from standing to kneeling to prone (B). At times you will also have access to secondary functions of your weapon, gadgets like night vision or explosives. These will be mapped to the d-pad and accessed by pressing in the corresponding direction. There is also a couple of vehicular sequences, and while they don’t handle that great, the controls themselves are very straight forward.

It’s all standard fare for anyone that has any experience with first-person shooters, and it shouldn’t take long for things to become second nature even for newcomers.

Graphics/Sound (5/5)

Considering how strong the original offering was from a graphical standpoint, it’s pretty stunning just how much better things look in Modern Warfare 2. The settings feel more varied this time as you travel from the deserts of Afghanistan to snow covered mountains in Kazakhstan. You’ll fight through a crowded slum in an exhilarating urban warfare setting and find yourself under siege at a fast food joint in a typical American suburb. All of these areas are beautifully rendered with a ton of destructible objects that really help immerse you in your surroundings.

As good as the graphics look throughout the game, the post-EMP bomb level is simply jaw dropping. The basic setup is that during some heavy fighting, an electromagnetic pulse is detonated, knocking out all power and sending vehicles crashing to the ground. Making matters worse, you and your squad are advancing through a torrential downpour. Seeing the embers and smoldering debris floating through the air and mixing with the rainfall is quite a sight, and when the lightning cracks to illuminate previously unseen terrain and enemies it’s an incredible effect.

In addition to the environments, the character models are above reproach. Modern Warfare 2 never misses a chance to impress with all the cool gadgetry you, your squad mates and adversaries have in their possession. Not to mention the sweet body armour and camouflage everyone seems to be decked out in. The movements are also extremely natural as enemies dive to the ground and duck behind cover in a very fluid manner. It all works together so that you’re never taken out of the moment, which really serves to help ramp up the intensity.

Last, but certainly not least, are the guns. They have clearly been painstakingly recreated and look absolutely amazing. When you compare the detail work on every single gun in this game to what we’ve seen out of the relatively modest Halo 3 arsenal, it’s no contest. Particularly when you take into account the amount of online customization that can be done, which allows for literally hundreds of different combinations. With so many cool weapons available to wield, Modern Warfare 2 just makes you feel like a bad ass.

While the graphical enhancements may be more immediately noticeable, things have also been improved dramatically on the audio side. Where this is most evident is with the in-game chatter from your squad, who now call out actual enemy locations. For instance, you might be in a firefight and hear someone shout out, “Tango on the roof of the second story building!” You quickly check that location and there’s a hostile firing on you. The amount and variety of the chatter is impressive and legitimately useful, which is another new item that adds to the game’s immersive feel.

Modern Warfare 2 also features a great musical score that accompanies the action perfectly. The sound effects are spot on as well, lending a lot of satisfaction with the different types of gunfire and plenty of huge explosions. About the only area this game doesn’t shine is in the voice acting, which, while perfectly passable, just doesn’t feel like it’s been upgraded from the original. Of course, there isn’t really a fully realized story being told through cut scenes anyway so it’s a minor complaint.

There are two other items worth noting: First, the improvements aren’t limited to the campaign, as Modern Warfare 2 also offers an excellent looking and sounding multiplayer mode. Second, despite having areas that were crawling with enemies, gunfire, explosions, smoke billowing through the air and much more, I never detected any slow down. That’s pretty impressive.

Gameplay (4.75/5)

Anyone searching for the proverbial chink in the body armour of Modern Warfare 2 will find it in the campaign mode for two reasons. The biggest drawback for most gamers will likely be the length as the story; while encompassing three acts and 18 missions, it can be comfortably finished in five-to-six hours on the default difficulty setting. Those that adopt a highly aggressive approach and advance quickly through the levels should be able to come in under the five-hour mark. By current standards that isn’t particularly meaty, though upping the difficulty to hardened or veteran will stretch the experience a good couple of hours by virtue of the need to adopt a more deliberate pace to avoid constant death.

While complaints about the duration of the campaign may be justified, I would suggest that part of the reason for the abbreviated length is the sheer intensity of the fighting. Outside of the initial tutorial, Modern Warfare 2 careens along full-speed ahead and drops you into one white knuckle firefight after another. The stealth elements from the original haven’t been removed completely, but the majority of the game is all about extreme action sequences with no shortage of bullets whizzing by and explosions going off. Given that kind of sustained adrenaline kick, I think shorter actually works better.

The other gripe is the one I personally found a little disappointing, which is the limited amount of plot development or storytelling going on. The only way the story really advances is during the loading screens in between levels where you’re given pseudo briefings or dialogue to get you set for the next round. Plus, what storylines there are in the game seem pretty farfetched and poorly fleshed out. Instead it’s more about creating isolated surprise moments and finding ways to incorporate the cast of characters from Call of Duty 4 in the mix. While I would’ve loved to see a more cohesive and plausible back story in place, it ultimately doesn’t detract too much because of the heavy focus on action.

Even with a couple shortcomings, I found the single-player story to be a lot of fun. The story jumping around allows for a lot of interesting and diverse areas to fight in, and the improved squad and enemy A.I. is the best I’ve seen in the series. The developers also did me a huge personal favour and removed one of my biggest pet peeves — the infinitely re-spawning enemies. In past Call of Duty games you’d need to push forward or they’d just keeping coming, eliminating the option to methodically pick off adversaries before advancing. It wasn’t a big deal on lower difficulties, but it made veteran mode an exercise in frustration at times given how quickly you die. The addition of a waypoint that shows exactly where you need to go next is another nice feature as it keeps you moving forward.

In addition to the campaign, Modern Warfare 2 also offers a brand new game type called Special Ops, which is a series of 23 self-contained missions. Each one has three different difficulty levels to complete, which will earn you stars. Most of the missions can be played solo (a few are co-op only), but this new mode was obviously designed with two players in mind. This may not sound like much on the surface, but Special Ops is surprisingly addictive and adds a lot of replay value for those that like to team up rather than compete in traditional adversarial multiplayer.

You’ll start off with access to just a handful of missions and as you earn stars you’ll unlock more with each set getting progressively more difficult. There are a lot of different mission types incorporated, including being asked to do things like defend a position, sneak past patrolling guards en route to an extraction point or race on snowmobiles. Many of the locations are directly from the campaign, but there are some unique ones, and fans of Call of Duty 4 will even find a familiar favourite recreated. I found the ones that required one player to advance on foot while the other covered from the air to be among the most enjoyable, as they really promoted teamwork and communication.

Amazingly enough, the campaign and Special Ops modes are reduced to undercard performers in the overall package Modern Warfare 2 delivers with online multiplayer earning main event status. It has raised the bar in virtually every respect from Call of Duty 4, featuring vastly improved graphics, larger and better designed maps, enhanced balancing and an insane amount of customizable options.

Of the improvements, the balancing is the most welcome as it helps make the game accessible to any level of gamer, which is something I’ve disliked about the past two Call of Duty releases. In those games, all the best weapons belonged to those who had played the longest, creating a virtual mismatch for newcomers. This time around the default classes pack a serious punch, and the maps are designed to dissuade some of the cheaper tactics. It’s made a huge difference.

In terms of customization, the sky is the limit. You start with a small number of guns and then by completing challenges and increasing your rank you unlock more. Each weapon has its own set of goals to meet, such as getting a certain number of headshots. Once you reach that number you’ll unlock a new camouflage pattern for that gun. Killing will also unlock attachments, such as a grenade launcher or silencer. Equip these items to complete their challenge and open up even more options. When you consider there are 23 primary weapons and 19 secondary weapons, each with multiple levels of these various challenges, you get a feel for how much your arsenal can be tailored to your style of play.

The game also features perks, which operate as passive abilities such as deeper bullet penetration or faster reloading, and this time around they’ve got their own challenges. Complete these and you’ll be rewarded with a more effective version of that perk. Modern Warfare 2 even allows players to change when and what they earn for consecutive kills (called kill streaks), by giving the ability to pick three options. For example, you can choose to have your kill streak rewards give you a supply drop at four kills in a row, a Harrier strike at seven and an EMP blast at 15. It’s just another way the strategy and customization levels have been ramped up. Given all the improvements, this is arguably the finest multiplayer shooter I’ve ever played.

For those exceedingly passionate about the game, Modern Warfare 2 is also available in both Hardened and Prestige editions. The Hardened version comes with a limited edition case, art book and download token for Call of Duty Classic, which is a full game featuring 24 missions and online multiplayer. The Prestige edition comes with all those things plus a sweet pair of actual working night vision goggles and a plastic bust of in-game character Soap McTavish.

Overall (5/5)

While you can nitpick about an issue here or there in Modern Warfare 2, the overall package undeniably delivers the goods with an intense single-player campaign, a great co-operative experience in Special Ops and a truly inspired online multiplayer. If you enjoy shooters in the slightest, this is a game you absolutely must own.

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