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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Xbox 360 Review

By Steve Haske, 12/4/2009

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It’s no surprise to anyone that a game as eagerly anticipated as Modern Warfare 2 is one of the year’s best games; Infinity Ward have proved time again that they are experts, if not outright pioneers, in the FPS genre, a quality that’s always evident in the final, polished product. What’s interesting about MW2 over any of their previous efforts is, of course, No Russian, the the level that allows you to take part in a terrorist attack as an undercover CIA operative infiltrating a terrorist cell. There have already been pages of commentary sparked by this level even before the game had been released, which ignited a firestorm of debate and controversy over politics, commentary and ethics in video games that I won’t bother to get into here. But rather than simply trying to sidestep No Russian completely, it’s worthwhile to examine just what exactly the level says about the Infinity Ward’s overall narrative technique as a developer, and how their style of storytelling relates to the Modern Warfare experience as a whole.

Now that the dust has settled around the controversy, few people would probably argue that No Russian was a good first attempt at providing some commentary on the nation’s current political climate, if a botched one. The idea of a game putting a gun in your hands and instructing you to kill unarmed civilians in order to “act the part” as an undercover agent infiltrating a Russian terrorist organization is a good one, if only for someone actually having the balls to address current events in any way, using what many still consider to be an inconsequential medium. As a concept, a risk like this one helps further legitimize the game industry, but the execution here leaves much to be desired. Rather than building any sort of narrative motivation around this mission—say, introducing the terrorists in a previous level, actually getting to know the undercover agent, playing up the nerves of such a dangerous assignment, a la The Departed--you’re simply thrown to the wolves after a momentary briefing in a cutscene before the level begins. This results in a scenario that almost entirely fails to deliver on its potential emotional impact, but it’s also characteristic of the episodic approach to storytelling endemic in Infinity Ward’s new crown jewel.

Not that this is a bad thing, for the most part. Any commentary that the game may have been trying to attempt (and with the inclusion of contextual quotes from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, any argument that IW wasn’t trying to make some kind of political statement seems flimsy) is watered down, sure, but that’s probably because Modern Warfare isn’t about ideologies, but setpieces. All the proof you need is waiting for you on the back of the game’s box: the assortment of screenshots show a variety of cinematic, action-packed scenes, from snowmobiling to black ops to the one of the best uses of an SDV since the original Metal Gear Solid. Naturally, the connotations scream “action movie” far more than “serious political drama,” and as well they should. As a setpiece game, Infinity Ward has clearly stuck to what they know with MW2, and boy, do they know it well. The game’s thunderous moments are numerous and compelling to experience; taking down gunships circling the Washington monument over the rust-red sky of war-ravaged Washington, D.C., for example, is as exciting a moment you get in video games, (even giving some of Uncharted 2’s pulse-heavy chases a run for their money) and the lump you get in your throat when in the thick of some of the equally thrilling stealth infiltration sequences is proof enough of the game’s power to draw you in. There’s little room for lull time throughout MW2’s globe-hopping, roughly eight hour single-player campaign, and even at the cost of a superb narrative, the game still manages to pull off some truly gripping and tense moments (thanks in no small part to its triple-A production values). I would be a quite a bit harsher on the game if it were a film, a medium where a good narrative is essential in keeping a story from being relegated to little more than slick, shallow garbage. And while MW2 may share a bit of DNA with a lot of Hollywood action movies, it feels grounded enough that identification within the narrow confines of the story isn’t completely out of the question. In the game’s defense, what story that is there isn’t even that bad, and the return of characters like Soap MacTavish actually go a long way towards facilitating familiarity and narrative immersion, even at its most ridiculous points.

We can be thankful that an appropriately goal-oriented climate within the game emerges from the somewhat choppy yarn Infinity Ward weaves, which really lets MW2’s core mechanics (read: shooting things) to shine. You might even argue that in some respects the dev’s efforts at storytelling are just a somewhat elaborate backdrop, little more than a justification to test out their arsenal of expertly re-created, real-life weaponry. Every gun in the game, from the relatively underpowered (but still absolutely deadly) handguns to heaviest of hitters (with Stinger missiles and the devastating Predator drone, your own personal air-to-ground localized missile defense system, among them) has been fined-tuned to perfection, which makes doling out death to anyone who dares oppose you an absolute blast. Perhaps the highest accolade any FPS can hope to garner is when its various firearms have an air of absolute authenticity, and Infinity Ward really nails it here. By the same token, enemy AI is equally impressive—although it isn’t always genius level, there’ll be plenty of wow moments when your virtual adversaries will flank you against all odds and opposition, cook their grenades or entirely change up their tactical approach when their strategy isn’t working.

One particularly notable instance happened while I was enduring wave assaults of enemies in the game’s Spec Ops mode. Defending a small rooftop space, I threw a grenade at the side of a bombed-out car, adjacent to where a lone solider was hiding. I waited till after the explosion, surveyed the damage and went back to my rooftop perch to snipe other incoming hostiles. A few minutes later, that same soldier emerged from his hiding place, ascended to my rooftop space and took me down, to my complete surprise. That the level of sophistication possible with the enemy AI was high enough for a lone enemy to hide for an extended period of time—like a real player would—completely disarmed me, and this kind of thing isn’t uncommon, particularly when attempting one of the game’s harder difficulty levels. MW2 probably has the best AI I’ve seen since Metal Gear Solid 4, and will always keep you on your toes.

Between tough, smart enemies and rock-solid mechanics, then, MW2 succeeds on most fronts, and achieves its goal of creating a captivating, enjoyable gameplay experience no matter which of its three game modes you’re tackling. The aforementioned Spec Ops mode is the other side of the game’s single-player experiences, offering a series of objective-based scenarios based amidst the fiction of both MW2 (including what I imagine would’ve been a fantastic scene likely cut from the DC Metro area part of the game, on a disintegrating bridge over the Potomac) as well as the original Modern Warfare. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by Spec Ops. Its challenges increase greatly vary between its five unlockable tiers (where your progress is directly tied to your performance) and the variations on the gameplay themes of the single-player campaign’s best moments, such as surviving wave assault from a riot-shield soldiers in a gulag, stealing enemy intelligence from the center of a heavily entrenched enemy army occupying an aircraft graveyard in Afghanistan, fighting your way through a Brazilian favela or silently infiltrating a patrolled base provide plenty of engaging gameplay. It also allows for more chances to play with some of the game’s more interesting military weaponry and equipment (thermal scoped sniper rifles, for instance). The best thing about Spec Ops is that it’s a mode that demands (and in some instances, actually requires) playing with a friend. One mission, which has one player manning a minigun from a circling chopper while the other takes care of remaining infantry on foot, is an excellent use of co-op mechanics, but even missions you can play solo take on a new life with a teammate, as working together is quite often the only way to beat a scenario. Players that cut their teeth years ago playing online in the original Modern Warfare may make mincemeat of these levels with relish, but Spec Ops is still no pushover, and is easily as fun as the single-player campaign. Infinity Ward has already confirmed DLC will be released sometime next year; I can hope that another set or two of Spec Ops missions are among their plans.

But all of this cumulative experience is arguably just training for MW2’s robust multiplayer against the most deadly of enemies: other players. The mode is as massive as to be expected, with new perks, killstreak and even new deathstreak awards, such as the ability to copy a player’s job class as well as improved returning abilities such as the sometime-life saving Last Chance. Killstreaks have undergone some renovations as well, whether returning from the original Modern Warfare, as is the case with (now directionally controlled) airstrikes or new weapons, like the predator drone seen in the single player campaigns, EMP deployment, or even a tactical nuclear strike that instantly makes your team win the match (though at the cost of killing everyone on the map). Basically, MW2 offers a much deeper and more customizable experience, adding to the basic framework of the original game’s multiplayer formula, refining it, and, most importantly offering countermeasures to pretty much any conceivable tactic, strategy or customization a player might take, even down someone’s position in one of the game’s 15 new maps.

While I generally don’t often gravitate towards ultra-realistic military shooters, Modern Warfare 2 is easily one of my top games of the year. The extreme attention to detail, fine-tuned mechanics and different game modes make this one hard to not recommend, even where the single-player narrative somewhat falters. If Modern Warfare has always been about the visceral thrill of modern military combat (if viewed through a somewhat skewed, hollywood-ized lens) then you’ll struggle to find fault with this one. And should Infinity Ward be able to piece together an amazing (and, one can hope, a more politically relevant) story mode for the inevitable Modern Warfare 3, then we’ll really be in business. For now, suit up—we’re oscar mike.

Overall: 94%



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