Wait, didn't everybody already buy this?
Even if your willpower or geography has kept you from picking up Modern Warfare 2, you're probably reading this as you drive to go do just that. Activision's marketing people like to call this one the most anticipated game of the decade, and there's no doubt it will sell oodles of copies from now until Modern Warfare 3: Even Moderner. But is it worth the hype? I spent some serious time pounding plastic to see if Infinity Ward's latest has the fun to back it up and you can find out what I thought right after the break.
Just pull over first, okay?
Modern Warfare 2 picks up five years after the ending of the original game, and there's a montage to bring you up to speed and introduce returning favorites like "Soap" MacTavish (now a Captain), Nikolai and Captain Price. Though, for the most part, you play as Sergeant "Roach" Sanderson, you'll again embody different characters and encircle the globe in the process, touching down in places like Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, Washington D.C., Kazakhstan and ... Virginia.
The global conflict centers on a full-scale war that whisks you through characters and exotic locales at a dizzying pace, and that's the heart of the campaign's only real stumbling block: It has so much story to tell that, at times, it feels far too frantically paced. What's the hurry? Personally, I'd like more time to enjoy some of the jaw-dropping levels Infinity Ward has created.
The most prominent example is the controversial Airport scene, which seems sorely out of place here. Sure, the entire plot of the game hinges on it, but did we need to play through it? Served up early in the game, it's not only one of the shortest scenes you'll play, it also feels incongruous to the point of being jarring: one minute you're training in Afghanistan as Private First Class Joseph Allen, and in the blink of an eye you're asked to kill dozens of innocents. A cut scene (which is what you get if you skip the scene) would serve just as well, so why IW baited controversy this way is a head-scratcher. Sure, that controversy can mean publicity, but it's a shame that it comes at the cost of storytelling, particularly when there are so many other powerful moments that pass by unused.
For instance, at one point you come across the hulking wreck of Air Force One crashed nonchalantly in a front lawn. Isn't that sort of a big deal? That could be the entire plot of a season of 24, yet it isn't even mentioned in the game, underlining the disconnect between story and gameplay. When you jump from character to character with each level change, and miss big chunks of the narrative that unfolds around you, you're not as personally vested as you would be if you played the same character all the way through. Yes, it's a staple of the CoD world to jump from soldier to soldier, but it's not the best way to tell an emotional story.
Another minor complaint was that the squadmate AI would randomly turn from "capable" to "boneheaded" without notice. There were times when an enemy would run into a room we were defending, and our squadmates would completely ignore them. It didn't happen constantly, but enough to be noticeable and frustrating, usually about once per level during intense firefights. The enemy AI can be so smart that it's scary as they flank you, seek cover, and hang back to use ranged weapons, making it all the more frustrating when the friendlies just give a bad guy a hall pass.
Graphically, Infinity Ward hasn't reinvented the wheel here ... but it has made that wheel look a heck of a lot better. From the photo-realistic bloodsplatter on the screen to indicate you've been hit (no more red haze), to the textures and colors that pop off the screen, the imagery of Modern Warfare 2 is dazzling. There's a classy new voice cast too, featuring actors like Keith David, Barry Pepper, Glenn Morshower and Lance Henriksen, all benefiting from improvements to the character lip-sync animations. Paired with the graphics, it's a presentation that feels like you're really being plunked down into a tangible world.
The user interface is cleaned up as well: the new HUD is very streamlined and consolidates all of the information in the lower right-hand corner in a tight, redesigned package. A new radial, vertical compass encircles the D-pad layout, and where CoD 4 only had waypoints marked on the compass (which sometimes made it hard to figure out where you were heading) MW2 actually paints the waypoint over the actual destination on the screen. Being able to glance down and get all of the information in one corner, rather than searching the screen, trying to figure out how many frag grenades I have left or if I'm crouched or standing, is a welcome addition.
As much globetrotting as Modern Warfare 2's story has you doing, gameplay is similarly all over the map: Vehicles and mild platforming (the ice picks and snowmobiles from E3 play a notable role) combine with your basic array of different mission types ranging from protect and defend to flat out obliterate and destroy. I don't want to spoil anything, but rest assured that this story truly is global, and you'll understand what we mean by that in one of the later levels. More of this, and less civilian shock and awe, would have been appreciated.
And finally, yes, Infinity Ward has tucked in another "Mile High"-esque post-game nugget, and no, I'm not going to say another word about it. Sorry. Zip. Nada.
I finished the entire campaign (and yes, I killed civilians in the airport and will require therapy later) in about 10.5 hours on Hardened, though your mileage will probably vary if you aren't stopping to gawk at the landscape. The story has a fairly satisfying conclusion and there's a very strong hint that Modern Warfare will continue. Yes, shocking. Did I enjoy all of those hours? Yes. Would I play through the campaign again? Most definitely ... if I ever got tired of multiplayer.
Multiplayer was where the replay value paid for itself over and over again in the first game, and Infinity Ward obviously realizes that. The team's taken what works in multiplayer (the Killstreaks) and improved on it, and taken what doesn't work (like multiple grenade spamming) and removed it. That's right: you won't hear the "tink, tink, tink" sounds of rolling grenades in your sleep anymore.
Grenades are still in the game of course, but gone are the Martyrdom and the Frag x3 perks, so you won't have to run away from them every second. Well, nearly every second. Killstreaks now go all the way up to 25, and while IW includes old favorites like the UAV and Airstrikes, there are now a lot more toys to play with as well. You can guide in Predator missiles, call in airdrops, jam the enemy radar, and summon multiple airborne vehicles (no more waiting for enemy copters to disappear before you can deploy your own). My personal favorite is Emergency Airdrop, which showers down four crates containing random Killstreak rewards. It's Christmas!
On the flipside of Killstreaks are the addition of Deathstreaks. If you are being pwned in multiplayer, these are your new best friend. There are four total and you'll start by default with the Copycat Deathstreak, which gives you the Perk load-out of the enemy who last killed you if you suffer multiple deaths in a row without killing anything. New Deathstreaks (including Martyrdom) are unlocked as you level up, and you can only select one to use per match. It's a nice boost that takes a small step toward balancing the game, but it's not going to turn the game around for you single-handedly. Remember: If you're being helped by a Deathstreak, it means the other team is racking up kills. So it's like a badge of honor made out of dog poop. Sure, it's a reward, but do you really want it?
Other than the addition of new Killstreaks, the biggest change to multiplayer is that Perks can now be upgraded. Take Sleight of Hand, for instance. It allows you to load any weapon a lot faster, and when you get a certain number of kills using the Perk, you upgrade to Sleight of Hand Pro, which will let you switch to down the sights or scope aim faster.
There are a ton of other additions to the experience (unlockable custom weapons, the ability to decorate your in-game information tag with Emblems and Tags, Capture the Flag) and gametypes have been revamped. For example, on Headquarters, when a new HQ spawns, it will be visible on the map, but you'll have to wait 30 seconds for it to activate before you can attempt to control it. This totally alters the flow of the mode, making for more of a battle than a camping festival.
A Winning Kill camera has also been added to deathmatches, and at the end of each match everyone on both teams will be treated to a slomo shot of the final kill. This is particularly fun if the player in the spotlight dies in some comical fashion, like getting whacked in the head with a grenade that hasn't armed. It's just a pity that nothing is recordable to your console for playback later. I'd love to see a video editor as robust as the one in Halo 3 so I could share triumphant moments and stellar blunders with friends online.
New game modes are unlocked as you level up, and this includes the new 3rd Person playlists. I gave these a whirl, and it's extremely jarring to suddenly play behind your character, but you'll soon see how it allows you to peep around corners or notice if someone is sneaking up on your six. It's kind of neat to try, but by no means is it going to replace your go-to first-person modes.
Multiplayer is where the action is for most Modern Warfare players, and there is enough new stuff here to make you feel like you're not just getting a few new maps; a much-needed shot in the arm from the original, which has since grown stagnant after it saw only one map pack with four new maps over the past two years.
Arcade mode is (happily) jettisoned and in its place is Special Ops co-op. These are missions that you play with a friend via split-screen or online or just by your lonesome. There is a ton of variety here: vehicles, Ghillie suits, breach charges and more all make appearances in the 23 different missions.
As difficulty increases, you'll soon learn that you're not going to be able to survive some of these challenges unless you communicate. A good example is Overwatch, which features one player overhead in an AC-130, as the other on the ground tries to reach an extraction point. The airborne player clears the path using the trio of massive guns, but at times he'll rely on the ground-based soldier to laser-sight targets for him. Oh, and if one person dies, it's all over.
Each tier scales in difficulty, with one mission description even teasing, "This probably isn't even possible." The final three Spec Ops feel that way, especially when you play on Hardened or above. I spent a long time with a buddy trying to clear one level, and although we must have died 30 times, we kept hitting "Replay," which is probably the best compliment you could pay to a mode like this.
Hopefully, Infinity Ward can include new Spec Ops in future DLC, because the mode was much more enjoyable than I expected it to be. Playing through them solo almost feels like cheating, because they are scaled back in difficulty, but playing with a friend or a random player online will have you working in tandem in ways that you don't even get close to in Multiplayer.
Though we can't comment on the plastic night vision goggles or the other bonuses you'll get in the Hardened and Prestige editions, the actual disc containing the game is well worth every cent you'll shell out for it. The single-player campaign might not engross you enough to want to play through the entire game again, but multiplayer and Spec Ops will both bring you back many, many times.
Disclaimer: The preceding review is based on an event organized and paid for by Activision, in which media outlets were provided hotel rooms, each equipped with an Xbox 360 and copy of Modern Warfare 2. As this was Joystiq's only opportunity to review the game in advance of its release, we willingly deviated from our standard policy of not accepting accommodations and used the room. We did so because we felt that participating in this event best served the interest of our readers.
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