Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a great game that revolutionized the first-person shooter. It’s willingness to kill characters made it one of the few war games that didn’t glorify war. It introduced the RPG elements of leveling up and unlockable weapons into multiplayer so that the more someone played the better equipment and higher rank that they earned. Since then nearly every game with a multiplayer component has allowed players to level up, and this mechanic proved so popular that it was even added to Halo 3 and Gears of War 2 post-release. So it’s an understatement to simply say that Modern Warfare 2 has a lot to live up to.
The game is split into three parts: A single-player campaign, online multiplayer, and cooperative Spec Ops. The general formula of the single-player campaign hasn’t changed. The battles are still big, and you’ll once again jump into the shoes of multiple characters as you fight around the world. The action takes place on such a grand scale that it puts all Hollywood action movies to shame. These kinds of epic firefights are what people expect from a Call of Duty game (although that title is suspiciously absent from the main menu) and Modern Warfare 2 delivers them with ease.
What has changed since the first game is the developer’s confidence in their story. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was criticized for taking place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, and many people saw this as a cop-out, as a way for the game to seem relevant to current events without actually being so. But now the battlefields are real. Your fighting doesn’t take place in deserted streets but populated suburbs, and as such, you must watch who you shoot because civilians will flee around you. But the biggest example of the developer’s new confidence can be seen in their desire to depict modern warfare without glorifying it. While some elements of the plot are poorly explained, the game sets a dark tone that never goes away. By now everyone has heard of the “No Russian” level in which the player takes part in a terrorist attack. This scene is disturbing, and while some may question its place in the game, terrorism is one of the defining characteristics of modern war, leaving it out of a game that strives to depict such things would be a gross oversight. Modern Warfare 2 lets us experience first-hand the horror of terrorism and its effects on innocents, just as the first game let us experience first-hand the horror of war and its effects on individual soldiers. Developer Infinity Ward doesn’t shy away from exploring these dark themes, and the result is a story that weighs on you emotionally and tonally even if there are some plot holes.
But the campaign is just one-third of Modern Warfare 2. The second part and the biggest new addition to the game is the cooperative Spec Ops mode. These short co-op missions are devoid of any semblance of story, allowing Infinity Ward to focus on what they do best: action.
You’ll defend a position from waves of enemies, eliminate all hostiles in a given area, fight your way to an extraction point, or in a complete reversal, sneak your way past enemy patrols or race down a mountain in a snow mobile. The variety is impressive. Even the Assault and Elimination mission types, which are the same thing in concept, feel unique thanks to the excellent level choices. Fighting through the gulag takes on a very different pace than fighting though a favela: Both have narrow paths, but the gulag follows a single straight path filled with enemies whereas the favela is filled with curves, corners, and easy ambush spots. Every mission strikes a perfect balance between challenge and difficulty; none are easy, but even after several failed attempts, they never feel unfair.
The addition of a partner doesn’t make things easier. It’s nice that each player can choose their own difficulty, so someone unaccustomed to the game doesn’t have to play on Veteran with their friend who has beaten every mission. You will come to rely on you partner immensely. If one of you goes down, the other has one minute to save them before they bleed out. But the coast is never clear, making each rescue a daring and dramatic event. As the shooting becomes more intense, the more frightening these rescues become. Suddenly the entire mission is riding on your shoulders, the pressure is on, and coming back from that brink to win results in some of the most satisfying and scary firefights of the entire game—campaign or multiplayer. The game perfectly captures the panic of battle, and you’ll often feel like you only survived by the skin of your teeth.
For all the praise that the campaign and Spec Ops deserve, it’s the multiplayer that people are probably most excited about. Like the campaign, the general formula hasn’t changed: you get points for kills, you rank up, you unlock new weapons and perks. This simple formula was excellent to begin with, providing players with a tremendous variety that kept the game feeling fresh for years. Modern Warfare 2 simply gives you more. More unlockables, more perks, more killstreaks, more challenges, more ranks, more everything. As a result, you’ll be upgrading something nearly every round. Whether it’s a rank or a gun attachment, there’s always some challenge that’s almost complete, urging you to play one more round to finish it.
The introduction of Deathstreaks is meant to ease the mounting frustration if you find yourself dying again and again. They’re great in concept, if you die too many times in a row you’re given an advantageous perk when you respawn, but there are only four in the game and the first two aren’t very helpful at all. Painkiller gives you extra life for 10 seconds after respawning, but it usually takes that long just to get back to battle so that by the time that you encounter an enemy it’s worn off. Copycat lets you copy the loadout of the person who killed you, but if you’re still getting accustomed to the pace of the game, getting a stronger gun isn’t going to suddenly make you a better player. The latter two, Martyrdom and Final Stand, are more effective at their purported goal, but by the time you unlock those, they’re no longer needed. They’re still a nice bonus, but they would be far more useful if unlocked at an earlier level.
The most subtle change made to the multiplayer is also the most indicative of how this game differs from the first. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, players were rewarded 10 to 20 points per kill depending on what mode they were playing but in Modern Warfare 2 it’s now 50 to 100 points. It’s an arbitrary change on the surface, but Infinity Ward understands that the entire multiplayer revolves around points and that gamers have been conditioned to want more and more points, so by giving us more per kill, there’s a greater sense of reward and progression. The most clumsy 50 point kill is always more satisfying than a 10 point kill. This is symbolic of all the changes made to the game: They’re mostly minor, but together they manage to make an already great game better.
One could understandably claim that Modern Warfare 2 is just more of the same, but considering the success and popularity of the first game, that’s hardly an insult. However, such a claim is also short-sighted. The game is an evolution of a proven formula, filled with subtle and not so subtle changes from a more daring single-player story to a more addictive multiplayer to the panic-inducing thrill ride that is Spec Ops. Modern Warfare 2 is more of the same—made better.