I'm not what you'd call a diehard shooter fan, but even I was surprised when I recently realized that Call of Duty 4 is two years old. While most games have been long since forgotten after their release, everyone around me was still playing, going for a prestige, trying different weapon combinations, and memorizing the maps online. So it may not come as a surprise to most that thousands upon thousands of people were lined up outside electronics stores at midnight, eager to get Infinity Ward's next game as early as possible. Modern Warfare 2 is the next evolution of their beloved shooter series, and I'm pleased to say that it improves upon the original in every regard. It looks great, sounds amazing, and plays at a standard of quality most other shooters can't touch. The massive amount of hype may just be justified - Modern Warfare 2 will be the last shooter you'll need for some time.
The game's story component picks up five years after the events of the first Modern Warfare, and all sorts of old and new faces make appearances for this darker, more intense campaign. The limelight is focused on Makarov, a right-hand man to the previous game's villain who aims to throw the world into chaos by staging some truly disturbing terrorist attacks and leaving the American government to answer for it. War ensues between the Yankees and Ruskies, everyone starts backstabbing each other, and what feels like the end times begins to settle in some unexpected places. It's not all good, and some of the exposition doesn't feel as fleshed out as it probably could of been. Nevertheless, it is undeniably interesting, and the increasingly dire circumstances you find yourself in keep things thrilling. Along the way, you'll play a variety of missions from various perspectives as you piece together the conflict, as you'd expect from a Call of Duty campaign. There are some things you may not be expecting as well.
Here's an example that you may want to be aware of (spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph). One of the game's earliest and already most infamous scenes depicts you as Private Allen, an undercover operative who has infiltrated Makarov's ranks. He is haunted by the horrors of circumstance. To prevent his true identity from being revealed, Allen must participate in an awful attack on a Russian airport, watching his comrades open fire on crowds of screaming, bleeding civilians. It's a disturbing scene, and I didn't say a word or move an inch in my seat until it was over. It's not "fun" in the traditional sense that games often are, nor is it meant to be. It's more of an emotional statement, one that is terrifying in its rawness. You may take a moment to realize, when the flight arrivals board ominously and unanimously shifts to "delayed," that things like this really do happen in the world. It also makes you really, really hate the villain of the story you'll soon after experience. Those who aren't willing to stomach this scene can choose to skip it from any time from the menu, although I'd recommend sticking with it. It's a unique, dramatic moment for games.
The campaign is filled with intense and often dark moments, and like the first game, you're often a lower-ranked part of a squad as opposed to the leader. This keeps things exciting and ensures that you always have feedback on what you're supposed to be doing next. The excellent voice acting and regular commands from your CO, combined with a checkpoint system, make it easy to stay on track. And of course, the game's excellent tactical combat shines through the tight pacing and grisly narrative. You'll be spending most of your time looking down the sights of your firearms, taking down all sorts of unsavoury types. It's difficult to explain in a written review, but the action in Modern Warfare 2 just feels right. The controls feel completely precise on a gamepad, and the visuals are so fluid and smooth that your actions in the game feel natural. In single player and online, how long enemies take to drop and how much you can take before dying feels perfect. It's abundantly clear that Infinity Ward has tuned their gameplay and their engine to maximum efficiency; the game is simply a joy to play. After two playthroughs of the single player mode and some time spent logged online, I haven't lost a drop of interest in this game's shooting mechanics.
There's tons of special scenarios that change up the game as well. For example, in one early segment you're only allowed to return fire, not initiate it. In the thick of a blizzard, you'll need to use a radar attachment for your gun to locate enemies in the snow squalls, or use some picks to climb walls of ice. The game changes organically with the story, making the five or six hour campaign a deluge of tense firefights and destruction. Sometimes it may feel like the game is laying on the drama a little thick, but there's no denying that Modern Warfare 2's campaign is awesome, punctuated by some truly horrorshow moments of gritty violence. Like its predecessor, this is a first-person shooter that doesn't seem particularly pro-military. It's an interesting angle.
Now, I'm not a particularly accomplished shooter player, but the refined multiplayer mode made famous in Call of Duty 4 has managed to suck me in completely. Its filled with all sorts of tweaks - big and small - that help streamline the game for newer players while still satisfying those who have been playing for the past two years. The interface, menus and other visual elements of the online are mostly identical, as is the basic structure of gameplay. You'll choose a game type and set some other variables, earn experience, and rank up. From there, you'll unlock new guns, character-altering perks (increased reload times, the ability to hold more ammo, and so on), attachments for your firearms, and more. This time around the existing guns and perks have been tweaked or removed while some new arrivals have been added, and it feels impressively balanced across all game types. You'll also gain experience for just about everything you do. Coming back after a series of consecutive deaths; taking revenge on someone who has previously done you in; getting a headshot. All of these things land you additional experience to get further up the ladder and, potentially, "prestige" to get a fancy emblem and climb through the ranks all over again. But you won't mind starting again and again thanks to some amazing maps. Quarry may be my favourite map in an online shooter, ever.
The level of customization in the online is probably the best thing about it. You can of course still change your weapon and perk load out at any time, and in Modern Warfare 2 you can also customize your kill streak and brand-new "death streak" rewards. Earn multiple kills in a row without dying, and you can unlock an assortment of rewards. Like in Call of Duty 4, you can earn temporary radar for your team, call in airstrikes, and so on. The kill streaks climb higher this time, and you'll be able to work your way through supply drops, counter-UAVs that completely shut out enemy radar, game-ending tactical nukes, and more. And best of all, you can choose which streaks you want to use. Death streaks are just what you expect; get multiple deaths in a row without scoring any kills, and you'll get a little assistance. These too can be customized, and the benefits range from earning extra health for a round to help get you back on track, to getting the load out of your assailant for one life, to the infamous Martyrdom ability (which is a perk no longer). These tweaks have been added over top of the already impressive gameplay to make one dangerously addictive good time.
If you're one of the millions who have been playing Modern Warfare for hundreds of hours now, rest assured that your thirst for tight, tactical combat is fully realized here. All the old game types are here, from deathmatch to tactical to domination, and it's all available with virtually no lag and quick matchmaking. When it comes to online in 2009, there are no substitutes; Modern Warfare 2 is the superior game. Finally, a new Special Ops mode gives you a bunch of different two-man missions to complete co-operatively online. You can play them alone too, though you'll definitely want a friend to scrape by these difficult challenges and earn the best star rankings.
A lot of people have been complaining about Modern Warfare 2's lack of innovation. Indeed, it's true that this game does not break much new ground for first-person shooters. But it doesn't need to. Instead, Infinity Ward has delivered what is probably the purest distillation of a modern shooter to date - an incredibly deep, exciting game that's hard not to get sucked into. Whether or not it's the game of the year is up to personal preference, of course, but I doubt that anyone but the most ignorant person won't at least appreciate the incredible quality of this product. If you have any interest in shooters whatsoever, are seventeen years old, and have sixty dollars, you absolutely must own this game. The sublime campaign will stick with you long after you finish it, and the online component is essentially second to none. It all adds up to a game that you'll be playing months from now, when other, lesser titles from the holidays will be long past gone. Like I said, I'm not the most diehard shooter fan out there, but I absolutely love Modern Warfare 2. I can't wait until I really sink my teeth into it.
[News Update: The PS3 version of Modern Warfare 2 shipped to stores without trophy support thanks to a patch snafu. The game's latest version, 1.3, includes full trophy support, and is now feature-complete.]