Modern Warfare 2: The Shortest Game You'll Love
Play Experience: At the time this review was written I have played through the full campaign on the "normal" difficulty and the "veteran" (hardest) difficulty playing the PC version of MW2. I have gotten a three star rating on all of the spec ops missions playing with a friend and I have hit level 13 (this is still quite low) in the competitive multiplayer.
The Summary: Russia has invaded the United States and... that's about it. A short summary for a very short game as I'm trying to avoid major plot spoilers. This review contains minor plot spoilers however this is not information you could not have gotten from the trailers. Major plot spoilers are inside spoiler boxes.
Artistic Style and Graphics: 5
Modern Warfare 2 is one of the best looking games out there. Even on medium or low graphical settings this game looks very good. Infinity Ward has a long history of creating levels that feel very cinematic going back to the original Call of Duty and it's clear they have learned from and refined the experiences of their previous games. Whether you are creeping through a Russian military base in the midst of a blizzard or wandering through darkened, eerily silent streets in Washington DC the presentation is virtually flawless. The level design and appearance of their multiplayer maps are similarly appealing though not quite as dramatic or atmospheric.
Voice Acting and Sound: 4
Modern Warfare 2 delivers in terms of sound. All the guns sound good and unique, the voice actors do an excellent job, and the script writing is for the most part decent.
The only complaint I have is the total lack of options regarding the sound in general. You cannot adjust any of the volumes individually, there is only "master volume" slider. This wouldn't be a problem if the sound were properly mixed with the game however the music is almost always too loud and really as a result makes certain scenes feel overly dramatic. On occasion music will play during cutscenes and conversations and it completely overpowers what is being said making these conversations difficult to follow as even when you enable subtitles generally only things said during mission briefings are fully subtitled while only certain things said by main characters are subtitled during actual missions.
It's not hard to give players three three volume sliders allowing us to mix sound effects, voices, and music to the levels we prefer... games have been doing it for so long I was really surprised that MW2 had no such option.
Single Player and Co-op Experience: 3
The single player campaign is very fun. The experience is polished and I have little to complain about in terms of the actual gameplay experience however a couple things really hurt the game's score in this area.
First, I did not play the original Modern Warfare. I tried the demo and it just never clicked with me so I skipped it. I didn't know who any of the characters were from the original so this game was really my first introduction to Soap, Roach, Shepherd, and others. As characters I liked them all and they alone made the game's story seem interesting however the story itself quickly gets confusing and massive assumptions have to be made in order to justify certain events that take place.
After a while it became clear that someone at Infinity Ward has some sort of fetish about killing the players via in game cutscenes and frankly I got a little tired of it. Even now after two play throughs the game's plot makes little sense to me and I don't know what the true motivation of the villain might have been but the game itself was fun enough that I can forgive plot shortcomings just as I would for a fun action movie.
Second, this is probably the shortest full price (more than full price actually but I'll get to that later) game I've ever played. My first play through on the regular (normal) difficulty setting took me just over five hours. I did it in one play session. Let me just say that I am not a FPS pro so I am certain that there are a lot of people out there who have beaten this game in 3-4 hours. I decided to try playing through the game again, this time on veteran (the hardest difficulty). My "veteran" play through did take an hour or two longer to complete but it was still quite short.
Lastly, I was disappointed that there is no co-op option for the story campaign. During missions you are virtually never alone and co-op really feels like it would have been a natural addition to the gameplay, almost like they intended for the campaign to have a co-op mode but just cut it out at the last moment. Perhaps this was for the best as "Veteran" difficulty would gave just been an utter joke for two players.
I've talked about what I wish the game had so in the interest of fairness I should mention what it does have. While there is no co-op story campaign there are a lot of "spec-ops" missions you can do alone (don't) or with a friend (do). These often (but not always) coincide with the more difficult portions of missions in the single player campaign and are made to be even more difficult really giving you and your friend fun and challenging experience however these missions are completely detached and unrelated to the story and the in mission banter between Soap and Ghost imply that they are merely training missions.
These "spec-ops" missions challenge you in many ways. Sometimes you must simply kill all the enemies on the map or defeat a certain number of waves of increasingly difficult enemies while other mission formats require you to get to an extraction point within a certain amount of time or reach a number of objectives (usually disarming bombs) within a certain amount of time. These missions provide a variety of challenges and this part of the game would be satisfying even if this was all they did... but they went a step further.
My most memorable experience with MW2 has been with two "spec-ops" missions in particular that are excellent but require that you play with a partner (the rest you can go solo in). In one it splits the players up, one of you is on the ground trying to reach an extraction point within a certain period of time while the other provides fire support from an AC-130 gunship. The other mission puts one of you in the door gunner seat of a Blackhawk helicopter. These missions are surprisingly challenging given the power they put at your fingertips and really show how great the game can be. It is a shame there are only two missions with this format. It took my friend and I 11 hours of play time to complete every "spec-ops" mission on the Veteran difficulty setting.
Despite the good things about the single player and co-op experience, selling a game with a five hour single player story mode really feels almost criminal... like buying a $10 movie ticket and then finding out the movie is only ten minutes long. If you do not intend to play the competitive multiplayer component of this game a lot, do not buy this game, rent it.
Competitive Online Play: 4
Modern Warfare 2, like nearly every other FPS ever released, has a very steep learning curve when you finally take the leap and play it online against other gamers. This leap for me was especially jarring as I have not played the first Modern Warfare game so a lot of the concepts like UMV's and character perks were completely new to me however after playing it for a bit and opening up more modes of play than team death match and FFA it got to be a lot more fun.
The learning curve felt particularly brutal in my first few games because every time I was killed and viewed the 5 second killcam replay from my opponents perspective they seemed to have a heart beat sensor on their guns. Being brand new to the MW2 multiplayer scene this was particularly frustrating because the weapons you start with are generally more difficult to use and don't have any of the neat bells and whistles experienced players have unlocked so often the skill/familiarity disadvantage is compounded by being stuck using what feels like inferior weapons however this feeling does pass quickly as you gain a few levels and unlock a few new weapons.
Over all the process of joining games alone or with a group of friends is a simple, streamlined process that works most of the time. When it doesn't work things get confusing but I haven't had this happen to me too often. I have rarely had to deal with lag in my matches and aside from a few hiccups when the host of a game decides to leave, play is uninterrupted.
Production Value: 4
I ran into a couple of minor bugs during my play in the campaign. In one level I made it to the extraction point with my team and everything just stopped. One of my squad mates was staring down a passage that had just collapsed while another squad mates was staring up through a hole in the ceiling. After about five minutes of waiting I dropped a grenade at my feet and redid that checkpoint. Everything worked on my second attempt and has not happened in any attempt after. There are also a few minor crash bugs that occur in both the singleplayer and multiplayer clients.
Infinity Ward has put a lot of time into this game polishing it and creating as cinematic an experience as possible. This really shows during the single player campaign but is present in all facets of the game... I just wish there was more actual game to play.
Final Grade: 4.0
This is an excellent game however it is hard to justify the cost if you do not plan to play the competitive multiplayer for quite a while. This is a definite buy if you do plan to enjoy the multiplayer elements, and a definite rent if you do not enjoy multiplayer FPS games.
Specific things I love about MW2:
I don't know who you are, but I like you. The vast majority of the characters you interact with in this game are soldiers your character is familiar with but people you as the player really don't know. Infinity Ward has done an excellent job writing the in mission banter so that you really start to feel some sort of connection to these other people even if most of them can (and often do) die in the course of the mission and you never know anything more than their last name or "callsign". These people are also persistant so if they consistently survive missions with you you'll often see them show up in the next mission but if they die, another soldier will be in their place.
You always feel like you're in the company of peers, not a professional stuck leading a bunch of green recruits around and you'll get context relevant comments from your npc partners. At first I thought these were just random phrases they'd spout out to make it seem like they were combat aware however after playing and experimenting a bit I found that often the "two tangos on the right", or "the runner on the left", or "the sniper on the roof" were actual enemies members of my squad were spotting for me. Little details like this really help make the game incredibly immersive.
Ghost + Soap + Car Battery = Fun. Everyone has a "win at all costs" attitude and spending a couple hours torturing some guy with a car battery is one of the least "offensive" things that happen in the game. I wouldn't call this realism, but knowing you are in the company of people willing to do this sort of thing makes the conflict in the game seem all the more urgent as you don't have time to waste on such trivialities like international treaties or constitutional rights (though these guys are British SAS I believe so I'm not sure what their constitution equivalent is).
Fallout 3 prequel? There is one series of missions that take place in Washington DC in which you along w ith your Ranger squad participate in battles for the Capital Building, Washington Monument, and a place everyone cal ls "Whiskey Hotel". This series of levels are probably the best Infinity Ward have ever created in terms of mood and atmosphere and are begging me to replay even as I write this review.
In one "scene" in particular (below left to right), you creep slowly down a darkened empty street in pouring rain with your squad listening for any sign of the enemy. Someone comments on the rain and your sergeant tells your squad to cut the chatter. You spot three soldiers in the haze but cannot tell which side they are on because of the the storm.
Your Sergeant calls out the sign (Star) looking for the counter sign (Texas) to confirm they are friendly however they don't seem to hear so the sergeant picks up a flare and throws it at them to get their attention without straying too far from cover once again calling out the sign. The soldiers are startled and open fire. Moments like this are hardly challenging but they add so much to the atmosphere and do an excellent job of showing the confusion and chaos of urban combat.
Attention to detail. There are numerous levels where you are battling through a suburban neighborhood and eventually a strip mall. All the houses look like they could be actual houses and the interiors include all the things you'd expect to see in a house. The stores in the strip mall similarly have everything you'd expect in terms of architecture. It feels as though Infinity Ward copied blueprints for an actual neighborhood street and strip mall... you're never left wondering how a family could live in a home that has no bathroom or how a fast food restaurant could have a kitchen without a fryer.
Don't worry maam, we're professionals. The tactical "choreography" that takes place in this game is really top notch. There are times when your team is ambushed and they along with your help manage to turn the tables on the ambushers. One particularly memorable sequence involved getting ambushed by a large number of ghillie snipers and other troops who had been in hiding. Not being the kind of people that let a mere ambush slow them down your squad throws smoke grenades and rushes into the cover taking out enemies with knives or close range shooting. Moments like these lend a lot of credibility to the elite nature of the people you are working with and actually make you feel elite yourself.
I. am. awesome! Normally I really don't like "quick time" events in games but in MW2 they are somewhat rare but used to great effect. In some sequences you are breaching doors and must rapidly take down the enemy soldiers before they kill hostages. In another sequence you must push a button to go prone in order to avoid a land mine explosion. All of these parts of the game do an excellent job of making you feel like you just did something awesome.
Specific things I hate about MW2:
Where's the synergy? Sometimes it feels like MW2 is two small games in one package. This is purely personal preference, but I like the Tom Clancy method of handling in game unlocks where you can gain them from both single player and multiplayer with a focus on multiplayer. This gives the game limited replay value and makes the single player campaign feel more rewarding. I wish MW2 had at least a few of the unlocks attached to completing the single player campaign. Having a few more options when you do make the plunge into competitive online play will make the experience a bit more manageable.
Where did everyone go? As well detailed as the suburban environments are in MW2 there is one thing missing... civilians. As you battle through suburban neighborhoods fighting the Russians in brutal house to house close ranged battles not a single civilian, living or dead, is to be found. I suppose it's possible they could have been evacuated but given the nature of the conflict and how sudden the attack began this seems unlikely.
After gunning down hundreds of civilians in an airport earlier, and putting civilians in harms way in South America in the game it seems odd that Infinity Ward would be squeamish about putting a few more in harm's way... or are they only allowed to kill Russian and South American civilians?
Again...? Really...? Really?? For some reason Infinity Ward likes placing you in the shoes of people who are about to die. They even specifically put you in someone's shoes to watch a 30 second in game cutscene and then kill you. It really got a little annoying by the end of the game.
Who am I again? Perhaps this is a result of my Modern Warfare 1 ignorance but half the time I had no idea who I was. This doesn't really take away from the gameplay too much but not knowing who you are is a little annoying because I never quite knew if my sergeant was talking to me or one of the other soldiers.
Console Gimmicks. MW2 feels a lot like a console game ported to the PC. As I mentioned earlier you cannot adjust sound volumes individually to turn down the music and turn up voices. There are a lot of hybrid elements in this game like boat and snowmobile race sequences that really just don't feel quite right though they aren't outright terrible... they just aren't nearly as fun or atmospheric as the rest of the game as the controls are almost too simplistic... like firing your weapon while driving will automatically hit anyone in a narrow cone in front of the boat/snowmobile without requiring trivial things like aiming.
There is also a sequence towards the beginning of the game where you are climbing an icy surface using climbing axes. This involved a minigame where you must use your mouse buttons to climb, alternating right and left clicking to control each hand. This sequence feels terribly awkward and underwhelming and was clearly meant to be more a console thing using the right and left bumper buttons.
Wait... what just happened? Modern Warfare 2 at times feels more like a series of unfortunate events than an actual story. There is a lot of stuff happening and you never seem to know why or how. The villains of this game also feel more like a series of events and this is particularly evident when one of them is talking about why he is doing what he is doing commenting on the events that occured in the first Modern Warfare.
That's it? If you have been following MW2 hype you are probably aware of the controversy surrounding the airport level. In this level you play as one of the terrorists and help a couple other guys kill hundreds of civilians and police officers. I personally have no issue with this level's existence however it really feels out of place in the game to me. Part of me likes that they let you walk on the proverbial dark side but ultimately I was left feeling disappointed. The reasons why count as spoilers so I've put them below in a spoiler box.
Overall the airport level just feels like it was put in the game to generate controversy rather than enhance the game in any meaningful way, in fact it probably would be more believable as a cutscene or sound clip during a briefing.
More for less. As a PC gamer I was a little surprised to see a $60 price tag on the PC version of MW2. This didn't bother me too much during the purchase but now that I know more about the game I'm really annoyed now. It is my understanding that publishers must pay a licensing fee to the patent holders of the consoles they are developing games for and this is where the extra $10 comes from. Creating a game for the PC does not require a licensing fee yet PC gamers are forced to pay the higher price.
To add to this frustration the game at times feels like a poor quality port of a console game given the limited number of options and lack of dedicated server support. In effect every detail that made these games appealing for PC players have been gutted and stripped away leaving us with a smaller player base than the consol equivilents. I get the impression Infinity Ward is just trying to milk this game for every penny they possibly can and the consumers are going to end up paying in more ways than one.
Infinity Ward has the right to run and manage their business however they like however currently it feels like they are taking advantage of their player base rather than taking care of us.
Modern Warfare 2 is an excellent game but not worth the price tag if you do not intend to play competitively online. It is unfortunate that they chose to go the route they did but it is what it is. I will continue playing but at this time I do not intend to buy any future DLC releases, nor do I intend to buy another Infinity Ward game if they continue this trend.