Modern Warfare 2 represents Infinity Ward's first work since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare raised the developer's profile (and increased the bulge in its wallet) several orders of magnitude. But rather than taking a ton of huge big-budget risks, Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer carefully builds upon the developer's previous success in ways that will astound people who have spent the last two years learning every corner of every map in the previous game. Instead, the risky stuff is saved for the single-player campaign, which offers tightly packed thrills and rock-solid gameplay, though the narrative is so wild it can get exhausting.
The big draw in Modern Warfare 2 is its competitive multiplayer. Online, up to 18 players can meet up in several different types of matches, which cover the standard bases, like deathmatch and team deathmatch, as well as capture the flag and several other objective-style matches. The action takes place across 16 different maps that offer a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles. You'll fight across the rooftop of a large office building in Highrise, while Rust is a very small area designed for hectic free-for-alls, sort of like Shipment was in Call of Duty 4, but with a bit more verticality. Urban areas dominate the map list, but you'll also find large, mostly flat areas like Wasteland. If you're like me, and don't like getting shot at by snipers from large distances, you'd do well to stay low on Wasteland.
The core activity in the multiplayer hasn't changed a bit. It's still about putting the sights of your gun on the enemy and carefully pulling the trigger. The little clicks that let you know that you've hit your target, or the way grenades clink around on the ground, regardless of surface, haven't changed at all, either. But everything that surrounds these basic concepts has been expanded and modified in a lot of interesting ways. The concept of selectable killstreak bonuses is probably the most interesting change. Like before, you can call in UAV drones to give yourself a better sense of where the enemies are currently located if you can get three kills in a row. You can also still call in airstrikes and helicopters. But you can also call in supply drops, send up counter-UAVs that block enemy radar, send in a harrier jet that hovers above the battle and guns down the opposition, or even call in a Predator missile strike, which lets you quickly control a missile as it drops from the sky, hopefully onto a cluster of enemies. At the outer edges of the killstreak lies a bonus that pretty much levels the playing field. It's a tactical nuke that, when deployed, destroys the arena, kills all the players, and ends the game, regardless of score. That might sound like a nuisance that greatly unbalances the game, but it puts a strong highlight onto the risk versus reward system that comes into play with these killstreaks.
To get that tactical nuke, you'll need to kill 25 people in a row. Without dying once. By comparison, a UAV is still three kills and a supply drop is just four. While it's certainly attainable by the most dedicated and savage players, it seems unlikely that a nuke will be deployed. First of all, a player would have to sacrifice a potentially more useful but lower quality killstreak to make room for the nuke. Even though you'll be able to unlock all of the killstreaks, you can still only select three at any given time. On top of that... they'd have to go kill 25 players without dying. Chances are, if a player is capable of doing that, that player's team is probably going to win anyway. Overall, the amount of kills required to call in the heavy artillery feels balanced. It also helps that you're able to more easily counter the enemy's air support.
You can shoot down enemy UAVs now. That sounds like a minor thing, but it's a great illustration of how much more important things like rocket launchers are in multiplayer this time around. Keeping your movements a secret is as easy as firing a heat-seeker up at the little unmanned plane as it buzzes across the sky. Perks like Cold-Blooded help even more by making you invisible to both UAVs and other AI-controlled support, like sentry guns or attack helicopters. So while there's a greater variety of things in the sky that want to kill you, the individual soldier on the ground has been empowered, as well, keeping things level. Heck, even if you can't get the drop on most enemies with your rifle, shooting down their air support is still a great thing to do to help out your team.
The system of class creation has been expanded in spots and heavily reworked in others. Perks that got a lot of complaints in COD4, like Martyrdom and Juggernaut, have been heavily reworked. For starters, Martyrdom is now a "deathstreak" bonus. If you die four times in a row without killing anyone, your next spawn will give you one instance of Martyrdom. This makes it a lot more rare, as opposed to COD4, where almost every player dropped a grenade every time they died. Juggernaut is gone completely, but there's a rough equivalent to it in Painkiller, another deathstreak perk that will spawn you with triple health if you die three times in a row... but the health bonus only lasts for ten seconds after spawning. Everything feels changed up just enough to feel totally fresh while still letting you outfit the type of character you want.
Additionally, each of the main perks has a "Pro" version that unlocks when you complete specific challenges while using that perk. So, for example, the Bling perk lets you put two attachments on your primary weapon. This means you can have a red dot sight and a silencer, or a heartbeat sensor and full metal jacketed ammo. By using Bling, you'll eventually get Bling Pro, which also lets you put two attachments on your secondary weapon. Commando increases the distance of your melee attack. Commando Pro does that while also preventing you from taking falling damage... which is totally awesome, by the way. All the challenges for weapons and perks mean that you always have something to shoot for that's just out of reach. As a result, you're always unlocking something and messing around with your created classes to find just the right balance of tactics and murderousness.
That balance is the true core of Modern Warfare 2's online play. It's an exhilarating mix that forces tension by rewarding you for taking it slowly. Players that run around corners are just begging to get a knife stuck in their impatient faces. Slowing things down a bit lets you take it all in and, hopefully, get the drop on your opponents. It also makes you an easy target for snipers, Predator missiles, and a lot of other nasty stuff. While there have been plenty of tactical shooters out there, and there have been plenty of almost arcade-like shooters, too, Modern Warfare 2 blends the styles perfectly and has a feel all its own.
The downside of all this is that with shooting that feels roughly identical to the previous Modern Warfare, there are a ton of players out there that are already way better than you are at shooting people. The player matching does its best to get you into games with similarly skilled players, but if you're looking for a different challenge that doesn't force you to play alone, there's Special Ops. This is a two-player cooperative mode with 23 missions, many of which reuse environments from the single-player portion of the game. When you've got someone with you--and players can revive one-another if they're shot up during the course of a mission--even the higher difficulty settings feel totally possible. While the main idea of staying alive and gunning down enemies crosses over into just about every mission, there are a lot of different things to do. One early mission has you perched on a rooftop, sniping soldiers as they rush your position. In the second wave, you're given a Predator missile kit, letting you lay down destruction from relative safety.
Other missions ape the style of the sniper missions from COD4 and MW2, letting you crawl through Chernobyl in a ghillie suit or try to hide out in snowy bushes while troops and dogs track you down. One mission has you split up with your associate. One of you remains on the ground while the other keeps him safe from the gunner seat of an AC-130 airplane. Another has you shooting up a suburban neighborhood overrun by enemies from the gunner seat on a helicopter, while your buddy has to navigate treacherous cul-de-sacs on his way to an extraction point on top of what might as well be a TGI Fridays. You can even engage in a snowmobile race. You earn stars as you play, which are used to unlock additional tiers of missions. It's a fantastic addition to the game that extends the life of the campaign areas while also giving players who are still too scared of the competitive multiplayer a way to interact with friends.
There is, of course, a single-player campaign in Modern Warfare 2, as well. It picks up five years after the events of Call of Duty 4 and covers the exploits of a multinational group called Task Force 141. This is the group that includes Soap, the main player character from COD4. The game is set into motion by Vladimir Makarov, a Russian who used to work for the now-dead bad guy from COD4, Imran Zakhaev. When Makarov slaps on his best American accent and shoots up a Russian airport, all hell breaks loose, worldwide. This includes attacks on American targets from the Russians. As Gary "Roach" Sanderson, a soldier working under "Soap" MacTavish, you'll attempt to fight back against the madness that Makarov has set in motion.
Not that you'll play as "Roach" for the entire game. The campaign functions in the traditional format of the Call of Duty series, so you'll be swapping between multiple player characters over the course of the single-player game. This lets the game switch between multiple theaters, showing you the hunt for Makarov going on in one part of the world while occasionally flashing back to Washington DC, where Russians are attacking en masse. In these sequences, you'll fight to secure territory, help evacuate civilians, and so on.
If you remember Infinity Ward's previous game, then you know that Modern Warfare 2 would have to go pretty far overboard to top something like a nuclear blast that kills one of your player characters. Without getting too specific, let's say that the burning American monuments shown in trailers leading up to the game's release are just the beginning. A lot of crazy and kind of messed-up things go down over the course of your mission, to the point where the developers felt the need to include a "Disturbing Content Warning" that pops up at the beginning of the game. This only applies to one early sequence in the game, but the upshot is that you can skip this potentially disturbing sequence, if you like. That's an interesting way to handle something that, taken out of context, will probably look pretty bad. In the context of the game, though, it feels like an absolutely vital part of the story, told from a very interesting direction. In fact, it's this one sequence that sets all of the events of Modern Warfare 2 in motion. The larger issue is that the story feels like it's trying too hard to top the events of the previous game and shock you every 45 minutes or so. Some of the shocks are genuinely amazing, but there are so many different attempts at freaking you out that it starts to lose its impact and get a little tiring by the end of the campaign.
It'll probably take most players somewhere around five hours to get through Modern Warfare 2 on its default difficulty setting. In that time, you'll use Predator drones to shoot missiles at ground targets, you'll knock choppers out of the sky, you'll drive a snowmobile, and you'll walk alongside an armored vehicle, just like you did in the War Pig level of COD4, but this time it'll be in a very different setting. Overall, the campaign is a short, high-quality blast of action that's definitely worth seeing. Whether or not you'll go back through and play it again depends on how much of a glutton for punishment you are. Like the Call of Duty games before it, Modern Warfare 2's higher difficulty settings force you to play more and more carefully as you ratchet it up. If you're the type of patient player that loves to duck in and out of cover very quickly, you'll enjoy it. I ended up having a great time on the game's standard setting and got very little pleasure out of the harder options.
Modern Warfare 2 is a sharp-looking game with a real dedication to keeping its frame rate up. Its smooth frame rate is a real asset that makes the action look great, but it's also backed up by some good, solid animation and large areas that fill up with enemies. All hell breaks loose at several spots in the campaign, and the technology behind the action is more than up to the challenge. While it isn't an order of magnitude greater than Call of Duty 4 at first glance, the larger scope of some areas feel like things that might not have been possible before, at least not without sacrificing texture or model quality.
Everything is also supported by a great, cinematic soundtrack, a lot of great gunfire and explosion sounds, and some strong voice work out of its cast. The returning voices make the world feel familiar and help tie it to Call of Duty 4. But work by guys like Lance Henriksen and Keith David also add a lot. The lines are delivered with a certain level of conviction that helps sell the plot, even when it starts to spin out of control. That said, the nearly constant use of the phrase "Oscar Mike," mostly by the American troops, starts to get really distracting. In case you were wondering, it means "On the Move." Apparently the script writers watched a lot of Generation Kill, which certainly contributed to the phrase entering the civilian lexicon.
Since it's building on such a strong framework, it might be hard to go completely nuts over the release of Modern Warfare 2. But if you've played a significant amount of Infinity Ward's last game, the improvements are numerous and they are supremely satisfying. If you've ever been interested in a first-person shooter, buy this game.