It’s difficult to review a game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare2 some two days before it’s officially released. Everyone wants to know whether it’s any good or not. Whether it suffers from Infinity’s Ward’s notorious infinite re-spawns, and whether it could possibly live up to the high levels of expectations heaped upon it after the success of the last few Call of Duty games. But then at the same time, no-one wants to have any of the game spoiled for them either. Which makes it extremely difficult to actually say anything worthwhile and of substance without giving too much away. Though to be honest, having just experienced the whole of the single player campaign myself having managed to avoid most of the preview coverage, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything anyway, as it’s absolutely an experience that’s best had with no prior knowledge or foresight.
This review will focus solely on the single-player portion of the game. Though I do write it with a certain sense of trepidation as I don’t want to fall foul of the behemoth that is Activision by breaking some embargo stipulation that I’m not actually privy to because they weren’t decent enough to send me a review copy of the game. I was however, fortunate enough to receive my pre-order copy three days early. And after having spent all of last night and most of today working my way through the single-player campaign - on Hardened in case you’re wondering - some 9 hours 41 minutes later, here I am. Breathless, on a huge adrenaline-high and trying to put into words the mind-blowing experience I’ve just had with what I can only describe as the single best first-person-shooter experience I’ve ever had.
Let’s not beat about the bush, and I’ll save you the hassle of having to scroll to the bottom of this review - Modern Warfare 2 is, without any shadow of a doubt, an astonishing 5 star experience. To the point where that score would not change even if it was a single-player only game, without the as-yet-untouched multiplayer or special ops modes - it really is that good. From its tight-pacing, to its exhilarating and varied set-pieces, it’s a, (and I hate to use this metaphor but I can’t think of a more apt description) bona-fide rollercoaster ride. There’s not a dull level or moment in the game and even when Infinity Ward does deliberately slow the pace, it’s done to devastating and dramatic effect and serves often to only heighten the tension instead of providing any sort of lull. And so with that grand opening out of the way, let’s now look at the myriad reasons why.
Trying not to give too much away
The first person shooter is perhaps the most popular and biggest selling genre of game out there at the moment, and you'd think by now that developers would have exhausted all the possibilities. Not so Infinity Ward. You see, even though a lot of FPSs leave me cold and bored with their monotonous shallow gameplay and copied and pasted level design, and even though Modern Warfare 2 still follows that same Call of Duty blueprint, every single level stands out for one reason or another. Whether you're slowly sneaking through an arctic chill, running all guns blazing through a busy American street or holed up in a burger house (of all places), holding off enemy forces, Modern Warfare 2's scenarios and levels are all delivered with a level of panache that shows why it's the genre's premier developer. The level design and mission objectives constantly change. The tactics required to succeed are varied and interested. And it's just all so cinematic.
There’s a certain level in Modern Warfare 2 where an unfortunate event happens - and you’ll know the one I’m referring to when you play it for yourself - that is no doubt going to get the game a lot of negative press. But to do so is to completely miss the point. Now don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for, but I will mention that on this one particular level you’re asked to do something unlike anything you’ve ever had to do in a videogame before. And while you’ll do it unflinchingly, much to your own surprise no doubt, you will, like I did, have to pause proceedings for a second and reflect on what you’ve just had to do.
You see I’ve killed thousands of animated AI characters across hundreds of games during my time as a gamer, but Modern Warfare 2 was the first time I’ve ever had to stop and sit, stony-faced and in shock while I let the gravity of what I’ve just seen sink in. The words "dramatic", "sickening", "unhinging" and "affecting" don’t come anywhere near close to describing said unfortunate even. But then for as hard-hitting an event as it undoubtedly is, it’s delivered in such a way that it’s never offensive, un-necessary or gratuitous. There’s an almost tangible sense of respect and dignity in how it’s presented too. And while there will undoubtedly be numerous scathing headlines criticising the game’s supposed insensitivity in this current global political climate, Infinity Ward should actually be commended because it’s the single-most thought provoking moment in a videogame yet. Even more so than the tragic and helpless death of Sergeant Paul Jackson in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare after a nuclear warhead brings down his helicopter.
But moving away from potential spoiler territory again, Modern Warfare 2 as it turns out, isn’t a radical departure from the tried and tested formula that stood the previous games in such good stead. In fact, anyone looking for anything new and revolutionary is going to be ultimately disappointed. But one minor new addition though, and one that never gets old, is the new breach mechanic. Certain levels require you to breach and clear rooms, similarly to Rainbow Six: Vegas, only Modern Warfare 2’s interpretation is much more cinematic as it employs a bullet-time-esque slowdown as you enter each room, giving you a few precious seconds to carefully pinpoint and take down the enemy hostiles in glorious slow motion.
There’s also a whole new raft of weapons and attachments including most notably, a heartbeat sensor which indicates the presence of nearby enemies. The thermal weapons which show heat sources as a bright white silhouette are also hugely effective and I look forward to their use in multiplayer.
In terms of graphics, Modern Warfare 2 proves itself to be extremely deceptive. At first glance it’s easy to think it’s just a vanilla re-hash of the Call of Duty 4 engine with no improvements or additions and you may actually initially be slightly underwhelmed by its visuals. But then as things progress and you experience the snow and desert levels and start to notice the fantastic weather and atmospheric particle effects – stuff I don’t normally ever see or pay attention to - you’ll slowly begin to have your mind changed. And then towards the end of the game, when you can’t fail but notice the vast amounts of carnage, wreckage and debris scattered around the devastated locales, your jaw will drop as you stop and take stock of just how much detail, the sheer number of objects and how much thought and dedication has so obviously gone into the design of each level. The White House siege being a particular highlight.
The character animation is also gloriously well realised with enemies and your squad-mates having a real presence and sense of weight in the world. Everything just looks so believable and the motion capture team at Neversoft deserves a lot of credit.
The levels where you and a colleague work as a pair are particularly memorable. And usually in a game like this, you tend to lead and your AI compadre follows, but in Modern Warfare 2 your partner acts and behaves in such a believable manner that it’s easy to forget they’re computer controlled. In fact you’ll quickly end up following them and letting them dictate the pace of play as though you were playing with a real-life partner and not an AI character. Watching them carefully peer around trees then pick off select enemy hostiles or charge into a room before dropping an opponent with a skilfull Judo throw then knifing them in the stomach just looks so believable and polished that you really do become immersed into the experience and captivated by it all.
The enemy AI is also worth mentioning too as no longer will hostiles simply hide behind objects waiting for you to pick them off. Instead they’ll mix their tactics up by trying to out-flank or out-manoeuvre you; they’ll even try to suppress you, and rather than sitting there like an idiot when you throw a grenade at them, they’ll often switch positions to get a cleaner shot at you.
You might also be glad to know that the infinite respawns that plagued the previous Call of Duty games have been seemingly all but eradicated. Or at least, if they are still there, they’re brilliantly well disguised because not once during my time through the game did I ever feel like I had to push on past that annoying invisible line in order to move things forward. Enemies will attack in groups and waves but once you’ve skilfully mopped them all up, as you would expect to be able to, you can push on unhindered.
The difficulty level also seems to have been tweaked slightly too. On Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the Treyarch developed Call of Duty: World at War, there were numerous levels that featured sections that I must have replayed 50 or 60 times before eventually beating them. But yet I completed Modern Warfare 2 on Hardened, without ever getting frustrated or annoyed. There were admittedly some sections that required a few replays, but then I’d expect that on such a testing difficulty level. And thankfully there seemed to be a much higher number of closely positioned checkpoints which I was extremely grateful for. Whether this change in difficulty is simply down to the removal of infinite respawns remains to be seen, but I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt to Infinity Ward and put it down to them being at the peak of their game and having the time and ability to continually evolve and adapt.
From beginning to end the action in Modern Warfare 2 never lets up. And Infinity Ward has yet again shown itself to be a master story-teller, has raised the metaphorical bar and once again delivered a masterful single-player experience with supremely skilful pacing that guarantees a high level of tension and excitement throughout.
With a whole variety of different locations, set-pieces, and gameplay styles, the game constantly reinvents itself and even though the core mechanics and gameplay experience are identical to its predecessors, it never once feels old, stale or formulaic. With a dramatic 24-inspired storyline with plenty of twists of turns, at over 9 hours total time on hardened it never outstays its welcome and with the punishing Veteran difficulty levels there’s always plenty of reason to revisit it.
An epic and bewildering experience, it's already my definite candidate for game of the year, if not the decade. Infinity Ward, I salute you.