Developer: Infinity Ward
Genre: First Person Shooter
Players: 1-4, 2-18 (online)
Console: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Progress: Completed campaign on “Hardened”
Only a few days after launch everyone seems to have an opinion of this juggernaut of FPS games, it’s important to note that at the Usagi we neither pay lip service to a big publisher just because we happened to get exclusive access or press coverage and neither will we be unjustly critical just because it would be the “indy” thing to do in the face of such an established franchise and mass-adored title. No, falling somewhere in the middle, we do our best to be unbiased, fair and take an expert, in-depth look at games from a gamer’s perspective. Having said that you probably won’t be surprised when we tell you that Modern Warfare 2 is a great shooter, in fact it’s one of the best FPS games in recent memory and takes us to a level of immersion and visceral action, especially in the main campaign, that improves on the first Modern Warfare (Call of Duty 4), in almost every way. Read on to discover what to look out for in one of the year’s biggest releases…
Most reviews, especially the gushing ones, felt it necessary to critique the story in an apparent attempt to at least throw something negative into the mix. Well, let me assure you that Modern Warfare 2′s story is incredibly gripping and drenched in palpable tension, where we do have to point out fault however, is the manner in which the story is told. Let’s back up a moment and first paint the picture in which we find ourselves this time around (Note: this will contain some minor spoilers, skip this section if you’d rather find out while playing the game): the world is none the prettier since last time we played Modern Warfare, a major conflict erupts between the US and Russia and we find ourselves in the boots of several different participants of this war, including a Private in the US army and the hero from the last game… “Soap” McTavish, now promoted to SAS Captain in the absence of Captain Price (we even get to see the face of this Mohawk-sporting Scotsman). The ambiance that’s set in this backdrop of global conflict and looming nuclear destruction is fantastic, you really feel enveloped in the tension, which saturates the scenarios you find yourself in as you and your team take a key role in stopping Russian terrorists and eventually the Russian army itself. The fast pacing of the action and the intensity of the violence adds to the level of immersion and helps move the story along, the problem is that the different chapters of the story are set up only during the loading screens between missions, there are no in-game or cinematic cut scenes otherwise. This gives little time to really set up the fast paced events of the game’s narrative as we go all the way from a small-scale skirmish in a back-water country to all out war in the United States of America. As a result you’ll often start a new mission wondering what transpired since the last one, leaving you with questions as you make your way through the new chapter. Clunky story telling apart, the action, epic scale of the conflict and visceral violence are so engrossing your head will go flush from it all.
We’ve seen some good looking games hit store shelves this year, yet it’s rare to see such a complete visual package as found in Modern Warfare 2. Virtually everything has been improved over the last game, textures look even crisper and detailed, further enhancing the realistic look that is the call sign of the series. The lighting is fantastic, notably the dynamic lighting in outside environments does a good job mixing shaded areas with sun-drenched ones. I was especially impressed with character animation, in an age of mass-motion capture that’s saying a lot, characters move extremely realistically; ducking, running, sometimes even sliding like armed ballerinas on a blood-drenched stage (how’s that for being poetic?). It’s not just the human characters that received a whole lot of TLC, attack dogs move their ears up and down and bob their heads from left to right as they stand beside their master, it’s little details like this that really make you appreciate the visual improvements made in Modern Warfare 2. Atmospheric effects are really solid too, dust swirls around in desert levels, water droplets streak across the screen as you’re infiltrating an oil platform and snow blows everywhere in mountain peaks of Kazakhstan. These true-to-life visuals do just as much to add to the level of immersion as the awesome FPS action and epic storytelling.
The video game industry has come a long way in the audio department, getting to the point where it rivals Hollywood in sound production and epic scores. No better example exists than Modern Warfare 2, the game’s soundtrack is incredibly cinematic and matches the in-game action perfectly while setting the stage for the huge global events taking place in the title’s story. Set during intense moments of action, huge explosions and grand fire fights, rarely has there been a better reason to own a surround sound set than this, you can feel your gun shake in your hands as you spray bullets at your enemies, your head will rattle as explosions go off around you and your room will shake as jets streak overhead, you’ll find a common theme here: the level of immersion is enhanced by all gameplay elements, graphics, visuals and certainly audio.
Not much has changed with Call of Duty’s control scheme, which fans should be happy to hear. The left trigger button let’s you aim down the sight of your gun, the right trigger fires your gun, the left bumper let’s you throw your special grenade (usually the flashbang), the right bumper let’s you throw your frag grenade. The Y button switches weapons, the B button makes you crouch, keeping it pressed makes you go prone, “A” let’s you jump while the X button is for reloading your weapon. The left thumb stick let’s you move, while clicking it enables sprinting, the right thumb stick let’s you move around, while clicking it makes you perform a melee attack, lastly the D-pad access the various items in your inventory. You’ll feel right at home with this control scheme, but if you prefer your own settings, other control setups are available via the options menu. Responsiveness was good, and aim sensitivity can be further adjusted, not having infinite sprint in multiplayer is a bit of a pain as constantly toggling the thumbstick is annoying, but you can earn infinite sprint as a perk.
[This section contains some spoilers, skip to the next paragraph on Spec-Ops if you feel this will negatively affect your first play-through of the single player campaign]
Take a glance at Modern Warfare’s menu screen and you’ll find the game is split up into three categories: Campaign, Spec-Ops and Multiplayer. Starting with the game’s campaign mode, a lot has already been said about its pulse-pounding action, almost all of the game’s missions throw an abundance of enemies at you from all kinds of angles, forcing you to constantly stay on your toes. A great example of this is the Rio de Janeiro’s Favela level, cramped alleys are surveyed from tall rooftops with enemies firing at you from doorways and other rooftops while popping up from behind windows. “Never a moment’s rest” has seemed to be Infinity Ward’s mantra while designing the single player campaign levels, when you’re not engaging in mass firefights there are these set pieces that will make your brow sweat as much as any bullet exchange would. For example, in the Kazakhstan mountain level, which starts out as an infiltration mission, the manure suddenly hits the fan as you become exposed. You then have to book it while being pursued by dozens of ill-tempered Russian soldiers, improvise by confiscating some snow mobiles and race down the side of a mountain while dodging trees, rocks and more angry Russians who are also racing snow mobiles while armed with machine guns. Another great example of the campaign’s immersion-enhancing moments is the in the previously mentioned “Favela” level. As your team prepares to flee the scene by helicopter after apprehending a Brazilian arms dealer, your character misses a roof jump and has to run for his life as he’s pursued by dozens of militia. The game goes into a kind of “sprint” mode where you’re not able to shoot but can run faster as you make your way through a maze of cramped alleys and homes in an attempt to make it to your team’s helicopter before being overrun by dual-pistol sporting locals. The first Modern Warfare always stood out as a game it invoked the intensity of war better than any other game and amazingly its sequel has improved on this by virtue of the examples mentioned previously. Of course there are a few gameplay tweaks in the campaign, but they’re mostly minor, when taking damage for instance, instead of a red ring around of the screen as with the first Modern Warfare, we now get a healthy sprinkling of blood splatter on the imaginary “camera”, limiting view as an extra penalty. Apart from a new arsenal of weapons, there is also new support arsenal available, such as the remote control Predator missile and deployable turrets. There have been a lot of murmurs regarding the length, or lack thereof, of the single player campaign. Well, let us state that for the record, it’s about as long as the first Modern Warfare, about 5.5 hours on “Normal”. We would really recommend playing the game on at least “Hardened” (the next difficulty level up) as Infinity Ward has increased the difficulty of the harder difficulty modes (Hardened and Veteran), with the game taking about 7 hours to complete. This is definitely not as long as we would’ve liked, the campaign is so enjoyable that you’d like it to go on forever, but what is there is stunning. I’ve heard some murmurs that the Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t innovate enough, that it feels like an old fashioned shooter, the few examples that were offered mainly centered around the lack of a cover mechanic. Let me go on record by stating that Modern Warfare 2 is about fast-paced action and doesn’t have a cover mechanic because it’s not meant to be slowed down by hugging a crate for 10 minutes as you take pot shots at equally covered-up enemies. Modern Warfare’s “hook” is its level of immersion and visceral action and what makes Modern Warfare 2 so good, is that it improves on almost all counts over its excellent predecessor.
An absolutely fantastic addition to this title is Spec-Ops, an assortment of challenges geared towards cooperative play, you’ll be able to tackle these challenges with a friend through Xbox Live, split-screen or alone. Completing challenges grants you stars, the number of stars (between 1 and 3) is based on the difficulty you play the challenges in (normal, hardened or veteran). The brilliance here is the variety of the challenges and how they touch upon some of the most memorable moments from both Modern Warfare titles, everyone remembers the spectacular AC-130 gunship sequence from the first Modern Warfare. This time around, in the “Overwatch” Spec-Ops challenge one player takes control of the gunship high up in the air while the second player is down on the ground spotting enemies. Some other challenges are based on the ever-popular “Horde Mode”, while not terribly original at this point, taking on several waves of enemies works extremely well here as different armaments and positions add a level of strategy not often seen in this type of game mode. Consider the use of claymores, sniper rifles, grenades and Predator missiles along with the concept of teamwork, and you have some highly enjoyable and deep game experiences. The fact that Infinity Ward has put considerable effort and importance behind Spec-Ops is apparent enough from the simple fact that many achievements are based on meeting Spec-Ops challenges and long after you’ve wrapped up the single player campaign you’ll be coming back to improve your score in one of these challenges as you try to tackle it at a harder difficulty.
Now wasn’t there something else the Call of Duty franchise was revered for…? Oh yeah, multiplayer! Please read our next section to find out about the many exciting new additions made to Modern Warfare’s most popular game mode.
I could fill a considerable portion of the Internet’s available bandwidth writing about the many elements of Modern Warfare 2′s multiplayer mode, instead I’ll touch upon some of the more important changes, as most of the additions improve the multiplayer mode considerably, but don’t turn it on its head. To put it simply, there is more of everything: more primary weapons, more secondary weapons, more perks, more attachments, more maps, more upgrades, more challenges, more kill-streak rewards. As if we didn’t have enough customization options for our online soldier, Infinity Ward has also added an extensive list of titles and emblems, similar to what you find in Street Fighter IV. There are also accolades, which are rewarded for meeting specific in-match requirements and grant you added experience. The accolades are similar in essence to the medals awarded in Halo 3 when you kill multiple enemies at once or do something else of particular note. Struggling players have been granted a boon in the form of “death-streak” rewards; die three times in a row and you’ll be granted a perk to help you get on your way, this starts out with the ability to copy the weapon set of the person who killed you, once you’ve leveled up enough times however you can choose to get a temporary health bonus instead and eventually old favorites like “martyrdom” and “last stand” become available as death streak bonuses. What really stood out for me was the ability to set your own kill-streak rewards as you unlock more while ranking up, this enables you to set what kind of reward you get based on the number of consecutive kills you’ve garnered. Some awesome rewards are available to the player, including the remote control Predator missile found in the single player campaign, as well as an actual Harrier jet coming to your aid. Another stand-out new feature is the “tactical insertion”, a flare which is part of your equipment set up (which includes things like frag grenades and claymores), which once deployed, determines your next spawn point. A favorite of mine, because I’d hang out around the place where I deployed the flare and if I got killed I’d re-spawn right back in the same place, often taking the person who shot me off guard and giving me a sweet “payback” experience bonus.
[Ed. note: The exclusion of single-console split-screen online play, as featured in Halo 3, was a huge mistake on Infinity Ward's part. They can preach all they want about how it's not fair to have two people in the same room playing together, but there really is nothing in the real world to stop people from putting two Xboxs in the same room, achieving the same effect. A few extra lines of code could easily have enabled this feature, and made life much more bearable for family's with multiple gamers, or people who have roommates. When Infinity Ward was asking for suggestions for Modern Warfare 2 over Twitter, most of the top suggestions involved the inclusion of this feature. I still cannot comprehend how bone-headed this move was on the part of these otherwise fantastic developers, and am still holding out a small hope that some DLC or a patch could bring this feature back from the brink. If there is a single lacking feature in Modern Warfare 2, it is the exclusion of people with corporeal family and friends.
Another new feature of note in multiplayer is the voice acting. The voices in the first Modern Warfare were a bit over-the-top in multiplayer matches. This time round, not only are the voices more low-key and believable, but they also added-in some additional canned voice-messages that inform you when interesting things are going down around the map. While this could have easily been a bad thing, it is a welcome addition in Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer, and adds an extra level of immersion to the overall experience.]
Unlike say, a Halo 3, which disappointed with its initial offering of multiplayer maps, especially in comparison to the awesome arenas found in Halo 2, Modern Warfare 2 stacks the deck with fantastic maps. The standard 8-12 player maps (found in team deathmatch, mercenary team deathmatch and free-for-all, for instance) are often built around a centerpiece, such an airliner at an airport, two-storey warehouse with an overview of much of the map or a lavish villa. The bigger 12-18 player maps (found in “ground war”) are littered with buildings, alleys and other objects that divide them up nicely, the best thing about any of the maps found in Modern Warfare 2 is that they feel very organic. Never are we put in a symmetrical arena that seems artificial and unrealistic, instead we are put in variants of single player campaign environments that feel like they’re plucked from real life locations, adding to that all-familiar theme I’ve been preaching this entire review: immersion.
With so many FPS games on the market, especially in the US, it’s hard to stand out and even harder to keep the attention of consumers. Being as recognizable a franchise as Call of Duty is, standing out isn’t really a problem, delivering on past greatness, is. Thankfully, the single-player campaign is more intense and action-packed than even the first Modern Warfare was; unfortunately, it’s not any longer and the way the story (which is especially engrossing) is told could be a lot more transparent. With the addition of Spec-Ops and a deeper multiplayer mode, the content has actually been beefed up considerably and the value in a COD game has never been better. It’s worth noting that the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 is a direct port of the console version, there are no dedicated servers or options to record matches for instance, although disappointing for PC owners who expect these features with a premium release like this, its becoming a growing trend for PC versions to be direct ports of their console counterparts, with a shrinking lineup of new PC game releases, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore. [Ed. note: It's also much easier for IW to regulate updates and to ensure that PC-gamers aren't using any hacks that would give them unfair advantages]
[Ed. note: The Night Vision Goggles (NVG) included in the Prestige Edition of this game work amazingly well. There are a couple of options included in the NVG as well. You can switch the display, which is essentially a tiny screen, akin to say, the Nintendo DS, can be set to display the no longer darkened world in either greyscale or what could be called "greenscale", the stereotypical NVG view-mode. The NVG can also be put into one of two viewing modes: the first mode is Stealth mode, wherein the NVG do not emit light of any visible wavelength, making you totally invisible in the dark. This mode is amply effective by itself, especially in a building of normal proportions. There's also an extra-distance mode in which the NVG use a ring of infrared lights around the lens, visible to the naked eye, to effectively double the distance visible in pitch dark areas. The NVG are made of good-quality plastic and don't feel cheap or derivative (*coughArkhamAsylumBatarangcough*). Be warned, though, those puppies take 5 AA batteries which are not included, so make sure you have some around so that you can have some fun peeing in the dark, or whatever people will use these for.]
Public Enemy would caution us not to “believe the hype”, and while being cautious is always prudent, in this case Modern Warfare 2 lives up to the hype pretty adequately. The level of immersion and intense action has been ramped up over previous titles in the franchise and the extra content in the shape of the new Spec-Ops mode along with beefed-up multiplayer more than make up for the short single-player campaign. With better graphics, fantastic music and the reappearance of your favourite Modern Warfare characters (along with some surprises) virtually everything has been improved with Infinity Ward’s crown jewel. If you’re mostly a single-player-type gamer you might be better off renting this one, as the single player campaign, as awesome as it is, doesn’t have a lot of legs. Anyone who enjoys some co-op or competitive multiplayer, though, will not be putting this one down any time soon and a purchase is wholeheartedly recommended.
+ Epic, gripping, fast paced and very grandiose
- Narrative is only laid down during loading screens, often making you feel like you’re missing something
+ Great-looking, high-resolution textures
+ Very realistic lighting and atmospheric effects
+ Fantastic character animation (including dogs!)
+ Epic score, great music
+ Ear-rattling sound effects
+ Impressive voice dialogue, this includes the in-game squad chatter
+ Fast moving, incredibly immersive action
+ Entertaining challenges in Spec-Ops
- It can be extremely difficult to avoid incoming fire when playing the single player campaign on “Veteran”
+ More of everything: maps, weapons, perks, customization and challenges
+ Maps are extremely well done and look and feel very organic
+ New voice acting is believable and much more unobtrusive
- Hardcore players might take offense to the n00b friendly death streak boosts
- Exclusion of the much-requested single-console split-screen online multiplayer feature was a considerable and unjustifiable mistake
+ Between the single-player campaign, Spec-Ops mode and multiplayer there is a lot of content here
+ Virtually everything has been improved over the last Modern Warfare
+ Night Vision Goggles included in the Prestige Edition are well worth the extra money if you can find them
- Single-player campaign is short, especially compared to the other AAA games this year
- PC gamers get a straight port of the console version sacrificing some PC-friendly features in the process