Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360)
OK, let's get this out of the way. In one of the early missions in Modern Warfare 2, you play an undercover soldier who has infiltrated a Russian terrorist group. You participate in an attack on an airport. You play through the mission, moving slowly through carefully scripted and graphically presented carnage. You're invited to participate in the massacre. You don't have to actively shoot any unarmed victims, but you do have to watch. And you do have to participate in the ensuing shootout with police. There's some guff in the exposition about why you don't stop it. But the real reason you don't stop it is because the developers at Infinity Ward want the publicity.
The mission is an unmitigated success! Modern Warfare 2 is probably going to be the biggest game of 2009.
The mission is also reprehensible trash, all the more reprehensible for how poorly it serves the narrative, not to mention how implausible it is. Anyone who claims this interactive airport massacre somehow has value for the way it "raises important issues" or "elicits strong emotions" or "makes you think" is as tone-deaf as Infinity Ward and Activision. As the companies demonstrated in their last collaboration, there are ways to do these things without resorting to this sort of cheap shock and "uhh?"
In response to pre-release reactions to this scene, Infinity Ward patched into the game a disclaimer that pops up as soon you start Modern Warfare 2. It asks if you'd like to skip a potentially disturbing level. I sincerely hope you won't skip it, because I want you to know what you're supporting when you buy this game.
However, in the interest of fairness, I'm going to review this game as if I'd elected to skip the scene. I'm going to pretend this is a better world in which a wildly successful videogame company doesn't feel the need to compromise its integrity by shoving my nose in the lurid sensationalism of civilian massacre porn that doesn't advance their game one whit.
WWPSD: What would Patrick Swayze do?
The most disappointing thing about Modern Warfare 2 is how poorly the single-player campaign lives up to the previous game. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a trenchant, canny, shrewdly told story about the nature of warfare in the modern world. Now Modern Warfare 2 is a confused mishmash of levels minus any real connective tissue, much less any sort of overarching narrative. It's a desultory trip through several locations where you do the usual shooter things like taking out SAM sites, sniping guards, riding vehicles, manning turrets, and getting to the chopper.
The twist is supposedly that you're fighting them over here even though you also fought them over there. Unless you count the awful snowmobile chase and the absurd bullet-time door breaches, the suburban USA settings are about the only new things you get in Modern Warfare 2. But I'm not sure you can say they're new when games like Blacksite: Area 51 and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat have already done the same thing, on the same stage, with pretty much the same players. And it seems like every third real-time strategy game has me defending Washington D.C. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, wore it out, and I've long since used it as a rag when I clean out the garage. All this "Red Dawn" hooey is fine for silly fantasy fare, but in a supposedly relevant and ever-so-slightly realistic series like Call of Duty, it's laughably out of place. At this rate, Modern Warfare 3 will take place on the moon. And given one of Modern Warfare 2's most ridiculous scenes, they already have some of the assets ready to go!
When it's all over, it makes no sense. This thing is about as comprehensible as a Metal Gear Solid game, but without the benefit of being Japanese, meta, or slow. It's not clear who's doing what to whom, why you're going anywhere, what you're doing there, how this mission relates to that mission, who that guy is, or why Price is reciting some sort of bad LiveJournal poetry during the last few missions. At least I think it was Price. Wait, isn't he the bad guy? Or did someone else launch the nuke? It's a pretty poorly told story that can't distinguish characters named Price, Soap, Roach, Ramirez, MacTavish and Allen. In fact, I think some of those names might be the same guy. It's telling that Modern Warfare 2 dispenses with the waypoint marker that always told you where to go. In many of the levels, you're left to sort of wander until you find the exit. This accurately captures the experience of trying to follow the story.
Same shit, different day, indeed
But mostly the gameplay feels slightly tired. It's reliable, but familiar. You push forward to activate checkpoints where you'll respawn when you die. To Infinity Ward's credit, many of the checkpoints seem related to killing a certain batch of enemies instead of hitting a point on the map. This means there isn't quite so much charging into gunfire out of exasperation to just get on with the damn thing. You get lots of skillfully provided noise, including wonderful voiceover acting and superlatively engineered gunfire sounds. You get lots of nifty weapon animations. Enjoy the awesome smoke, the lovely skyboxes and some of the best character animation that isn't exclusive to the PlayStation 3. The graphics are every bit as good as Call of Duty 4. You still get mostly narrow and entirely linear levels. The artificial intelligence is still only challenging because weapons are so lethal. And a lot of your playing time will be from reloaded checkpoints.
But it's not the least bit innovative. There are no new twists like Call of Duty 4's AC-130 sequence, sniper mission flashback, nuked city, scripted player death, march to execution, or final boss fight, all of which made that game special and provocative. Instead, every single one of those elements is somehow recycled. It's as if everyone at Infinity Ward with a good idea had already spent it, so they just sort of shook things up a little, rearranged them a bit, stirred in some clunky "Red Dawn," and tried a do-over.
With a little help from a friend
But that's just the single-player storyline. What partly rescues Modern Warfare 2 is the Special Ops section. These are challenges mostly lifted from the storyline, all playable cooperatively. You progress through sets of them, unlocking them as you go by earning stars. There are some really nice surprises in here even if you've already finished the story. Some new set pieces make this much more of a value-added proposition than, say, the story-based co-op in Uncharted 2, which is just standalone bits drawn directly from the single-player game. A few of the Special Ops missions are tedious and you'll never want to do them again once you've finished. But some belong alongside Gears of War 2's Horde mode and Halo 3: ODST's Firefight mode. And there's a lot of opportunity here for Infinity Ward and Activision in terms of downloadable content. I can almost taste the possibilities.
But what really rescues Modern Warfare 2 is the competitive multiplayer. Infinity Ward hit on a solid-gold formula in Call of Duty 4 when it introduced its concoction of unlockable weapons, perks, challenges and customization. It set up a brilliant MMO-like system that rewarded you for playing. The system was further improved in Call of Duty: World at War. Now it's improved even more in Modern Warfare 2. The cool new elements include customizable kill streak rewards, including one that lets you use a random kill streak reward you might not have unlocked; upgradeable perks to encourage different configurations; nifty and arguably overpowered toys like heartbeat sensors and deployable respawn points; death streak perks to give those of us who suck a little helping hand; and lots of badges, emblems and titles if you care about that sort of thing (and considering how your killer's badge is essentially held up for you to view every time you die, it's hard not to care).
There's no doubt that Modern Warfare 2 is going to be one of the biggest multiplayer shooters ever. It deserves it. It's that good. It's just too bad that Infinity Ward couldn't rise to the occasion of offering more to folks who aren't as interested in online play. Because as a single-player sequel to Call of Duty 4, this is one of the most disappointing follow-ups in videogaming history.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.
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