Impressions: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Video games and war go hand in hand. They’re an inseparable pair, as well as a money-making machine. War is real. Gritty. Something that you hope you’ll never in any lifetime have to experience – at least, for most people. Gaming is obviously the complete opposite, but it’s a favorite pastime for many of us to live vicariously through the digital entertainment medium. However, most of gaming’s concentrated efforts to bring war as a form of entertainment (and some would say education) to the masses have usually been set in World War II.

Two years ago, acclaimed developer Infinity Ward took a bold step in bringing their award winning World War II franchise Call of Duty out of the 1940s and into a new era with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, their most celebrated installment, bringing with it an action-packed and unrelenting campaign mode and competitive multiplayer that not only worked great on consoles but set the gold standard from then on. Infinity Ward returns yet again with the first true sequel to the series with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and with expectations that are unquestionably through the roof, did they manage to pull off such a feat again?

The campaign places you in the role of several survivors from Call of Duty 4’s ending , as well as a few new grunts from both the Army Rangers and elite Task Force 141 as you track down remaining ultra-nationalist groups being led by a man named Makarov. Five years after the events of the first Modern Warfare, Makarov seeks revenge for the death of his former comrade Zakhaev, whom the player gunned down in Modern Warfare’s finale. After Makarov’s plan for revenge is set into motion (and I’ll touch on this later), Russia launches a full-blown attack on American soil. The story offers more twists and turns than veterans of the series are used to and the action-packed set pieces are second to none, whether it’s trekking through snowing Russian military bases or navigating the burning ruins of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Gameplay is Call of Duty standard with the player trying to advance to the next objective while dodging grenades and gunfire; though you may come to notice one aspect that this games predecessor was criticized for, the infinite respawn of enemies before getting to the next checkpoint is now gone, making the frustrating Veteran difficulty a little more manageable. Once you clear an area of enemies, they won’t come back. Simply shoot to kill. Aim occasionally. Shoot again. It’s nothing new for the series, but it’s executed so well that you barely have time to notice while you’re calling in Predator missiles, zooming through snowy hills in snowmobiles, or holding your breath at the stunning conclusion. In fact, you’ll be so immersed in the action that at times it’s hard to stop and think about what’s really going on.

Case in point: why, exactly, has Makarov turned the world against America? The answer is attached to the controversial level “No Russian,” in which an undercover task force member is “forced” to participate (or just watch until your own life is threatened) in an attack on a Russian airport populated with civilians.

I say “forced” because before even starting the campaign, the player is warned that the game contains content that may be disturbing for some players. You may skip the level entirely, allowing you to just jump to the next stage. However, I found fault with this. Since the game’s rating is obviously Mature, it should be assumed that there may be “disturbing” content, and the addition of a warning only serves to exacerbate the problem of video games being seen as “murder sims.” If I am of legal age to purchase a Mature video game, I am accepting the consequences therein. Thus, I was offended not by the content of “No Russian,” but the developers’ presumptuous notions that I might not want to experience all parts of the content. Do we need our hands held this much as responsible adults?

Though playing it offers no less mayhem or violence than other “controversial” games such as Grand Theft Auto, where you run over, gun down, carjack, and make the inhabitants of the city miserable, “No Russian” is viewed as disturbing because you are participating in the massacre of a good hundred or more civilians. While you absolutely do not have to open fire until you must fight off advancing, armed, squadrons, the rabble around this level has perplexed me. I hear tell of those being “appalled” and unable to bring themselves to pull the trigger, but you’re never actually told to. If you follow the story closely enough, you’ll understand why you’re there in the first place. If you want to play along, that’s absolutely your decision. No one wants to see innocents die, but it seems to me amidst the clamor around this release, gamers seem to forget that we have done the exact same thing in countless other titles. Is “No Russian” different because we tend to tie it to the events of September 11, 2001? And if so, why are we not judging content in other mediums (such as film or television) similarly?

Because we’re curious.

It’s not as if this is the first time we are seeing an experiment such as we have in “No Russian.” Because of the massive amount of media hysteria and ignorance surrounding this chapter, I have to wonder if gamers are mature enough to play along with what’s in-game for the sake of narrative if we must complain each and every time we’re shown something too “real” for our tastes. If we want mature, respectable games to be used in the age-old “games as art” critique, that means accepting and respecting narratives that are provided as living, breathing storylines. If you would accept it in a movie, then why not a video game?

Besides, the level gives you a glimpse into the ruthless nature of the people you’re trying to stop. It lets you see first-hand how despicable these individuals are, and why it’s so important that you put the kibosh on their diabolical plans. You can skip it, but why, when it sets up the events of the other 2/3 of the story? I question Infinity Ward’s decisions made here, and have to wonder if it all wasn’t just meant to cause panic in every American who’s too paranoid to set foot into an airport because of “them thar terrorists,” when obviously you’re dealing with Russia in this game. If this was the intent, I must say I’ve lost respect for them, but if they meant for you to see experience the evils of Makarov for yourself, then I applaud them. Either way, the level is selling so many copies of the game it makes my head spin.

Fortunately, the game is spectacular, and if you don’t let something as insignificant and small as others’ complaints and a jumpy plot keep you away, you’re in for quite a ride. Visuals have been noticeably tweaked. You will notice as soon as the game loads – colors are vibrant, characters, weapons and environments are all gloriously detailed and explosions are as visually satisfying as ever.

Though the campaign is short by today’s standards, finishing out at a good 6-8 hour run, you can hardly fault it for being so brief. Much longer and it would have evolved into a slog between continents and across the world. While Halo 3: ODST’s storyline was noticeably brief as well and fans tended to knock it for such, it did not feature anywhere near the level of immersion you will experience in Modern Warfare 2.

And once you are finished with the explosive campaign, the game offers more not only in the return of tight, polished multiplayer but as well as the two player co-op mode spec-ops. Spec-ops allows you and a buddy can connect over Xbox Live or PSN (or split screen at home) and try to earn stars in missions ranging from rehashed sections of the solo campaign or some that are completely new. For example, there is a level in which you and your friend try to take back an enemy-occupied bridge in another part of the country, demonstrating to the player the true scope of the attack on the U.S.

Call of Duty veterans jumping into multiplayer will find familiar game types such as Headquarters, Team Deathmatch, and a few surprising additions like Demolition, in which teams either have to destroy or defend two objectives within a time limit, or new third-person game types. With a level cap ending at 70 before players can enter prestige mode, players may at first feel a little overwhelmed, but you’ll quickly level up because you get massive amounts of points for almost everything you do. Even if you’re not doing very well, you’ll notice rapid accumulation of experience points, much faster than we have seen in the past.

As you complete challenges you’ll unlock titles and icons for use in your in-game ID, which brings more individuality to players better than a childish clan tag ever could. However , you’ll also find that many team based game types force you to play in game chat and will kick you out of party chats, forcing you to listen to the screams of frustrated players, rants of various on-line jerks and annoying preteens. While you still have the option to mute other players, the ease of joining a group of friends and communicating with multiple players outside of your game is sorely missed.

In fact, it has hindered my online enjoyment of the multiplayer so much that I do not feel the need to hop on and compete online anymore. I will be sticking to Call of Duty 4 for this, as I do not feel the need to be told to go back to the kitchen or to cry to my mother each time I open my mouth to speak. In team games such as Team Deathmatch, 90% of the time players are only concerned with individual progress and how their own kill/death ratio and wins look – never the team’s. Being forced to listen to other players online does not enforce authentic team play, and online functionality should not be sacrificed to play the game only the way the developers want. Changing the rules of an online service should not be the way to enforce cooperation. What of clan meets, practices, or simple friendly matches online where the players care not about their score?

It’s absolutely ludicrous, and probably the only real complaint I have, but it’s a very significant one to force me back into enjoying the original game that I purposely stopped playing in anticipation of nights spent with this one.  Its worth noting this review was based on Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 versions of the game, where the PC version has its own host of online issues to contend with.

Infinity Ward has listened to the complaints of fans about several aspects of the game, but when it comes to multiplayer, they should have shut out all complaints (likely from offenders who run their mouths in the first place) and focused on keeping what made the original game’s online components so great. Still, they’ve done their best to try and add as much new content as possible, which works but at the same time seems overly complicated and in some cases unnecessary and falls into an example of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Barring some shaky multiplayer caveats, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a juggernaut and a must-play for anyone who loves modern military drama or fans of fast-paced first person shooters.  While some will question the inclusion of certain controversial elements, the game is intended for mature audiences and should rightfully be taken as such.  Despite their current behavior and cocky attitude, it shows that no one makes blockbuster action games quite like Infinity Ward can. And we’ll hopefully see another, as the Halo-styled cliffhanger ending ensures you’ll be left on the edge of your seat waiting for the inevitable release of Modern Warfare 3.

Available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC.

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