Modern Warfare 2 is like a shock and awe campaign against your brain. Whether it’s trying to say something poignant or rewarding another crazy kill it’s constantly overwhelming you with information. This is at once pulse-pounding, rewarding, thought-provoking, and a little exhausting. Some of the game’s ideas get lost in all the noise, but when so much good content is thrown at you, most of it is sure to stick.
The cacophony of gunfire, explosions, and radio chatter begins with the single-player campaign. Similar in presentation to the previous Modern Warfare, this direct sequel jumps between characters, telling a story of global terrorism and the men that stop it. Peppered throughout are shocking moments not unlike the first-person execution and nuclear bomb scenes in the first game.
One scene will have you questioning every pull of the trigger, if you can even stomach to pull the trigger at all. Conceptually, the encounter has some issues: towards the end it’s impossible to avoid confrontation, and the game never questions your actions. But it’s a step in the right direction towards presenting challenging content in a video game.
That scene also doubles as a catalyst for the major conflicts in the game. Modern Warfare 2 jumps between apocalyptic warfare through the eyes of US Marines, and the globe-trotting counter-terrorism adventures of “Soap” MacTavish and his ex-SAS crew. Apocalypse might be an understatement though, especially for any middle-class suburbanites playing the game. Most war stories focus on a known quantity; WWII or a war-torn third world country, but MW2 takes one of the safest places in the world and turns it upside down. The results are both frightening and reflective, questioning much of what we hold so dear.
When it isn’t challenging your morals or way of life, Modern Warfare 2 plays out like the most intense summer action movie of all time. The plot isn’t too different from any number of war games set in modern times. As much as it questions war it also glorifies it – Generation Kill-inspired jargon, weapon caches that feel like gun porn, and a “hoo-rah”-ing cast of testosterone-fueled heroes (including the wonderful Keith David), remind you that this is still pretty much an interactive Bruckheimer movie. The back end even devolves into personal vendettas and melodrama, much like an episode of 24 or a Metal Gear Solid game. The insane plot is still tense and entertaining, but it feels at odds with the more powerful moments of the game.
The actual combat is more refined than ever, offering the only FPS controls that give Halo a run for its money. The difference is how fast-paced it is. Whatever mode you’re in, enemies dart out from cover in every direction. Reaction time is key, and the aiming controls are up to the task – they’re as quick as your own reflexes, and they never feel automatic.
The AI enemies swarm from all corners in massive, but finite numbers. MW2 finally addresses one of the biggest complaints of the series – no longer do endless waves of enemies pour out of closets like clowns from a Volkswagen. They’ll bound along rooftops and sprint down alleyways to get to you, always arriving to catch bullets in a logical fashion.
The level design is a high watermark for the genre, crafted with equal care across all of its modes. The attention to detail is most obvious in the campaign, where you’ll find shanty towns and villages that dance between strict linearity and maze-like complexity. You’re always funneled down an obvious path, but there’s also plenty of options for both you and your enemies.
The more finely crafted areas are re-used for Spec-Ops. Intended for two-players, this mode has one goal: variety. One moment you’ll be racing in snow mobiles, and the next you’ll be defending a convenience store with your life. The best missions split the two players between ground warfare and air support. The contrasting viewpoints force teamwork more than most online games, including MW2’s own 18-player multiplayer.
But that multiplayer mode is what most people will buy the game for, and with good reason; long after the campaign and Spec-Ops modes run their course, Modern Warfare 2 will hold its crown as the most approachable online FPS out there.
Sure, there are legions of hardcore experts jumping at the chance to pick you off and insult your corpse, but that’s not nearly the hindrance it is in most online games. For better or worse, MW2 is extremely low-impact – death comes and goes, objectives are clearly spelled out, and the game moves so quickly it’s nearly impossible to coordinate with other players.
That’s not to say there isn’t teamwork, but it’s all so simplified and communicated through the game that it’s not important to strategize. This leaves you open to chat with friends or even skip the headset altogether. In fact, this is the most rewarding online shooter out there for lone wolves – even if they want to jump into team games.
It’s all about the carrot on a stick, as the game blankets you in tangible rewards as you play. Half the appeal is doing well enough to level up and unlock that next ability, weapon, or game mode. It’s the same idea as the original Modern Warfare, but refined and expanded upon to astounding effect.
With so many options at your disposal, you can create truly unique warriors. From suicidal flag-runners spraying uzi rounds in every direction, to ghillie-suited snipers lying in wait, the game offers an incredible range of possibilities.
Say what you will about the hype Modern Warfare 2 generates, but understand that few games can even come close to the monsoon of polished gameplay this title offers. Sure, it can be a bit low-brow, but it’s still furthering the medium in significant ways. There’s something for almost everyone, and a game that brings so much of the community together is worth all the accolades it’ll surely earn.