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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360) artwork

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360) review

"As I ran through the buildings of a bombed out city, I saw one of my comrades fallen and lying in the field. As explosions rattled the structure around us, another soldier lifted the wounded man's body by the arms and began to drag him toward safety... until another bullet cut the hero down mid-stride. It was a set of events that I didn't have to watch. There was no cumbersome cutscene, no prerecorded dialog. It was just one of many such moments so typical of that level and many others, a moment made memorable precisely because no undue attention was called to it."

If a critic were to compare Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for Xbox 360 to a marathon run through an Afghanistan minefield, would you keep reading? I'm not sure that I would. There's enough talk like that floating around the Internet already. So let's kick the hyperbole to the curb, as much as my prose permits. Let's get right down to the question at hand ("Is the game any good?") and to the answer that I endorse ("Yes.").

Developed by Infinity Ward, the team responsible for the installments in the Call of Duty franchise that you likely remember most fondly, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 boasts many of the same features and attributes that made the first Modern Warfare title such a remarkable experience. It wouldn't be difficult to argue that you're being asked to spend $60 for "more of the same." There are a few differences this time around, though, and you may be surprised to learn just how much they matter.

For me, the most important change is that things feel more involving than they ever did in the past. I realize that "involving" isn't all that precise, so I'll qualify. When I say "involving," I mean that while the first game had me running around gorgeous environments, ducking behind barracks, shooting down helicopters and storming guarded compounds, moments where I forgot that I was playing a game were few and far between. As a critic, I found myself constantly thinking about the care that must have gone into crafting one beautiful environment after another, or I paused to appreciate a particularly solid layout for a multi-player arena. Such reactions aren't unusual and I'm not sure that they're even bad.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, however, changes things up because environments are so convincing that it's difficult not to become involved on a deeper level. I felt almost as if I had stumbled onto an actual battlefield. As I ran through the buildings of a bombed out city, I saw one of my comrades fallen and lying in the field. As explosions rattled the structure around us, another soldier lifted the wounded man's body by the arms and began to drag him toward safety... until another bullet cut the hero down mid-stride. It was a set of events that I didn't have to watch. There was no cumbersome cutscene, no prerecorded dialog. It was just one of many such moments so typical of that level and many others, a moment made memorable precisely because no undue attention was called to it.

The developers at Infinity Ward clearly realize what they have achieved and they seem to understand precisely what matters in a way that other development teams don't quite get. Things aren't always perfect, certainly, but you'll seldom be reminded of the fact. In some games, for instance, you might see a Jeep parked along an alleyway, blocking your progress. Here, the Jeep is burning--and might explode if you hang around too long--and you can shoot out the tires to watch it slowly sink a few inches toward the ground. Then you can run past it, because it turns out that the alley wasn't really a dead end, anyway. Elsewhere, you can watch flags whipping in an Atlantic squall, blast apart computer monitors and bust through windows before crawling over the shards of glass that your actions produced. Nearly everything with which you interact behaves in the manner you would expect, to the point where it stops surprising you and you begin to take it for granted. Persistent violence aside, the world that Modern Warfare 2 presents doesn't feel much different from what you might see on your way to the mailbox tomorrow.

The developers were quick to capitalize on that verisimilitude as a means to produce a fictional military conflict that I can only hope will remain forever a figment of my worst nightmares. There were numerous moments throughout the adventure where I felt compelled to give my best gaming performance just so that I could see the good guys win. Yet even the simple concepts of good and evil weren't sacred to Infinity Ward. There are places where the plot blurs the line in a disconcerting manner that no thorough review of the game can possibly ignore.

Nowhere does that realistic but disturbing blur come into play with more conviction than in the early mission called "No Russian." You can skip it if you like; the game provides the option to do so before you begin the overall campaign. Even if you choose to give it a try, you can later change your mind and move immediately to the next area from the "Pause" menu. When I worked through the story campaign, I decided that I wanted to experience everything that the game had to offer. As a result, I found myself joining a group of terrorists who were planning an attack on a Russian airport. My commanding officer had secured me a place on the team--in an undercover capacity, of course--and he informed me that although my actions would perhaps cost me a piece of myself, the lives that I would ultimately save justified anything that might happen.

I and the thugs to whom I feigned allegiance began a slow march through the airport's lobby. Our march began at a ticket line. As we entered through a service door, perhaps twenty or thirty civilians waited for the chance to depart to places unknown. One of them looked toward us and saw our automatic weapons and grim demeanor. There was a scream, then many more as my comrades unleashed hell. The bodies of innocents sagged ahead of me as blood pooled on the ground and the wails and moans of the dying filled the air. The rampage through the airport continued, with some of the wounded crawling toward shelter as gunmen sought them out and slaughtered them at point blank. Though I wasn't compelled to fire on a single civilian, my complicity in the carnage tore at my gamer soul. This felt too real, a part of my mind kept whispering, the part that paused just long enough to suggest that perhaps I should skip it all.

I'm not sure that I ever want to play through that stage again, or that I ever want to be comfortable performing similar atrocities in other games of this nature, no matter the reason. That's part of the point that I believe Modern Warfare 2 is making, and the developers deserve praise for getting to me on a level that no game before has managed. I don't have to like it, though, and it seems safe to assume that plenty of parents who will happily stand in line to buy this for their youngsters would be horrified upon learning what they've purchased. The 'M' on the game's jacket stands for 'Mature.' Really, it does.

The point may be moot, anyway. Many players will choose to ignore the single-player campaign and the philosophical questions it raises through its 6-hour duration. They'll pick up Modern Warfare 2 not for the border-blurring narration (or the side challenges that can keep players occupied alone for many hours beyond that) but for the local or online deathmatches. Those present no moral dilemmas, no charismatic heroes or treachery. There are only the battlefields--16 of them, all beautifully rendered--the perks, the bullets exchanged and the moments where your squad triumphs using teamwork and ingenuity. Those are both attributes that I would hope to foster in my future children.

Many past games have easily justified a purchase by taking a great idea and making it better. Others have relied heavily on shock value to make their point and to drum up a consumer audience. Despite moments that shock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is almost exclusively the former. By building on a solid foundation and then taking things to the next level in nearly every area, Infinity Ward has proven that "more of the same" still has the ability to shock, amaze and entertain if it is executed with sufficient passion and flair. That's why I love it, and that's why I'm confident that you'll love it too.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 11, 2009)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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If you enjoyed this Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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Masters posted November 12, 2009:

Jason, I think this is the best review of yours I've ever read. The parts about how involving this game is, the verisimilitude that has been achieved, the disturbing terrorist segment--you've explored everything that is important about this game and done so with clear, effortlessly flowing prose. That I happen to agree with everything you've said isn't even the point. ^_^ Kudos.
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Lewis posted November 12, 2009:

So on No Russian, where do you - as Jason Venter, as opposed to Jason Venter in Review Mode - stand on it? Should it have been in there? How well is it done? Is it a solid aesthetic statement? Or is there more to it? Very curious...
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Suskie posted November 12, 2009:

Hmm... I'm very surprised you went into such detail about No Russian, Jason, since so much of that level's effectiveness is due to its unexpectedness. That's the one thing I promised myself I wouldn't talk about in my own eventual review.

This is an excellent review, of course, but for that reason alone, I might actually suggest that anyone who hasn't already beaten the game steer clear of reading it.
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honestgamer posted November 12, 2009:

Masters: Thank you for the kind words. A lot of people felt that my review for the first Modern Warfare was one of my better ones. This game is great and I wanted to make sure that I didn't drop the ball with a hasty review, so it took me a few tries to get a review I liked this time around. After all, I didn't want simply a repeat of the approach I used last time. I'm glad that you enjoyed it.

Suskie: I felt that going into detail on "No Russian" was required because there's been enough media exposure by now that a lot of the hardcore gamers know about it. Those are the gamers who won't likely care about the content in that mission. I've found that a lot of them respond with: "So what? You kill people in GTA all the time!" So I wanted to discuss it in a way that highlighted what makes the mission especially disturbing (more than just bodies flying all over the place in the relatively cartoony nature of classic GTA), while also warning parents, while also refraining from spoiling other missions and surprises that might not be such a matter of public record. It's an early mission, too, and I didn't spoil the ending--the most important part--so ultimately I feel that this is one of those rare cases where minor spoilers are justified and even necessary.

Lewis: The "No Russian" stage is a lot to think about, and of course I can't really talk about my full reactions without going into rather in-depth spoilers that I'd rather avoid in this thread. I'll type up something for my blog here in a moment.
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Lewis posted November 12, 2009:

I agree it's almost a necessity to talk about it, as it's such an integral part of the game. Simon Parkin based his entire review around it, and the way the rest of the game sits around it, at Eurogamer.
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Suskie posted November 12, 2009:

I must not be as in tune with the gaming community as you two are, because I haven't heard about it anywhere but here. I still completely disagree with the "necessity" of its mention here, mainly because it's so vastly different from everything else the game has you doing. I'm glad I didn't read anything about it before I played it myself.

Anyway, the point is: Excellent review, Jason.
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- posted November 12, 2009:

I'll throw in my two pennies regarding how much of No Russian should be discussed in the review.

To me, the events that happen in that mission should be regarded as spoilers. Prior to playing the campaign, I heard that there was one mission near the beginning that was meant to be shocking, but I deliberately didn't try to learn more about it. I read Giant Bomb's review and that touched on it, but didn't reveal any spoilers. Then I went on Eurogamer, and ended up closing the review after just a few seconds. Glad I did that, because it let me experience the mission without much prior knowledge except for the fact that it was supposed to be controversial.

Would you want a game-changing moment which is twenty minutes into a film revealed to you? I wouldn't. I'm anal when it comes to spoilers, though, so my views may not match up with other people's.

I don't know if Jason knew about the mission beforehand, but if he didn't, I don't think he should've gone into that much detail about it in the review.

That aside, I most definitely enjoyed reading the review looking back at the game, but I honestly wouldn't want to read it before playing the campaign. Spoilers are a deal-breaker for me.
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honestgamer posted November 12, 2009:

I knew about the mission several days before I got the game, because it was discussed in-depth on Destructoid, CrispyGamer and other places that I've been known to visit on occasion. I know for a fact that it also was detailed extensively on Wired and numerous smaller sites, plus I'm sure that with those places discussing it, the matter was also brought up on Kotaku, NeoGAF, GameFAQs, IGN and so forth... pretty much anywhere gamers get together to regularly discuss games.

I felt safe exploring the stage because my likely audience is made up almost entirely of hardcore gamers who already know of the scene, or parents of gamers who would definitely want to know about the scene before deciding whether or not to make a purchase.

Ultimately, my review is guilty of explaining that there's a stage where you shoot innocent civilians while operating undercover. It's guilty of going into enough detail to show that this stage is different from the cartoony, inconsequential violence in games like Grand Theft Auto. I refrained from going any further than that (even though it could have strengthened my point) precisely because I wanted to avoid spoiling things for people who will still wish to play through the mission. I went as deep as I did because I owe it to my readers.

Don't start thinking that on a whim I've stopped worrying about spoilers. I still do everything I can to avoid spoiler discussion in my reviews and I maintain that in this case the mild spoilers were both appropriate and necessary. Thanks for the feedback, folks, even if I don't agree with all of you!
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zippdementia posted November 13, 2009:

I don't want any spoilers, so I'm going to decline from reading the review.

But it's tough. I started to read it and had a hell of a time pulling myself away. Just from that, I know this is excellent work, Jason.

It also makes me feel guilty for never finishing the original Modern Warfare. I kind've hit some mental block around the game when I couldn't beat it on hard. That fucking sniping mission by the Ferris Wheel... erghalfuck.

At least I'll have a reason to come back to it when I finally pick up my HDTV... sigh... one of these days...
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- posted November 13, 2009:

I certainly see your point, Jason. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the thought you must have put into how much of the mission you were willing to talk about in the review.

The only thing I'd say to your response is that I'm sure there are plenty of hardcore gamers who have deliberately tried to avoid learning of the scene - some of which are still undecided as to whether to get the game or not.
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JANUS2 posted November 13, 2009:

The only way you can spoil No Russian is by telling people how the mission ends.

What's really clever about including a mission like No Russian is that it deflects all attention away from the fact that this is Call of Duty 6 and we're still defending points and destroying anti-aircraft guns. The US levels are no different to the Caan levels in 2. Don't get me wrong, I love this stuff. But the series is getting to the point where it's 7/10 at best. Although I do like the Rio levels - they feel fresh and exciting (and force you to employ different tactics than the standard run forward, shoot and crouch against a wall strategy).
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Halon posted November 13, 2009:

I was going to write a rant disagreeing with what was said about No Russian, but figured that I should play the game first to get an idea of where everything is coming from. So it will happen. Eventually.
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fleinn posted November 14, 2009:

"I realize that "involving" isn't all that precise, so I'll qualify."

.. :/ You're describing how you feel about the game. So you're saying you're "qualifying your feelings about the game". It's like saying: this is all subjective, so I'll qualify the argument by explaining how I feel. :p

I mean, it's a good personal perspective review (even if I miss something about how the game plays.. you know, something about how the first person perspective ties into the gameplay, or something). But it would grate a bit less at my brain, at least, if you said something like.. "so I'll try to explain how I felt when playing the game", or something like that. :)
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honestgamer posted November 14, 2009:

I'm qualifying what I meant by "involving," not how I felt about the game. It's understood that the review is how I feel about the game, but "involving" can mean a lot of different things to different people in different instances, so I'm qualifying how I mean it in this particular case so that the word gains its proper significance in the review. I'm not sure why that would bother you or grate on your nerves. I've done nothing improper.
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randxian posted November 15, 2009:

I disagree with Suskie that Jason should have perhaps skipped over the "No Russian" part. Some people may not feel comfortable about that sort of thing. Also, it gives the otherwise ignorant parents a heads up about what all is included in this game. I think giving people information about something so controversial is a good thing, even if it does spoil part of the plot.

Really enjoyed the commentary about how there are scenes that occur naturally in the levels instead of stopping the action, forcing you to watch some clumsily done cutscene, and restarting the action, leaving you disoriented in the process.

Only thing I don't like is how this seems geared toward people who have played the first. I have not played a single game in the Call of Duty series. There really wasn't much, if any, discussion on actual game play mechanics, but since you gave it a 10, I'll assume there are no real issues.

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Woodybeaver posted November 16, 2009:

Truely nice review. MW2 gets the highest scores from critics I've ever seen.
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fleinn posted November 16, 2009:

@honestgamer: no, no, I understood what you meant. ..but to me, using "qualify" in that way means either explaining technically what "involve" means, or maybe that you're going to describe an image of /how/ the game does involve you. I didn't mean at all that I couldn't see that the game engaged you. Or that the story-telling was involving. But you didn't /qualify/ what you meant with that word. You explained ways you felt the game was engaging, and what you felt when playing it.

Like someone I know says sometimes: "before I explain this, let me tell you what I mean". :p ..It's the same kind of thing. I'm sort of expecting a setup early on - a way to see how you intend to link your impressions to a particular aspect of the game. So is "no russian" what the game is all about in terms of involvement? ..I don't know, it could be I'm expecting to read somewhere about the flow between the missions, use of first person camera, and so on.

(and sorry about the "grating".. I didn't mean it actually irritated me. It was just something that didn't sound entirely right to me in an otherwise good review.)

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