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

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

"As I write this, I am giddy with delight. I’ve just beaten Modern Warfare 2 for the third time in the week since its release, and I want to tell you everything about it. I want to tell you about the twist one-third of the way through the story that puts a devastating and far more personal touch on the war against the Russian Ultranationalists. I want to tell you about the controversial assignment in which players go undercover as one of the head villain's cronies and are forced to answer ..."

As I write this, I am giddy with delight. I’ve just beaten Modern Warfare 2 for the third time in the week since its release, and I want to tell you everything about it. I want to tell you about the twist one-third of the way through the story that puts a devastating and far more personal touch on the war against the Russian Ultranationalists. I want to tell you about the controversial assignment in which players go undercover as one of the head villain's cronies and are forced to answer questions about their own moral boundaries. I want to discuss every gunfight, every thrilling vehicle segment, every sequence in which a wall is breached and your squad unloads in slow motion on a group of terrorists holding hostages. Many of you already know about these things. Yet even as an avid admirer of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I somehow approached its sequel knowing virtually nothing about it, not even realizing the main character from the last game, Soap MacTavish, would return as your captain throughout the campaign. And, boy, I can only hope you’re in the same position.

Modern Warfare 2’s numerous fans have cited the ever-popular immersion factor as a key to the game’s success, yet its naysayers – yes, they exist – are quick to label the game as “generic.” They’re almost right: Modern Warfare 2 leans heavily on a plot that’s a bit too Hollywood for my liking, in which the central villain hatches an impossibly convoluted scheme and works with impossibly convoluted motivations, and in which the heroic characters are only fit for the job because they’ve mastered the increasingly common ability to heal bullet wounds by simply avoiding damage for a few seconds. But realism is not the point. Escapism is. And for the six hours I invested in Modern Warfare 2’s absolutely spellbinding campaign, I was lost in the experience, not stopping to eat, go to the bathroom or even take my daily meds.

In a second-rate gaming culture in which sandbox worlds reign supreme and developers are stumbling over each other attempting to give players more freedom than the last, Modern Warfare 2 stands as a refreshing reminder of why linear game design still works. The campaign walks the player through a straight succession of scripted events, each present for the specific purpose of putting the player “in the moment.” Almost immediately, we’re dropped into Afghanistan five years after the events of the last game. Following a brief gunfight in which American soldiers defend a bridge, we’re seated behind the minigun turret of a humvee and sent rolling into a freshly bombed city. Our wits and instincts are tested in the initial quiet of the raid, when only civilians are seen moving amongst the streets and alleyways. But when the action hits, it hits hard. An ambush from the rooftops sends your humvees roaring through the streets so quickly that you barely have time to locate your targets, much less aim at them. When one of your comrades points out an enemy RPG in the buildings ahead of you, there’s simply no time to react before it’s too late.

Now, you probably know what it feels like to die in a Call of Duty game: The screen grows increasingly red as damage is accumulating, and then the color fades, you fall to the ground, and all sound is drowned out by a high-pitched screech. When your humvee is taken out after a bombardment of on-screen mayhem, this happens, and for a split second, suddenly aware of your accelerating heartbeat, you get that sinking feeling of having met with the game over screen. Then you realize: Wait. You’re still breathing, your squad survived, and your captain is barking at you to take cover inside the nearest building. And, totally caught up in the moment, you have no choice but to pick yourself up, scurry your ass inside and continue the war off the streets, now proven far too hazardous.

Call of Duty 4 delivered moments like these as well, and it delivered them in full supply. Many gamers were taken aback by that game’s disappointing length, yet my logic was that I’d rather play a short game that’s trimmed of all possible fat, that gives me no compelling reason to even once look away from the screen, than one that’s twice as long but needlessly padded out with filler. Modern Warfare 2 follows the same pattern, and if anything, it’s even more over-the-top than its predecessor. Whether or not this makes for a more satisfying product is open for debate; some will likely say Infinity Ward was simply trying too hard. Yet when you’re creating the sequel to Modern Warfare, approaching every single new mission with the question of what you could possibly do to top the previous mission seems like the only logical solution.

Even the many moments in which you are simply firing a gun are far more gratifying than nearly any other shooter on the market could hope to equal. I’m reminded of the Gulag, a Russian prison facility from which you must rescue an undisclosed POW. The level so closely rivals Half-Life 2’s Nova Prospekt for claustrophobic narrowness, at one point forcing opposing sides to beat each other to death with riot shields, that I wouldn’t blame anyone for looking to their sides throughout the mission to see if a group of friendly antlions have joined the fight. Yet you soon come to the realization that the outdoor missions are just as tight, just as sparse on breathing room. It’s the classic, tried-and-true Call of Duty mentality at work: constant action, constant tension, a constant awareness that even one stray second too many spent in the open could mean the difference between life and death.

It’s a linear game, yes. A replay might reveal an abundance of invisible walls, but if you’re looking for them, then you’re probably not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Modern Warfare 2 is not a game in which you stop to admire the details, though there are plenty of them. It demands constant movement and rewards players who eagerly await the next gunfight just as they’re picking themselves up off their feet after the last. And upon revisiting the game on Hardened and Veteran difficulties, I was pleased to learn that even once the many scripted surprises of the campaign had worn off, there was still the appeal of a smooth, slick and perfectly paced FPS to return to.

So forget about the local multiplayer, put the online components out of your mind, and don’t even give a second’s glance to the new Spec Ops missions, which allow players to take on timed challenges cooperatively with a friend. They’re all fantastic, but they’re also irrelevant. Because during the six hours you invest in the game’s solo campaign (and the six more you invest upon returning, and the six more, and the six more), nothing else will matter. Infinity Ward set out to give us a game more intense than what could previously have been called the most intense game I’ve ever experienced. They’ve succeeded, and I’m both thrilled and terrified to discover what they’ll pull off in the third installment. I'm not sure my heart could handle it.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (November 17, 2009)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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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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randxian posted November 22, 2009:

Has anyone not written a review for this game yet? Snarkiness aside, I'm glad you at least discuss the actual game play elements instead of just worrying about the story and that one controversial scene.

Also, I like all the descriptions, particularly the one about how you suddenly realize you are still alive and must run for cover.

However, I think you could trim the fat in a few places, a phrase ironically used in this review. In the intro, the whole "I want to tell you..." went on a bit too long. The summary of Call of Duty 4 in paragraph five seems unnecessary. I want to read a review about Modern Warfare 2, not it's predecessor. Yes, I realize the whole point is to illustrate how Modern Warfare 2 is even more over-the-top, but I don't like how the first sentence which reads "Call of Duty 4 delivered moments like these as well, and it delivered them in full supply." It looks like you are actually reviewing that game here instead of Modern Warfare 2.

I did enjoy the paragraphs following, particularly the bit about how people who try to cheat and discover invisible walls won't get all the enjoyment the game has to offer.

Basically, this is a good read that I think would be improved by trimming the fat.
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Suskie posted November 22, 2009:

Thanks a lot. I was actually really hoping for a feedback topic, because I was honestly as happy with this review as anything else I've ever written and I wanted to see if it was just me. Apparently it was, heh heh.

I do think bringing up CoD4 is an important point, however, because it explains why the game was successful, why this one was anticipated as highly as it was, and what IW did to match those expectations. And why it ultimately worked. But you could very well be right about me getting too carried away.
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randxian posted November 22, 2009:

Maybe I'm being nitpicky with the whole CoD4 thing, but that's just my personal preference. I do understand why you did it though.
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Masters posted November 24, 2009:

This is a wonderful review, Mike. It says a lot about HG when a popular game that has seen a million reviews already, sees quite a few more on this site--all of them great.

This is one of the best reviews I've read by you, and I've read a bunch. You worked the "short, linear, intense" angle as well as it could be worked. (I rather enjoyed the Half-Life 2 reference, too, ha.)

Btw, I know you were making a point, but do you seriously not care for the Spec Ops missions? Cuz I'm addicted to them right now.
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Suskie posted November 24, 2009:

Thanks for the kind words, Masters! I don't usually rush to get a review done that quickly, but when I started writing, we had two excellent MW2 reviews on the site already, both also giving it a 10/10. I kind of wanted to get it in before it became irrelevant, I guess.

I actually do like the Spec Ops missions quite a bit, though it's just a little disappointing that most of them are just repeats of the single-player levels. Getting three stars on some of them is devilishly difficult, too. I was able to get all the stars for the first group (Alpha, I think it's called) but after that I kind of stopped trying after a while.
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JANUS2 posted November 24, 2009:

It's the juggernauts that make the special ops missions really tough.

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