Find a terrorist who’s trying to start World War III.
PC Release: November 10, 2009
By Ian Coppock
Ah, Call of Duty. So many choppers to get to, so many Russians and brown people to shoot at, so little innovation to be had. When Call of Duty: WWII hits shelves this fall, this series will have churned out a new installment every year for the past decade. It’s hard to believe. Despite its ungainly reputation and Activision’s shameless money-grubbing, the Call of Duty series is one of gaming’s biggest tour de forces, and can’t not be a focal point when discussing where video games have come from and where they go from here. In that spirit, it’s time to go back to 2009, when Call of Duty had much more goodwill among fans, and when Modern Warfare 2 released.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the sixth installment in the Call of Duty series and was developed by Infinity Ward, one of the three studios that produces CoD games under Activision’s all-seeing auspice. Modern Warfare 2 was the last Call of Duty game created with the involvement of Infinity Ward’s original founders, who were then fired by Activision in 2010 and went on to greener, more Titanfall-esque pastures. Before all of that went down, Infinity Ward set out to create a follow-up to 2007’s wildly popular Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and continue that game’s emphasis on contemporary combat.
Modern Warfare 2 is set in 2016, five years after the events of the first game. In an eerily accurate prediction of mid-2010’s geopolitics, Modern Warfare 2 envisions a world in which Russian-American relations have badly deteriorated and good old Mother Russia is being run by ruthless authoritarians. Meanwhile, America continues to be bogged down in hotbeds of terrorism around the globe while a shadow war of terrorists and covert operatives rages just below the surface. For a game that was released in 2009, Modern Warfare 2‘s idea of what 2016 was like is pretty spot-on.
As in Modern Warfare, players see the action from the perspectives of a few silent protagonists, but the main player character is Gary “Roach” Sanderson, a British special ops soldier. Roach is under the command of John “Soap” MacTavish, the protagonist of Modern Warfare, who has since ranked up and appears in the game as an allied NPC. Players also spend a few levels playing as a U.S. Army Ranger fighting stateside and a CIA operative. Of course, for all the talking and character development that these dudes have, they’re functionally identical.
Even though Soap and his buddies stopped the big Russian baddie in Modern Warfare, that dude gets replaced by his most zealous disciple, who perpetrates a terrorist attack against his own country and pins it on America so that Russia declares war. The game includes a level in which players help that terrorist mass-murder civilians. Infinity Ward caught some flak for it, but it’s a good (if ham-fisted) way to make the player hate the bad guy. The rest of the game, like its predecessor, is a mix of covert ops behind enemy lines and voracious front-line combat.
Does Call of Duty‘s gameplay really need to be explained at this point? It’s freaking Call of Duty. Pick up a gun and hold down the trigger until all the people pointing guns at the player have crumpled to the ground in bloody heaps. Throw a grenade or get stabby with a military knife to switch things up a bit. That’s pretty much all there is to success in Call of Duty; sure, the player might get to hop onto a turret or drive a vehicle every so often, but it’s by and large just grabbing a gun and mowing down every Russian between the mission’s beginning fade-in and its debrief screen.
Does the gameplay ever innovate beyond that premise? Not really. The game’s core of shooting bad guys from a first-person perspective is pretty solid, but Infinity Ward was content to remain within that comfort zone for Modern Warfare 2‘s entire production. If the player ever isn’t shooting Russians, they’re planting bombs or sitting on turrets that also effect the deaths of Russians. This setup is also true of the game’s multiplayer, of course. What else would one expect of Call of Duty? Some players might expect a zombies mode, but Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t have that.
Modern Warfare 2 is a strictly linear game; the most open this game gets is letting the player rifle through the occasional side building. If Modern Warfare 2 isn’t hinting to players where to go with a conventionally car-choked street, it’s flat-out telling them with invisible walls. Go down this path, kill the neat arrangements of bad guys along the way, and don’t stop for too long to look around. Modern Warfare 2 does have little collectibles for discerning players to find, but all it takes to be discerning in Call of Duty is slowing down for five seconds to take a look around.
All of that said, Modern Warfare 2 does allow for a teensy bit more vertical space than Modern Warfare or World at War. Some levels expect players to leap across slum roofs or climb around castle walls. Even if there’s more space to jump around, though, the maps remain linear. It’s not surprising for a series as fixated on getting to the chopper as Call of Duty is, but it, as always, wastes an opportunity to do something different. Don’t go into this game expecting an open-ended firefight with lots of high ground or opportunities to use tactics. Just grind through the enemy lines.
For all the samey linear paths that Modern Warfare 2‘s levels provide, at least they look different. Like Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2 packs a world’s tour into its campaign, taking players to Afghanistan, Russia, Brazil, and the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. Even if each level has basically the same design, players can expect to traverse desert, Arctic and urban terrain in the span of a few levels. This lightning-quick globetrotting risks making the campaign feel disjointed, but it also keeps Modern Warfare 2‘s world from becoming too stale.
While on the subject of Modern Warfare 2‘s world, the game’s visuals and sound design have aged surprisingly well. For anything that can be said about the IW engine, its visuals tend to age gracefully, and Modern Warfare 2 still looks remarkably snazzy 8 years after release. The textures have aged and some objects look a great deal more polygonal than intended, but Modern Warfare 2 still looks damn good for a game that hit store shelves in 2009. The engine does do that Call of Duty thing where everything looks really glossy, even the bombed-out houses, but the lighting and shadow effects do a good job of providing a wartime atmosphere where the glazed textures do not.
Modern Warfare 2‘s world also benefits from solid system performance. Eight years on, this game can run on even the most basic systems and still maintain 60 frames per second. The options menu is quite nice, with lots of adjustments for texture resolution and shadow buffering to help spec the game however needed. The game’s multiplayer community is pretty much dead, but let’s be fair; this is an eight-year-old game from a series that churns out new installments on an annual basis. One or two matches might crop up occasionally, but that’s it. Hilariously, the DLC packs for this game are still full-priced. Oh Activision. You’re adorable.
Anyway, with Modern Warfare 2‘s multiplayer gone the way of the dodo, the biggest thing that Modern Warfare 2 has going for it is its campaign. The gameplay is pure Call of Duty, the set pieces are diverse, and the sound design ain’t bad eight years later. It’s a big, cinematic-looking thing of a campaign that does a pretty alright job of picking up where the first game left off and spinning a new story out of it. The question is—even if players come for the gameplay and stay purely for the gameplay, is the story that strings all that gameplay together worth any mention?
Anyone who has played a Call of Duty game knows that storytelling is not the series’ strong suit. Even the first Modern Warfare, for all its eloquent cutscenes and grounding concepts in reality, is not the magnum opus that ardent Call of Duty fans claim it is. The truth is that while Modern Warfare 2 picks up from where the first game left off, there’s not any character development or what some might call “raw” storytelling. Characters move toward a military objective, and the outcome of that mission serves as the pretext for the next one. So this setup goes until the game’s conclusion.
That sort of “storytelling” isn’t objectively bad. It’s certainly standard fare for the Call of Duty series. The issue is that the game’s idea of being “deep” is just fiery, abstract speeches about the merits of military service instead of something more organic like a character’s reaction to the idea of Russia invading the United States. After the speech rolls, it’s boots on the ground to shoot Russians or brown people until the next cutscene speech, with lots of big-budget cinematic effects in the background. It’s an uncomplicated, sequential setup that isn’t objectively flawed, but it still prevents the characters in the game from expanding beyond their niches.
No matter the setup of Modern Warfare 2‘s storytelling, the game also struggles with a few concepts and plot points that raise more questions than they solve. Modern Warfare‘s story was decent because it was believable: America invades a Middle Eastern country and British special forces hunt down a Russian terrorist. Modern Warfare 2‘s notion of Russia invading the entire United States requires suspending a lot more disbelief. Love it or hate it, Russia doesn’t have the logistics and manpower to invade the United States. It just doesn’t. Invading a country because it might have perpetrated a relatively small terrorist attack also seems like an overblown response.
Modern Warfare 2‘s central plot twist is also an eyebrow-raiser. Basically, somebody gets angry that no one hates Russia enough, and wants to put the two countries into a war because… #Murica? Modern Warfare 2 fails to articulate that plot point clearly, and, like the idea of Russia conquering America in retaliation for a false flag attack, necessitates suspending all the disbelief. Funnily enough, one of the player’s squadmates claims that that dude was never trustworthy to begin with, which makes one wonder why he didn’t bring this up until after the twist happens. Moral of the story? Never underestimate the ability of clumsy writing to confound and confuse.
Anyone thinking about picking up Modern Warfare 2 should do so for the gameplay, not the narrative. The first half or so of the story is pretty well done, but it almost completely collapses after that point. Modern Warfare 2 runs well, looks good and has lots of fast-moving gunplay, so players looking for those will get them in spades, but anyone hoping for the tight level-by-level thrills that Modern Warfare provided will come away a bit disappointed. Sure, Modern Warfare 2 provides a few cinematic action thrills, but unlike Modern Warfare, they raise questions rather than answer them.
You can buy Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 here.
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