Twice, Infinity Ward asks if you're absolutely sure you want to see it. The scene, the fourth you'll encounter in the most widely anticipated game of the year, could be "disturbing" or "offensive", repeats the warning. You smile and agree that, yes, you are sure you want to see it. This is a videogame. They give them 18 certificates, but only to appease people who don't really understand what's going on. Sure, the images of violence and bloodshed on Modern Warfare's battlefields can be disturbing to an onlooker, but death in a first-person shooter is a five-second setback, a micro-reincarnation designed to provide challenge and an impetus to improve, not distress.
Likewise, the crimson firework that explodes whenever bullet meets target is merely a visual cue to indicate another object removed from the shooting gallery, while the wash of blood that temporarily clouds your view when you're wounded is just a health gauge obfuscated. The orchestra-swells and military bombast? All window dressing for what is, essentially, Space Invaders evolved. You take cover behind walls and shoot aliens. In 1978, these were line-dancing pixel clusters from outer space. In 2009 they're Afghans. The metaphor's changed, but the principle remains the same: avoid missing headshot for high score. A videogame. Yes, I'm sure I want to see it.
The first three missions of Modern Warfare 2 do little to change your mind. The training level, set in a desert encampment somewhere in the Middle East, is literally a shooting gallery. You race from pillar to post, refreshing muscle memory, making split-second fire/hold-fire decisions, flitting between your rifle and pistol while racing against the clock to reach the end of the assault course. Not satisfied with your score? Have another go. Shave seconds from your time by improving your speed and accuracy. The sand particles billowing in the wind, the off-duty soldiers playing basketball in the communal yard and the throb of the noonday sun are of a fidelity not seen in games before, but the systems they dress are as old as videogame time.
Then you move out onto the streets of Afghanistan in the boots of one PFC Joseph Allen, 1st Battalion 75th Ranger regiment. The faded Arabic slogans daubed on the walls and the upturned supermarket trolleys under dilapidated bridges invest a foreign-correspondent air of believability into the scenario. But the unlikely hail of RPG-fire, screeching overhead jets, sub-bass thwap helicopters and balaclava-wearing hostiles ensure it's the 10 o'clock news played through a Michael Bay filter: reality, with the contrast turned up.
In the following level, now playing as British soldier Gary Sanderson in a duo mission with the understated Soap MacTavish, you tear down a snowy mountain in Kazakhstan on an implausibly fast snowmobile, steering with your right hand, taking down enemy riders with a pistol in your left. As you finally perform a Hollywood leap across a 40-foot ice ravine, the series settles into the sort of James Bond action preposterousness of which it's always managed to remain short.
Yeah. A videogame. I am absolutely sure that I want to see it.
The voiceover that precedes what will shortly become the most notorious scene in gaming makes it clear that your mission is a necessary one. You are a good guy, dressed as a bad guy, and while bad things are about to happen, good will out. Ding, and the lift doors unclasp. You step out onto an airport foyer, and into an entirely new idea of what constitutes an 18-certificate videogame.
You don't have to shoot. But you do have to observe. Forced into an unbreakable stroll, your only choices are where to look and whether to stay abreast of your murderous companions as they gun down the crowds of innocents, or whether to lag behind and administer a coup de grace to the terminal's terminally wounded. In contrast to the dry professionalism of soldiering displayed in the rest of the game, there's an inefficient laziness to this terrorist spree. The men fire from the hip in sweeping arcs, their purpose merely to create mayhem, not to eliminate threat.
The screaming is the soundtrack to post-traumatic stress; the visuals like snuff CCTV footage lurking under some evil stone in a dark corner of the internet (albeit undermined somewhat by the curiously small palette of civilian character models being gunned down). One man who takes a shot to the stomach crawls along the ground on all fours, blood pouring from his fingers. Finish the job, watch or walk on: these are your options. The removal of player agency is at once frustrating and brilliant: through it, the limitations of the first-person-shooter's purpose and themes are revealed. In a genre that limits you to interactions sent down the barrel of a gun, for perhaps the first time in history, Infinity Ward makes you wish for a bandage instead.
The magnitude horror of the scene could be seen as little more than attention-grabbing - something to help the game stand yet further away from the throng of me-too rivals - and in truth it feels incongruous to the rest of the game, an ugly, shocking aside to the bold silliness elsewhere. But in addition to that, it's also arguably necessary to inflate the plot for the dizzying fever pitch that follows. By creating a catastrophe of such impact, Infinity Ward justifies its next move, one that is, in many ways, more shocking than the previous one.
The image of a burning American flag is enough to cause anguish to patriotic hearts and minds. But a burning flag above the door of an American house within a white picket fence, in a Washington suburb, is enough to move armies. The image that marks the start of the next level plays upon the nation's deepest fears of invasion, the threat of losing its national identity, something that, for a nation of immigrants, is often a fate worse than war.
It's an ingenious move. In taking the fight to American soil, and in actualising combat in the familiar respectability of middle-class life, Infinity Ward moves to explore rare themes in gaming. Its previous game, while praised for its gunplay, won no accolades for nuanced politics. Modern Warfare 2 also starts with Cheney-era rhetoric, celebrating "the most powerful military force in the history of man" before claiming, "every fight is [America's] fight, because what happens over here matters over there." These statements stick in the throat somewhat. But after the airport massacre, the tone shifts. As you sprint towards the White House, the sky above thick with murderous, parachuting Russians, Modern Warfare lives up to its name, revealing a US military defiant yet on the back foot.
As with the nuclear explosion at the start of the third act in the first Modern Warfare, the story beats are absurd (at one point you find yourself firing upon insurgents holed up in the Department of Justice) but through this gross amplification, it reflects America's deep-held fear and paranoia at losing its position as top global military dog, of nuclear fallout and of old, Cold rivalries re-ignited.
That Modern Warfare 2's biggest strides have been made in storytelling is unsurprising. The previous game's execution of the first-person military shooter template was nothing short of exemplary. And so the developer manages to build upon those victories, albeit in the tiny increments its previous triumph allows. The gunplay is slick and comfortable, the tactile kickback from weapons matched by sound design that allows you, with a decent pair of headphones, to pick out enemy movement with uncommon efficiency.
Level design flits impressively from corridored environments to expansive play areas, demanding fresh tactics. For example, gameplay constantly switches from house interiors to exteriors when you're flushing Russian soldiers from the streets of Washington, forcing you to switch from Rainbow Six-esque CQB strategies to careful use of exterior cover. These moments reveal Infinity Ward's expertise in designing environments that allow interesting combat scenarios to develop naturally.
Despite this, the game emphasises authored spectacle over emergent play. While it fails to match the cinematic assuredness of Uncharted 2 in this regard, the deeper interactivity of Modern Warfare's set-pieces often makes them more potent. Racing through a decaying gulag as it collapses on top of you, or duelling with a helicopter from a dinghy atop white rapids, are memorable moments, and will no doubt endure. At times the game will slip into a bullet-time mode, requiring you to take out enemy targets before they murder hostages, moments that help to upset the familiar rhythms in interesting ways. In every case, the execution is peerless, ensuring ideas that would appear tired or weak in the hands of less competent developers shine and excite.
The emphasis on set-piece play has a positive effect in the way the game's difficulty scales. On the default level, the challenge is mild, and most skilled players will breeze through the campaign with few setbacks. But as anyone who has painstakingly inched their way through each Call of Duty on Veteran will know, the series traditionally achieves its highest difficulty by introducing infinite enemy respawns that only deactivate when you pass a invisible threshold by pushing forward. In Modern Warfare 2, Veteran is still extremely challenging, but meticulous players who clear targets one by one will be rewarded with progress, something that, in conjunction with the generally shorter missions, makes the game a little easier than its forebears, but also more satisfying thanks to the emphasis of skill over blind luck.
In terms of weaponry, there's a clutch of new toys to get to know. The silenced ASCR tunes in to your squad's heartbeats, lighting up friendly and hostile units on a gun-mounted heads-up display. While there's nothing comparable to the unsettlingly detached night-bombing mission from the first Modern Warfare, the Predator drone is a similar air-based targeting system that makes a regular appearance throughout the game. With it you guide missiles through the sky onto their targets via a remote camera and a laptop, and the resulting explosions are thrilling across all of the game's various modes. Despite the fire and fury of this contemporary weaponry, Infinity Ward isn't afraid to reveal its fragility too, at one point removing many of the technological crutches you've learned to lean on to make a point. It's smart, slick and this willingness to bend the established rules bespeaks a developer in confident stride.
Outside of the campaign, Spec Ops mode provides a generous range of standalone missions to work through either solo or in conjunction with other players. Each mission awards up to three stars depending on your performance, the meta-challenge then being to collect all of the stars available in the mode. Freed from narrative constraints, Spec Ops missions allow for some interesting, arcade-like challenges, which prove compelling as you try to collect their multitudinous rewards. As some of the latter stages can run to well over 20 minutes a go, the lack of checkpoints can make a last-minute failure a sharp disappointment, but they're so well-structured that most players will, soon enough, be inspired to reattempt completion.
With just two days spent on the game's live servers, attempting to provide the last word on the game's multiplayer, its true jewel of longevity, is fool's work: the quality of this component will be revealed over months, not hours. However, the foundations Infinity Ward has laid for the multiplayer community to build upon are quite brilliant. As with Modern Warfare, the game's online component presents an entirely separate play arc that overlays RPG-levelling and character development onto traditional FPS competitive staples such as Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. Every success on these virtual battlefields is awarded with experience points, which contribute to moving your character through military ranks, unlocking new loadouts, perks (character upgrades) and secondary goals.
The game carefully balances community-building features such as the option to set a title, emblem and clan tag with features that celebrate individual players (for example, Mercenary Team Deathmatch disallows Xbox Parties, ensuring that everyone is lumped in with other random players). With rewards for being spawn-killed three times in a row and the ability to steal your killer's loadout via Copycat Deathstreak, Infinity Ward has been careful to ease frustration for newcomers, while the mode's labyrinthine depths, unlocking play mode after play mode as you level up, provide powerful impetus to dedicate your life to this twitch sport.
The MMO-style breadcrumb trail of rewards and upgrades is more than just a manipulative way to hook players into the system. Each perk has been carefully balanced to provide options rather than, necessarily, an advantage. Skill will always trump perseverance, although improvement is discernible as you invest time and hone muscle memory.
Modern Warfare 2 balances the spectacle and silliness of its single-player campaign with a deep, enduring multiplayer core, carefully covering its bases for players of all persuasions. But there is no denying it seeks merely to build upon the successes of its forebear while doing very little to expand its scope or redefine them. Don't be fooled by the airport scene, which reveals a developer trying its hand at something else, without coming close to fully committing to it. There's nothing wrong with that. After all, underneath the sheen and controversy, Modern Warfare 2 is a videogame. And yes, you can be sure it's one you want to see.
9 / 10
This is a review of the Xbox 360 version of Modern Warfare 2, which should also be applicable for the PS3 version. Extensive technical comparison of the two console versions will be published later this week, and we will take a separate look at the PC SKU in order to clear up pre-release concerns.