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.