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Modern Warfare 2 review

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Pleasant surprise: Modern Warfare 2 makes a pretty decent arcade racer. That's what it feels like anyway, when you're blasting through the tundra on a jouncing skidoo, driven on by the constant barrage of time extends as you zip past one checkpoint after another, with the cartoony three-tone starting buzzer still sounding in your ears. There are jumps to chain together, a racing line to unearth, and trees to dodge as you rush towards the finish flag, and when the camera shakes and the audio roars, it's all pretty exciting stuff.

Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward's creative strategist, gets so drawn in that he throws himself from side-to-side in his seat as he plays (of course, that's possibly just a brilliantly calculated piece of Derren Brown-styled mind trickery, designed to provoke any nearby preview writers into scribbling down, "You know, Modern Warfare 2 really is a visceral slice of action gaming!"), and if you start to lag behind, you can even shoot your rival racer in the face so they get blood in their eyes and steer themselves off a cliff. I think they borrowed that move from Mario Kart on the Wii.

All of which is to say that I'd stupidly assumed I understood Modern Warfare 2's new Special Ops mode: I assumed it would be a polished, but rather predictable arrangement of discrete mini-missions tailored for two-player co-op. What I hadn't guessed, though - and what Tom didn't manage to uncover with his, ooh, two minutes with the game back at Cologne - was that, individually, each of those mini-missions would be so inventive in breaking Infinity Ward's latest down into chunks, until parts of it start to feel like... well, like an arcade racer, for example.

Meanwhile, other parts of it feel like Left 4 Dead. Racing over, Bowling takes us into another Spec Ops gametype called Elimination. We're on the edge of a lake: scrubby trees clump together in artful thickets, mountains turn the horizon into a craggy squiggle, and a cluster of wooden cabins lurks by the shoreline. It's all rather pretty, really - if it wasn't for the bullets whizzing through the air, I'd probably be thinking about filling a thermos with latte and nipping off for a hike.

Higher difficulties in Spec Ops will result in slightly different mission agendas as well as longer health bars.

But hiking's not the order of the day. With Elimination, shooting exactly 40 Russian terrorists dead is the order of the day, in a game mode that randomises spawns and pacing, and pads out the regular grunts you'll be taking down with a range of special classes, including Ghillie-suited snipers who will try and keep their distance unless successfully flanked. And Juggernauts. They're tanks, essentially, who stagger towards you sucking up clip after clip wearing thick, rounded armour which, to me at least, looks like the kind of thing a boiled egg might wear while heading off for his first spacewalk.

Elimination's a brilliantly panicky inclusion: a brutal challenge for one player, and a riot of ad-libbed strategy for two, and, on this occasion, the bulk of the fighting quickly centres on one split-level cabin in the middle of the map, where some nasty terrorist types have been making explosives, by the looks of it, although the building's occupants have also been busy impaling teddy bears on a bedroom doorknob, and leaving a sex doll floating about in the dirty bathtub, so maybe they're actually arts post-grads.

24-style split-screen for local co-op means that, although you'll be squinting if you play on small tellies, you'll at least be squinting at something stylish.

Throw in other treats like Stealth modes, which see you picking your way through a gauntlet of baddies unseen as you head for an extraction point, and Spec Ops promises to be dazzling. It's a blast of quick-fire unpredictability and leaderboard-chasing in a package you could have assumed was happy to simply build on established foundations.

None of which is to say that, after COD4, such an approach would have been too much of a problem. In fact, a brief look at the game's more traditional inclusions is enough to remind you why so many of Infinity Ward's competitors have retreated to January and February next year to huddle together for safety. Multiplayer - with its kill streaks, death streaks, and dazzling rooftop mazes - looks like a smart evolution of the original, although as the HUD fills up and the game gets ever more chatty regarding Achievements and unlocks, it's possible the whole thing will be even more overwhelming for newcomers.