In the first Modern Warfare, there’s a mission in which the player sees through the eyes of a marine operating in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. After some harrowing firefights and a quick airborne escape, both you and he probably assume that the good guys will be able to wipe out the terrorists and save the day. Not quite. Instead, your helicopter nosedives, and your poor marine is suddenly left crawling on the ground as a nuclear weapon is detonated nearby.
*Spoilers ahead! The following review assumes you’ve either completed most of the campaign or don’t care about the storyline.* This and other provocative images helped define the original Modern Warfare experience, and they’re back in full force in its blockbuster sequel, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Odds are that you’ve already heard (and played) the horrific “No Russian” airport sequence, and I don’t wish to dwell on it. It remains difficult to sit through even when you know what’s coming when that elevator opens, but it’s hardly the only memorable imagery contained in the short but brutal campaign. This virtual world war takes you to war-torn Afghanistan, our nation’s capital and even an orbiting satellite, and you’re often required to watch through the eyes of dying or endangered soldiers. So with all of these stirring and occasionally disturbing sequences, why exactly did I feel so empty when the credits started to roll?
After four main contributions to the Call of Duty franchise, Infinity Ward has perfected the first-person action sequence. You’ll scale icy mountain ranges, speed down the same mountain on a ski mobile, fall to your near-death a half dozen times and – inexplicably – rescue hostages by taking out their captors in “bullet-time.” Though I still prefer Halo‘s guns/melee/grenade trinity, Modern Warfare 2 has its sci-fi peer beat in terms of sheer excitement. The game’s variety of settings and set pieces result in a game that’s more fun to play than its acclaimed predecessor too.
But like a bloated summer movie – I’d go with Terminator: Salvation, but any dumb flick will do – it’s all style without narrative substance. Maybe Infinity Ward’s trying to “say something” about the realities of war, but I’m straining to remember anything besides impressive pyrotechnics.
I’m sure that civilians would evacuate in times of global conflict, but the levels in Modern Warfare 2 still feel lifeless. Running around through a burned-out Washington D.C. should rile up the blood or at least make me feel a little uneasy, but the empty suburbs and nearby monuments are too sterile. When I was paroling the halls of the White House, it felt like I was standing in a cardboard cutout. There are exceptions to this level, but the game never struck me as an honest portrayal of war, which I’m pretty sure was what Infinity War was trying to do.
They also need to figure out how to bring actual characters into the game. Sure, these guys have names. Soap, Price, Makarov…I know who they are and sometimes what their goals are. But because so much of the story is told through radio chatter and loading screen briefings, there’s never any emotional attachment. Now, your mileage may vary on this point. I thought that the cast of the previous game was paper-thin and would feel right at home in a recent Tom Clancy novel. I know plenty of folks who disagreed with me then, and will disagree now. But when I discovered that it was Price who was imprisoned in the gulag, I’m not even sure if it elicited a brief grin. Oh boy, it’s the British guy with a mustache! (?) I would love for someone to explain to me what I’m missing.
Luckily, in the new cooperative mode, you’ll find yourself actually caring about your brother in arms because he’s controlled by a fellow human being. There’s something quite stirring about carrying a wounded friend out of harm’s way with bullets Swiss-cheesing your cover. So much so that I wish the campaign had allowed buddies to team up to hunt down Makarov together.
It’s in this mode that differing perspectives take on significance. For instance, there’s one mission in which a human pilot handles the AC130 gunship from the first Modern Warfare, while the other player is pursued by enemies in a fenced off field. While the first AC130 appearance was positively chilling thanks to the unflinching voice over work, you now effectively become the “older brother.” For the guy on the ground, the gunship becomes god-like, raining down destruction from the heavens. It’s a unique dynamic that hasn’t been explored much before in other shooters, and a welcome change of pace.
Other scenarios include a sniper hunt through the snowy woods, a helicopter patrol through a D.C. suburb and a jog across a terrorist-filled suspension bridge. Though some are more familiar than others, all of them require communication between players. If both of you decide to aim for the patrolman on the left and leave the right one standing, the flesh-tearing attack dogs are sure to follow. And while there is an indicator to direct you to your fallen comrade, you’ll need to keep talking if you want to keep track of each other in the chaos.
And if chaos is your thing, you’ll want to dive into multiplayer immediately. With or without the Javelin cheaters, you’re never safe for too long. Enemy helicopters, UAVs, turrets and other perks ensure that you’ll take your fair share of bullets. But no matter how frustrating multiplayer can be – I die a lot – the leveling system always brings me back.
You’re rewarded for doing everything. Do you die constantly? Well, at least you can steal your killer’s class and earn some end-of-round experience as consolations. Do you find yourself constantly running from tough fights? Equip the Marathon skill and use that footwork to build towards something. The constant upgrades encourage endless experimentation, whether you’re a pro or a private (like me).
So do I have fun whenever I boot up Modern Warfare 2? Absolutely! The online stuff has even more hooks than the first game, and the moment-to-moment gun-play of the campaign is always intense. But in the end, they are just moments, explosive vignettes that never feel cohesive. If Infinity Ward can figure out how to make me care about these soldiers in its next game, then they will have a masterpiece on their hands. But Modern Warfare 2 is the video game equivalent of a flashbang – it leaves your senses overwhelmed for a little while, but it’s never able to go in for the kill.