Five minutes in and I find myself in a scenario unusual for Modern Warfare - no-one is shooting at me.
Having been parachuted into the middle of a warzone in the badlands of Afghanistan, an airstrike has just levelled part of the suburb meters in front of our position. It was close. So close it almost killed our team. As we progress through the deserted streets debris and glowing ash fleck the hot air and it's deadly silent. Too silent. That kind of silence when you know something louder than God is brewing. The tension builds.
Watch the first part of this tense sequence for yourself below
Then it happens, just like I can only imagine it happens for real in the disorienting chaos of urban combat. The crack of sniper fire comes from nowhere. Should we fire? Then an RPG soars out of a building and slams into the ground just in front of our vehicle. The rest is inevitable.
The game sits me (or rather Joseph Allen) at a gun turret on the roof of an armoured vehicle and I fire at anything that moves. This isn't precise marksmanship - I'm just shooting blindly into the space in front of me. Am I hitting things? Probably - there’s blood everywhere. Are they enemies? Not sure. Do I care? No, because I've just got to get out of this Afghan slum alive, whatever the consequences. Strangely, I find myself smiling.
It's worth dropping in a film reference here as it helps to explain that strange, inexplicable enjoyment that can be had from being involved in a near-death situation. It's the opening quote from The Hurt Locker, a recent US film about a bomb disposal team in the Iraq war; "War is a drug".
I'm frequently reminded of this during the course of the game - also because the film revolves around a series of highly suspenseful missions interspersed by staggering set-pieces. Which is kind of Modern Warfare's bag. That's not to say this sequel is as close to reality as The Hurt Locker. Far from it - it's pure fantasy.
Above: A later mission at a boneyard airfield where it goes *insane*
Modern Warfare 2's 'story' is just one of a trilogy of game options alongside Spec Ops and Multiplayer (more later). Compared to the original, it's even more far-fetched to the point of being downright preposterous. Not just in the sense that it deals with an apocalyptic vision of the US mainland under siege but also in the twists and turns that afflict the fate of its cast.
The reasoning for this may be to deal with decreasing attention-spans of today's gamers, but also because it gives Infinity Ward free reign to explore a whole host of locations, environments and combat styles. Whatever, it's never boring - but occasionally confusing.
Above: Fighting in middle-class American suburbs. As you do
If I'm totally honest, I can't remember some of the key plot points due to their contrived nature - and I completed the game just two days prior to writing the review. The central premise is simple enough though: Russia has invaded America and you schizophrenically flit through a series of characters in the elite ‘141’ special forces as Gary ‘Roach’ Sanderson and the US Rangers, in an effort to end the war and get to the bottom of why it happened. And of course, it's personal.
Fundamentally, the game controls identically to the original, which can only be seen as a good thing - except in one area (which I'll come back to) and weapons are as weighty and powerful as ever. The emphasis shifts between all-out dogged infantry warfare (as the US Rangers) and more covert special-ops infiltration and wet work (as 141).
Visually, the improvements are kind of minimal, most noticeably an increased level of destructibility to the environments. In most cases this means objects in your line of fire are blown to bits, but also that you can shoot the caged chickens in South American market place.
Above: In key areas smoke shields can be penetrated with a new thermal-imaging scope
In addition, more things obscure your vision - like a revamped visor blood splatter indicating you've taken a hit and impressive swirling smoke, mist and snow effects requiring you to switch to the new thermal imaging scope or night vision goggles. We might be doing IW a disservice here, but in fairness you’re so focused down the middle of your sights for 85% of the game, only a bystander would spot some of the more understated visual polish.
More over the page
I've already gone on the record to say I'd have been happy If MW 2 was just a new story mode and some new multiplayer maps. Clearly I underestimated Infinity Ward's ambition. Recently Robert Bowling, Creative Strategist at IW, told me Hideo Kojima was one of his game dev heroes and this shows in the way MW2 isn't afraid to mess about with the conventions of the FPS for dramatic effect. It's so much more than just a 'new story'.
It takes balls to have a player fail a leap to a helicopter, then demand he runs weaponless and delirious through a hostile South American shanty town while being picked off by bloodthirsty guerrilla fighters. Or how about forcing you to go against every human instinct and blindly counter-attack an invisible and heavily armed enemy through a thick smokescreen with nothing but a gun and a knife - especially when you've been used to using a thermal scope.
Then there’s the controversial - and astonishingly affecting - covert knife kill you’re prompted to make while hanging from a rope above an unsuspecting soldier. Want to know what it’s like to watch the life draining out of a man just two inches from his face? Now you know. And speaking of contentious moments, we’re certain the first time you have to fight the Russians in idyllic, white picket fence American suburbia will inspire mixed reactions from more conservative US players.
Above: Breaching - the coolest way to enter the room and shoot the damn place up
Less original, but done here with finesse, is the new ‘breaching’ dynamic encountered during a stealth raid. The directive is to rescue a group of hostages being used by the Russians to protect a series of oil rigs from being blown up. There's a change of pace as you blow open doors and pick off the captors in slow-motion vision while avoiding the hostages. It might just be bullet-time, but the game designers have been confident enough to only use this trick sporadically rather than rely on it as a persistent game mechanic. See Stranglehold for further details on how to do this badly.
The 'less is more' approach also comes into play with the addition of vehicular control. Early video had alarm bells ringing that MW2 would mess itself with a bunch of half-assed 'driving sections'. You know, like in the Bond games? This isn't the case.
In fact there are just two set-pieces that require you to drive - the first a short and bracing ride on a snowmobile, the second on a boat. The key is they are both methods of escape - rather than just a contrived way of getting you from A to B and they feel like a natural solution to not getting your ass shot off.
Check out part of the snowmobile escape below.
Which is a nice link to the 'getting your ass shot off' bit of the review. It happens a lot. Especially on Hardened, and presumably more so on Veteran. In case you're new to the series, Modern Warfare defines itself by taking a fairly hard-line view on bullets. If you get hit more than once you're going down, balanced by regular and fairly-placed checkpoints.
This requires you to take a considered approach to moving and taking cover, especially when the enemy are so freakishly intelligent and seem to be able to shoot from round corners. That reminds us. That caveat on control we mentioned earlier - why, oh why, can't we have a ‘shoot round corner’ control?
I was saying this with added expletives while playing the otherwise brilliant Favela level set in a South American shanty town. This is close-quarter guerrilla warfare at its most feral. You don't know the area, the militia do. They've got the high ground. You're painfully exposed. Oh, and you're flying solo and on the clock with your boss screaming in your ear. I'll say it like it is, "F*** ME it's hard". Partly because when I want to carefully edge round a corner and survey the street ahead like intuition tells me to do, I can't. My whole big body comes with me and offers a juicy target to the militia.
Above: Escaping the Favela - a high-point of the story
While we're at it, we did note down some other grievances. They mostly relate to our co-players stating the obvious in the heat of a situation; like when a character asks you - as you're plummeting towards a waterfall - to 'back the boat up'. Back it up? Of course. REVERSE a dinghy upstream of some serious rapids as it teeters perilously over a 100 foot drop.
Conversely, sometimes your instructions aren't obvious enough and I found myself doing things too literally and wading into trouble unawares. "Go and get a ladder" the Captain would say. What he doesn't say is, "there will be 20 Russians to shoot between here and the ladder".
And then there's that embarrassingly intimate shuffling on the spot in the heat of battle when you realise you're basically standing inside one of your team mates as he's chosen to hide from death in precisely the same place as you. Hang on, it's the only place. I'll just have to die and let the game end then, won't I. Now who's laughing.
Above: A teammate. Hogging the safe spot - as per usual
Joking aside, considering we played through single player in one, unbroken, 7 hr 49 minute stint we hit few points of irritation or frustration, bar a level which unfolds around the Washington Monument that seemed to fly too closely to WWII trench warfare for our liking.
To put a cap on this bit of the review (I could go on) I finished it feeling flushed with excitement - it's a proper thrill ride. War is a drug, you might say... before cringeing inwardly. Yes, it's far-fetched and at times blatantly exploitative but overall Inifinity Ward has done more than I'd hoped and completely upped the stakes - MW2 is constantly surprising, ferociously intense and ultimately rewarding. You're going to love it.
Proceed to page three for our verdict on Spec Ops
The No Russian level
By now, if you haven't heard about MW2's No Russian level, you probably haven't been watching the news. It's a controversial (you might say daring) section to the single player story that puts you in the shoes of a CIA operative who is working in deep cover for a Russian terrorist called Makarov.
It pulls no punches. As in, you are complicit in an act of extreme terrorism. We're not going to attempt to either condemn or justify this here, but will simply say a) that this game has been granted a 18 by the BBFC, the moral guardians in the UK and a M rating in the US by the ESRB which means the censors were comfortable with the content and b) the game goes some way to warn you of the level at the start of the game, allowing you to opt out of playing it.
For the curious, here's a spoilerific taste of what to expect. Be warned though - it's pretty graphic and definitely NOT for under 18s.
Modern Warfare’s multiplayer is legendary. Combined with a first-class story mode it was a package that had a lifespan way beyond most console titles - we’re still playing it now. So how do you extend that further? Add another huge mode like Spec Ops - a series of 23 specially designed two-player co-op modes that can be tackled online or offline in split-screen.
Some require you to kill a set number of enemies against the clock, others are wave-based like GOW’s Horde or WaW’s zombie mode, or they might be small missions that can only be completed with co-operative play - specifically, as you can revive each other if one of you gets shot up. They use locations from the single player game, the original and a few are unique to Spec Ops - like a huge New York bridge in ‘Suspension’.
Once again, IW’s confidence in their game shines through - limiting co-op to two and only two players means they can be precisely designed to offer a serious challenge to each player. There are five ranks of Spec Ops increasing in difficulty from Alpha to Echo each earning you three stars - with the aim of reaching 69 stars.
This could probably be achieved in a few days of solid play, but much of the appeal lies in beating your previous records so there’s longevity way beyond just collecting all the stars.
Rather than just list the Spec Ops modes here’s our three favourites:
Breach and Clear
This begins as a breaching mission with you and your team mate required to bust a hole into an old two-chambered shower complex in a Russian Gulag. Ripped straight out of The Rock, you’re attacked from above and the front and face a wave of Riot Shield wielding enemies who push you back and draw your fire.
It’s one of the Charlie Spec Ops and insanely difficult despite the small amount of ground you have to cover to clear the room. Much of your success depends on sticking close together for quick revival purposes - run off into the second chamber and get shot down and the game is as good as over.
Like a snapshot of the Ghilli mission you undertake with Price in the original Modern Warfare this is a timed sniper evasion challenge with both players covering open ground and taking out enemy patrols as silently as possible.
Tension is ramped up with snipers taking pot shots at you from the undergrowth and enemy patrols going beserk (in the style of Metal Gear Solid) should you get spotted by a patrol. My partner and I managed this one in 17:37:40 - with the estimated completion time being 4:30:00. We’d had beers, though.
Next up in our Super Review - Multiplayer and our ultimate verdict
This is the best example of co-op we played as you totally rely on each other for progression. One of the team is in a Blackhawk Helicopter and the other on foot as you try to fight through the Russians to a checkpoint in an occupied US suburb. Obviously the guy in the chopper has the elevation and fire power, with the guy on the ground picking off stragglers.
Communication is essential so that the infantryman knows when to push forward or stay in cover. It’s no easier being in the helicopter either - if your man on the ground gets shot it’s game over for both of you.
In many reviews the multiplayer section is simply tacked on the end as mere afterthought. There’s a few reasons for this, rarely explained: first, often if you’re reviewing a game early the online servers aren’t switched on so you can’t play it, so it affords little comment. Secondly, when a game’s online mode simply isn’t very good, there isn’t much you can say about it.
Modern Warfare 2 bucks the trend. This is a ‘mode’ which could be sold as a standalone package (don’t get any ideas Activision, I’m talking theoretically here) when you consider the time you’ll end up playing it. If we had to sell it to you we’d just say it’s like the last one, but 10 times bigger (Prestige arrives at 70 now) and with a multitude of new tactics, new equipment, new maps and killstreaks to master.
We’re not leaving it until the end of the review for any other reason apart from the fact we’ve already covered it in depth in our multiplayer preview feature. There’s not much more to add in terms of content aside from the fact we played a series of maps and modes that were unavailable in the earlier demos.
And yes, we’ve played it for nearly a day against a bunch of real people and guys that work for Infinity Ward. Surprisingly, the latter made a habit of spanking us. That’s MW2 Kittysprkls I’m talking about.
In the spirit of GR lists here are five amazing new things about MW2 multiplayer...
Above: That's a care drop package in the top half of the split-screen
These might only be a low level killstreak but in the course of play they can be game changing. After a 4 kill streak you can throw a flare anywhere on the map and a supply plane will drop a crate nearby. Once it’s on the map anyone can retrieve it, and the box will contain either an ammo refill, a UAV, a Mounted Turret gun, an Airstrike, Predator missile or the AC-130. The great thing is, early on, loads of people playing multiplayer won’t know what to do with them, so strike while the enemy is ignorant.
Destruction (on Estate)
Above: Defending your Estate (Not in Destruction mode here though)
This is the ideal map for Destruction - the one where you have to either defend or destroy two objectives from the other team. The Estate map is a hunting lodge on top of a hill surrounded by forest, and in Destruction one of the objectives is placed just inside the door.
The team effort is based around thinking up cunning plans to divert your opponents inside the house, who just lie in wait for someone to stick their snout round the corner. Riot Shields might come in handy here.
The Airport map
If you’re a fan of clean, open plan maps with the potential for high levels of kills and not many places to hide, you’ll love Airport. It’s just the right size to ensure you constantly find people to aim at and has a great choke point in the cabin of a parked-up 747.
The AC-130 killstreak
Above: Taking out the enemy from above
Although far from the ultimate Killstreak (that’s reserved for the mystery Tactical Nuke for a 25 killstreak) this is the one that you’ll get pulverised by the most. Take to the skies in a gunship with three weights of heavy weapon and just hammer away at the fire button as your kill counter ticks over. Properly annoying if someone gets one of these from a flukey Care Drop steal - amazing if you were the one that stole it.
It still rocks
Importantly, the framework of MW’s multiplayer is intact. The lobbies, menus and functionality are all the same and the new host migration means angry babies can’t quit out of games half-way through and ruin it for everyone else. It would be foolish to try and predict what the Modern Warfare community will think of multiplayer this early on - we’ve not tested it ‘in the field’ so to speak and even in our eight hours with it we didn’t see all the new maps and only encountered a limited selection of game types.
What we can be sure of is Infinity Ward has done their absolute utmost to ensure multiplayer is as good as an experience as before - only with a totally revitalised and refreshed tool set. It’s a safe bet it will be even bigger than the last one.
Much controversy surrounded the pricing of MW2 in the lead up to its release - it’s currently $59.99/£43.99 on Amazon for the standard edition. While I’m not in favour of higher game prices MW2 justifies a slightly inflated price tag. This is a game that has been honed to near-perfection in all areas and designed with the assistance of the most demanding critics - the fans.
Anyone who already has issues with the single-player ‘style’ of IW’s games will still find fault with the scripted, linear experience, but in terms of sheer drama and show-stopping set-pieces accompanied by laser sharp FPS controls, Modern Warfare 2 is your daddy. And that’s without Spec Ops and Multiplayer. Modern Warfare 3 will need revolution to better it, but for now this is this year’s essential shooter purchase. You just can’t go wrong.
Is it better than...
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Yes. In almost every way - which is exactly how Infinity Ward wanted it. We don’t expect the Modern Warfare online servers to suddenly turn into a ghost town this week, and many hardcore faithful may still be there in months to come, but as a package MW2 offers so much more. To try and argue differently would make you look like a massive clown.
Halo 3: ODST
Yes. Halo 3: ODST is a solidly constructed FPS and builds on a ludicrously successful franchise with a huge community following. Where CoD kicks its ass is the difference in execution of these ‘sequels’. With the exact same development cycle Bungie put out single-player campaign which is little more than an expansion and a solitary new multiplayer mode. Compare and contrast.
Yes. As with Halo 3 ODST, Killzone 2 was technically adept and offered PS3 owners a first-class FPS they could call their own. However, you could argue it was a) boring and b) about space marines and c) it could never challenge MW in terms of multiplayer - even among core PS3 users.
Just for you, Metacritic
Let’s keep it good and simple: Modern Warfare 2 is this year’s must-buy first-person shooter.