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
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.
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