Modern Warfare 2 is brutal and utterly unrelenting. Developer Infinity Ward hasn't exactly steered Call of Duty into simulation territory here, although a quicker time-to-kill has allowed the series to establish an uneasy alliance with the form. The result is a lightning-fast FPS where every shot counts, and where death is but a misplaced bullet or mistimed reload away. Throughout the campaign, that tension establishes thrilling theatrics; and in multiplayer, it leads to frustration and jubilation, the pendulum swinging between the two for every earned respawn and killstreak.
Release date: October 28, 2022
Platform(s): Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC
Developer: Infinity Ward
That just a couple of bullets can act as separation between life and death is a culture shock for Call of Duty – one that is made satisfying by the quality of weapons, ballistics, and animations. There's a snap to the SMGs, a real throttle to the Assault Rifles, and those Marksman Rifles pack one hell of a punch. There's a greater emphasis on placement and positioning, and on tempering your instincts to move quickly and shoot at passing shadows. Modern Warfare 2 makes you fragile, but it gives you all the tools you need to become powerful.
Back in action
The Modern Warfare 2 campaign doesn't rewrite the rulebook, as its predecessor did so astutely in 2019, though it does attempt to reinforce the rules of engagement. Move slowly and shoot quickly; think tactically and take any advantage that you can find. This is the bedrock of an awe-inspiring 17-mission tour of Mexico, Spain, Amsterdam, and beyond. Not to mention the foundation for the Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer experience and Warzone 2 – both built atop the IW 9.0 game engine, and a refined set of mechanics and systems which are introduced gradually throughout your campaign to halt another global catastrophe.
In many respects, Modern Warfare 2 has been entrusted with showcasing the future of the franchise. It's a lot of weight for Infinity Ward to bear, though the studio shows no signs of buckling beneath the pressure. If anything, the Modern Warfare 2 campaign demonstrates that the series is heading in a good direction after an uneasy couple of years. Black Ops Cold War was a misfire and Vanguard a stopgap against irrelevancy in an increasingly competitive market, and yet here we see a shooter that is firing on all cylinders.
It's worth pausing here to talk about the visual fidelity, as it is genuinely astounding. Modern Warfare 2 is one of the best-looking new-gen experiences available, expertly demonstrating the capabilities of the Xbox Series X and PS5. Cutscenes are rendered at near photorealism, with character models finding firm ground in the uncanny valley; the use of light and shadow is awesome, as is the contrast drawn through night and interior levels; and both the topography and terrain of mission environments feel true to life, with Infinity Ward doing all that it can to mask that its playspaces are little more than wide corridors with incredible draw-distances.
In the past 20 years, Call of Duty campaigns have had us do it all – we've sniped at enemies between asteroids in space and crawled through dirt in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. While Modern Warfare 2 isn't able to produce a scenario that is altogether new, it does make some old favorites feel fresh again. The campaign opens on a high, with a new rendition of 'Safe House' – pushing you through claustrophobic corridors lit by the grainy hue of night vision goggles. And, thankfully, Modern Warfare 2 never veers towards its predecessor's worst impulses from there, steering clear of QTE-torture, and is all the better because of it.
Instead, you'll find true iterations of 'All Ghillied Up' and 'Death from Above'. Incredible assaults on wonderfully-staged military compounds, prison complexes, and oil rigs, and a tight mixture of scenarios that work to emphasize that a shift in strategy is required to survive. AI press positions aggressively, flanks are difficult to prise open, and recoil management is as big of a threat as armored enemies. It's also worth noting that MW2 doesn't produce anything as thematically ambitious as Call of Duty: WW2's 'Liberation', nor anything as overtly controversial as 'No Russian' – which thrust the original MW2 into the headlines in 2009.
An unexpected success of the campaign – for all its expertly crafted, formulaic familiarity – was just how much character Infinity Ward was able to bring to Task Force 141, and their allies in Los Vaqueros. The stars are undoubtedly Soap and Ghost, with Price and Gav left largely to the sidelines so that Modern Warfare 2 can explore a budding friendship within the elite unit. 'Alone' sees the pair stealthily navigating hostile territory without equipment, crafting makeshift weapons and bad military jokes – a timed dialogue option allowing you to control the tenor of the conversation. Later, you guide Ghost through a compound via CCTV cameras, the two sharing kind words of expletive-riddled encouragement throughout. It's a welcomed change of pace for a series that rarely allows its characters time to respawn, let alone the chance to establish some camaraderie.
Slow down to survive
If the Modern Warfare 2 campaign settles into its tightest rhythm as you're methodically rationing rounds, reacting to threats on little more than a hair-trigger impulse, then the multiplayer finds a similar beat. Call of Duty has never asked its players to slow down – quite the contrary, it has incentivized sprinting between firefights with one eye pinned to the mini-map since 2005 – but Modern Warfare 2 is quick to punish those who instinctively lean on the left stick.
TTK is so fast that it leaves little margin for error. Whether you're chasing a positive K/D in Team Deathmatch, defending hotspots in Hardpoint and Domination, or quietly cursing teammates who refuse to play the objective in the new, and relatively lackluster Prisoner Rescue and Knockout modes, smart positioning and tempered firing patterns are everything. Sprinting sounds a death knell, signaling your position to surrounding soldiers with impressive clarity. The sharp snap of a reload is satisfying, though doing so the second a single bullet is fired from the chamber will often leave you unequipped to respond to emerging challenges.
Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer is fun because of these changes, until it isn't. The skill ceiling has been raised quite significantly, with players no longer able to rely on the basic mini-map for direction without an active UAV; the shorter, sharper engagement time is more intimidating, if not outright punishing at times. An interesting metagame has started to emerge too, where a Pistol can feel more viable if aimed above the shoulders in close quarters than a Shotgun, while a tailored Marksman Rifle feels more versatile at mid-range than a properly-balanced SMG. Of course, as is the Infinity Ward way, the Assault Rifle remains the undisputed king of the battlefield – regardless of the range of engagement.
Modern Warfare 2 comes with 10 standard maps for the core 6v6 multiplayer modes, and they are something of a mixed bag. While areas like Mercado Las Almas, Crown Raceway, Breenbergh Hotel, and Zarqwa Hydroelectric show Infinity Ward at its best, there are some stages that too significantly eskew traditional Call of Duty map design. You'll be feeling the absence of map voting every time Santa Seña Border Crossing comes into rotation, a nightmarish arena in the rotation which puts IW's worst impulses on full display.
One or two properly placed trigger pulls, and you're one-notch closer to calling in a killstreak – as far as Modern Warfare 2 is concerned, the days of spraying and praying are long behind Call of Duty. If you can get on board with the more tempered approach to movement, you'll likely enjoy the change of pace. Although there is a risk that the gulf between players in matchmaking will widen significantly, due in no small part to needlessly complicated weapon customization and progression systems. There are too many options, hidden behind too many cumbersome menus.
Weapons can be equipped with five separate attachments, which reigns in the focus versus Vanguard's 10, although it's such a mess that any benefit is lost. While some attachments are shared universally between weapon classes, others are not, with Modern Warfare 2 forcing you to play with weapons that you don't like to unlock additions for the ones that you do. It's easy to become overwhelmed by the process of building a loadout, and I'm never really sure if what I'm adding or subtracting to a weapon is making a discernible difference to its weighting or control. That is compounded by your capacity to further fine-tune individual attachments once you've leveled out a weapon, and the min-maxing can quickly become tiresome. As can the revised approach to Perks, in which two are equipped passively and a further two unlock at certain thresholds mid-match – a restriction which feels almost antithetical to the freedom you're afforded elsewhere, forming a system that impacts every player, but will satisfy few.
In a post-Warzone world, the mainline Call of Duty games have felt directionless. It's as if they struggled to reckon with the standard set by Modern Warfare, and with a battle royale that thrived in the years it was allowed to build upon those foundations. Modern Warfare 2 is both the natural evolution of where Infinity Ward left off in 2019, and a fantastic starting point for Warzone 2. Admittedly, the faster, more unflinching approach to firefights won't be for everybody, but it's a hell of a time if you can lock in with its rhythm.
The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 campaign was reviewed on Xbox Series X, with a code provided by the publisher.