Here it is. The Christmas gaming juggernaut that has sent so many other heavyweight titles fleeing in fear for the colder climes of February and March. The follow up to the immense Call of Duty 4, a game that has courted controversy and sold millions, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has arrived and I’ve spent much of the last week staying frosty, checking my corners and hooahing my way through the completely bonkers single player campaign.
You’ll fight for the US Rangers and super elite Task Force 141 in a globetrotting adventure that sees you taking on endless armies of militia men in the Brazilian slums, performing a snatch and grab mission in a Russian gulag and, among other things, defending a Burger King against invading Russians. CoD4 maintained a gritty and down to earth tone and led you through a vaguely plausible story, Modern Warfare 2 is bombastic nonsense. Here the quotations that display each time an unseen grenade blows you into a bloody cloud seem empty and pretentious in contrast with the lunacy of the events around you. A two man team infiltrating a heavily armed base, blowing it to smithereens and then escaping on a snowmobile, steering with one hand and spraying death with an uzi in the other is not real war, and the mawkish writing and overall pretension of the thing soon begins to grate.
The hallmark intensity of the Call of Duty series is present in bucketloads. This game is intent on shellshocking you into submission with scenes of war so noisy and detailed that I often welcomed death as a moment of peace and quiet to catch my breath. There’s no denying that Modern Warfare 2 is an amazing spectacle. Nothing else really comes close to emulating the chaos and voilence of these battle scenes and aestheically Infinity Ward get so much right. The guns are fantastic. A mix of real weapons and fun new toys that look and sound almost perfect. The cacophony of opening up with a P90 has never felt as good as this, and the locations are imaginative and beautifully realised too. The thing is, as an experience, Modern Warfare 2 is overwhelming and frustrating in almost equal measure.
Lets take the Brazilian slums as an example. Each time you enter a new location a man with a gun will appear in every window in the chaotically arranged shanty town. You’re on the ground and the only cover available to you is some empty oil drums and some parked cars. For the next five minutes or so you are assaulted from every angle. You take out the enemies you can see, a moment or two later another man will take their place. Then you are shot from several angles at once, and each time you spin and take out your foe. A man on a rooftop to your right, a group of enemies exploding out of a doorway behind you. Each time you’re hit your vision jumps and your vision is smeared with the gooey jam that’s supposed to represent your own blood. Spin, find a window, fire, get hit from a new angle, spin, find the window, fire, repeat until your squad decides to move up. It becomes a grim game of whackamole, beautiful and carefully scripted, but mostly out of your control.
This is before one of those cars you’re using as cover explodes with no warning.
The more difficult sections become a matter of learning the levels and knowing the places the AI commonly uses as cover in a given location. It’s a criticism that was levelled at Call of Duty 4 as well, and not much seems to have changed for the sequel. There’s a marked improvement when the action deviates from this pattern. Some sections will see you defending an objective, planting claymore mines and turrets to cover your six while you use your sniper rifle to pick off the assaulting enemy forces. Other sections see you relying on stealth, emulating the superb Chenobryl mission from Call of Duty 4. These are welcome breaks from the typical action. Instead of just reacting you’re planning. The best missions give you some tactical control and let you be smart about how you play.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that there aren’t many of the really special moments I’ve come to expect from the Call of Duty games. Losing your weapon and racing to the rooftops of the slum to dive onto a helicopter is exciting, but it’s just a reskin of the remarkable escape at the end of the first level of CoD4. The stealth sections are fun, but they just aren’t as good as the aforementioned Chenobryl mission, which I would rank as one of the greatest gaming levels of all time. There’s nothing to rival the chilling effect of the time spent bombarding enemies through a grainy infra red image to the glee of the commander over your headset, nothing as heart rending as storming the beaches in CoD2 and nothing as clever or terrifying as the mission that sees you charging the enemy weaponless because the Russian army just doesn’t have anything left to arm you with. Modern Warfare 2′s poorly thought through attempt at such a mission with No Russian falls horribly flat, and stands as a testement to the self obsessed pretentiousness that seems to have marred this iteration of one of gaming’s greatest series.
There are glimpses of brilliance here. An EMP renders Washington’s streets powerless. Voice comms are down, the red dot of the holographic sight is out. You pick through the ruined streets, illuminated only by the flaming wrecks of helicopters that have fallen out of the sky. You come across a squad some distance away, without comms there’s no way to know if they’re friend or foe. There’s a horrifying moment where your squad is unsure about opening fire, and this dilemma is the most powerful part of the whole campaign because, unlike most of the events that take place in the single player campaign, that shit really happens in war. The potential tragedy of friendly fire through misunderstanding cuts deep, and it’s this moment of uncertainty that provides the only emotionally engaging point in the game.