Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 arrives all hammer and tongs, prepared to defend its title as the sole other title that average gamers give a damn about besides Madden. As with all war games, the message here is that macho posturing (and formidable mustaches) ultimately win the day. But what makes the Modern Warfare series so successful is the way it wraps gaming’s standard-issue let’s-kill narrative in a sophisticated-sounding package—dig that digital spinning globe!—which slyly makes gamers feel like they’re actually learning something useful about world politics.
They aren’t. Like the original, Modern Warfare 2 is visually incredible enough to make every other game on the market look terrible by comparison. Computer-generated humans have never moved with such alacrity and intelligence before.
Yet in spite of its good looks, Modern Warfare 2 has the slightest whiff of insecurity. It feels like the developers, under pressure to top the original Modern Warfare, engaged in a bit of hand-wringing this time around. Note how those over-the-top setpieces typically bookend each level. Example: An early snowbound level opens on the side of a mountain and features a tense ice-climbing sequence; the same level ends with a noisy snowmobile chase. But what happens between those two setpieces—the quiet, crafty infiltration of an enemy camp during a blizzard—is arguably more interesting. Unfortunately, that quieter, more dramatic experience is drowned out by the noise.
The single-player campaign clocks in at a lean seven hours. Gun battles, at their worst, are exercises in attrition, as they were in the original. You shoot. You hide. There always seems to be one more bad guy to kill. At their best, whether you’re playing one of the 14 multiplayer modes or going solo, battles can feel organic and alive; they absolutely crackle with dramatic electricity.
In what will no doubt be 2009’s most controversial gaming moment, Modern Warfare 2 has gamers infiltrating a terror cell, then reluctantly participating in an attack on an airport. Hundreds of civilians are killed. As the living attempt to drag away the dying, you wind up in a stomach-turning ethical catch 22: “Do I shoot?” It’s in these moments, between the high-resolution bursts of gunfire, that Modern Warfare 2 comes alive.