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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 review: restrained spectacle

A more restrained affair that balances spectacle with tension

Call of Duty review

Like the dubious heroes at the centre of its story, Modern Warfare 2’s campaign is murky, methodical, and effective. It features everything you’d expect from a Modern Warfare campaign: globetrotting adventures, spectacular set-pieces, and an uneasy relationship with real-world military affairs. But there’s something else here we don’t typically expect from gaming’s biggest shooter series. Restraint.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is as interested in building an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty as it is explosive military hijinks. It makes those moments when it does kick off all the more satisfying.

While notionally a follow-up to 2019’s Modern Warfare, the sequel’s story barely references prior events beyond a few returning characters. Instead, the new campaign sees the Task Force 141 special forces unit led by the world’s deadliest pair of mutton chops, Captain Price, tracking down a bunch of abducted ballistic missiles by order of the US Army’s General Shepherd.

Hidden warfare

Call of Duty review

The opening mission is the most archetypal of the bunch: a Zero Dark Thirty-style raid on a compound in a fictional Middle Eastern Country, spearheaded by reintroduced characters John ‘Soap’ MacTavish and the skull-masked soldier simply known as Ghost. You slowly manoeuvre toward the compound and are there to defend a crashed helicopter, dodging sniper-fire along the way before performing a tense room-by-room clearance of the compound itself.

It’s here where we meet the first of Modern Warfare 2’s major inspirations. That’s ‘Clean House’, the showcase mission of the 2019 reboot, which saw players slowly navigate a London townhouse while terrorists sprang from doorways and cupboards like animatronics on a ghost train. With Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward has expanded this into, if not quite a mechanic, then certainly a motif. In multiple missions, you’ll slip seamlessly into this mode of combat. In cramped buildings, enemies have pressed themselves into every nook and cranny. Their hiding spots are designed specifically to catch you off-guard.

This recurring sequence fits with the broader theme of the game. Its protagonists are engaged in a hidden war where enemies are everywhere. Friends are not to be trusted, and nobody plays by the rules.

Unlike the 2019 game, which claimed to draw its unsavoury politics from real-life, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s primary inspiration is cinema. In particular, Denis Villeneuve’s film Sicario. Much of the game is set in Mexico, and revels in playing with the same political and operational ambiguities depicted in Villeneuve’s film. An early mission puts you in the boots of a Mexican spec-ops duo as they pursue the terrorist suspected of stealing the missiles across the border into the United States. Here, they must contend with trigger-happy civilians and local law enforcement and navigate a maze of trailers and suburban homes far outside of their jurisdiction.

The next mission muddies the waters even further, as the Mexican operatives join forces with the 141 for a mission in Mexico itself. Back on the heels of their quarry, your squad ends up being chased by Mexican Army soldiers on the payroll of the local cartel. What follows is a frantic downhill scramble reminiscent of the central battle sequence in the Mark Wahlberg film Lone Survivor. You’re forced to simultaneously fight and retreat from an enemy who is both behind and above you. As your team is forced to leap into a river, they end up clinging to rocks while being peppered with gunfire from all sides. It genuinely makes you wonder how the hell they ended up in this mess, and what the point of it all is.

Tense and action packed

Call of Duty review

If the campaign stuck with these ideas then it would be one of the more distinctive singleplayer experiences in the series. Yet while it never completely loses sight of these themes, it does get distracted. The next few missions are remixes of the original Modern Warfare’s most iconic moments.

It starts with a double-barrelled mission where you provide air support from your team in an AC130 gunship. This is followed by an expanded reimagining of the iconic ‘All Ghillied Up’ mission, where you slither across a stretch of Spanish coastline sniping guards from afar. It’s a decent mission – one of the most open-ended in any Call of Duty. But it lives in the shadow of Chernobyl circa 2007, and never reaches the same highs.

Like most Call of Duty campaigns, Modern Warfare 2 plays fast and loose with different systems – its success in which varies significantly. A mission where you must craft improvised weapons and equipment to survive fits well with the game’s drive to strike a balance between tension and action. Another, where you leap between drivable cars as you chase down an enemy convoy, feels like it was ripped from a budget Grand Theft Auto knockoff.

Generally though, the game is surprisingly well equipped to flit between different modes. It often lets you choose between stealthy eliminations and open combat. You’re always pushed down a specific path, but overall those pathways feel less constrictive than the majority of games in the series.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 verdict

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

The final few missions are rightly more action-oriented. They deliver the fire and thunder the game largely allows to bubble beneath the surface. The ending itself is annoyingly muted, only a black screen featuring the words ‘To be continued’ before the credits roll. Nonetheless, for the first time in a long time, I’m intrigued as to where that presumed third game will take us.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s campaign is hardly revolutionary. It is a little more thoughtful, though, a little more experimental, and a little more interesting than I expected.

Multiplayer

Call of Duty’s multiplayer has felt somewhat aimless in recent years, flailing around in search of an identity while games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and CoD’s own massively popular cousin Warzone devour an increasingly large slice of its pie. Modern Warfare 2 steadies the ship with the most coherent multiplayer package since 2019, bringing back one of the series’ most spectacular modes, and delivering a thoroughly enjoyable shooting experience. But it’s held back from greatness by technical issues and the absence of one of the most innovative modes to grace the series in ages.

As with 2019’s Modern Warfare, the beating heart of the sequel’s multiplayer is Ground War, the large-scale capture-and-hold mode heavily inspired by Battlefield’s Conquest. The big change is that it is now fully inspired by Battlefield, letting players control a suite drivable vehicles including tanks, APCs, and Helicopters.

With Battlefield absenting itself this year following the failure of 2042, Ground War proves a capable replacement for Conquest. The maps effectively balance large open areas where vehicles can dominate with tight, knotty spaces surrounding control points where infantry play a more crucial role. CoD’s signature killstreaks add an extra layer of spectacle to Ground War’s combined-arms combat. Watching artillery arc down on from an AC130 gunship in the sky, only for a player beside you to shoot it down with a rocket launcher, is quite remarkable.

Ground War is one of two large-scale modes available in Modern Warfare 2, the other being Invasion. This is a supercharged deathmatch mode that takes place on long, rectangular maps, where players on both teams are accompanied by a platoon of AI bots. Each bot you kill earns you a point for a team, while each enemy player you kill nets you five points. It’s a neat idea, but the lack of specified areas to fight over means the mode ends up feeling shapeless, while the long, narrow maps overwhelmingly favour long-range weapons.

Although the larger-scale modes justify their existence for the spectacle they provide, Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer is most enjoyable at the smaller-scale. Whether you’re playing Hardpoint, or a straight-up 6v6 team-deathmatch, the reduced chaos gives the multiplayer’s core combat systems greater room to breathe. Modern Warfare 2 is a weightier, more inertial shooter than classic Call of Duty, one that rewards a more thoughtful approach to combat. Moving methodically, tracking enemies by listening to gunshots, and mounting your weapon against cover are much more effective in the quieter arena fights.

While the roster of modes on offer is impressive, there is one glaring omission: Gunfight, the hyper-paced 2v2 arena challenge where players attempted to outwit each other with randomly allocated weapons. Gunfight is one of the most novel and interesting modes introduced to Call of Duty for years, and its absence from Modern Warfare 2 is sorely disappointing.

Stuff Says…

Score: 4/5

Infinity Ward’s latest is a more restrained affair that balances spectacle with tension.

Good Stuff

pleasing balance between stealth and action

tense CQB sequences

juggles many different ideas successfully

More methodical multiplayer is oh so satisfying

Bad Stuff

a couple of duff levels

underwhelming ending

A few multiplayer modes didn’t make the cut