Updated: September 15, 2010
Normally, I only write single-game reviews for titles that have truly, unequivocally impressed me. Today, I'm going to make an exception and write about a game that I cannot wholeheartedly recommend as your next best hit. In a way, this is going to be my first balanced game review. Rather than being enamored to silly levels, I will give you an objective, grim, cool-headed dissertation of what Modern Warfare 2 is all about. Ready? Read on.
When you receive a game as a present, you don't ask questions. You install the game and have a go. I did read several game reviews to get the basic feeling what it was all about, though. Most of the reviews were quite sterling, praising the game's graphics, storyline and overall depth and quality. Armed with confidence, I rushed into the battle zone.
I installed the game on my latest laptop acquisition, the HP Pavilion 2160, armed with an i5 quad-core processor, lots of memory, a fast disk, and most importantly, Nvidia GT 320M graphic card with 1GB VRAM. The machine runs a dual-boot setup of Windows 7 and Ubuntu, but it was Windows 7 that got to run the game, after all. Furthermore, it was a great opportunity to test how much horsepower this new machine has.
Into the game menu, you're advised to try the singleplayer campaign first and get acquainted with the game mechanics before trying the other modes. Which is what I did. After completing a short training, which helps you familiarize with the game concepts and evaluates your expertise, you're hurled into combat.
Modern Warfare 2, not what you may think
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 plays like a elaborate, computerized Hollywood action blockbuster. The entire gameplay revolves around scene-like sequences where you play one of the characters chasing evil overloads across the globe. An international feeling is added to the game in the form of a rugged SAS Scotsman and his brusque northern accent. MacTavish, Roach and others are not new to the game, having already starred in the previous game installment, Call of Duty 4 (COD4). Oh, hearing MacTavish say Roach puts Sean Connery to shame.
The old familiarity is meant to give veteran players a taste of nostalgia and belonging even before they fire the first round, but for new players, it can take a while getting used to different characters. With missions hopping from one theater to another, you are supposed to slowly gain trust and grow to like them. The plot gradually builds toward a spectacular end-it-all chase, with helplessness, despair and treachery as emotional weapons, meant to win your heart. While fighting for freedom in the world's most unsavory combat zones, you have no one to trust but your close pack of buddies, your brothers in arms. The ancient concept of soldierly pride is taken to the extreme when even your government becomes a foe, so to speak. But more about that later.
Ah, the plot. It's fairly corny, I must admit. Russians have had another revolution, yet again, a crazy dude is now in charge of all their fancy weapons, including the nukes. This makes the freedom-loving Western world a little pissed, so they send their special forces, cowboy-style, to take care of it. It's a true and tested formula, but it takes the concept of fighting into the realm of entertainment. A little too much, in fact.
Hollywood all over the place
|There's too much emphasis on symbolic scenes taken from 90s movies; one such scene including fighting enemy troops on overhead balconies in a ruined bathroom, like in The Rock|
Yes, I wrote that. And it's true. Many of the game scenes trace directly to some of the classic 90s action movies. For example, there's an abandoned showers scene that is almost identical to the famous stand down, I will not stand down scene in the Rock. Then, in another game mission, you must race to the rooftop and signal with green flares to abort an incoming attack by friendly fighters. Again, a scene taken from The Rock. In Siberia, MacTavish is captured by Russians and you're given an ultimatum to surrender. Instead of doing that, you detonate some charges. Sounds familiar? Answer: James Bond, Goldeneye, opening scene.
Then, there's another scene where you obliterate a building side with Minigun while zipping past in a helicopter. The scene has the combined feel of Matrix and Wanted. Could be me, but could be not.
The adherence to movie-like pace and feel significantly harm the fun and freedom in the game. The plot is linear and heavily scripted, even worse than Max Payne. If you halt for a few moments in a certain spot and do not advance toward the next trigger, the game action will, for all practical purposes, pause. The cued background effects will continue, but you will find yourself in a twilight world, bereft of motion, with nothing happening.
Compared to Flashpoint, for instance, where enemy AI will make daring, 20-minute flanking movements to get behind you, in Modern Warfare 2, you can time every single action of every single bot, which turns the game difficulty levels moot. If you can figure out the scripting algorithm, the game becomes a matter of timing rather than unpredictable combat. Even at the highest difficulty level, it's the simple matter of action sequence.
Once you've completed the campaign, you will feel no motivation whatsoever to try it again. It's like watching a movie, but one you did not enjoy that much, all over again. For me, the inability to improvise makes is the worst element of it all. I can understand how lesser minds might be dazzled into awe by the spectacular show of effects, but if you look beyond the bling-bling, Modern Warfare 2 offers no challenge, no uncertainty factor, nothing beyond the 90-minute blockbuster script.
To make it even worse, the script itself is mediocre at best. The proven concept of the Russian bear rearing its head and sneezing at the world could have worked, but it is diluted by too many cliche ideas, which seemed to have been placed in the game for the sake of placing. In-between mission transitions feature satellite-like shots, computerized blueprint-like 3D animations, snippets of news reels, and random bits of Intel data, which are designed to infuse you with just the right of mix of depth, credulity and confusion to make it all all the more believable. Instead, it feels forced, as if someone wanted an extra 3-4GB of data to be there, just so.
Speaking of massive volumes of game data, most of it goes into making the game graphics. Gameplay notwithstanding, Modern Warfare 2 does have really impressive graphics. With the detail level tuned to max., Call of Duty played flawlessly on my HP Pavilion, offering a dazzling show of colors and effects.
Even so, sometimes, you do get a notion there's quite a bit of excess, added for pure show. Too much debris and unneeded little details, like rubble, autumn leaves, fires and such. While combat is supposed to be hectic and dirty, it does not look like a post-apocalyptic Zombie playground. The ratio of color and detail is wrong. Real combat has less of both, because when you have bullets humming above your head, you don't really care about autumn leaves.
Game explosions look ok, with solid clouds of dust and dirt, but they do not linger long enough. Having more dust cover and obscure everything would have made the ruined battleground look far more believable. World scenery is quite decent, but again, there are too many details, more than in the real world.
|The in-game explosions are fairly realistic, with a decent amount of smoke and dust lingering after the blast; alas, not for too long|
Still, the very decent detail level, combined with excellent performance on my machine and somewhat realistic effects, Modern Warfare 2 does offer a very enjoyable level of visual entertainment. The Hollywood connection does creep in, but it does not impose in this regard.
Probably the worst bit of the game is the childish inclusion of the "No Russian" mission. As an infiltrator into a Russian terror group, you join them in the massacre of civilians at an airport. Apart from adding a few extra bytes of data into the 12GB bundle, the mission has one goal: controversy generates revenue.
The concept is a timeless one: shock the audience, so they mistake shock for quality. This is the same thing that Spielberg does in Saving Private Ryan, a rather mediocre movie overall. He pours some 500 tons of plastic intestines onto the audience and depicts the horror of war in such shallow, condescending terms that it really does a disgrace to men who served and fought in the war. But the director pulls the classic trick well and manages to hide the movie's bland plot behind a screen of blood. People, who have no basic idea what real combat looks like, take the gore at face value and mistake quantity for quality.
Modern Warfare 2 reuses the technology of awe in the same fashion. The airport massacre scene is nothing but silly. While you have people preach about horror, disgust and the true nature of men, I see none of those. I see a marketing stunt bent so hard until it breaks.
To justify their decision even more, the game developers ran an experiment where random people were asked to complete the mission. And it seems that everyone chose to partake in the shooting, even though you can finish the episode without firing even a single bullet. Such is the human nature, they claimed.
Well, for one, I was not tempted to fire at the crowds at the airport. I did not feel any killing urge. I was not swayed. It is quite possible that if you're an average, mundane, mediocre person then you may do what everyone else does around you without thinking, but it only shows how stupid people are rather than glorify the game quality. If you're an idiot and feel like shooting into a crowd of unarmed people, even if they're nothing but pixels on your screen, then you have an issue that goes beyond playing a game that might somehow, accidentally expose your inner whatever. The herd behavior, Psychology 101, not.
You can read more about this controversy on Wikipedia. For me, the "No Russian" mission was turd de cream. It lowered my opinion about the game by a whole notch, if only because of the in-your-face, let-us-dazzle you effect.
There isn't much, really. You get very decent physics, matched to explosions and weapon ballistics, but it does not go beyond that. Combat encounters take place at very short distances, no more than 50 meters at best. Even when sniping, you shoot at close range, far from being a support unit far off the battlefield. Knife throwing is supremely exaggerated as a skill, especially in the last mission. Firing any kind of missiles, like RPG or Stinger, is a joke.
Injuries are only temporary. You experience sort of redouts, kind of blood drops splattered across your vision, but you heal very quickly, within seconds. It takes quite a bit of flak to bring you down. No such thing as one bullet one kill, at least not on your end.
Enemy bots will perform wild stunts, curse at you in Portuguese, dash down the alleys and whatnot, but their erratic behavior is merely scripted action. Don't expect any initiative on behalf of any of the AI characters, since there isn't any. The linear, boxed plot will make combat extremely predictable.
AI units will do all kinds of moves and tricks, intended to simulate realistic physical behavior, but your own body won't do any of that. You will still be restricted by the classic AWSD motion. There's no prone position either, which shows how realistic the game really aims to be.
|Some of the missions are rigged in such a way that you will be forced to pick enemy weapons and use their special thermal sights to shoot foes through fog and smoke; yet another forced element for the sake of showing off the graphics and the game capabilities rather than contributing to anything meaningful|
You can also carry far more weapons and ammunition that any normal soldier would. A typical load is 600 rounds, which are conveniently depleted in non-realistic quantums smaller than clips, plus a load of grenades of all kinds. Some of the guns in the game are equipped with futuristic thermal and heartbeat sensor targeting devices, which chip the facade of realism a bit further.
Not all is bad. Far from it. Modern Warfare 2 is a very enjoyable arcade. It just isn't a very realistic or believable war simulator or even a first person shooter.
Firing Hellfire missiles from a Predator drone is one of the cooler, more unique features of the game. In a number of missions, you're given a control unit, which looks like an ordinary laptop, allowing you to control the unmanned vehicle on station and fire missiles against enemy units.
It's not all reality, of course. For one thing, enemy units are clearly marked in red rectangles, an IFF luxury that troops in the real world cannot afford. Second, you steer missiles by hand, kind of like 60s-era anti-tank guided weapons rather than let the rounds home on pre-selected targets. Second, the explosions from Predator missiles are simply massive, equivalent to JDAM rather than Hellfire.
I did like one particular mission where a bunch of enemy soldiers were huddling close to our position. I chose to fire a missile despite the proximity. The effect was spectacular, including all of us rolling on the ground, dazzled and confused by the blast, with blood spattered all over the place. Too bad the injuries in the game are only very temporary, it could have been a classic case of friendly fire.
|A Russian nuke on its ballistic trajectory toward Washington, seen as a bright dot on the right side of the screen; can't figure why it's glowing, since the warhead will only heat up when reentering the atmosphere|
As you progress in the campaign, you're exposed to all kinds of cools gadgets and weapons. The array of small arms is impressive. You can lay down Claymores. And you also experience some high-speed chases with boats, snow jet skis a-la John McLane in Die Hard 2 and even underwater commando action. And there's even a nuke blast in the game. If you play the game for the sake of playing, you will enjoy the display of weaponry.
Yes, End result. The Modern Warfare 2 singleplayer campaign might work for kids, but any serious fan of first person shooter will be disappointed. The campaign is too linear, too restrictive and too short. The game looks well and plays ok, but you won't be tempted to try it twice.
After completing the campaign, you can start playing special operations. These missions are, in a nutshell, a replay of critical parts of various campaign episodes. Missions have an objective, usually a number of enemy units that need to be killed. Each successful mission gives you stars, depending on the difficulty level you chose. Eventually, new levels of missions are unveiled, some of which are played in a partial multiplayer-like mode.
Overall, I found Special OPS rather boring and somewhat confusing. The stars method makes it all the more childish. Then, the semi-multiplayer feature is not quite trivial. Unlike most typical shooters, which feature a classic server-client setup and offer a server lobby for creating multiplayer matches, Modern Warfare 2 requires that you play with a Steam account.
This makes any attempts to practice LAN games confusing. Furthermore, if you don't have any friends readily available to join in you in the Special OPS missions, you won't be able to complete some of the missions and you will reach a stalemate in your progress.
I did not feel tempted to try the multiplayer mode, I must admit. The lukewarm excitement of the campaign and the somewhat convoluted Special OPS features carried over into the multiplayer mode did not inspire me with enough zeal to take on other people online. Considering the overall nature of the game, I doubt that Modern Warfare has any kind of even semi-serious crowd of followers.
The fact you get all kinds of bonus packages, like paradrops of weapons, Predator strikes and such based on the number of kills you score only makes it all the more childish and laughable. What more, reading online, I found that many people are angered by the new game matching system used instead of the dedicated server model. All combined, there's nothing in Call of Duty multiplayer that made me burn my bandwidth.
Overall, Modern Warfare 2 is a nice distraction. For a week or so throughout the short campaign, you will be amused, with never a too challenging moment that might somehow be interpreted as too difficult or too realistic for the soft souls of the modern gamer. You will play it once, like watching a typical action movie, and then shelf it forever.
It's Delta Force meets Max Payne, sans Max Payne's gritty mood. After all, I did play Max Payne campaign some ten times or so. The graphics is very decent, the game plays well, but it has no critical mass of pain and realism that is essential in first person shooters. It's a movie translated into a computer game, as simple as that.
There's one good thing though. Since the game is so easy, you can easily give it to older people. For example, I gave the game away to my father, who is also a first person shooter fan, but does not have the skill of your average leet gamer. He should find the laid-back pace, the linear progress and the simple, undemanding play ideal. So to sum it up, Modern Warfare 2 is the perfect first person shooter for senior citizens. If I had to grade it, it would go as follows: Game story 2/10, graphics 10/10, realism 1/10, fun 6/10, overall impression 4/10. There you go. I hope you enjoyed this review.