Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a huge success, selling more copies than any of the franchise’s previous installments combined. As one would expect, the publisher wished to further capitalize on this triumph. Infinity Ward had recruited Jesse Stern, a writer and executive producer of the American procedural drama, NCIS, three years prior during development of their 2007 hit, impressing him with the scope of its narrative. With him on board, the team set out to make a sequel to Call of Duty 4 with the goal of including even more shocking twists and ensuring the experience they created would leave an indelible impact on the medium. After much speculation from both the gaming press and consumers, the project was completed in 2009 under the name, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” turning the subtitle its predecessor bore into a subseries within the franchise.
Playing the Game
As hinted by its name, Modern Warfare 2 is part of a subgenre known as the modern military shooter. That is, the game depicts entirely fictional events which take place in modern day – it may be a few years in the future from the game’s original release date, but it’s usually never more than ten. Because the Call of Duty franchise is known for taking a more realistic approach than classic first-person shooters, you can only carry two weapons at a time, and your speed is that of a normal human. It’s recommended to take cover when fighting, for there is no body armor or any other means of reducing the damage you take.
If you get hit too often, the screen will take on a red hue and drops of blood will appear on the screen. Should this happen, you need to find a safe spot where you’re out of your enemies’ line of fire. If you take too much damage in this state, you will die and have to start over from the last checkpoint. Once the screen returns to normal, you can resume fighting as normal.
Already, we have run into this game’s first problem. Normally, I wouldn’t complain about a cosmetic change, but the drops of blood that adorn the screen in this state often make it difficult see where you’re going. I got killed several times taking cover in less-than-ideal locations because the graphics also made it difficult to tell where the gunfire was coming from.
Like its predecessor, Modern Warfare 2 is a mostly linear game where you go in the direction the onscreen compass points and shoot anyone who impedes your progress. The only incentive you have to explore is to find intel laptops, which will unlock an achievement once all of them have been collected. Fortunately, it’s clear the developers of this game knew how to deliver a quality action-oriented experience without being overly indulgent.
It’s far from perfect, however. Call of Duty 4 was exactly as long as it needed to be – that is, it never resorted to filler nor did it feel rushed. Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t have a good balance by comparison; it was noticeably short, making the game feel incomplete when I finished it. Because of this, the campaign of Modern Warfare 2 wasn’t as memorable as that of Call of Duty 4. I admit this concept is difficult to convey without context, but I think this is what happens when a sequel is too similar the installment that directly preceded it; you get something completely functional and technically well-made, but its impact won’t be as profound because, despite the new levels and scenario, you’ve already played the game before you even pressed the button to start it up.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section of this review will contain unmarked spoilers. Skip to the conclusion if you at all interested in playing Modern Warfare 2.
The year 2016 has arrived. A civil war in Russia has concluded with the Ultranationalists ceasing control of the country despite the efforts of the United States Marine Corps and the Special Air Service. Imran Zakhaev, a prominent figurehead of the movement who lost his life in the conflict, was declared a martyr, and his protégé, Vladimir Makarov, has begun a campaign of terrorism across Europe, culminating with a false flag operation on a Russian airport which saw the hundreds of unarmed civilians mercilessly slaughtered. This act successfully prompts the now-highly jingoistic Russian forces to invade the United States having been deceived by Makarov into believing that they were the culprit. From there, things only get worse.
The campaign of Call of Duty 4 was largely self-contained. When the story ended, most of the important loose ends were tied up and which side would ultimately win was deliberately left ambiguous. The introduction of this game states that the enemies you were fighting prevailed, rendering your efforts pointless. While I don’t think overriding a happy ending, or even bittersweet one, is as bad as taking away your accomplishments at the last minute as I’ve seen in certain other games, it’s still not a good way to begin a story.
Fortunately, Modern Warfare 2 continues the trend Call of Duty 4 started in that it feels like a deconstruction of its subgenre despite being arguably more responsible for codifying it than its predecessor. It presents the stereotypical “War on Terror” plot in shades of grey, and the player character is not always in the right. This is demonstrated with this game’s signature scene. “What’s so memorable about it?” you may ask. You get to enact the aforementioned airport massacre yourself, shooting down civilians alongside other terrorists.
This scene sparked innumerable debates on the internet back in 2009 about whether such a scenario should even be included in a video game. Its controversy was such that the developers even allow you to skip the level entirely before it starts, and completing it is not required to unlock all the achievements. Where do I stand? Personally, I don’t think it works. To play devil’s advocate for a brief moment, the narrative paints this scene in an exceedingly negative light, so it’s hardly encouraging violence against innocents. No, I have different problems with this scene. The impression I got is that the narrative is judging you as a person, and that it’s your fault the horrifying events of this game came to pass. If this is the case, then the developers made a common mistake when implementing a scenario with a complex morality: you cannot call the player out for the choices they make if you only give them one option. Sure, you can elect not to shoot any civilians yourself, but it has no effect on the story. What’s worse, you don’t have the option to gun down the terrorists even though doing so would put an end to this game’s conflict before it had a chance to begin. My assessment of this scene is that it could have worked in a non-interactive medium; it failed the minute human feedback became a variable.
That’s not to say that the campaign of Modern Warfare 2 is without its upsides. Like Call of Duty 4, I really enjoyed watching the story unfold from multiple perspectives. The two main storylines follow the U.S. Army Rangers as they fight off the Russian invaders in northern Virginia and the exploits of Task Force 141, a multinational special operations unit whose objective is to eliminate Vladimir Makarov. I found this was an effective way of demonstrating the scope of the conflict. I also enjoyed the evolution of the previous game’s protagonist, “Soap” MacTavish. He is now fully voiced and the captain of a unit within Task Force 141. These portions have you play as a new character: Gary “Roach” Sanderson. After a game of Soap being under the command of Captain Price, it was interesting seeing him in that role and watching his character develop from a third-person perspective.
In spite of a few setbacks, there is a lot to like about the single-player campaign of Modern Warfare 2. It’s just a shame that there is very little satisfying payoff to be found once all is said and done. Contrary to what one might think, it’s not quite the ending I had a problem with; it didn’t help, as Makarov gets away with no form of karmic retribution whatsoever for his monstrous actions, but even before Modern Warfare 3 was announced, I figured it was meant to be a sequel hook – albeit a thinly-veiled one.
When I played through Call of Duty 4, I couldn’t help but notice there were a few instances of the game making you fail through no fault of your own just so the plot could advance the way it was intended. While it is a little jarring, the moments were infrequent enough that they never got annoying. This is not true of Modern Warfare 2. In addition to the airport scene, there was a sequence late in the game that stuck out to me as particularly egregious. This level involves dodging enemy gunfire from all sides, and is extremely difficult – especially because the checkpoint is in an inconvenient location where you’ll get killed if you wait around for more than a few seconds. You are then rewarded for surviving this by getting shot in the head and burned alive.
The problem is that the character who was killed off was the one you were playing as for at least half of the game. I have played games in the past where I could tell the protagonists were in no real danger despite the narrative insisting otherwise, but Modern Warfare 2 proves you can go too far in the other direction. Call of Duty 4 firmly established that anyone could die, and the writers successfully drive home the stakes involved in both games, but when one kills off an important protagonist well into the story’s third act, it makes it difficult to get attached to the characters.
While this trick can be done, the rest of the plot has to be resolved with the survivors – ideally ones who were introduced before the end of the first act. Where Modern Warfare 2 falls short is that you play the rest of the game as Soap. While this isn’t a bad idea on paper, he reprises his role as a silent protagonist when you’re controlling him. At that moment, he ceases being a character in his own right. This means the number of consistent viewpoint characters for the Task Force 141 scenario is, for all intents and purposes, zero. Regardless of the medium, this is not good storytelling. It would be like watching a movie where you were introduced to five protagonists in the prologue only for two new ones to join halfway through the second act and either killing off or completely abandoning the original group, leaving those two characters to finish the plot the former cast had the vested stakes in.
Drawing a Conclusion
Modern Warfare 2 is a textbook token sequel. There was very little evidence which foreshadowed the Ultranationalists’ triumph in Call of Duty 4, so I’m left to believe that they won because Infinity Ward, or more likely their publisher, Activision, wanted to capitalize on their hit with minimal effort. It certainly worked; across various platforms, Modern Warfare 2 eventually moved nearly twenty-three million units (in the middle of an economic recession, no less), surpassing the sales of its predecessor by nearly ten million. Consequently, there’s a distinct possibility this game’s success was the catalyst for the AAA industry’s slow, steady decline in quality. After all, why focus any effort on creating an innovative, novel game and maybe sell a couple thousand copies if you’re lucky when you can paint by the numbers and guarantee that you make your money back and then some? We may even have Modern Warfare 2 to blame for the AAA industry’s increasingly contemptuous business practices considering what happened to the heads of Infinity Ward shortly after this game’s release.
Now the real question is: do I recommend playing it? That’s tough to answer, honestly. Even if you liked Call of Duty 4, there’s a very good chance Modern Warfare 2 will completely lose you whether it’s with its controversial scene or its distinct drop in substance. It’s not bad enough to the point where I thought much worse of the preceding installment once I completed it. Instead, it’s a little more accurate to say that it contributed nothing important to the storyline whatsoever. The ultimate irony of Modern Warfare 2 is how it leaves quite a few plot threads open, yet the sheer amount of twists and turns the story took left me wholly uninterested in seeing how any of them would resolve for the longest time. If nothing else, I can at least conclude that this game does not provide an essential experience, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not it’s worth your time.
Final Score: 4/10