Being one of the most anticipated titles of the year has to be tough, especially when you’re a sequel.  People expect you to be bigger, better, more exciting, and most important of all, just different enough from your predecessor to be a unique experience and still capture the excitement of the previous game.  Combine that with expectations that are sky-high thanks to an incredible original game, and you’ve got one heck of a tough time ahead of you.

 

Fortunately for all of us that have been waiting so patiently for a Modern Warfare sequel, Infinity Ward and Activision are the team that was presented with this challenge.  Suffice it to say that they have succeeded in every way possible in this outstanding game.  Not only have they created another masterpiece of a single player game, they’ve also managed to continue their string of nearly perfect titles and even came up with a co-op experience that adds a whole new dimension to gameplay.

As you would expect from Infinity Ward, the graphics are rock solid.  Using their proprietary IW 4.0 engine to create the look of Modern Warfare 2 (MW2), they were able to make huge strides since the first Modern Warfare.  While the original was beautiful, this latest version is absolutely stunning.  All the characters are fully modeled in 3D, with realistic movement and death animations.  In many titles of the FPS genre, there is a distinct difference between a character’s normal movement and their actions when they are killed.  You’ll see normal movement until the character takes a fatal hit, then there’s a pause or hitch in the animation before they enter their death animation.  While all of it may be rendered with a sophisticated physics model, the pause between the two actions always seems jerky and unrealistic and pulls you out of the moment.  This isn’t the case with MW2 at all, and its yet another detail that makes this title stand out so well.

 

This is one of the many detail areas that the developer paid special attention to, and it has paid off in a big way.  Whenever a character is injured or killed, they move logically and smoothly from their normal movements and begin collapsing, depending on where and how they were hit.

 

The levels in Modern Warfare 2 have also benefited greatly from the new game engine.  Each one of the environments is much larger and contains an incredible amount of detail.  A Brazilian shanty town, known as a Favela, is the setting for several of the game’s most impressive levels.  Ask any infantryman their worst combat nightmare, and invariably they’ll tell you its urban warfare.  The Favela magnifies this a thousand times by having tons of narrow alleys, open balconies, windows, and level after level of open rooftops, making for perfect ambush sites and sniping points.  Playing through the Favela will have you constantly checking your six, wondering where that latest burst of gunfire came from.  This truly brings home the tension of house to house fighting, and stands as a testament to the ability of Infinity Ward to craft such an amazing experience.

A top-tier game like MW2 needs the highest production values in every facet, and the sound quality is no exception.  The voice work deserves especially high praise, as Infinity Ward spared no expense in recruiting actors with distinctive voices that can really deliver a great performance.  One of the first voices you’ll recognize is that of Keith David, who plays the Army Sergeant that you’re teamed up with for much of the single player campaign.  You’ll probably recognize Mr. David’s distinctive voice as Captain Anderson in Mass Effect or the Imam from the movie Pitch Black.

 

Lance Henriksen joins the cast as the voice of Colonel Shepard, the titular leader of Task Force 141, the Special Ops team that your character becomes a member of.  You’ll probably recognize him as Bishop in Aliens or Admiral Hackett in Mass Effect.  Rounding out the big name actors in MW2 is Barry Pepper, who played Private Jackson in Saving Private Ryan.

 

As stellar as the voice acting is, the rest of the sound work in MW2 is equally impressive.  As a USMC combat veteran, I can tell you from personal experience that all the weapon sound effects are spot on.  From the way the .50 cal Barrett sniper rifle sounds when fired to the way an M4 sounds when you chamber a round, everything is absolutely perfect.  The environmental sound effects shine also; during one level you are tasked with infiltrating an enemy base during a blizzard.  As you sneak around the base performing various missions, you can hear the howl of the wind get louder as the storm intensifies, and even hear the chain link fences rattling in the gusts.  This level of detail is just amazing, and is truly a credit to the amount of detail that developers put into this game.

 

Not to be outdone, Hans Zimmer’s score is incredible, with every melody fitting the current level and situation.  The Brazilian Favela level, for example, has more of a Latin rhythm and fast-paced feel, while the slower paced blizzard level has a haunting score that truly reflects the tension involved with this mission.

Working from the premise that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” Infinity Ward has left the control scheme from the previous Modern Warfare virtually unchanged.  While you can customize the controls to suit your individual preferences, the default layout is still to tap Square to reload your current weapon, hit Circle once to crouch/standup and hold it to go prone, and hit Triangle to swap weapons.  These controls worked perfectly well in the previous title, and continue to work well in their latest effort.

 

Sniping is also unchanged from the original Modern Warfare, in that you hold down L2 to zoom in and R2 to fire.  Grenades are handled via the upper trigger buttons, with the L1 being your “special” grenade (smoke or flashbang) and R1 tossing a standard fragmentation grenade.  Modern Warfare 2 retains the ability from the previous game to toss any grenades near you back at your enemy using R1, providing you have a quick enough reaction time.

As in the outstanding Call of Duty – Modern Warfare, the single player campaign in MW2 is phenomenal, with production values that rival any mainstream Hollywood production you care to mention.  Picking up the story some five years after the events in the first game, you are again teamed up with “Soap” MacTavish.  No longer the FNG from the first game, Soap is now the leader of his unit and a seasoned Captain.  This time around you’ll be hunting the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Makarov, the protégé of Zakhaev, whom you faced in the first game.  Things are a little different this time around, as Makarov isn’t as warm and fuzzy a personality as Zakhaev was.

 

Much like the first game, your missions take you to different hot spots around the world as you bounce back and forth from MacTavish’s team of British commandos to being the newest member of an elite American group named Task Force 141.  As in Modern Warfare, you are first run through the training gauntlet, racing against the clock and shooting metal terrorist pop-up targets while avoiding killing the innocent civilian targets.  Dependant on your accuracy and time in this stage, the game recommends your difficulty level, but lets you make the final choice.  The good news is that you can change your difficulty level at any time during the game if you feel it’s too easy or too hard.

 

Once you’ve made your choice on the difficulty level, you’re off and running through the single player campaign.  Rather than take the chance for revealing any spoilers to the campaign, let me just say that if you enjoyed the campaign in the first Modern Warfare you’ll be completely blown away by the story that Modern Warfare 2 provides.  Ratcheting up the tension and drama, the campaign takes you from infiltrating a Russian base during a blizzard to chasing a weapons dealer through the slums of Rio de Janeiro.  Toss in a hostage rescue on a floating oil rig and a daring rescue in a Russian gulag, and you’ll begin to see that the action never stops.

 

Infinity Ward took great care to maintain the continuity between the first game and this one, so for those folks that are detail-oriented, you won’t be disappointed.  If you didn’t play through the prior campaign, you need not worry; the story in Modern Warfare 2 stands very well on its own.  Pretty much the only complaint that anyone had about the first Modern Warfare is that the campaign was so short, and this time around it is no different.  Clocking in at around six hours to complete, the single player experience, while excellent, is still very short.

Multiplayer is where MW2 really takes off, especially with the new Special Ops mode.  Special Ops is really an extension of the idea that debuted in the original Modern Warfare with the mission “Mile High Club”.  The Mile High Club level became available after you had completed the single player campaign and was designed as a challenging, timed encounter where you needed to clear the terrorists out of a hijacked airliner.  Players absolutely loved this level and it certainly helped with the inclusion of Special Ops in MW2.

 

In Modern Warfare 2, Special Ops consists of 23 missions spread across 5 tiers, with the player being presented with a myriad of challenges.  Starting with the Alpha tier, five missions are available for play, allowing the player to earn anywhere from one to three “stars”.  Playing through the missions at higher difficulty levels will earn more stars, but be prepared for some tough challenges.  Certain number of stars are required to unlock each of the later tiers, insuring that you master many of the levels before you can advance to new challenges.

 

The missions themselves are fantastic, with a huge variety of objectives.  Missions like O Cristo Redentor are straight survival challenges, where you have to eliminate a fixed number of terrorists while avoiding killing any of the civilians in the area.  Quick reflexes and good target identification is the key to succeeding at this challenge.  Other missions include remakes of the original Modern Warfare’s levels.  The classic All Ghillied Up has become Hidden, where you’re expected to make your way across the fields outside Chernobyl to your extraction point, all while evading hordes of snipers looking to stop you.  Death From Above has become Overwatch, where you have the choice of playing as the gunner in the AC-130 or the lonely soldier on the ground that the gunner is trying to protect and escort across the map.

 

With the exception of Overwatch and Big Brother, all the Special Operations missions can be played solo but the fun really begins when you play through them co-op.  Cooperative play ratchets up the gameplay and rewards players that work well together.  Missions like Sniper Fi require you to survive wave after wave of aggressors and really test your FPS skills.  Playing through it on co-op with several friends still requires a lot of skill, but also brings into play many new strategies, as you can set up crossfires and ambushes to help insure your survival.

 

The developers even added in the ability to play most of the game modes in a 3rd person view.  While this is restricted to private matches and requires everyone to play in a 3rd person view, it certainly does provide for a change of pace.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this added much value to the title.  This mode of play ended up changing the feel of the game so much that it made it seem like it was tacked on as an afterthought, and really didn’t live up to the high quality of the rest of the game.

 

The crowning glory of Modern Warfare 2 is the multiplayer modes, and this game has a ton of them.  There are eight different types of multiplayer and sixteen different multiplayer maps. All the usual suspects are present; Free-For-All, Team Deathmatch, Domination, Capture the Flag, they’re all here and they’re fantastic.  In Sabotage, one team is tasked with placing explosives on different strategic objectives, and then defends the bomb until it goes off.  The other team has to protect these objectives and defuse the bomb in time once it is placed.  There is a limited time to complete your task, and once the timer is up you switch sides.  The defenders now have to place the bombs while the other team tries to defend those same objectives.

 

All of the multiplayer modes are fast-paced and a blast to play.  Another strong piece of gameplay in multiplayer is the amount of customization available.  Every weapon in the game can be “leveled up” the more you use it.  This allows for weapon upgrades in the form of everything from upgraded sights to expanded magazines.  Weapon upgrades aren’t just achieved by generic kills though; you can be required to do everything from performing a certain number of headshots to killing three enemies with one grenade.  With more than thirty weapons to choose from, this amount of customization makes the stellar multiplayer even better.

 

The most brilliant piece of customization has to be the ability to personalize your kill streak perks.  In prior Call of Duty games, you were awarded kill streak perks; get three kills in a row without dying and you could summon a UAV to scan the area and let your team know where they enemies are located.  Get five kills in a row without dying and you were awarded with an air strike, a surefire way to rack up a ton of kills in a short time.

 

In Modern Warfare 2, you can customize what your kill streak perks are and to some extent what order they come in.  The developers have also extended the kill streak awards; instead of topping out at five kills, you are now able to get new perks all the way up to twenty-five kills.  The big daddy of them all, the tactical nuclear strike, becomes available if you have enough skill to get that twenty-five kills in a row without dying.  Of course, deploying a nuclear weapon ends the round immediately, but damn if it isn’t an impressive way to go!!

 

Your multiplayer character also levels up, with seventy being the highest level that you can attain.  Along the way you will achieve new ranks, insignias, and titles that reflect your style of gameplay.  Between the hundreds of titles you can earn, the seventy levels, and the weapon customization that’s earned through extensive gameplay, you won’t be running out of things to do any time soon.

Perhaps the greatest feat that Infinity Ward has performed is not only living up to the hype of Modern Warfare 2, but actually exceeding it.  Yet another spellbinding story to play through, a multiplayer experience that is, amazingly enough, even better than the first one, and the addition of Special Operations co-op play, and you just can’t understate how incredible this game is.  Be prepared to hear “and the Game of the Year award goes to Modern Warfare 2” several times over the coming year!

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