Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is one of the good ones. Call of Duty is an uneasy series with plenty of ups and downs, but with 2019’s Modern Warfare reboot, it felt like the series had a strong launchpad to reinvent the wheel that has carried Activision along since 2007’s release of the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
This year’s entry – as you might guess from the name – is the direct sequel to that 2019 hit and it’s exciting to be able to say that across Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer, spec ops co-op mode and campaign, it’s not afraid to try new things. Most of these work and change things in interesting ways, while others don’t come together as well as they could.
Still, despite Modern Warfare 2 feeling a little more “live service” than most, with content clearly being held back for regular release, this could be the best value AAA release of the year. The fully featured multiplayer nestles in alongside a six-hour campaign and three co-op missions hint at an exciting third pillar for Modern Warfare 2, if Activision is willing to build it up. With this much Call of Duty in the air, it’s just a couple of Santa hat cosmetics away from being Christmas for shooter fans.
Modern Warfare 2’s campaign feels like a huge step up for Call of Duty campaigns. The campaign comprises about six hours of hectic blasting, with several short missions that focus on a single set piece: you’ll infiltrate a dock in Amsterdam, shoot your way through a Mexican prison and rain down fire from above using an AC-130 gunship, but rarely are you ever in a mission for long enough to get bored of its core conceit.
Some of these land better than most. The mission ‘Alone’ has you playing a lone operative after a situation has gone sideways, which works better narratively than mechanically and never quite comes together. Meanwhile, one mission where you chase a target across the Mexican border and into smalltown America feels, despite some icky politics, like a pulse-pounding scene straight out of Sicario. The big difference from previous Call of Duty games is that you’re now given a lot more control: a sniper mission recalls series classic ‘All Ghillied Up’, but actually works better as you’re given more freedom on how and when to shoot enemies. You’re also able to move without triggering some invisible flag that will make your life that much harder.
If the campaign has one big selling point over previous years’, it’s that now you’re making the big calls as the player rather than merely doing what you’re told by a series of shouty NPCs. The NPCs still shout, but you’re allowed to use your own intelligence a little bit and the game is all the better for it.
Honestly, a lot of the campaign feels more like it’s training you for Warzone 2, which releases on November 16. Heavily armoured enemies can be “broken” with the same icon and sound from Activision’s battle royale game, while in later levels you insert armour plates and scavenge for supplies, core parts of the Warzone experience. This isn’t necessarily a negative, although these walking tanks grate a little bit as you pump an entire magazine of low-calibre submachine gun bullets into them with no effect.
The low point of the whole thing is a boss fight that has an enemy sitting in a tank, chatting nonsense to you and driving in a lazy circle as you try to stick C4 to it, all while waves of enemies meander in. They feel more like distractions than well trained troops, and if even the AI fighting you doesn’t want to be there, what hope does the player have?
However, most of the game’s big set pieces land, backed up by strong performances from the core cast. It’s not well written, but the tone is spot on. This is a team of soldiers who genuinely care for each other, delivering every line of dialogue like an epitaph as they chew up enemies and scenery alike.
These relationships are one of the more exciting parts of the whole thing. It’s been three years since the events of Modern Warfare, which lead to the founding of Task Force 141 off-screen. In the time since we’ve last seen them, these soldiers have bonded. They seem to have different relationships with each other: CIA agent Laswell appears to share genuine friendship and respect with Captain Price, while the more junior Gaz spends most of his conversations gently needling her. The only character that doesn’t really work for me is the return of fan-favourite Ghost, who still delivers a top-notch performance but feels out of place in this new, more realistic Modern Warfare universe as he appears at all times in a full-face skull mask and gloves, like a 14-year-old playing soldier in the coolest outfit he can think of.
Supporting turns from several characters come across well, too, and one interrogation scene with drug lord El Sin Nombre feels more like something out of a film than a game. An after-credits scene capping off the campaign firmly establishes that cinematic feel, but also hints at what’s next for the franchise with a lovely bit of fan service.
There’s also no denying how amazing the little details can be. During a scene in which one character betrays you, their name changes from blue in the subtitles to red, a tiny detail that’s a masterstroke. It’s easy to miss, but paired with the delivery in the cutscene itself it’s another indicator that your former ally is a dickhead now, and another nice touch from a campaign full of them.
I’ve spent so long playing the Modern Warfare reboot, and I think the storyline is a little weaker than Modern Warfare’s, although the set pieces here are much stronger and as a result I’ve enjoyed my time with it a little more. On a replay, these missions often don’t have the same level of shine, and it’s hard to imagine many will want to go back and replay the whole thing.
I’m not sure if I ever expect a Call of Duty to really discuss its own gross politics, but it does seem to be poking at the American military-industrial complex a little here. The game warns of the dangers while also glorifying it with extrajudicial killings and a scene where you de-escalate a confrontation with civilians by pointing guns at them until they get scared and back off. It’s grim, but the same as it has ever been.
Call of Duty’s main event, Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer, is excellent. The time-to-kill and how it feels to play mirrors 2019’s sublime Modern Warfare, while the game sprinkles in a few new tricks to keep things fresh. Despite how enjoyable it is, though, a confusing progression system, watered-down camo unlocks and an occasionally abhorrent respawn system prevents it from being an all-time entry into the series.
Modern Warfare 2 impresses in three distinct ways: the fidelity, the way movement feels and the gunplay. It’s a stunning game, and explosions or sustained fighting tends to leave a sort of haze in the air. There’s something that feels very immersive about lining a shot up from behind a wall before a cruise missile drops from the sky and covers the whole area with dust and dirt, making it hard to engage accurately. Everyone’s in the same boat though, and it feels like it takes you right out of the action, blinking a few times along with everyone else before the battle rages on.
Unfortunately, in several areas the colour palette is so muted it’s hard to spot enemies until it’s too late. I’ve noticed this leading to a lot more camping, helped by the reintroduction of Modern Warfare’s mounting mechanic, letting you lock into walls for better cover and less recoil when you’re firing. The result is that you learn to check your corners as you move through areas, which feels antithetical to the breakneck pace but is essential if you want to survive long enough to earn your killstreaks. A small red diamond floats over the head of enemies, but this is used sparingly so you’ll be using your regular eyeballs trying to pick out grey enemies against a grey background. It’s not a perfect method.
It’s hard to be too annoyed though, because the movement feels smooth and encourages creativity. A big push in Modern Warfare 2 towards aquatic combat means that you’ll often dive into water to skirt around enemies, and the first time you slide underwater and return fire from below the water is exceptional. And brave players willing to scramble across rooftops or slide under obstacles will find a lot of routes tucked away by the map designers in some interesting places.
The maps are hit-and-miss. One set at the border crossing between the United States and Mexico is a particular highlight, with a middle lane filled with explosive cars and close-quarters gunfights that can be avoided by climbing on top of the cars and exposing yourself to everyone in the middle area. These are flanked by two side roads and some corridors that thread through it and it’s a map that feels like it has a lot of different options. Meanwhile, each time I have to play Taraq I scream in anguish. My feelings on the maps might change over time as I play more and learn their flow, but the biggest issue for me is that a combination of wide-open sight lines on a few maps with some predictable spawns means you can get slotted again and again by the same player and it can be frustrating.
When it works though – and it works most of the time – strap in for some phenomenal firefights. Shotguns are powerful, sniper rifles are still godless killing machines, but take the Kastov 762 assault rifle for a spin and it’ll chew through enemies and even the starting pistol bucks and cracks with every shot. If you really like shooting games, this is how you want guns to feel. It’s not Escape From Tarkov – it’s much too quick for that – but it feels incredible when you pick the game up, whether you’re ducking in for a quick round or… eight hours with a collection of NME current and former staffers in the middle of your weekend.
The perks system has been completely revamped: you now choose a selection of four perks, two of which you’re given at the start, and the latter two you earn during the match. This means that previously essential perks are now flagged as ultimate perks, while other perks are available to you earlier in a match.
Ground War returns and still feels like a slightly worse version of Battlefield, but the Invasion mode – a flat remake of Titanfall 2’s Attrition mode – drops you into the bigger Ground War maps and fills the place with AI, human players and vehicles and airdrops dropping all around you. Everything you kill has a points value, with killstreaks and human players being the highest earners. Then you just go wild. It’s excellent and a nice change to the 6v6 mode that’s actually worth playing. Some matches I would grab a vehicle and chew through advancing AI opponents, whereas in others I would grab a sniper rifle and head to the roof, picking off other players and marking enemies for my team with a recon drone.
This, in addition to the game’s co-op Spec Ops mode, all feeds into your multiplayer level. Sadly, the unlocks system in Modern Warfare 2 is so confusing that it’s one of the biggest barriers to enjoyment in the game. To get your hands on the Lachmann Sub, you’ll need to play with the Lachmann 7.62 – a battle rifle – and Lachmann 5.56 – an assault rifle – before you can play with the submachine gun. This is quite a time investment, and because all of your attachments are unlocked from different weapons in different classes, you can be in a situation where the torch you want to put on your assault rifle will need you to get scores of kills with a shotgun. To get all of the attachments for a gun you enjoy using, you have to use a bunch of guns you don’t enjoy. It’s frustrating.
The Gunsmith 2.0 system is a pretty beefy change to the system, and bigger changes are now handled by changing out the receiver and essentially making the weapon into a different gun. I’m still on the fence about this, mostly because of all the time you spend using guns you don’t want to use to make the weapon you want better. It also speaks to a lack of depth. The AK47, to take an example from the 2019 Modern Warfare, could be converted into an AK47SU, an RPK or a variety of other different weapons. Here, in Modern Warfare 2, these are all different weapons that are easy to get to max level. This makes progression feel flatter, and as I write this – four days after Modern Warfare 2’s launch – people are already tooling around with shiny golden guns, which used to be a reward for completing a score of different challenges.
There’s a similar approach to the camouflage unlocks for the guns. The game’s camo system, which has traditionally seen you unlocking a series of camos for different weapons, now lets you unlock four camos for each weapon, allowing you to mix and match them.
Some core parts of the experience are also missing. Hardcore mode has been renamed Tier 1 mode and will be released a little later. A map from the beta doesn’t seem to have arrived yet, and there’s the distinct sense that there’s a heap of content from the game that has been made but is being held back to release over the coming months.
What’s here though, even if I don’t agree with every change, is a top-notch game. I often complain that AAA games don’t take enough risks, and here the formula for a successful Call of Duty has been played with and systems that might have seemed set in stone – like the perks system that has seen barely a tweak since 2007 – have been mixed up. The game is good here, even if the clear transition to prepare Modern Warfare 2’s position as a live service game and companion to the forthcoming Warzone 2 puts a few cracks in its veneer. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is still the best big-budget shooter this year, and I can’t imagine I’ll be putting time into many other multiplayer games this side of Christmas. I’m not sure I can make a bigger recommendation than that.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a top-notch shooter with a fun campaign and solid multiplayer offering. The shootouts are sublime and it feels great to play. If you’re going to pick up one multiplayer game this year, there’s a good argument that it should be this one. The reworked perks system and changes to the gunsmith mode show that Infinity Ward and the other developers working on Modern Warfare 2 still understand what makes Call of Duty tick, and it’s a pleasure to watch them work.
- Smooth gunplay
- Fun campaign
- Beautiful graphics
- An intensity that few manage to match
- Respawn system can lead to you getting spawnkilled relentlessly
- Complicated progression for multiplayer
- Gunsmithing not as varied as Modern Warfare’s