Platform reviewed on: PC
Following up 2007's widely acclaimed Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is by no means an easy task for developer Infinity Ward. We're talking about a game that made the top five of most publications game of the year ranks, with many number one spots and over 13 million units sold, a number that will no doubt continue to spear on with the bargain price-points of recent weeks. It brought a bold new take to an already hugely successful World War II franchise, putting the polish instead on the modern battlefield. The same formula that had made the first two such a smash hit, but with the likes of laser sights, night-vision goggles, Javelin missiles and the memorable AC-130 gunship. All packaged in was a great storyline with some eerily immersive sequences, some of the best visuals in the business and a full-featured multiplayer component - one that has enjoyed a good couple of years as a competitive staple.
So have they topped that? In a word, no. But that bar was set very high and there's a lot of room left under it for what can still be called a good game. Modern Warfare 2 does plenty of little things better than its predecessor but is unfortunately marred by one incredibly bad decision which I'll get to later on. First, let's try and focus on the good stuff.
Modern Warfare 2's story continues the tale from the first game. It's five years later and it seems much of your efforts in CoD4 were for naught - political tensions between the US and Russia are extremely volatile and one Vladimir Makarov has stepped in to fill the shoes of the new big bad terrorist - bent on sparking conflict between the super powers. You're treated to a cinematic style intro that sets the tone for the game - every bit as a top-shelf Hollywood film production and the tale that unfolds after is appropriately engaging.
As the player, you start the journey out in the boots of a US Army Ranger stationed in Afghanistan. It's here where game shows you the basics, offering brief instruction for combat before letting you loose in the shooting gallery - standard fare for story-driven shooters these days, but well-executed here nonetheless. Following that, you're on your way and once the action starts, it basically doesn't stop until the end credits are rolling. From start to finish at a moderate pace it should clock a little shy of six hours for most people, about the same as the first game - a bit short for this kind of game, but it's so well told that it probably deserves multiple play-throughs. The pacing could be likened to the Crank
films - a series of over-the-top high-octane events that barely let you catch your breath in between.
As part of the Call of Duty lineage of course, you play as multiple characters telling parts of the story from different perspectives. There's a few familiar faces and good callback moments, but it's let-down a little by not introducing any new memorable characters - or at least not any that we'll get to see more of in the future. Progression through the game is fuelled by well-groomed mission objectives and scripted action sequences and they've brewed up with dozens of new and interesting environments with new combat situations and weapons and vehicles to both use and do battle against. The novelty of some of wow-factor elements from the first game have worn off a bit, but there's still plenty of surprises in-store.
Full credit goes to the IW guys for those gorgeous environments. Highlights include US suburbia, complete with fast food restaurant; Washington DC and the Whitehouse in ruins; a WWII-era Russian gulag prison and the very controversial Airport terminal. A quick note on that last one, the pre-release media attention centered around that particular mission was undeservedly overblown and the scene in which it is featured is an integral part of the game's plot. That said, in this reviewers opinion, this is not a game that persons under 18 should be playing; Australia's MA15+ rating seems far too lenient in this instance - but that's debate for another day.
Graphically, it's another step-up from CoD 4. For PC though, perhaps not as big a step as two years of extra R&D time should be, but that's really par for the course in this console-focused world - at least it stops us having to upgrade so frequently. Having played both Xbox 360 and PC versions however, I'll attest that as good as it looks on console, the higher resolutions afforded by PC make it unquestionably superior visually. Platform comparisons aside though, Modern Warfare 2 is one of the hottest looking titles available today. Character animations and the many technical effects we modern gamers takes for granted are all superbly executed.
Once you've exhausted the storyline, you can then continue to play solo in the new challenge mode entitled Special Ops
. Here you play through an assortment of structured challenges, mostly built on short sections taken from the story mode. They get tougher as you progress and unlike the story allow you to play cooperative with a friend. For some reason, they tried to tie them together with a storyline, but it's really weak so let's just pretend they didn't. For those that like a bit of repetitive punishment, or just a good challenge, Special Ops could add a good many hours of game.
Now on to real multiplayer and the unfortunate point of contention for PC gamers. As most of you are no doubt aware, Modern Warfare 2 - unlike it's predecessor and every other PC Call of Duty game for that matter - does not include dedicated server support. For those not familiar with the terminology, this means that rather than every player in a game connecting to a single powerful purpose built server that acts as a central point of communication for all data sent back and forth from players, the players instead connect to each other, with one player becoming the unwitting host connection.
This has many unfortunate ill-effects. First and foremost, connection quality is rarely going to be as good as those enjoyed from the likes of dedicated servers hosted by Australian ISP's like BigPond's GameArena and Internode's Games On Net, those servers are run on powerful hardware with bandwidth far in excess of the regular consumer. Secondly, without them those providers can't offer unmetered data to their customers and if you're unwittingly chosen as the host - particularly if your Internet provider also meters upload data, your gaming time is going to be making bigger dents in your monthly download caps.
Another big issue for me personally is what it does to the sense of the game's community. I admit I'm probably biased on this point since my employment with AusGamers was a direct result of years of gaming with the guys that pay my salary - people I may never have met had it not been for those late nights on PowerUp Quake and Quake 2 CTF dedicated servers. With dedicated servers, it's a trivial task to do a quick check and see who's playing and jump in the same game as them. You get to know people that frequent the same servers and rivalries, friendships and communities form. With the peer to peer model, it's still easy enough to play with friends already on your list but everyone else is just a random seed. Sure, this is how console platforms have done things for a long time and they're used to it (arguably because they know no better), but for PC stalwarts it's really not good enough.
Lastly, no dedicated servers for Modern Warfare 2 also means no more modding so we're not likely to see anything like pro mod - leaving tournament play to rely only on the features provided by IW out of the box. It's not like it was a trivial matter for Infinity Ward, they've had to create the IWNET system specifically for this purpose. As for why? The official word is that it's too hard for new players to figure out how to join a server from an in-game browser list. Nothing to do with the fact that the only way for players to get new maps and content now is to pay for downloadable content, right? It's not like it's even going to do much to stop cheating - instead of Punkbuster, MW2 now uses Valve Anti-Cheat, but without dedicated servers there's no localised moderation so the community has no ability to police itself.
No matter where you purchase the game from, you'll still need to activate with Steam and once you do that, the game is tied to your Steam account just as if you had bought it from Steam in the first place. Now I'm not sure of the technicalities on that, but I presume this effectively knocks out the secondhand market for the game. Who is going to want to buy a disc that is linked to someone elses Steam account? For no good reason they've also removed the drop-down console for PC users that like to type in their in-game commands. The game is in complete lock-down, the ultimate consolification.
With that out of the way, I'd love nothing more than to be able to tell you all that Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer totally blows. Tragically however, that's not the case - it's still ridiculously fun. My experience in the last two days (while playing on a gigabit fibre connection I might add) has included: not being able to locate any multiplayer matches for the first half of launch day (I suspect this was a firewall issue), about five complete drop-outs mid-game, about a dozen games that were completely unplayable due to peer lag, nary a single game without any
noticeable lag and countless occurrences of being killed when I was safely around a corner, only to see the kill-cam show that I wasn't around the corner at all in my assailant's version of the game. Despite all of that, I still found myself hastily clicking on for the next game.
Everything we loved about Call of Duty 4's vanilla multiplayer is back in-spades with a multitude of tweaks, additions and improvements that do admittedly overwhelm the connectivity sufferings - at least for the short term. Without mods and user-maps it's not going to enjoy the kind of longevity its predecessor has but as a base game, it really does have the goods. The system of perks, killstreak bonuses and deathstreaks have been fleshed out to offer some cool improvements and the weapon and equipment load out offers some great variety depending on how you like to play. All of these elements are progressively unlocked as you reach various milestones through continued play.
There's at least a dozen multiplayer maps included out of the box and a wide selection of game-types including free-for-all, team deathmatch, capture the flag, domination, search and destroy and demolition. The lack of dedicated servers now limits PC multiplayer games to a maximum of 18 players, admittedly not a huge issue given the size of the included maps. Some game-types are also restricted until you have attained to a certain level of progression, quite annoying if you don't want to have to play dozens of deathmatch games just to unlock capture the flag.
All told Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 does have a whole lot to offer any first person shooter fan. Singleplayer might be a tad brief, but it's still a wild ride. Multiplayer might be plagued by connection issues and lack real longevity but there's still enough depth out of the box to hold interest for a reasonable amount of time. I'd love to say that it's at least worth a rental, but given that it requires Steam activation to play, that's probably not going to be an option. My best recommendation is that if you think you can't live without the game I've just described, then at least try and source the cheapest option so you don't feel too burned every time you get shot around a corner.