As one of the most critically acclaimed shooters of all time, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a prime example of a tough act to follow. Yet, amidst a raging storm of anticipation and expectation, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has done it. The new campaign is chock-full of intense action and dramatic moments, and though it is more muddled than its predecessor (in more ways than one), it's still an absolute blast. The new Special Ops mode allows you to experience some campaign-inspired thrills with a friend and it's an engaging challenge to coordinate your maneuvers and tackle the varied objectives. Last but not least, the competitive multiplayer that took the online shooter community by storm two years ago is back and better than ever. Though the addictive action remains the same at its core, there are a host of new elements that make it more accessible, more strategic, and more rewarding. This all adds up to a thoroughly excellent package that is sure to thrill shooter fans and deprive them of sleep for months to come.
The campaign picks up where its predecessor left off, and there's a new violent ultranationalist terrorist on the scene. Once again, you play as a few different soldiers who are part of the effort to make the world a safer place. Your missions take you around the world to a number of exotic locations and engage you in a variety of different conflicts, ranging from stealthy and silenced to crowded and cacophonous. The action is smooth and exhilarating, thanks to sharp shooting and movement mechanics that allow you to be as quick and deadly as your skills permit. Environments are well-designed and detailed, though many textures don't look particularly good upon close inspection. Modern Warfare 2 isn't a beautiful game, but it looks great in action. The diverse levels not only provide varied sights, but they are cleverly designed to allow the action to flow at an exciting pace. Opportunities for cover and flanking present themselves naturally, allowing you to move through the battlefield in a variety of fluid ways. The aggressive enemy AI will keep you on your toes, and success is hard-earned and satisfying.
Modern Warfare 2's campaign, like that of its predecessor, is quite short, and you'll likely finish it in about five hours. Though it is disappointing that there isn't more of it, what you do get is a relentless barrage of tight combat and thrilling set pieces. In one early level, you man the turret of a Humvee patrolling the claustrophobic streets of a Middle Eastern city. Enemies seem to be behind every corner, but you are ordered not to fire until fired upon. The tension builds, and once you are engaged by the enemy, all hell breaks loose. After a hectic (and unsuccessful) flight from danger, you end up fighting door-to-door in the streets and ruined buildings. This frantic combat ratchets up when you head to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and reaches a whole new level when you find yourself engaged in similarly intense firefights on the grassy lawns and paved driveways of suburban America. The fight on the homefront has some very cool moments, but it doesn't mean you're done adventuring abroad. A dramatic prison rescue, a marine infiltration, and a snowmobile chase are just some of the other exhilarating moments that make this campaign so enjoyable.
Though completing the campaign is an intensely satisfying and exciting endeavor, you may not feel very triumphant when all is said and done. Modern Warfare 2 features some dark plot turns, and your missions sometimes have drastic unintended consequences. In one mission in particular, you infiltrate a terrorist cell and are called upon to do the kind of things that terrorists do. What follows is a neutered attempt at portraying the grim reality of terrorism, and concessions are put in place here and elsewhere to keep the plot from getting too dark. Despite these limits, the scene in question is undeniably disturbing and it undermines your sense of having the moral high ground. The game gives you the option to skip this particular level entirely, but the shocking consequences of this grim mission ripple throughout the game, making it difficult to feel like a hero. Subsequent developments further muddle your overall objective, and it doesn't help that many of the subtleties and connecting threads are mumbled during voice-overs between missions. The plot ends up being a bit disorienting, and you may get the feeling that, rather than being the tip of the spear, you are just along for the ride.
If you're looking for some campaign-style action unburdened by any sort of plot, then Special Ops is the place to go. The timed missions are campaign excerpts from Modern Warfare 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that you can play solo or with a friend, either split-screen or online. The missions cover a variety of objectives, which include surviving waves of enemies, moving from point A to point B stealthily (or not), eliminating a certain number of enemies, and racing snowmobiles. You earn a rating based on your completion time or difficulty level and unlock new missions as you progress. Though the missions will adjust to allow you to play solo, Special Ops missions are made to be played cooperatively. Two guns are better than one when clearing out a crowded slum full of enemy combatants, and coordinating a simultaneous sniper attack is much more fun when you are counting down with a buddy. There are also a few missions in which one player uses an airborne vehicle-mounted gun to clear the path for the other player on the ground, and these are frantic and explosively awesome. There is no matchmaking, however, so if you don't have any friends online and need a teammate, you'll have to go fishing in the multiplayer lobbies. As is the nature of cooperative play, missions can fall flat if teammates don't communicate or go off on their own. It can be tough to find a communicative teammate who is willing to let one player take point, but it is certainly worth the effort. When you have a strong team assembled, cooperative play is uniquely fun, and Special Ops provides a great variety of engaging missions.
Of course, you could completely ignore both the campaign and cooperative modes and be perfectly happy with Modern Warfare 2. The insanely addictive, intensely exciting multiplayer formula pioneered by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is in full effect here. The action is even faster and deadlier than the campaign, and killing enemies, accomplishing objectives, and completing challenges earn you experience points. These points increase your level and unlock new guns, new equipment, and new skill-boosting perks. You can design different classes to highlight different skills and then switch between them to adjust for the ebb and flow of battle. The core action remains largely the same, and folks who didn't enjoy it the first time around aren't likely to have a change of heart. But what was great about it two years ago is still great today, and there are a number of tweaks and additions that make Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer substantially different and more excellent than its predecessor.
First off, weapon loadouts have been restructured. Guns you may have previously equipped as primary are now only available as secondary, so you can equip both an assault rifle and a shotgun if you so desire. This restructuring creates an intriguing array of gun combinations, and one of the new options isn't even a gun. The bullet-resistant riot shield can be equipped in your primary slot and used to assault heavily contested positions. Having multiple-shielded teammates can change the battlefield significantly, and new equipment items deepen the strategic possibilities. The blast shield can protect you against grenade-happy opponents, while the tactical insertion flare (allows you to designate your next spawn point) can be a powerful asset in objective-based modes like Demolition and Domination.
The perk system has also been overhauled. Perks can now be upgraded through use and will eventually grant a secondary ability. These bonus abilities are often just as potent as the primary perk, though they aren't a linear extension of the primary ability. Upgrading the perk that grants increased melee distance, for example, will cause you to take no fall damage (allowing you to perfect your drop-and-stab maneuver). The new death streak perks may seem familiar to those acquainted with the infamous martyrdom perk from COD4, but they also provide some welcome (and cleverly implemented) aid for new players. These perks kick in after you die a few times in a row without getting a kill. Painkiller grants you increased health for a short time upon respawning, making it easier to resist getting spawn killed. Copycat allows you to mimic the class of the last person that killed you, potentially granting you the guns, equipment, and perks of a much higher ranked opponent. Nothing mitigates the frustration of getting killed by a weapon you can't access like getting your hands on that weapon and doing some killing of your own.
Customizable kill streak rewards are the other significant addition. In COD4, kill streaks of certain lengths would earn you rewards like airstrikes and attack helicopters. In Modern Warfare 2, there are a host of new rewards that you can unlock and then equip as you see fit. The rewards themselves range from tactical aids like unmanned aerial vehicles that reveal enemies on the radar (or counter UAVs that block the enemy's radar) to powerful assaults like gunships, airstrikes, and the exceedingly fun laptop-guided predator missile. Each kill streak requires a certain amount of kills to activate, and you can only equip three at a time, so there's a risk/reward mechanic at play. The chopper gunner reward is superpowerful, but if you aren't confident you can score the required 11 kill streak, you'll essentially be wasting a reward slot. Even if you can't string together 11 kills, you can still get a chance to use some of the more powerful rewards courtesy of care packages. This reward drops a crate on to the battlefield that either contains an ammo resupply or a kill streak reward, like a precision air strike. Not only do these rewards add an engaging strategic dimension, they do so in a way that allows all players to enjoy them.
The result of all these multiplayer tweaks is a richer, more customizable experience and a busier battlefield. Fortunately, the action generally remains on the good side of hectic, and the stream of rewards is as satisfying as ever. Two new elements, title and emblem, are little graphics and titles that you earn through your match performance, and these range run the gamut from serious to totally goofy. While not exactly in keeping with the serious tone of the campaign, they add an amusing way to further customize your online presence. With a robust variety of playlists in which to ply your deadly trade, Modern Warfare 2's competitive multiplayer is the best in the series and one of the best available on consoles. The inelegant campaign plot may make you feel like you're just along for the ride, but it is such an intense, roaringly great ride that you will be glad just to have played it. The cooperative missions provide a uniquely fun angle on the action that rounds out the package superbly, making Modern Warfare 2 thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly rewarding, and thoroughly worth the wait.