If you like brash, explosive, Brosnan-era Bond action with outrageous, blockbuster set-pieces and peak Michael Bay spectacle, then boy do I have the game for you: it’s available now on next-generation hardware, it’s called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and it came out in 2009.
The original Modern Warfare 2 was huge, a cultural event after the breakout debut of the first Modern Warfare subtitle but also a remarkable reflection of that culture itself at the time. It was a bleak reflection of the west’s shared headspace in the late noughties, playing up on jingoism and melodrama and a general post-9/11, mid-forever war, Pearl Harbour-esque fear of American vulnerability to surprise attack. There was an argument, too – not that many tend to agree with it – that a close reading might find something almost, nearly, verging on an anti-imperialist message, what with its tale of ultra-nationalists inciting invasions and warmongering commanders-in-chief using their window to take the world for a ride.
That might be a little generous, but at least there was something there, some scraps of direction, theme or tone to cling to. Even if they led to an impossible tension with a game that still used contemporary wars as a playground, at least there was a tension to wrestle with, a bit of substance to bite into. There were glimpses of this in the first of these new Modern Warfare retcons in 2019, which seemed to be grasping for something adjacent to “war is bad”, if not always reaching it successfully. Above all, both had undeniable spectacle, which has always been this series’ safety net to fall back on when its often haphazard storytelling has failed – there are plenty of stories, across more mediums than games, about nothing more than big explosions, cool guns, and good guys getting it done. Keep them abstract, and keep them relentlessly entertaining, and their breed of empty escapism is more than welcome.
In 2022’s Modern Warfare 2, though, things are neither abstracted far enough from their real world context, nor entertaining enough to help you forget it. There are some very good individual missions, and the multiplayer, always a game in its own right, is having a good year – still very much a ‘brain off’ shooter but a compelling one all the same. But the narrative is gibberish, the tone’s gone haywire, back to this series’ cynical worst, and the failsafe bombast isn’t there to rescue it.
Still, the good stuff – and there is good stuff! Modern Warfare 2’s cutscenes are extraordinarily good-looking – arguably the most technically impressive of any game I’ve played, and full of some genuine moments of character. Disparate protagonists from different Call of Dutys are brought together here, along with a couple of fun newcomers, into a kind of mercenary Avengers, and there’s been some attempt to distinguish one Gruff Tactical Man from another. The wicked Valeria Garza (Maria Elisa Camargo) has some nice chemistry with fellow newcomer and world’s gravellyist voice-owner Alejandro Vargas (Alain Mesa). Radio banter between old favs Soap, Price, and Ghost borders on the flirtatious. Delivery is surprisingly good and dare I say it, there are a couple of genuinely funny lines (“Get us a tea” is inspired – shame it was followed up by “Fuckin’ Brits” from a character who is… Scottish.)
Amongst the chatter there are some genuinely brilliant missions. Wetwork, which has you lobbing knives at guards from beneath the water of Amsterdam’s docks, is brief but brilliant, built on the darkly therapeutic thrills of dressing up all in black and slowly screwing silencers onto guns. Dark Water, continuing the aquatic theme, is a high point, seeing you sneak onto an oil rig being used as a missile base and then work your way across a second ship through a battering storm, dodging crashing waves and storage containers that slide from side to side on the deck, acting as cover but also threatening to squash you – and your enemies – as you inch forwards towards the bridge.
It’s proper second-act climax stuff. It’s also clearly modelled on the original MW2’s oil rig mission of its own (albeit minus the comedy Bond-inspired title: The Only Easy Day… Was Yesterday.) And there are other highs. One late-game mission has you rescue a prisoner, where you break in by taking over the CCTV system and remotely instructing Ghost, one of the game’s several returning heroes, to move from one bit of cover to the next, planting C4 on parked vehicles for some lovely late-mission payoff as you shoot your way out.
There’s clear inspiration here, most obviously from Metal Gear Solid, what with its high camera angle and dashes from cover to cover, but also in games like Cyberpunk 2077, where you point one camera at another to magic your way into a new point of view. Then there’s the very obvious influence of Naughty Dog, with Uncharted clearly inspiring a ludicrously long-winded car chase in missions like Violence and Timing, while The Last of Us’ scavenge-craft-hide cycle is the crux of Alone and Countdown.
Unlike some of the other stealthier missions, though, these are at best a novelty and at worst an absolute dirge. Violence and Timing has you work your way up an interminable convoy, dodging mines, traffic, and enemy fire while hopping from vehicle to vehicle, but it feels oddly flat, in part because of how many times you have to go through the cycle of shoot enemies, drive up, hop to new car, repeat. But also because it all feels oddly slow – compare it with another classic MW2 mission, Cliffhanger, which saw you escape a mountain base by flying through blurry trees on what felt like some kind of hypersonic snowmobile. For a mission that opens with you shooting bad guys out of pickup trucks while dangling upside-down from a helicopter, this one feels oddly one-note.
Remember, by contrast, how ridiculous those past missions were, so enormous and fluid and brash. These were caricatures of action movie set-pieces, dialled up another notch on the Bay-scale, a diamond concentration of a whole era’s absurdity. The new Modern Warfare 2’s inventions instead feel like another concentration, a concentration of the up itself/unsure of itself axis that so many triple-A blockbusters seem to find themselves caught on today.
In both Alone and Countdown, for instance, Modern Warfare 2 wants to be a prestige stealth game – and there are some nice touches here, Alone in particular stripping you back to nothing and spinning you out with horror-inspired jump scares like barking dogs and mannequin silhouettes in the torchlight. But then it progresses to a scavenger hunt for fan blades and bits of rope to fashion into wedges for opening doors, smoke bombs for stunning guards, and a small arsenal of other bits-and-bobs that would be genius if they existed within a game that was actually built for them, with systemic stealth and wider paths.
Instead, you get these hybrid things that make the whole game seem insecure: a mostly narrow Call of Duty map with heavily armoured enemies, who will murder you with robotic immediacy while you fumble around looking for candle wax and ask yourself why, mid-way through your Friday night, post-work session with the latest Call of Duty video game, you can’t just shoot a damn gun. Too often this game’s stealth defaults to a Hitman knockoff, without the utterly essential ingredient of its comedy value – the bits you actually remember, the playing dress-up, the conking people over the head with a suitcase and the moustache-twizzling joys of poisoning the punch. The point is Call of Duty is at its best when it’s taking decidedly Call of Duty mechanics – shooting guns, throwing knives – and using them in new ways; it’s at its worst when it borrows new mechanics from elsewhere without adapting to their new shape.
Still, again, there are positives – there is still some good Call of Duty here! Nowhere more so than in the multiplayer, which despite some fuss from the hardcore feels like one of the better efforts of recent years. Their issue is with a tweak to the minimap, which means you now only show up when someone uses a UAV, rather than when you shoot. The downside is it makes silencers – which used to stop you showing up on that map when you fired your gun – feel a bit redundant, and old stealth-focused perks have likewise been removed. The upside is it’s technically more realistic, forcing you to listen for gunshots and look at the world around you, rather than the magic sonar in the corner of your screen. I sympathise with the hardcore though: silencers are fun, and there were other ways to nerf them if the sense was that they’d become overpowered. Other complaints include a somewhat byzantine UI, tweaked since the beta but still dense and knotted – although I take a weird satisfaction from grinding through the weapons to unlock some fabled thing like an MP5.
Ground War, meanwhile, is now much closer to a kind of Battlefield mode, with a load of vehicles to drive, points to capture, and squadmates to spawn onto from the off. It’s vast and chaotic, but anyone who’s ever held back the urge to hammer “PTFO” into the Battlefield chat will know there is a deep primal desire amongst shooter players to take part in a giant Battlefield-style battle, only without actually doing any of the Battlefield things. People want the scale and the vague sense of something tactical going on around them, but they want to mindlessly sprint around on their own while doing so, and this mode caters to that wonderfully.
The real success is Invasion, which at 32v32 size is also massive, but mixes in the perpetual arrival of bot squads, dropped off by helicopter at various stages while you effectively play a game of tug-of-war over the front line. It’s a gigantic team deathmatch based on progress – a progress that, despite my best efforts, I could not possibly explain to you. The game makes no effort at telling you how you actually win this mode, or really incentivise it either, and the bots are comically stupid.
But who cares? The fun instead is in the variety of playstyles it offers, the sense of scale, momentum, and opportunity that runs through each map. I am a rubbish sniper, for instance, but have regularly found my groove here, with two maps in particular, Sa’id and Sariff Bay, that are perfect for it and also almost identical in shape – long “sniper alley” road on one side, dense housing in the middle, vehicle road on the right and room to flank even wider than that – proving to be a wonderful training ground. I’ve learned to love Santa Sena border crossing – an abandoned highway traffic jam providing a fun (and explosive) take on cover that adapts well to its smaller map size, too. The big maps are all great, really.
Some of the smaller ones are also excellent in their own right. I’m in love with Zarwa Hydroelectric as a 6v6 map: a set of low ruins lit by a golden hour sunset, spread across marshy water. On the take-and-hold modes like Domination it’s a treat, full of those wonderful little flanking routes that you can take by swimming along quiet shores or under secret tunnels. Crown Raceway meanwhile is simple but a fun concept – a kind of Formula 1 pitlane – and Mercado Las Almas’s half-opened gates and narrow alleys bring a little Counter Strike to mind. Then again, Breenbergh Hotel, modelled on Amsterdam’s Conservatorium Hotel, has drawn the ire of that real-world establishment for featuring in a game which they say appears to “encourage the use of violence,” so they’re not all wins.
That’s an apt reminder of the absolute mess Modern Warfare 2 has made of its overall tone – and the way it permeates far more than its brief main story. This game opens with the US assassination of an Iranian general called Ghorbrani, where you literally play as the missle that lands on his head. It has you fighting off hundreds of Mexican Army members because they’re “paid off by the cartel”, before breaking over the border wall and running through Americans’ gardens, pointing your gun at them to “de-escalate” and almost getting shot to bits by cops who joke you “all look the same”. There are times where it appears to act as very direct commentary and times – often immediately after the fact – where it takes it all back. As others have said far better than I can, this game loves to suggest that it’s thinking about what it has you do. But it never, ever is.
This absent-mindedness is everywhere, inspiring the garbled non-Arabic of the shop signs in its multiplayer maps as much as its tone-deaf spins on current affairs. This might seem like ridiculous criticism for a Call of Duty game. What else should we expect from a series built on pro-military propaganda and official gun licensing? When Soap, Price, and Ghost have a little laugh over the mic, what else could that be beyond a gaming equivalent of those Join the Army ads here in the UK, where military service is all ski holidays and cheeky banter that gives young men a place to belong? But the reality is it needn’t be like this.
You don’t have to do this thing where every character endlessly philosophises about war, where not a second goes by without someone chin-stroking on violence – albeit always with the conclusion: that bad guys are just bad, but good guys live in a very sophisticated moral grey area where who can really tell right from wrong. Or where generals can do very bad things as long as their “intentions were good” – a real line! Retconned over the openly evil general Shepherd of the original Modern Warfare 2!
You could, actually, make something that has a stance. Or better yet something that coherently and maturely explores a stance. Or, you could make something that just tells a big dumb story without being so po-faced and glum, which I suspect is the real thing Call of Duty wishes it could be.
But without the exaggerated bombast to give a levity to it all – or to distract you, depending on how charitable you’re feeling – it feels, bizarrely, a little weak. The irony of it all is intense: this is an extraordinarily good-looking game at times, and one that, in its relentlessly compelling, lager-and-crisps multiplayer, aims to command your attention for the next full year. But it’s also one that’s terrified of you looking too closely at it.