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TVG finds out whether Infinity Ward's latest FPS lives up to its monumental hype...
By the last count, Infinity Ward's original Modern Warfare had racked up an impressive 13 million unit sales. That's according to Activision figures at least, for a game that's remained in the UK Top 40 chart consistently over the last two years since its release in November 2007. The game's addictive online multiplayer is one of the main reasons for this, with a community so dedicated that the leader on its Xbox Live rankings board is verging on one billion total kills in the game. The player has racked up so many hours on the multiplayer that they've actually broken the system (it's now showing the amount of time they've played the game in negative minutes).
This is the strength with which Modern Warfare has called players to duty, and we've no doubt that Modern Warfare 2 will successfully convert this momentum into mesmerising sales figures over the coming months (this year's Christmas number one is a foregone conclusion really - you may as well place your bets now). But there's a hefty question mark over the content in MW2 at this point. An elephant was placed into a very crowded room with the leaked footage of a controversial level from the game last month. Even the near-unilaterally unflappable TVG editorial team was slightly shocked by this at the time, but we'll save our thoughts on this until the end of the review.
We're sure that you're much more concerned by whether or not MW2 engages players like the original did in 2007; whether it's lost any of its charm in the hype and build-up surrounding the title. Thankfully, Infinity Ward's Midas touch is in good working order. We can say with confidence that if you liked the original game, then you certainly won't be disappointed by the sequel.
If, on the other hand, you've been completely oblivious to all things Modern Warfare up until now, then your FPS horizons are about to expand significantly. The MW series is by no means a milestone in the genre, although it's certainly the benchmark for first-person sohoters on the current crop of consoles.
Like all good FPS developers such as Valve and DICE, Infinity Ward has a distinctive style that not only sets itself apart from others, but has subsequently been imitated in many games since the studio came to light with the original Call of Duty in 2003. Everything from the developer's trademark tutorial levels (traditionally set in military obstacle courses or training runs), to its 'feathering' system that subtly auto-locks onto nearby targets and encourages players to constantly pop in and out of the 'down the barrel' view, are all present and accounted for in Modern Warfare 2. Likewise, the innovative multiplayer setup of perks, custom classes, and killstreak rewards from the studio's last game have been loyally implemented once again in MW2, although this time with considerable expansions in all the key areas (e.g. many more killstreak rewards, such as a tactical nuke after 25 kills).
In terms of the adversarial multiplayer and campaign though, the bricks and mortar of both modes remain largely intact in MW2 from what they were two years ago. Infinity Ward hasn't made any radical changes here, although it has certainly upped the ante where appropriate. This gives gamers a challenge that may well be very familiar but is nonetheless injected with a large dose of adrenalin to keep the action ticking along at the lightning pace and rock-solid framerate that Infinity Ward demands of its games. MW2's story, for example, retains the kind of plot twists and superb characters that its predecessor boasted, although this time it's decidedly more Hollywood in its presentation. Perhaps this is partly down to the employment of Hans Zimmer for the game's musical score and Keith Davis as one of the voice parts, or perhaps not. Either way, where the first MW presented a believable depiction of our near future, MW2 takes these story threads to excesses that encourage players to simply munch more popcorn and enjoy the ride rather than analyse it too much.
There's still a firm point to the story though - denoted by its 'For The Record' title - which makes a stark point about the harsh reality of warfare (another Infinity Ward trademark) and what really goes on behind the moronic news reports that we digest on a daily basis. Brilliant characters such as 'Soap' MacTavish are integral to this (who gamers played as in MW1 and now play next to in MW2 - how's that for subversion of the FPS genre?), although we were left very uncertain about the motivations behind a newcomer to the scene called General Shepherd. Without spoiling anything, the reasoning behind his actions towards the end of the game isn't made entirely clear and does sully an otherwise sterling performance from the MW2 cast, made believable by the skilled penmanship of Infinity Ward scribe, Jesse Stern.
Of course, it's not only characters and storyline that make MW2 stand out from all the FPS pap out there. Visuals are once again superbly depicted by Infinity Ward, demonstrating the same kind of technical ability that was present in the last game, although through a list of new locations that keep you marvelling throughout (everything from a Russian Gulag to blizzard blasted mountain tops). Gameplay is similarly varied throughout the campaign, serving up a rollercoaster ride that blends effortlessly between overclocked set-pieces, novel scene setters, and well orchestrated vehicles sections. Fighting militia through civilian infested Rio de Janeiro favelas, mountain climbing with ice axes, and motor boating down a white water river are but a few examples of this kind of variation.
However, another trademark of Infinity Ward's games is that they're quite short for titles that are so highly rated. The first Modern Warfare clocks in at about 6 hours on the regular difficulty setting and this sequel is no different. A strong argument in defence of this is that the MW campaigns provide the finest six hours you're likely to experience in a modern FPS and, if Infinity Ward were to stretch out the campaign's length just to bolster content, then it would dilute the experience and make it less gratifying. We're inclined to agree with this to an extent and if the studio keeps up this level of gameplay in future, then we'll continue to forgive the short lengths of its campaigns. After all, we know countless gamers who've replayed the campaign on the two hardest difficulty settings because they like it so much, so perhaps the high quality and replay value of MW2's single-player compensates for depriving gamers of four or five more hours.
If that isn't adequate compensation, then the new Spec Ops mode should ease the criticisms a bit. The mode corals over 20 missions for players to run through either by going solo, or co-operatively via split-screen or online. Most of these 'Ops' have been drawn from sections of levels from the main MW2 campaign, although you'll also find some asset recycling in the form of levels from the original MW too. When a team/player completes one of these levels, they're rated on their performance with a three star system (depending on the time taken and difficulty setting etc.), which opens up an addictive level of replay value to the gameplay. Similarly to the main campaign, there's no lack of variation in these mission types as well, whether you're racing snowmobiles or attempting to get through a misty, snow covered forest without being seen by dog handling patrols of Russian soldiers.
About That Elephant...
If you're not up to date with the controversy surrounding Modern Warfare 2's fourth level, then here's a quick summary (Warning: potential spoilers):
The level starts with you, as a covert CIA operative, in a lift with four armed Russian dissidents (one of which is Makarov, a principal villain in MW2). This lift opens into the customs lobby of a Russian airport where the four gunmen open fire into a crowd of people. They continue on into the airport, indiscriminately killing civilians as they go, and eventually escape (after a tussle with armed police) via a dummy ambulance implanted in the terminal. You are shot and killed by Makarov as you get to the ambulance though (and left at the terminal), as he knows that you're in the CIA and has been using you so that he can frame America for the terrorist attack.
It's a gritty scene to say the least and you'd have to be psychopathic not to be disturbed, at least slightly, by the scenes. Some will compare these scenes to games such as GTA, arguing that it's no different to going on a rampage in Liberty City and kill hordes of innocent civilians. However, the key difference here is that Rockstar never scripts the prescribed mass killing of innocents into its missions. Players have to choose to veer away from the scripted campaign in GTA games and perform these actions of their own accord.
Conversely, Infinity Ward is scripting these sorts of events into Modern Warfare 2. If you play the level, then non-playable characters will kill a large number of innocent civilians and infer that you should do the same. While Infinity Ward isn't condoning these kinds of actions by any stretch of the imagination, it is nonetheless inviting you to partake in them virtually, which is a new watershed in videogames. You are warned at least three times before playing the level that you might be disturbed and the section can be skipped. Similarly, it's possible to run through the level without shooting a single civilian (only armed police at the end), but the lowered watershed remains nonetheless - the game has obviously now been certified for distribution by the UK, US, and even notoriously harsh Australian classification boards (despite protests).
Whether or not this is morally correct is not for us, as games journalists, to decide. That is down to classification boards and ultimately the public. What we will say is that the level does put the game's story into context. It's a story that investigates how our view of history is ordained by the clandestine operations of military forces and organisations. Within that context, this controversial level is essentially the plot axis around which Modern Warfare 2's story swings. Without it, the story makes very little sense whatsoever and so, viewed from this perspective, the level's inclusion is warranted for the gravitas that it holds within the plot.
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