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Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (campaign) review: a mix of the spectacular and the middling

A jack of all trades

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's campaign may be the best it's been for a long while. There's great variety in the game's first-person shooty bang with plenty of interesting ideas to break the illusion of it being an on-the-rails ride. Where it excels is in its action movie sequences, but it also takes itself too seriously at times and struggles to balance the sensitivities of conflict within its choppy story.

"Clean House" is a mission from Modern Warfare, where you and the boys breach and clear a building in the dead of night. It's all night-vision goggles and whispers, creaking open doors and slotting bullets in craniums, with the added possibility of accidentally blasting a mother and her child to smithereens. The game warns you against doing so, with the message, "children are non-combatants" as if it's reading you a quote from page Protocol 12.7b of the Military Bible with all the warmth that dried ink provides.

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Modern Warfare 2's campaign takes itself seriously, drawing obvious inspiration from Clean House and its neatly packaged ultra-violence. War is close to home now folks, it's mundane, even! War is waged by the kitchen sink and by the swings. And as members of an elite American task force, you're to chase an Iranian general turned terrorist across the globe, because he's got missiles that could put loads of lives in danger. You find he works with the Mexican cartel (of course), where Mexico's vibrance and beauty is twisted to depict it exclusively as a gangland ruin, probably because it makes for a 'nice change of scene' in this FPS videogame. Sure, it doesn't rewrite history like some previous CODs, but it certainly carries that tension between fiction and reality.

One mission has – I shit you not – a moment where you're meant to de-escalate a situation by pointing your gun at civilians in their own homes. At one point you hover over a Mexican town in a gunner plane and provide aerial support for your comrades below. You're ordered to avoid hitting civilians and yet, you're free to level empty churches and schools as your comrades "Oorah!" over the radio with glee.

A screenshot from Modern Warfare 2 (2022) which shows the player in a ghillie suit, viewing an enemy facility through a thermal scope.
There's an ode to the "All Ghillied Up" mission from the original Modern Warfare, which is neat, but it's also one example of the game that retreads old ground.

Sure, not every mission centres around home invasions and there's a sense that COD has made a slight effort to detach the bad guys from reality and firmly place them in the fictional camp. Yet, with the campaign's lens often focused on civilian casualties, it's very difficult to fully detach yourself from the horrors of war going on right this second.

So, when I say that I quite enjoyed MW2's campaign, it's a thought muddied with mixed emotions. Separate yourself from the bigger picture and it's a roughly a six- or seven-hour (a couple of lengthy play sessions at most) crash through a great variety of missions. And as you'd expect, each has its own gimmick in a cage that's rarely – if ever- allowed to roam free. Some make for some genuinely brilliant moments, like one mission where you're hopping between trucks Fast And Furious-style, delivering potshots out of the window as your vehicle skates along. There's even a bit of crafting in a stealth section too, where you're desperately stitching together ordinary objects in a bid to survive.

And moment to moment, you're getting COD's excellent gunplay which seems a bit meatier than previous entries, with aggressive recoil requiring a more disciplined trigger finger. Of course, you get the spectacle of a COD budget too, with the game's best moments often steering away from the deadly serious and embracing the thrill of huge explosions and cool vistas you'd find in the likes of 80s action movies. The chunks of concrete that spit off walls when you shoot them, the reflections of light as gunfire crackles in a lightning storm, seriously, even the predictable interrogation scenes where you're face to face with a snarling enemy are rendered in wonderful detail – the presentation here is superb.

A screenshot from Modern Warfare 2 (2022) which shows the player reloading their assault rifle underbarrel while floating downriver.

While there's great variety in the campaign, sometimes its gimmicks don't quite realise their full potential. Without spoiling too much, there's a mission where you're let off the leash and given a couple of options as to how to breach into buildings filled with baddies. Do you chuck some tear gas through a vent to flush them out or climb onto the roof and drop them through the glass? Thing is, both options fall a bit flat because they're constrained to a game that can't possibly nurture them.

Much like previous COD games, MW2 borrows things like stealth or crafting or dialogue options, but it never takes one and develops it. While they're fun, sure, it makes for a COD campaign that once again feels like it's more interested in protecting itself from repetition, as opposed to investing in itself. Throughout the story, you're introduced to lots of ways to approach situations, but each does just enough for it to be the catch-all blockbuster shooter that does everything for everyone. Perhaps if it dropped its ego and narrowed its focus on the ridiculous cinema of dangling upside down from a helicopter while rattling off some rounds, then it might garner greater success?

And I think "development" as a whole plays a key part in my feelings towards the characters in MW2. When the final cutscene played and the credits rolled, I felt dissatisfied. The game had reached its conclusion and I felt little. But then, isn't that the nature of a military mission? You complete your objectives and move on, right? When the only slices of personality that flit between Soap and Ghost are bound to the confines of a mission, it's difficult to care for characters who are one-dimensional warriors by design.

So, my time with Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's campaign has been a more interesting exercise than I thought. And I think that's always going to be the case when there's been so many cracks at it from all manner of studios. Infinity Ward have definitely put together an entertaining campaign this time around, which, dare I say it, might be one of my favourites of the past few years. Not all of its ideas quite work as well as intended, but it's a varied campaign filled with tense firefights and spectacular moments that rival the series' glory days. It's just hard not to detach yourself from its obvious tonal pitfalls.

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