Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 review – Soap opera

In our Modern Warfare 2 review, we look at the multiplayer, spec ops, and campaign of the rebooted sequel to see if the grind it's worth your time

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 review: Alejandro Vargas in a jeep

Our Verdict

Good foundations mean Modern Warfare 2 can still deliver thrills and satisfying gameplay across its campaign and multiplayer, but missing features, a dull story, and an overcomplicated progression system leave a sour taste in the mouth.

Here’s something I didn’t expect going into this Modern Warfare 2 review: Infinity Ward now has its very own ‘Press F to pay respects’ moment, except worse in pretty much every conceivable way.

About halfway through the campaign, you find yourself chasing a terrorist through backyards and houses in a US border town. Every now and then a spooked resident will spring out from behind a door and demand you leave immediately, and when this happens a prompt appears at the top of your screen: ‘Hold right-click to de-escalate’. According to Call of Duty, the best way to calm an aggravated civilian is to wave a gun in their face.

It’s not just a farcical button prompt; it’s one that attempts to make crystal clear a situation that’s inherently messy. You’re not pointing a deadly weapon at an innocent person, you’re de-escalating the situation. In a similar vein, you spend most of the story tearing villages and towns in foreign countries apart while pursuing a terrorist, only for the team to completely freeze up when they actually catch the guy, as it would be illegal for them to either kill or detain him. They have nothing to say about the incidental civilian deaths and damages along the way, but a very high and mighty message right at the death. It feels like someone left a note on the script saying ‘let’s maybe cut a few of these war crimes, no biggie if not’.

Modern Warfare 2 clings to many of the mission types and mechanics that MW 2019 introduced but has lost any interest in engaging with the dubious morality of contemporary conflict. There are breach-and-clear missions, but almost everyone you come across is either a combatant or pretending not to be until they pull a gun on you. And if you do accidentally shoot a civilian then it’s an instant mission fail; you don’t have to process the moment or even witness the death, it’s just a quick reset, like you hit the wrong target at a shooting range.

Modern Warfare 2 review: de-escalating a situation on the US border

Instead, Modern Warfare 2’s focus is on the characters of Task Force 141. We see Price taking on a leadership role, Gaz getting more confident, Ghost being less selfish, and Laswell stepping foot on the battlefield. This manifests in a couple of ways. Firstly, there’s a lot more radio chatter and mid-mission quipping to develop each character’s personality. Secondly, however, there are now a number of key plot points that are consigned to cutscenes rather than playing out in first-person. It’s like a spec ops melodrama with brooding and mysterious tough guys learning how important it is to work together.

And that might be a worthwhile tradeoff if the characters – though brilliantly performed by the Modern Warfare 2 cast – weren’t just a bit dull. There’s only so much you can do with a team of people who almost always agree with each other and who are always able to collectively save the day. We have to rely on the villains to provide the tension, and unfortunately most of the twists and turns land like a wad of wet tissue.

Story aside, Modern Warfare 2’s missions are actually pretty good. You zig and zag between wide-open stealth sandboxes and more tightly choreographed shooting galleries, stopping every few missions for something totally different, like providing fire support from a gunship or a Mad Max-style highway chase in which you’re diving from vehicle to vehicle to reach the front of a convoy.

Modern Warfare 2 review: firing an LMG out of a window in Mexico

There’s a new crafting mechanic that crops up in the handful of moments when you find yourself unarmed, in which you skulk about for adhesives, metals, and other random materials, and then construct crude tools and traps. You can make prying tools to unlock drawers and doors, single-use shivs, nail bombs, and much more, but the mechanic never forces any difficult decisions and it’s often easier to just sneak around until you find a gun. It’s a great palate cleanser at first, but subsequent sequences bring the campaign’s pace to a grinding halt.

The shooting is sharp and impactful, and the slow and snipey set pieces feel as slick as they did all the way back in All Ghillied Up, but it feels like the ratio behind this tried-and-true formula is a little off this time. There are back-to-back missions where you’re manning the cannons of an AC-130 gunship, peppering bad guys on the ground with an assortment of building-leveling payloads, and then the next mission sees you confined to a highway chase sequence. Granted, there’s a bit more action here, but strung together it feels like three turret missions in a row.

When a proper shootout does start it’s soon interrupted, either by a cutscene or a stealth sequence. It’s more stop-start than any COD in recent memory, and the highlights are diluted by a few too many drab stealth missions. Never before have I played a Call of Duty game and come away from it thinking it would be nice to have more actual gunfights, so in that regard Modern Warfare 2 breaks new ground for the series. It’s not one of the best Call of Duty campaigns, but there are enjoyable moments in there.

Modern Warfare 2 review: bombing a Mexican cartel from an AC-130 gunship

If there’s any connective tissue between the campaign and multiplayer then it’s that they’re both held up by the excellent shooting mechanics implemented in Modern Warfare 2019. Guns rattle and boom, and you can hear every shot bounce around the environment, echoing down concrete boulevards and crashing against the foliage. Muzzle flash, vapour, and smoke fill the screen every time you hold the trigger down – it’s an immensely satisfying experience. And it never comes at the expense of Call of Duty’s notorious, celebrated smoothness.

Full-auto fire looks loud and brash and messy, but there’s so much precision underneath all that huffing and puffing: your aim always feels perfectly accurate despite whatever recoil you’re battling against, and any adjustments you make to your weapon with the Gunsmith modding tools can be felt. Pick a lighter stock and a heavy suppressor and you can feel the difference in the faster aim-down-sight and sprint-to-fire transitions, but now your rifle is so front-heavy that it sways dramatically when trying to land a precise shot and bobs all over the place when firing.

While those systems still work tremendously well in Modern Warfare 2, they’ve been wrapped up in one of the most confusing and messy create-a-class menus in years, possibly ever. Certain Modern Warfare 2 guns are now a part of a weapon platform, so grinding through attachments for an AK-inspired assault rifle like the Kastov 762 will eventually unlock similar weapons like the Kastov 545, RPK, and Kastov-74u. But it’s not as simple as maxing out the initial rifle; in order to get the Kastov-74u, you’ll need to grind through a set number of levels in each of the weapons between it and the 762 in the weapon platform.

Modern Warfare 2 review: the weapon platform tree for the Kastov rifle

To confuse matters even further, there are heaps of universal weapon attachments that have specific unlock requirements, so if I want to put my favourite kind of red dot optic on my max level Kastov 762 I might need to spend a couple of hours leveling up a weapon I have no interest in using.

In another case of Infinity Ward trying to fix a system that wasn’t broken, perks have also been overhauled into perk packages. Now you start with two perks and unlock two more perks as the match plays out. However, all of the best perks – like Ghost, which keeps you off enemy radar scans – are the ones you unlock at around the halfway point of a match. This has resulted in the UAV recon drone being both the easiest and most effective killstreak, as there’s no way to hide from it during the first half of a match.

Movement techniques like hopping around corners and slide-cancelling have been rooted out from the game to make gunfights simpler, more realistic, and approachable for new or more casual players. How you feel about this change will likely depend on how you perceive your own skill level, but I think it’s resulted in a more consistent match experience.

Modern Warfare 2 review: Santa Sena Border Crossing

Unfortunately, Modern Warfare 2 has one of the worst core multiplayer map pools in the series, plus a strong contender for the worst Call of Duty map of all time in the form of Santa Sena Border Crossing. More on that later, but the issue with the rest of the pool is a familiar one: most Modern Warfare 2 maps have been based on real locations and scarcely adapted to fit Call of Duty’s fast-paced multiplayer. The three-lane designs that used to be the bread and butter of COD maps are a rarity in MW2, and when they do crop up it’s usually in an awkward, lengthened, or widened form.

The consistent experience is that it feels like the enemy is almost always just off to the side of you or even behind you, rarely in front. Playing objective-based modes like Headquarters on some of the longer or wider maps is pure masochism, as you can be spawned into the middle of the map and even directly in front of enemies. Tall buildings, rooftops, and balconies provide many more opportunities for snipers, but the angles afforded to those players sometimes extend all the way into their opponent’s spawn.

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Santa Sena is the worst example. The map is set between two border crossing checkpoints, and so you’re effectively battling between abandoned cars on a stretch of highway – that’s your main lane. There are two more lanes off to one side, but they’re both incredibly narrow. All of the cars can be blown up with explosives, effectively quadrupling a grenade’s blast radius, so you’re only ever one completely random projectile toss away from being sent back to spawn. And when those cars are destroyed their carcasses can be shot through or creatively used for cover; that’s a bad thing considering how adept Call of Duty players are at abusing tiny angles.

Your choice then is to either play Russian roulette with the exploding cars and countless angles of the main lane or to squeeze through two smaller lanes that are just as prone to explosive spam and mounted machine gunners. And because the map is so long, if you play Headquarters on it the spawn options are so limited that you’ll routinely appear right in front of, or behind, enemies.

Modern Warfare 2 review: battling away in the Farm 18 multiplayer map

The bigger modes, like Invasion and Ground War, provide a good facsimile of Battlefield’s large-scale war games, but again, the maps let them down with far too many opportunities for snipers, and layouts that let winning teams literally kill their opponents as they spawn.

These problems speak to a lack of finesse and polish that can be seen all over Modern Warfare 2. There are locked attachments with no unlock criteria associated with them, making them impossible to obtain. You can equip double XP tokens but there’s nothing that tells you if they’re still active or for how long. There are no barracks, player records, or challenge menus to speak of at all, so players can’t even track their K/D ratio. Fans of the hardcore mode will have to wait a couple of weeks for it to arrive as part of Season 1, while anyone looking to sink their teeth into the new weapon tuning portion of Gunsmith will find it’s been disabled due to a bug.

Spec Ops suffers from a similar problem. There are just three missions available at launch, which took me about 2 hours to complete, but they are of a much higher quality than 2019’s attempt. The enemy AI is still nowhere near robust enough to rely on if you and a friend try to stealthily clear objectives on the huge Warzone-style maps, but there’s nowhere near enough here to satisfy co-op gamers for longer than an afternoon. Raids are coming in a couple of weeks, so perhaps the situation will improve then.

Modern Warfare 2 review: Shooting across a cargo ship on Wetwork

It all feels a bit lacking and empty in a way that the series has never truly been guilty of in the past. Perhaps one year’s COD has received fewer maps or guns than the previous entry, but the bones have always been good. That’s not the case here.

And yet, despite all these complaints, Modern Warfare 2 is still packing the same punchy gameplay as its 2019 predecessor. If that first reboot was the gaming equivalent of a short, sharp shooter cocktail, then MW2 is the watered-down version with a few too many ill-suited ingredients thrown into the mix. I’ll still happily gulp it down, but I’d think twice about ordering it again.