How do you follow up Call of Duty 4? It’s only one of the most influential games of all time. It’s the game that helped drag first-person shooters away from World War II and into the present day, and the one that put Call of Duty firmly on the map.
That was the unenviable task put before Infinity Ward. But boy, did they pull it off. Modern Warfare 2 was critically acclaimed upon its release in 2009. It won countless awards. It even made news headlines around the world over the controversial ‘No Russian’ mission. And it eventually became one of the best-selling games of the entire seventh generation. If the original Modern Warfare put Call of Duty on the map, MW2 all but ensured that this was a series here to stay.
Everyone has a favourite Call of Duty. For many, it’s this one. But why is that? What makes MW2 such a great game, and one that is fondly remembered ten years after its release?
Cutting right to the chase, it’s because Infinity Ward took everything that made CoD4 great and dialled it up to eleven. MW2 was very much a bigger, bolder and more ridiculous version of its predecessor. Modern Warfare on steroids, if you will.
Look no further than the campaign. Set five years after the events of the first game, tensions are rising between East and West. The ultra-nationalists have taken power in Russia and Zakhaev has become a martyr. Vladimir Makarov, his former lieutenant, is now committing terror attacks across Europe. One attack at a Russian airport ends up sparking World War III and Russia invades America. The story builds from there, alternating between the war in the United States and Task Force 141, an elite unit who are hunting Makarov across the globe.
The critics were quick to point out the shortcomings of the campaign. They derided it as pure Hollywood fluff. Nothing more than a dumb story and one riddled with plot holes at that. They criticised the over-reliance on explosions, big set-pieces, and the game’s insistence in making the player into an un-killable super-soldier who can do anything and everything. By all accounts, it was more Michael Bay than Modern Warfare.
They’re valid points, but they aren’t the negatives that some people frame them as. In fact, these things are the reason MW2 is such a compelling game. Say what you want, the campaign was never boring. It’s an intense thrill ride that leaves the player gripped from beginning to end. In the course of five hours or so, you play a terrorist (which sparked controversy at the time), jump a snowmobile over a canyon, fight for control of the White House, watch the International Space Station be destroyed and battle through a Russian gulag. Add to that a stellar plot twist that no-one saw coming, a brilliant soundtrack courtesy of Hans Zimmer, and some of the best CoD characters ever devised, and you have a real winner of a campaign.
Sometimes the silliest things are the most fun. MW2’s story is a great example of that.
With multiplayer, Infinity Ward did much the same. They took the winning CoD formula and injected it with a healthy dose of insanity. There were upgraded ‘Pro’ versions of already-powerful perks, akimbo weaponry, throwing knives, riot shields, massive explosions and custom killstreaks, including a game-ending nuke. It was chaotic, exciting, fun and unique.
But as the chaos was cranked up, any semblance of balance went out the window. There were so many over-powered or broken things. Here’s a quick list of some of the worst offenders:
- One Man Army, Danger Close Noobtubes
- The ACR
- The UMP
- Commando Pro
- Shotgun Secondaries
A lot of this was massively frustrating. OMA in particular should have been fixed and was probably the worst part of the game. But at the same time, other over-powered stuff made things so much fun for so many people. It felt good to go on a tear with a Spas-12 or rack up tons of kills by rushing objectives with a UMP. And if you were on the receiving end of a beat-down, you could pull out something equally unbalanced and get even.
A consequence of this lack of balance was that it made every playstyle viable. Whatever you wanted to do, chances are there was something you could use to melt enemies. You could quickscope, rush, camp, sit at the back of the map and shoot grenades into the sky. And it didn’t even stop there. You could run around knifing people if you wanted, thanks to Commando Pro. You could whack on a riot shield and bash people with a plastic rectangle all day if that tickled your fancy. The possibilities were endless and it made for a game that never felt ‘samey’ or boring.
Map design fed into this as well. Each map was built in such a way that every playstyle was viable. They enabled the chaotic gameplay that made MW2 so popular; you were never far from your next gun-fight. And the maps were all unique and dynamic, despite following the same three-lane design. They had character. Each one was packed full of little hidden spots and Easter Eggs, and most were set in memorable locations. Players did battle on top of skyscrapers, at the airport, in the Brazilian slums and at a Russian sub-base.
Maps like Highrise, Terminal, Skidrow, Favela and Scrapyard are considered classics today and have resurfaced over the years in later CoD games. It’s not unreasonable to state that MW2 has the best map line-up in the entire series.
The game rewarded you for being good too. Those custom killstreaks were fun and powerful to use. Who didn’t want to call in a nuke? Or rain death from an AC-130? Meanwhile there were titles, emblems and camos that players could use to show off their accomplishments.
A final thing that made the multiplayer so special was the community. It was this that took an already great game and made it that much more fun. Game chat was king. Everyone had a mic and they were more than willing to use it. Play MW2 for any length of time and you’d hear some of the worst slurs in the dictionary mixed with plenty of death threats. You’d hear random arguments and people getting roasted over everything from their accent to their gameplay to their Gamertag. You’d hear little kids say colourful things about your mother and threaten to boot you offline because their dad worked at Microsoft. And you’d hear people rage about being killed by lag/campers/hackers, whatever came to mind first.
But then you’d also make new friends and rivals. You’d hear people go mental over epic final kill-cams in Search and Destroy. And you’d be invited to private lobbies to quickscope, play Michael Myers or just mess around. Was game chat toxic? Yes, but at the same time it elevated the entire experience. I lost count of the amount of times I ended up crying with laughter hearing people hurl the most random insults at each other, or the amount of impromptu 1v1s I had on Rust with someone I just met.
More than anything, game chat made every match more intense. You wanted to win that much more if you heard the enemy team talking shit between rounds. An already great kill-cam became even better if it backed with a cacophony of screams and ‘ohhhhhhhhhhs’. It’s something that newer Call of Duty’s are sorely missing and it’s what made MW2 such a unique and lasting experience.
Like World at War before it, MW2 came with a third mode. Instead of the Nazi horde though, we got Spec Ops, a set of 23 missions that could be completed either solo or cooperatively for a maximum of three stars. Most were really hard, and the fact that there were no checkpoints made it even more so.
It’s fair to say that Spec Ops failed to make the lasting impact that the campaign and multiplayer did. Even so, it was still a valuable addition to the game and a mode with plenty of fun to be had. Some of the best experiences with MW2 came from finally beating that one mission with your mate after failing it dozens of times.
Was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as ground-breaking as the original Modern Warfare? No. Is it silly, over-the-top and fundamentally un-balanced? Yes, but that’s what makes MW2 an absolutely brilliant game. It enraptured and entertained, and left us all with lasting memories. Games are meant to be fun and MW2 was exactly that.
It’s a testament to how beloved this game is, that when it became backwards compatible in August 2018, it was the eighth-best selling game that month. It even outsold the latest Call of Duty at the time – Sledgehammer’s WWII. There are rumours that this game will be remastered like CoD4. I’m all for it. Modern Warfare 2 was a truly special game and everyone should experience it at least once.
What do you think though? Let us know your Modern Warfare 2 memories in the comments below. And if you still haven’t played the game, grab a copy from the Xbox Store right now.