Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Game Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

There's no doubt that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of the all-time classic first-person shooters, thanks in large part to the wildly popular online gameplay that allowed millions of people to shoot the hell out of each other while talking trash via headsets. So it was a no-brainer for Activision to come out with the hotly anticipated sequel, Modern Warfare 2. But can it improve on what many thought was a perfect game?

The answer, as it turns out, is maybe, depending on what you consider to be an improvement. The campaign mode, which back in the day used to comprise entire games, picks up where the first left off, with a crack team of black ops guys doing battle against a crazy Russian terrorist. This time, the plot diverges even further from the reality of current politics by imagining a full-scale Russian invasion of America following a massacre of civilians at an airport that is so shocking the game offers you the option of skipping the level. Not that anyone playing this game to begin with is going to select that option. This leads to some really cool levels where you fight block by block through Washington D.C. and suburban Virginia. It's a nice, exciting and challenging storyline which unfortunately suffers, like the rest of the games in the series, from being too short (a few hours of play will complete it).

Of course, when it comes to Call of Duty 6: Modern Warfare 2, the real game is online play anyway. Once again the game picks up where the first left off, replicating the combat system almost exactly. There are, however, a number of twists beyond the simple addition of several fresh maps to play through. The array of weapons is vastly expanded, which in turn leads to a much greater level of customization, which is further enhanced by the ability to choose from a large selection of character traits and abilities called perks. Unlike the first game, you can also choose your killstreak rewards to suit your game play style. All this does lead to some confusion, of course, as every tactic and weapon has a counter to it, making it much more difficult to strategize your game. The upshot is that, to me, the new additions tend to favor those who play with speed and reflex rather than with planning and tactics.

That would be fine if it weren't for the biggest issue to plague online play, one carried over from the original, which is the problem of latency. Modern Warfare 2, like its predecessor, uses a "peer to peer" system of online gaming, which in this case means that the game picks one player's console the host the game on and everyone else connects to it via the ol' internet. As you might imagine, this provdies an unfair advantage to whoever happens to be hosting the game, as well as a smaller but still tangible advantage to those with faster internet connections. There's nothing more frustrating than getting the drop on someone, opening up with a fully automatic sub machine gun right in their face and watching them run right through your hail of bullets and stab you in the face. Then on killcam you get to see the action from their point of view and discover that on their end, your character never even fired his weapon at all -- because of latency, by the time the opponent shows on your screen, on his end, he's already killed you.

Usually the advantage isn't quite that pronounced, but it's often enough of an edge to be able to tell while playing which characters have a technological edge. This, as you might expect, kind of undermines the game to a degree, an issue that is exacerbated by some iffy AI that regulates respawns. The game is supposed to somehow judge a good place to respawn you based on what bits of territory your team controls... or something... but in fact it often dumps you directly into someone's line of fire, out in the open where you die instantly under a hail of dropping bombs from enemy air support or boxed into a death trap where your foolish teammates have gotten stuck. These are what players call spawn kills, and they are a major irritant, as one death can suddenly send you into an irreversible spiral of deaths that are totally beyond your control.

I'm emphasizing the negatives, of course; obviously the game is massively popular (I've racked up over 3000 kills and 2+ days of game play and still rank well below 5 million in the world) and for the most part it's fun. And Activision has added some MMO elements as well, such as questable gamer tags and emblems that give you specific in-game goals to shoot for beyond just killing opponents. But the many positives of this addictive game only help emphasize the unnecessary negatives. Here's hoping that Activision listens to complaints form players and sorts out these issues before Call of Duty 7: Black Ops comes out in November.

My Grades: Console play gets a B for just being too short to make the game worthwhile without the online component. Online play gets an B+ overall, a score which is dragged down by a D for the peer to peer system and an F for the terrible respawn AI. Seriously, this can't be that hard to fix, can it?

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