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A game can have a flawed single-player campaign, but still become a blockbuster seller because it executes multiplayer gaming so well. That’s the case with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which has become the fastest selling video game of all time.
The single-player version of this first-person shooter game has 18 levels that last close to eight hours. It’s a gripping and visceral experience that lives up to the Call of Duty brand name. But the single-player plot stinks, and the real genius of the game lies in the multiplayer experience, where the game constantly offers rewards even to the worst of players to keep them interested in staying online and leveling up to greater and greater achievements. Fortunately, having a dumb story isn’t fatal for a video game. In fact, most video games have convoluted plots with too many twists and turns. Indeed, despite the weak story, Modern Warfare 2 is one of the best video games ever made. After all, any game that lets you massacre a bunch of chickens has to be great, right? (Keep reading.)
The original Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out in November 2007, and sold more than 14 million copies. (It actually had a good, edgy plot that wasn’t as hard to follow.) This game sold an estimated 7 million copies in a single day. That is in spite of, or perhaps because of, a controversial scene in which the player can mow down a bunch of civilians in a Russian airport.
I didn’t find fault with game maker Infinity Ward for including that scene, which is central to the plot because it sets in motion a war between the Russians and the U.S. (spoiler alert). You go along on a terrorist mission as an undercover operative and the terrorist leader, Vladimir Makarov, shoots you at the end of the massacre, so he can blame the incident on the U.S. This scene could have been done a lot better, highlighting the drama behind the choices an undercover operative has to make when doing evil in the hopes of achieving a good mission. But there is no such drama in the scene, since you have no choice but to go along with the terrorists. The script writers should have been a little more creative during this part, which alone is enough to earn the game its mature rating for players 17 and older.
The incident in the airport triggers a war in which the Russians take Washington, D.C. and destroy both the White House and the Washington Monument. Hoping to head off more destruction, elite warriors try to hunt down Makarov and prove that he started it all. That part of the plot is actually clever, interesting and well executed. And that’s probably where Infinity Ward should have stopped its script writers.
But after the war is on, the plot becomes extremely confusing. I found that a couple of times I just didn’t follow what was going on in the single-player game. By the end of it, you’ll find that you’re shooting at a bewilering array of enemies: Russian civilians, terrorists, Brazilian thugs, Russian Army regulars, American soldiers and an American general. There are so many enemies that you wind up fighting in a lot of different places.
The only person you don’t get to shoot is Makarov, the bloody bastard terrorist who causes the conflagration. I can’t tell you how profoundly unsatisfying it is that you don’t get to deliver payback to this guy in the game. It’s as disappointing to me as the cliffhanger ending of Halo 2, which ended mid-story. The problem with the plot is that it moves from something that could really happen — a terrorist triggering a war between superpowers — into a crazy, implausible and paranoid story about an alliance between a terrorist and a decorated American general and his troops.
I suspect most hardcore players will shrug off these plot flaws. The plot serves to create a wide variety of battlefield experiences, in contrast to the older Call of Duty games which had you stuck on either the Western Front or the Eastern front in World War II. In fact, I thought the Afghanistan setting would have been plenty interesting to explore for more missions.
Afghanistan makes for an interesting place to start because it’s relevant as a modern battlefield and it raises a lot of questions about the brutality of modern warfare. You start in the shoes of a U.S. Army ranger. You go through training where you, ironically enough, are instructed not to shoot civilians. Then you proceed to a battle outside a town. After an initial skirmish, you have to join a convoy of HumVees that have to go into a town and clear it of enemies.
The town is eerily realistic, with lots of civilians running for cover as the column of vehicles proceeds through narrow streets. It is an eerie feeling, knowing that you’re moving into an ambush. It comes soon enough and you’re knocked senseless as the gunfire and rockets erupt all around you. This is a part of the game that is probably all too realistic for veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars. The fighting is so visceral, loud and chaotic. You feel like you’re in the middle of a movie, like a cornered rat in Blackhawk Down, and that’s the hallmark of the Call of Duty games.
Next, you become part of a special force, Task Force 141, as Sgt. Gary “Roach” Sanderson. You never embody a single character for a long time. You move around from character to character so that you can experience all sorts of battle situations. Sanderson and his companion “Soap” Mactavish scale an icy cliff in Kazakhstan on a mission to recover a module with secret computer satellite codes. The companions in the game are always pretty useful and smart, which is not how companions used to be. They show you where to go, and Infinity Ward makes it easier on you by putting a “follow” tag on the soldier you’re supposed to follow when you have multiple companions. The GPS map also shows you exactly where you’re supposed to go. Hence, even though the levels of the game are quite expansive, you rarely get lost wandering around a big map.
In the snow environment, you complete the mission in stealth, taking out guards in a camp with silencers and knives. You grab the module and then you engage in a hot battle as you’re pursued. You can escape from the camp via snowmobile, which takes you on a wild ride. A helicopter and other snowmobile patrols chase you the whole time in a scene that could come out of a James Bond movie.
The game continues on this high-speed path. You have to pursue Makarov’s arms dealer in the crowded slums of Rio de Janeiro. The fight leads you through narrow streets among favelas, or multistory shantytown dwellings that form an urban maze. For instance, you run through a market and see lots of moving objects. But they’re not enemies. They’re live chickens moving around in cages. In fact, if you kill seven chickens in less than 10 seconds, you can get a Colonel Sanders achievement. They provide a lot of false alarms for soldiers looking for any sign of movement. In classic Call of Duty style, the scene in the favelas doesn’t just end. You have to escape from the pursuing thugs and then jump onto a rope hanging from a helicopter. You swim underwater to get to an oil rig, where you have to blast doors open with explosives and then kill guards in a split second in order to rescue hostages. That part of the game resembles Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six games, with slow-motion scenes that require you to distinguish quickly between hostages and terrorists.
There are plenty of cool new weapons to use. You can paint enemies with a laser sight in one battle to get an armored car to direct its fire on them. You can also use a Predator drone to drop guided missiles on targets from above. You can use a sniper rifle with a thermal scope that allows you to see enemies hiding in smoke. You can place an automatic machine gun turret to watch your back while you face another direction. You can plant Claymore mines to ambush advancing troops. And you can fire Stinger missiles at helicopters.
The game designers figure out how to put you in some very tight situations. Inside a gulag prison, where you have to rescue a prisoner, you’re faced with enemies who have bulletproof riot shields on the ground and more enemies above you with laser sites on their guns. It’s no problem if you have an endless supply of grenades, but you don’t. The White House itself turns out to be a place where you can have ferocious infantry battles with soldiers standing on balconies.
But it’s in the battle for the White House that the plot gets even more ridiculous. The rescued prisoner from the gulag, Captain Price, leads his troops to take over a Russian submarine. He then launches a nuclear missile high over Washington D.C., where it explodes as an air burst, sparing much of the capitol but creating an electro-magnetic pulse takes out all of the area’s electronics, crippling the Russian invaders.
Somehow, Price thinks this is going to end the war, but the game doesn’t explain why it doesn’t do just as much harm to the American soldiers defending the nation’s Capitol as it does to the Russians. It also doesn’t explain how Price knew the firing codes for a Russian nuclear submarine missile, which he reprogrammed to explode as an air burst, after spending some years in a military prison. This is really the point in the game where you just stop paying attention to the narration and just move on with the combat. While all of the missions after this point are fun, the plot becomes convoluted and it reaches a height of ridiculousness when you as the player start shooting both Russian and American soldiers in the middle of a battle.
But as I mentioned, the saving grace of Modern Warfare 2 is its multiplayer combat. The multiplayer modes include a new cooperative mode entitled Special Ops, which has a bunch of missions that are separate from the single-player campaign. You can play many of them alone, but you can also play in two-player cooperative play, so that two human players can take on a bunch of computer-controlled enemies in many of the same battlegrounds as the single-player campaign. In these modes, players can race snowmobiles or split so that one provides air support from an AC-130 aircraft while the other fights on the ground. There are 23 missions with 69 different rewards to unlock.
The online multiplayer mode is where I’ve been spending a lot of time. It retains the same point system and rewards as the original modern warfare. You can play in free-for-all, search and destroy, demolitino, domination, capture the flag and team deathmatch modes. I play team deathmatch, which pits six players against six on the Xbox 360. You get points for each kill or partial kill in the game. (Yeah, parents, I know how that sounds; have I mentioned its a mature-rated game?)
So far, I’ve climbed up to level 16 in rank. I’ve got 10 wins and 28 losses in multiplayer matches. I’ve got 243 kills and 457 deaths for a ratio of 0.53. My accuracy rate is 21.4 percent. And, after five hours of multiplayer, I’m ranked at 3,781,529. That’s not exactly worth bragging about, but with every kill or accomplishment I get a reward.
These little rewards — such as getting a three-in-a-row kill streak — make the game addictive. There are more rewards early on, when you’re still getting the hang of the game. You can move up three levels in rank in an hour’s play in the early phase, but promotions take longer to get the more you play.
The sheer multiplicity of rewards is what is different from the earlier game. You can get rewards even if you’re a loser. If you break a long death streak, where you’re getting killed more than you’re killing, then you get a reward. You can unlock new abilities such as “steady aim” or “move faster” that help you play better. If you get five kills in a row, you can order and control a Predator missile strike from above. After 11 kills, (which I have yet to do), you can call in an AC-130 gunship strike. All of these tweaks make the game into something that you can continue to play for months on end.
PC gamers have been complaining because Infinity Ward no longer allows them to host their own dedicated game servers. Now the players must use the company’s matchmaking service, which keeps out the cheaters but makes the games less customizable. Users can’t, for instance, create their own maps anymore.
The most annoying thing about multiplayer continues to be the cussing, swearing and racist talk in the games. It sometimes pays off to talk with others by microphone if you want to plan your battle. But most of the chatter I’ve heard is idle. One dude just kept talking about this girl who was sleeping with every guy she could date. I just turned off my headset.
To me, the multiplayer combat is more fun than the multiplayer combat in Halo 3: ODST. The multiplayer combat in that game held my attention, but it was a lot harder to score points or level up. It’s telling that Modern Warfare 2 pushed Xbox Live over the record number of two million simultaneous players, and not ODST. The smartest thing Infinity Ward did in the multiplayer combat was to think of rewards for just about anything you did (including losing) and extending the rewards for the highest-achieving players as well. When you play multiplayer like this, you can understand why the game sold so much in its first week and will likely create a blast radius that hurts other games in the same release window. A lot of other games have been delayed until the first quarter of 2010. Now we know why.