(Originally Posted on Crush! Frag! Destroy!)

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Amid both controversy and hype, Infinity Ward’s follow-up to the breakout hit Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is here. Untold thousands lined up for midnight release parties all around the country in anticipation for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Besides its already infamous airport mission and scenes involving a devastated Washington D.C., the game has generated much disdain from PC gamers for Infinity Ward’s decision to remove dedicated servers and console commands from the game, all while charging $59.99 at retail, $10 higher than the industry standard.

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Due to these issues (and the fact my 360 just died), I decided to review the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 and see if any of these features affected the game’s overall quality and if PC gamers’ complaints were justified.

Once again kicking the historical vibe of prior Call of Duty titles aside, Modern Warfare 2 is set five full years after the events of the last game, and the world hasn’t changed for the better. Russian ultra-nationalists, led by mercenary terrorist Vladimir Makarov, are outraged by the killing of CoD4’s antagonist Imran Zakhaev. They engineer a deadly clash between the United States and Russia that motivates Special Air Service Sergeant “Soap” MacTavish and his team to end the conflict and expose the truth.

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I’m going to devote this paragraph to the already notorious airport scene that stole headlines when it was leaked leading up to the game’s release. It’s every bit as shocking and dreadful as you’ve heard, and that’s why it’s so important. For years, game designers have sought to create situations that evoke emotions or make the player feel real consequences for their actions. Simply put, Infinity Ward hit that idea right out of the park. Not only did I feel remorse for the dozens of dead innocent people in the airport lobby, I wanted desperately for the sequence to be over. To my dismay, my character and the other gunmen around me moved with the slow, methodical pace of a cold-blooded killer. People dragged injured friends away from the gunfire only to be cut down mid-step. Security officers frantically rushing to defend the few people left were decimated by an automatic rifle. It was a haunting, aching feeling like I had never experienced within a game and it’s sure to be a talking point in the video game industry for years to come. Unfortunately, I must say the execution of this sequence feels a bit muddled when compared with the rest of the game. It doesn’t ultimately make sense within the storyline and I have the feeling the related events may play a larger overall role when the inevitable Modern Warfare 3 releases.

That’s not the only memorable event in Modern Warfare 2, however. Lucky for us, the game is chock-full of them. You’ll likely have more than a few  “holy crap!” moments during the campaign mode, which is sadly a bit too short. I completed the story on “Regular” difficulty in just over 5 hours. Unfortunately, the game’s closing missions proved to be frustrating and just plain annoying, insisting upon a trial-and-error approach to completing your objectives. In addition, the storytelling is a bit muddled and I had some difficulty piecing together all the different plot lines. It does manage to recover and deliver some interesting plot twists and a strong ending sequence that leaves room for a story continuation.

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Modern Warfare 2 borrows a lot of ideas and settings from action movies such as The Rock and Red Dawn, with one mission going so far as to be named “Wolverines!” after the latter’s guerrilla fighting force. It’s fitting, as MW2 feels like an interactive action movie throughout. That being said, the campaign is very scripted and directed, which weakens the experience upon a second or third playthrough.

On a more technical note, I really disliked the game’s AI. It might have been a bit more palatable if it only applied to your opposition, but squad mates proved to be more frustrating than the enemy. There were several times when I happened upon a couple of them standing literally two feet away from an enemy, refusing to fire in their direction. Other times teammates would run past baddies and leave me as the only target. They don’t do too much more than shout out enemy positions, lead you through missions, and play the role of cannon fodder.

I can’t say too much about the console version’s visuals as I played it on PC, but if you happen to own a good gaming rig, you’d be cheating yourself if you didn’t pick MW2 up. With all the settings cranked to “high”, this game stands with the best the PC has to offer. The most obvious improvement Infinity Ward made with their engine is the remarkable particle and smoke effects. Air distortions from jet engines and rifle barrels look believable and I certainly didn’t expect such a noticeable graphical leap from the original Modern Warfare.

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My biggest gripe about Call of Duty 4, the infinitely respawning enemies, has been mercifully removed from Modern Warfare 2. No longer do you suddenly encounter a vast wave of terrorists flooding from all corners, fighting until you eventually get a clue and run past them. It seems IW took the best parts of the previous game and cut all the filler. It shortens the experience, but the quality remains.

New to the Call of Duty franchise is a cooperative “Special Ops” mode, inspired by CoD4’s “Mile High Club”. In that mission, the player was tasked to take down terrorists and rescue a VIP aboard an airborne jetliner, all while staying within the time limit. While some challenges follow that formula, Spec Ops can range anywhere from defending yourself from waves of enemies to racing down a mountainside on a snowmobile. Various locations and set pieces from MW2’s campaign are revisited here, along with selections from CoD4. I really enjoyed working with a friend to complete stand alone objectives and I think Infinity Ward was wise to keep their cooperative mode separate from the campaign.

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The fan-favorite competitive multiplayer mode is back in MW2, and it’s nearly identical to CoD4. The movement, control, and even the menus are the same. Given the similarities, it should go without saying that anyone who mastered the previous installment’s multiplayer modes will instantly kick the juice out of everyone else. That’s not to say the game itself hasn’t improved, however. Infinity Ward let loose an interesting new concoction of perks, customizable kill streaks, and helped welcome newcomers with “death streaks”, which will give you a slight advantage when you can’t seem to stop dying. I was very impressed with the range of customization options on your load-out and player emblems, but what really caught my attention was the inclusion of a third-person mode. Everything from the regular multiplayer carries over here, except now you’re looking over the character’s shoulder. Sure, the camera can be a bit unfriendly at times and the aiming isn’t quite perfect, but it’s an enjoyable distraction from staring down the length of a gun barrel. It’s very reminiscent of Metal Gear Online, minus the terrible log-in process.

Infinity Ward’s replacement to dedicated servers on PC is a service called IWnet, which relies on matchmaking and private matches for the online functionality. For the most part, it’s not too bad. I jumped quickly from match to match and could invite friends via Steam. I did experience some horrific lag in a few rounds, but that might have been more a fault of my ISP than the service.

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 manages to live up to the hype in nearly every way possible. Infinity Ward took CoD4’s problems and did their best to fix them, and it shows. However, the game’s not a revelation, revolution, or innovation: it’s a refinement of a solid formula and not much more. It does everything the original Modern Warfare did well; it just does it better.

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Things We Liked: Improvement over the majority of CoD4’s complaints. Excellent, memorable single-player moments and locales. New Spec Ops mode. Cool new additions to multiplayer and third-person mode.

Things We Disliked: Rough AI teammates. Campaign is a bit on the short side. Story is tough to follow at times. Single-player replay value is questionable.

Target Audience: Call of Duty fans (duh). Fans of action movies/games. Stat-tracking freaks. Gun nuts. Frat boys. Definitely frat boys.

(Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – Developer: Infinity Ward. Publisher: Activision. Available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. PC version reviewed. New to CFD!’s reviews? Read our explanation here.)

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