"War. War never changes." Or so says the line from the Fallout series. As for Call of Duty... well, Call of Duty does change. It's just the annual cycle of pushing out a new release just in time for the holidays that stays the same. The series alternates between a few storylines, and this year with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, we're back into the Modern Warfare storyline, again... but like for the first time with a fresh plot, even though we've recycled all the same characters, but done so with a sequel. Got it? Good.
Ok, a brief history of Call of Duty... Activision puts out the first game in 2003 developed by Infinity Ward and showcasing classic WWII action. Game gets popular and Activision, as publisher, hires a second studio, Treyarch, to start pushing a release every year despite each game needing two years to complete. Each dev gets their two years and they push on alternating years. Sledgehammer enters the chat in 2014, adding a third developer for a once every three year cycle for each entry and the series starts updating a few separate plot lines across multiple combat eras like WWII, Vietnam, modern and even future conflicts. The series hit its apex around 2007-2010 with the start of the Modern Warfare and Black Ops storylines and spends much of the next 10 years trying to chase that magic. Around 2019 they just decide to play the hits and either remake or remaster Modern Warfare 1 or 2 four times in the last three years.
So here we are with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, not to be confused with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from 2009. This is the sequel to 2019's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, not to be confused with 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Though this is the reboot of Modern Warfare, the same characters make an appearance, but under different conditions and plot lines. Kind of like when the MCU rebooted Spiderman with Tom Holland, except with no concept of a multiverse and no need to fit into a larger narrative. So let's face it, this isn't the MCU Modern Warfare, this is still the Sony Spiderman but with Andrew Garfield instead. No one really knows why, and we all just assume it's to make money and hold on to the licensing fees, and also because Tobey Maguire was old when shooting started on the first film and never got any younger. But... if we get a good movie or film out of it, who cares? Let's have some fun.
Well, there is one reason to care... Because this game kind of diverges from a series staple in that there is no zombies mode included at launch, and no announcement that there will ever be a zombies mode added later on (despite some data miners claiming they found references to it hidden away in the software package). So the reason the history lesson is important is because this game, while trying to slap some fresh paint on an existing case of characters, at first glance fails to deliver the entire experience its predecessors did. However, if you dig deeper you will realize that the Modern Warfare games from the past also lacked a Zombies mode. As a matter of fact, all Infinity Ward-developed Call of Duty games lack the mode. It's the Treyarch and Sledgehammer entries in the series that always carried the mode. One the one hand, this is a disappointment - Zombies can be very fun when done right. On the other hand, this is also par for the course. Infinity Ward doesn't do zombies, concentrating instead on the core single-player campaign and multiplayer experiences.
This single player campaign picks up where 2019 Modern Warfare left off and introduces a few new characters and villains and places them in a globe hopping adventure to track down some stolen missiles. There may have been a chance to insert some social or political commentary but that opportunity is never even close to attempted. This game tells you where to point your weapon and when to the fire the trigger and ours is not to reason why, ours are but to do and die. I have elsewhere seen this decision met with criticism. I'm going to stay out of that because I fear that had the developers or publisher try and make a commentary, its such thin ice on which to tread. Face it, this is a murder simulator combat simulator and any choice to get on a morality soapbox almost surely would have come across as ham-fisted and unnecessary, no matter how sincere the thought behind it.
So you step in, an instrument of destruction amongst a team of similarly capable operators to make an arsenal of war and do your best to level your talents in the shadows, before actual articles of war or a declaration of such need be levied. Chase down the missiles, follow the terrorists who hold them by tracking down the cartel who harbor them, and kill your way through the opposition until you get the answers you need. The missions have a decent variety, but are mostly played on rails. Even when they don't seem like they are, the spaces are still pretty limited in reality. That's okay, because it's not a game that confuses itself with some open world shooter. It wants to ferry you quickly between the scenes and play out the story one act at a time. At times you are the hunter, at others the hunted. There are some levels that incorporate stealth, others where you roar behind the engine of vehicles and blast under the weight of machine guns mounted to them. While none particular stand out as instant classics like some previous mission entires in Modern Warfare lore (lookin at you All Ghillied Up and No Russian), there are attempts to break new ground. Like a stealth section where you direct an NPC through a gauntlet via security cams. Or a rudimentary crafting system in certain levels that adds a bit of guerrilla improvisation to the Modern Warfare trope.
The presentation plays out very much like a Michael Bay film. Shoot shoot shoot, drive, explosion, some over-the-top exposition in a monologue, shoot some more. All it's missing is the classic Michael Bay swooping camera shots and lens flares. The game moves fast without ever really saying anything and is more an exposition of playing it cool and posturing than really digging into a meaty storyline, but the shooting is cool and the cutscenes largely just move you from one opportunity to squeeze the trigger to the next. It's no Shakespeare, but it's also not getting in the way, so just enjoy the ride and don't take it too seriously. It won't let you anyway, as the characters are just over the top enough that you must suspend disbelief in between the two or three times they play the same gag, and again where they tease a face reveal for Ghost only for the camera to never pan over to his mug until the mask is back on.
What stands out the most is just how insanely gorgeous this game looks on next-gen systems. This is by far the best the series has ever looked. This is surely made possible by the new game engine. Back in June, Infinity Ward was talking about the engine's ability to produce a "physically based material system allowing for state-of-the-art photogrammetry, a new hybrid tile-based streaming system, a new PBR decal rendering system, world volumetric lighting, 4K HDR, as well as a new GPU geometry pipeline." As the announcement blog claimed: "All of this is in service of a massive cinematic Campaign." And it shows.
However, all that processing power and devotion to the graphics might have let a few bugs slip through. It appears PC players are getting it worse, but I hit a few of my own on PS5, and I was playing post-release. I caught a loop on the final level that would crash my game a few seconds after every re-load of the save. The first time I tried to play co-op my right thumbstick wouldn't accept any input. These incidents were fairly isolated and nothing re-loading from an earlier point didn't fix for me, but still a bit concerning - if not par for the course. Call of Duty games always are on tight deadlines to hit the shelves in time for the holiday season and rarely seem to have smooth launches. I'm sure those two are related. They also are supported and grow over time, getting better and bigger through frequent releases.
Which brings us to the multiplayer. It's a little sparse out of the gate. The game itself releases with no active season or season rewards in play. Season 01 doesn't actually begin until later this week and I had half a mind of holding the review until it did drop, but then realized it wasn't going to move the needle much when it did, if at all. It would "feel" like there was more going on; but really an extra map or two, some XP boosts, and some new skins aren't going to alter the review score.
The maps on offer are okay. You might have seen the one that represents a traffic jam at the border crossing where you can get wiped out repeatedly by exploding vehicles that litter the central corridor. But there are side corridors and I don't think it's as problematic as some of the clips circling the world wide webs make it out to be. In general, you have a competent twitch shooter with a range of multiplayer game modes that will probably enjoy lots of busy lobbies over the next year and will grow over time with regular updates. Sometimes guns within a archetype have some samey-ness to themm but really I chalk that up more to being a twitch shooter than a fault of the weapon design. When everything is meant to kill fast it muddies the waters a bit.
It is missing any multiplayer related trophies however, so from my perspective the mode is a bit of a throwaway. I can play it if I enjoy it or just leave it be as I'm not locked in to grinding out a prestige reset as the last step before earning a Platinum for the game. There are a few trophies related to the new co-op mode. I had that rough patch with the no thumbstick input on my first go and I can't say things got a whole lot better form there. There are three maps, each with different objectives. The first has you traipsing about searching for nuclear materials, the second incorporates more driving elements, and the third is as close as we get to a horde mode - defending against enemy waves. My issue is that there is no self-revive after death. You got one life to finish the mission and unless you really have a dedicated partner, the mode itself doesn't lend itself to completion. There is matchmaking but more likely than not I seem to jump into a match where my teammate has no inclination to work as a team. One of us ends up dying quick and the co-op just becomes another solo endeavor in a realm meant to overwhelm solo play.
Really, I just wish we had a Zombies experience... That's a mode when done well can cater to both solo and cooperative play but... I know, I know - that's not Infinity Ward's thing. And besides were it anything like the disaster that last years' Vanguard was then we're better off with nothing at all.
The single player campaign in Modern Warfare II easily surpasses the other recent entries, the visuals in this game easily surpasses anything we've seen in Call of Duty yet, and there is room for this game to continue to grow with the regular updates and expansions it is sure to get. I'm not sold on the co-op mode just yet, but maybe as I chase those related trophies I'll find some more mission focused teammates in the lobbies. Hope to see you there...
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...