Modern Warfare 2 Complete Impressions

A couple weeks ago Activision took a group drawn from members of the videogame media up to a resort in Santa Barbara for an intensive couple of days playing the freshly completed Modern Warfare 2. Extravagant? Sure, but that goes with the territory for a game that's become one of the biggest entertainment franchises in pop culture. The trip wasn't without utilitarian value either. The relative seclusion the setting provided made it easier to shut out distraction and focus on the game. Such an ideal setup also felt a little too removed from the real world to base a fair review on. So take this as impressions then from playing the full game.

You probably already know whether you're buying Modern Warfare 2. For that matter, there's a good chance you already pulled that trigger and have the game. Either way, what you really want to know is "so what's it like?" For vets of Modern Warfare this sequel gets you back into the flow of combat so smoothly you'll almost forget how long it's been between the two titles. And, particularly through the first half of the single-player campaign, it brings out the strengths that made Modern Warfare an overnight sensation.

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In the series' signature style the story moves around the globe taking you to locations exotic, intense, and sometimes disconcertingly familiar. While it certainly helps to have played the previous game, Modern Warfare 2 moves five years on from the first and builds its own storyline filling in the background where necessary.

Early on it all looks right on track and primed to deliver one the more intense shooter experiences ever. Tensions build rapidly and full-scale hostilities have broken out only a couple hours in. And then it takes a surprising turn. Call of Duty always differed from the pack by establishing this sense that you played a part -- albeit a critical one -- in the bigger scheme of things. After setting the scene for great battles and letting you take part in the first few, Modern Warfare 2 turns introspective.

It seems almost as if a screenwriter came in halfway through and decided to make it personal. A twisted web of conspiracies whisks you away from the battlefield. In its stead you find yourself thrust into a game that feels much more like it should have Bond or Clancy in the name than Call of Duty. Over the last couple of missions it degenerates into a confuddled mess that culminates in a hokey overwrought ending.

But you didn't really come for the story anyway, did you? Modern Warfare 2 hits plenty of action high notes. It does so, though, in a way that at times come across as covering the bases. For instance, there's a section clearly intended to take the place of the AC130 mission from the first game. But its replacement neither has the emotional impact of the eerie detachment as the spotter called out targets nor the raw feeling of power the heavy weapons on the gunship provided. Similarly, many of the set pieces while enjoyable feel like things that have been done over and over in games. Weapon caches too conveniently placed obvious ways the designers intended for you to play through a situation heighten the sense of déjà vu.

But you probably didn't come just for the single-player either. In that case you're in luck. Modern Warfare gained a lot of notoriety as the game that took the LIVE crown away from Halo. Modern Warfare 2 cements the series' place as the preeminent online shooter across both consoles: 360 and PS3. On PC it still holds its own but forcing matchmaking on a community that relishes its ability to choose will turn some away. No two ways around it.

Sixteen maps for competitive play ship with the game and they provide plenty of diversity to keep matches fresh for a while. Modes run the expected gamut from classic Free-for-All to Headquarters with the team-based variants still the most fun. The level advancement system returns along with the unlocks that let you access new weapons and perks. And while much concern was raised over the death streak perks they seemed to work as intended to help those who hit a bad streak get back in the game without throwing things completely out of balance.

With the new cooperative Spec Ops mode developer Infinity Ward hit the perfect compliment that completes the multiplayer offering. Born out of the speed runs fans took to making on the "Mile High" level that followed the credits in Modern Warfare, these mini-missions task you, and a partner if you want, with a variety of objectives. Some are as easy as defending an area from attack; others as offbeat as a snowmobile time trial. And nothing beats manning the side chain gun on a helicopter covering your partner on the ground as they try to advance.

More than ever before multiplayer is what Modern Warfare 2 is all about. Just looking at the volume of content alone makes the readily apparent. But it's more than that. Single-player isn't bad by any stretch; it packs the expected flash and offers plenty of opportunities to blow stuff up in grand style. There's also no denying the sense, heightened by how quickly you'll reach its end, that it also serves as a tune-up for the multiplayer main event. With the competitive modes to drive your obsession and Spec Ops as the perfect palate cleanser it's entirely likely Modern Warfare 2 might be the only thing many play for the next several months.