Call of Duty again returns to current times with beloved developer Infinity Ward directing Modern Warfare II.
A follow-up to 2019′s Modern Warfare after the series took multiple pitstops in historical settings, the latest fittingly arrives with sensible modernizations across its many offerings.
New physics, A.I., vehicles and more pepper the upgrades list for a game that makes a by-the-books story interesting with surprising gameplay variety and a multiplayer scene revamped with fresh-feeling modes and additions.
The result is again a COD release that won't necessarily blindside old and new players alike. But MWII has the groundwork of a robust offering that explains the series' dominance and the potential to be the best in said series, making it quite the potential feat.
Graphics and Gameplay
It isn't a stretch to classify MWII as one of the most impressive feats of graphical performance out there.
Characters, in or out of cutscenes, have arguably the most realistic facial expressions and lip-synching to grace video games yet. Their mannerisms and behavior in action don't often spoil the immersion with robotic actions, either.
Momentum physics, lighting and shadows, water physics and even limb-accurate physics impacts are all top of the line—and impressively so given how buttery smooth the game runs at all times.
The game trumpets a new behind-the-scenes engine and the levels themselves in campaign or multiplayer stress this nicely. Perhaps the best example is the noteworthy destructibility of buildings in each. It's not full-blown Battlefield-style destruction by any means, but it's a welcome, next-generation feeling addition to the series that was desperately needed.
This applies to minor details like vehicles too, where shooting out tires, for example, will have the realistic ramifications visually and gameplay-wise.
There isn't a franchise in gaming that can match these production values. Much of the game takes place in breathtaking Mexico but a brief stop to somewhere like Amsterdam is a dramatic tonal shift that stresses the immense attention to detail, to the point one would think the entire game takes place in Amsterdam given the immersion factor.
It's worth pointing out the sheer scale of some levels, too. One notable level begins with targets far, far in the distance before things go awry in predictable fashion. The player has to advance to what they were scoping from afar in what is a lengthy trek highlighted by enemies attempting to meet them halfway. It morphs from a long-range level to stealth, then infiltration, actually culminating underground. The result is what might've been multiple levels on lesser consoles neatly packed into one entertaining thrill ride of a level.
But the presentation also swings the other way. When MWII dials it down to a small-scale level, multiple routes open to the player, and uber-rich details, inside and out, provide a stunning dose of immersion and therefore realism of the threat enemies present in close quarters.
The game isn't content to let players forget about a fantastic physics system, either. One mission aboard a cargo ship stuck in a massive storm at sea tasks players with fighting an uphill battle against enemies while also dodging sliding containers that can crush them instantly—a fate that befalls the enemies too.
Sound design is of course splendid, with directional audio of all the booms, shouts, weather effects and more registering nicely. Even the voice acting is superb despite some of the silliness the actors had to work with.
Gunplay, both in presentation and execution, is merely what 99 percent of video games in the genre aspire to achieve.
Each weapon packs a punch with distinct sounds and recoil direction. Being on the receiving end of them is equally as distinct. Controls for vehicles across the board fall under what feels like an arcade banner though with loose steering. It's hard to complain, though, seeing as this is COD and not Forza and the like.
This year's release also introduces additions and/or upgrades in the form of smooth swimming and grappling on ledges to name a few. The latter is great in the story mode but leaves players exposed with nothing but a sidearm for a little too long in the hectic multiplayer. Players can also hurdle things, mount guns on surfaces and unleash a wide variety of gadgets like stun grenades, as expected.
Take note that this is a slower COD, with slide spams and bunnyhopping largely gone and sprinting heavily punished. The time-to-kill remains lightning fast so kills are more about quick reactions than recoil control, but there is a slightly more methodical pitch to the action, which is a nice change of pace.
One of the big presentation-gameplay problems recent COD games had was visibility, especially in multiplayer. The inability to quickly diagnose whether another player is a teammate or foe is completely gone thanks to friendlies' proximity chatter and a blue dot above their heads.
As a whole, MWII isn't going to feel too different to veteran players, and that's not such a bad thing given the solid foundation. It's the heavy lifting the presentation and level design add to the equation that helps it shine as opposed to harming it.
Smooth might be the best word to describe the gameplay. It's much like its predecessor in that it's a very methodical romp in story mode and wants to be in multiplayer as well, which it is to some degree.
Story, Multiplayer and More
The actual quality of the storytelling in MWII will be a letdown for those hoping for more of what the predecessor provided. There, the story really dialed in on the all-too-human aspects of war and depicted individuals grappling with outright atrocities at ground level. It was refreshing and uncomfortable.
Here? Things are much more cookie-cutter, as if the goal was to apologetically dial it back. This is the expected ho-rah friends blasting up enemies together shtick with predictable twists. It wouldn't be so bad had the predecessor not forged ahead bravely into such interesting grounds, and it's not bad, but it is a little disappointing.
Quality of the story aside, the campaign is just wicked fun.
MWII wears many, many hats across its extensive story mode. There are the typical COD-infused classics like serving as the eye-in-the-sky aerial support or a hostage scenario. And the game, especially early, dives into those breach-and-clear scenarios that are splendidly paced and laced with more tension than most games ever manage to achieve.
But there are all fun innovative chunks borrowed right from other games and genres. One mission might see the player hijacking moving vehicles GTA-style. Another might be a third-person tactical experience while directing teammates through danger. Another might be a straight-up survival horror-ish romp through dark alleys. And yet another is a Hitman-styled infiltration, albeit lightly.
Not all of these mixups are done super well, but they do offer some oh-wow moments as COD leaves its comfort zone for other genres. Some of them overstay their welcome by dragging on for too long. And amid all this, there isn't that one standalone stunner of a mission that will go remembered like a "No Russian."
But the never-know-what's-happening-next feel to the campaign is a downright blast. This isn't the COD of old where players fight through waves and waves of enemy checkpoints. Some might lament a few of these offerings are rehashes of old missions, which to a degree is fair, but new settings, stories and just generally improving the formula—while having fun—makes it a moot point.
And about that multiplayer.
It would be a disservice to the quality and consistency of gunplay and overall gameplay to call this just what players would expect from Call of Duty. The series, after all, spent the last two years in the Cold War and World War II, so there's strangely some nostalgia involved in going back to this modern, tactical setting.
There, players will find the usual suspects like team deathmatch, domination, hardpoint and free-for-all lobbies to tackle.
Invasion or Ground War, the big player-count modes, also return. The former throws bots into the fray of what is really just a big team deathmatch battle while the latter thankfully features some tight layouts and design that leave it feeling a little less chaotic than past renditions.
We threw in a Battlefield mention before and that's worth doing again with this year's game adding the ability to spawn into things like transport helicopters before diving down into the fray. It's a nice addition that provides more nuance and possible strategy to the experience.
Prisoner Rescue (exactly what it sounds like) and Knock Out (secure bag, hold it for a minute) are the big new additions that are a downright blast. Each mode features no respawns, but players can revive teammates. It's a pair of modes ripe for big competitive scenes.
Oddly, there is the debut of a third-person mode in multiplayer within its own game mode. This provides the obvious ability to peek around obstacles without exposing oneself to fire (in other FPS games, players might emote to pull the camera back in third person to accomplish the same thing, for what it's worth). But it's otherwise clunky, and in true third-person fashion, players can only scope down sights with high magnifications.
Gunsmith returns with some highs and lows. Going back to just five weapon attachments is nice and being able to dive in after level 20 and fine-tune each for give-and-take stat changes is nice. But the overall user interface is a confusing mess of pop-ups and complex button prompts that could use a next-generation overhaul.
Multiplayer map design goes the expected and unexpected routes. There are some fun three-lane affairs and interesting verticality that will keep things fresh. Then there's a single-lane map with junk scattered about and horrific spawns that will undoubtedly go down as one to avoid.
The popular Spec Ops mode is back but with only three missions. These are much grander than ones from the past and players are free to tackle things as they see fit, but they do feel slapped under the Spec Ops umbrella just to get the name in there.
With any luck, notable omissions (stat tracking?) and problems (the messy UI, etc.) will see solutions in future patches. Because otherwise, this is COD multiplayer at its peak.
As an aside, no matter how great the multiplayer is, it's clearly starting to take a backseat in popularity to Warzone (which has a new iteration on the way) and the very intriguing DMZ mode, which could have huge Escape from Tarkov vibes.
There's nothing wrong with the traditional multiplayer fading out of relevance for a period of time as Warzone-like modes dominate the market. It's still there and dominates its niche regardless, but is worth noting.
As expected, MWII rarely experiences a performance hiccup. Checklist items like loadouts, daily and other challenges, droves of options and more persist too. If there's a major complaint, it's that UI across the board feels more like a mobile game or even streaming-service interface than a gaming one.
Now more than two seasons strong, Call of Duty League again returns with an extensive schedule of events and a way for players to engage with the content.
Like its predecessors, MWII has the framework in place to support a healthy esports environment within the game itself.
It sure doesn't hurt the gameplay and maps should make for great entertainment value too.
The skill gap and strategy that goes into overall strategy, map traversal and gunplay should be a blast to watch. It's clear developers wanted to remove things like slide spam, yet players have seemingly already found a workaround and will undoubtedly do so again if it goes addressed.
As such, the meta and skill-gap will hinge on players mastering those movement sets. There aren't as many new maps as last year's game, but what's there is intriguing enough as an appetizer of sorts before any updates or additions.
As expected, the esports scene shouldn't have any problems continuing to thrive at a time where others (such as Overwatch) have floundered in the wake of newer competition. Call of Duty will remain, at least in part because of the shot of energy MWII provides.
Modern Warfare II doesn't quite match the heights of its long-gone predecessor of the same name. But in a modern gaming environment where regulars like Battlefield have fallen from grace, it's impressive to see how well it handles so much.
In fact, MWII is a mostly impressive feat with so much attention otherwise thrown at Warzone. This is the most fun a COD campaign has provided in years, it was unafraid to take risks, and the multiplayer unabashedly leans into its strengths as well as ever.
MWII won't win over past detractors much, but it does once again stress why the series sits atop the mountain. The game is stunningly gorgeous, technically sound as any on the market and just straight-up fun in story or multiplayer romps.
The fun factor is what got COD here in the first place, with the polish, calculated risks and the rest found in MWII being what will keep it there.