Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II Review
Over the last nineteen years, there have been twenty consecutive yearly releases of Call of Duty. That is impressive and unheard of outside the sports genre. What makes the franchise so resilient and popular? Well, it has been remarkably consistent. Players know what type of shooter they are going to get and quality rarely drops far. Every fan has their favorite game, or moment, that they want to see replicated in future titles. So it is fitting that this year’s entry takes on the same moniker as the game released in 2009, changing only the style of the numerical because digits are old news. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II is what most would expect from the series, with a passable campaign and great multiplayer.
In the campaign, you play as soldiers from Task Force 141, in a story that follows on with characters from the 2019 release. Playing mainly as Gaz and Soap, you will squad up with Captain Price and Ghost in an effort to track a terrorist named Hassan who seeks vengeance on the west. From the Middle-East to Mexico, the goal is to capture Hassan, learn of his plans, and try to avert disaster. Although there are head-scratching moments in the campaign, including releasing the bad guy, the characters and dialogue generally hold up. The linear narrative is easy to follow. It is also presented well, with slick transitions, great looking locations, and excellent atmosphere.
Mission variety in the campaign is good, with awesome scenarios. Players will snipe on the foggy coastline in Spain, assault an oilrig in turbulent seas, and flee down a mountain with Mexican Special Forces. The few house-breaching sequences are slightly different from Modern Warfare in 2019, with Soap and his night-vision goggles often left to clear interiors alone without that cool squad formation. Watch_Dogs fans might enjoy cycling through cameras and ordering a squadmate to stealthily kill guards in a compound—it bests the equivalent mission from three years ago. There is even a fun, albeit protracted, convoy chase that evokes Uncharted 4, letting players jump between trucks. One cool scenario uses the AC-130 to rain down pain from 7000 feet, and clever finishing touches make it the best gunship mission to date. There is definitely familiarity in the campaign, but the good missions are more like tributes than copies.
Unfortunately, any mission with stealth is usually poor. Stealth is basic, with mediocre level structure and no way to hide bodies from stubborn patrolling guards. It is artificial, with soldiers standing in a daze or moving after obvious trigger points. AI detection is poorly tuned. Enemies become temporarily lobotomized when you’re underwater, unable to see you floating right near the surface for an easy knife takedown. When sniping from a hillside, while wearing grass camouflage, random patrols walk leisurely around your hiding spot to create tension. This is a dynamic attempt to emulate All Ghillied Up (from CoD 4), but the implementation is fake and buggy. One covert mission even required backtracking to kill all guards, ruining one time when stealth was not awful. Cold War’s sneaky action had room for improvement, but it was better than what is here. This is why stealth is so disappointing: it stumbles despite how many times the franchise has taken a stab at it.
Crafting, bizarrely, plays a role in some of the covert scenarios. One of these takes place in the Mexican streets at night, while bad guys round up civilians and rain washes blood down the cobblestones. Like in The Last of Us, players keep a low profile and collect resources: chemicals, mouse-traps, metal, wax, and more. These are combined to make molotovs, mines, and other gadgets on-the-fly. Despite the great atmosphere, it compares badly to its inspiration and does not fit well into the franchise. Both crafting and stealth are combined in a terrible finale that almost negates all the good that came before.
The single player is more difficult than usual, and not just because of the inconsistent stealth. Killing innocent civilians is instant failure and happens often. Many enemy soldiers have armor, which gets annoying as they absorb a full clip (on Regular difficulty) before collapsing. Opposing forces also have inhuman skills, able to track movement through walls and land headshots when you round the corner. Friendly AI does not help much; enemies run past them and head straight to you, hiding in a back room.
So the campaign is a mixed bag. It is similar in quality to the 2019 release, but at least it is in a much better technical state. It is also longer than average, taking just under seven hours to complete. Overall it is worth pushing through the bad missions to play the good ones, and finishing will unlock rewards that can be used in multiplayer.
The multiplayer action is similar to Modern Warfare from 2019, which is a strong base to work off. This means it is a fraction slower than Cold War and Vanguard, with a short tactical sprint and more deliberate movement and handling. Players can vault walls and slide or dive, but with shooting delays to minimize their effectiveness in combat. One movement addition is a ledge-hang, which lets you fire a pistol while dangling on walls. A new lethal drill-charge bores through walls to kill pesky campers. These are both good but don’t have a huge impact on proceedings. It is still a relatively fast 6v6 shooter, as players can be aggressive in spurts when there are explosive distractions. Due to the tempered speed, at times the game plays like CoD 4, which is a great thing.
Like in previous games, the core gameplay remains solid. Shooting is still smooth and enjoyable. Kills are satisfying and deaths are quick. The recharging field upgrade options have been expanded, with a lot more gadgets, including an inflatable decoy, smoke screen, suppression mine, and mini-radar. Killstreaks, or scorestreaks, provide the typical short-lived benefits: stealth bombers, counter-UAVs, attack choppers, mortar strikes, VTOLs etc. These are still fun to deploy, especially to turn the tide of battle, but also punishing when you are on the other end.
Perk functionality has changed. Every player gets four perks but two are activated during the match, based on a timer that reduces with better performance. While the first perk is enabled quickly, the last—the so-called ultimate—takes a bit under half a game of Team Deathmatch. This approach changes how players behave. The early stages are simpler, as the UAV and other recon tools are more useful because Ghost (a perk that hides players) is not available yet. Also, with this delayed activation, players might be inclined to stick around, if they know they have an ace up their sleeve in the form of health regeneration after each kill, via the Quick Fix perk. The new perk system might be hard to get used to, but it does at least vary the action during a single match.
Unlocking weapons is not as simple as before. While some unlock based on player rank, as before, others are linked on a tech-tree style path, called a weapons platform; level a weapon to unlock its cousin. The new system is convoluted when it comes to attachments. If you want a reflex sight on the M4, you’ll have to level up the Kastov-74u, which is locked behind two other weapons. The upside is that many attachments are universal. It also makes for varied combat, because more people are using different weapons to get their unlocks. But it is not great for players with limited time, as they must use weapons they might not enjoy, just to get a gun close to how they want it. Although given how most attachments have multiple negative traits, unlocking them is not a huge boon. Ultimately the guns are still great to use, but the unlock system is unnecessarily confusing.
Most of the 6v6 modes are familiar. TDM, FFA, Hardpoint, Domination, Kill Confirmed, Search & Destroy, and Headquarters are just like in previous years. Most play well, especially the modes that force players to specific locations to negate passive behavior. There is also a third-person moshpit, which works better than expected. Two new modes allow players to be revived during matches. The first, Knock Out, has a bag of money that acts like the hot potato; kill enemies, or hold the potato when the time runs out. Prisoner Rescue has one team ferrying prisoners to an extraction point, while the other defends. In both these modes, being able to revive teammates can make for some long rounds and fun comebacks. Unfortunately the button for revive is the same as pickup weapon, so trying to revive teammates usually means you die while looking at some colorful weaponry.
There are two modes for large-scale action. Ground War returns, and it is still basically like conquest from Battlefield with 32 players per side. Players can spawn on vehicles, captured points, and squad mates, to attack or defend flags. Killstreaks are still completely overwhelming in this mode, due to the extra players, and it ruins the fun often. Many soldiers take up positions on rooftops, which is easy when you can spawn on a helicopter, but hurts the action. The Invasion (20v20) mode involves AI soldiers to create more of a chaotic war scenario. Like in Titanfall, AI soldiers deploy into battle and can be killed to earn points for your team. Killing real players, or vehicles, earns more points, and the goal is just to have the most points by the end. It’s a bit of a tug of war with an ambiguous frontline. The fun part is getting stuck behind enemy lines and trying to survive with enemies swarming. Invasion also drops care packages, so players who struggle to earn killstreaks will get a chance to unleash pain they have previously suffered.
The maps available for both small and large modes are varied. There are ten maps for the 6v6 modes and five for the big ones. Some small maps are subsets of the large maps, and some of those large ones are part of the upcoming Warzone 2.0 map—all roads lead to battle royale. The big ones look rough and have innumerable hiding spots, which is likely a byproduct of the Warzone design. Unlike in Vanguard, there are no destructible barriers or breakable doors in the standard 6v6 maps, so they retain the starting layout. Small-maps typically follow the three-lane design, but without rigid adherence. The Santa Sena Border Crossing map, which is technically three lanes, plays different because it is a long, narrow, curved road with hundreds of cars that explode and kill. There are some more traditional maps that have decent structure, like Farm 18 and Mercado Las Almas, but enemies can still spawn from behind. While there are no bad maps, none stand out as something that will be remembered in the years to come.
If adversarial multiplayer is too hectic, you can try the two-player co-op mode against AI soldiers. There are just three missions available at launch. One involves stealing three bomb parts in the dark. Another asks players to destroy three SAM sites in a valley, and the final survival mission has players defending three locations from incoming attackers. Players can revive each other when downed. And upon death, rather than dropping from the sky like three years ago, an ugly floating dogtag appears to use as a revive point. Unfortunately, none of the missions are interesting or fun. Objectives are bland and some parts are overly scripted. Even the survival mission is just six waves long.
The AI in co-op is abysmal, somehow worse than in Invasion and the campaign. They’re especially dumb on the edge of stealth, running back and forth like morons and taking cover on the wrong side of walls. In the mission where you defend a hill from attackers, they charge forth in a conga line and stand in the middle of the road. They also cheat. The enemies controlling the grenade launcher at the SAM sites know exactly where you are, lobbing grenades into the wall you’re sneaking behind, from halfway across the valley. In another mission, they will literally spawn on top of a building when a player gets in range, which looks terrible if you’re the sniper overwatch.
The co-op offers poor replay value. There are no difficulty options, you cannot play solo (unless a player leaves), and the scope is limited. Mission areas are too restrictive, so you cannot explore much or take shortcuts. All missions are easy, and it is only hard to achieve the maximum three stars in the SAM mission, due to an absurd time-limit that encourages charging into battle as RPG soldiers fire at your vehicle. And in that same mission, the boss will tell you to get another vehicle, immediately after the one you were driving explodes. Co-op has more bugs than both other modes combined. Dying spawns two bodies. Intel you collect appears locked in the menu. And keybinds get reset. Even disregarding tech issues, the co-op is the worst in the series for many years and, apart from sharing weapon leveling with multiplayer, it is best considered MIA.
Modern Warfare II provides what gamers expect from the long-running franchise. It is familiar and yet new enough to bring fans back, whether they play every single entry or only dive in when it feels like the right time and place. The campaign is decent thanks to fun missions, despite some poor stealth and difficulty quirks. And the multiplayer offers great fun after dozens of hours, in either the regular or large modes, to remain the most dependable part of the franchise. Free content in the upcoming seasons should at least offer more battlegrounds, challenges, and modes. So if you don’t mind waiting, it won’t take long to get a few extra perks.