A very high bar has been set for this year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II campaign. The original 2019 reboot of Modern Warfare gave us arguably the finest single-player experience in the entire series–something underlined by franchise stablemates Black Ops Cold War and Vanguard in 2020 and 2021 respectively, which have since proved much more forgettable than Infinity Ward’s new take on an old classic.
So here we are, three years on, with expectations dialed up to 11 after a couple of underachieving follow-ups. Surprisingly, MW2 fails to meet these high hopes immediately–unlike its precursor, it doesn’t start with the bang many will anticipate.
At least, this is metaphorically true; in the first couple of minutes, you use a massive missile to reduce baddies to a fine red mist. Yet Modern Warfare II’s early campaign missions are piecemeal, hands-off, scene-setting experiences compared to the first hour of MW in 2019, when a brutally atmospheric chemical gas sortie and a horrifying terrorist attack on London saw you sweating as many bullets as you fired.
Infinity Ward has opted to play out MW2’s story with a slower building, violent variety show structure–one that gets more exciting, intense, challenging, and genre-breaking as it goes. With it, the Modern Warfare II campaign offers a real change of pace, with stunning visuals, superb acting, and the most diverse mechanics that Call of Duty has ever offered.
With it, this latest addition to the series offers more memorable moments than its predecessor, even if it makes a few mistakes along the way.
The best-looking Call of Duty ever
Despite getting the all-new IW 9.0 engine, Modern Warfare II won’t immediately bowl players over in the same way Modern Warfare did three years ago, when the first reboot offered something so different from everything that came before, improving the franchise on almost every level. That said, the step up to next-gen consoles is obvious, at least on Xbox Series X.
MW2 is beautiful, consistently smooth, impeccably lit, and offers excellent draw distances. Its subtle motion blur feels true to your vision, and while focal blur isn’t always dependable–especially in open spaces with a lot going on, or when cutscenes force you to look at something specific–at its best, landscapes look like they would through your own eyes. Small, lifelike details, such as your character touching their face to speak on comms, raise a smile. You’ll even find garish beauty in its dynamic blood spatter, which catches the light perfectly.
The best proof of the game’s capabilities comes very early on, during a short sojourn to Oudekerksplein in Amsterdam–somewhere I’ve been a few times in person. The attention to detail is incredible; as you cross the OZ Voorburgwal bridge, a barge cuts through impressively rendered waters, while a low haze engulfs the top of the Oude Kerk tower, slowly dissipating under the morning sun. It’s exactly as I remember it; it feels alive.
The same can be said for Modern Warfare II’s many other locations: the overcast shores of Spain, neon-lit streets of Mexico, iconic American city skylines, and–like its predecessor–anything in glorious night vision. Each setting is more believable than the last. You’ll regularly annoy your squadmates as you listlessly stare at your surroundings–the sheer amount of mission prompt dialogue recorded for each character is a definite reflection of IW’s expectation that players will spend a lot of time gawping at backdrops.
A confusing story carried by excellent acting
As crystal clear as Modern Warfare II’s graphics may be, the same can’t quite be said for its story. This second reboot once again takes inspiration from well-known source material, but adds even more twists and turns to an already convoluted tale of intrigue and deception. In the rush to cram as much exposition as possible into the first couple of hours, it initially spreads the action relatively thinly.
However, its 17 missions bring several of the franchise’s iconic settings into the mix, even if they’re used for new purposes or alternative story exposition. Even if a certain blink-and-you-miss-it plot point goes over your head, the game’s cast is so superb, you happily fill the gaps yourself. Infinity Ward isn’t messing about–this is arguably the finest acting you’ll’ve seen in an FPS, even in spite of the occasional plot hole.
Teased at the end of 2019’s Modern Warfare, Simon “Ghost” Riley (played brilliantly by Samuel Roukin) and John “Soap” MacTavish (Neil Ellice) hit the ground running. Ghost–whose trademark balaclava is complemented by a skull piece like Game of Thrones’ Lord of Bones–takes a very vocal leadership role. Soap, The Most Scottish Man Ever, is his rough, buff, and incredibly gruff cohort. Between them, the duo offers a dark-comedy double act through thick and (mostly) thin, finally giving both characters the true depth they always promised–and a surprising amount of fraternal warmth.
General Shepherd is finally believable as a member of the modern U.S. military, trading his old Field Marshal Montgomery look for the smooth, stern face of veteran actor Glenn Morshower–the original MW’s Overlord. Sadly, Claudia Doumit’s excellent Farah is relegated to cameo status, and Laswell (Rya Kihlstedt) has a brief badass stint before falling victim to an inevitable trope, meaning the sole deep female performance falls on the shoulders of María Elisa Camargo, who steals the show as Mexican sicaria Valeria Garza–the most intimidating character in the game, if not the whole franchise.
Meanwhile, Mexican Special Forces operatives Alejandro Vargas (Alain Mesa) and Rodolfo Parra (Bayardo De Murguia)–underwritten roles, admittedly–still pack a punch, complementing series stalwarts Price (Barry Sloane) and Gaz (Elliot Knight), who fade in and out but nonetheless tie together most of the loose threads.
Complementing these great roles is the interactive ability to respond to conversational pop-ups, which appear throughout Modern Warfare II, fundamentally improving the storytelling and adding another level to combat situations–while punctuating rare moments of potential boredom.
One aspect of Modern Warfare 2019’s campaign that needed next-to-no tweaking was the combat. Thankfully, you still feel about ten feet tall, if only because other FPS games continue to set eye camera height too low. Weapons are weighty–if anything, they seem to pack even more of a punch, especially shotguns. For the first time, you feel perfectly comfortable with an entry-level handgun; MW2’s story emphasizes the importance of simply being armed.
Reflecting the narrative pace of MW2, a greater focus is placed on walking and jogging; you’re boosted by a double-tap sprint, which only lasts for two or three seconds at a time. Going from sprinting to prone is met with a sickening thud that you really feel. After holding your breath when sniping, your recovering aim seems more affected than ever. It all feels more realistic; you’re regularly reminded that both you and the enemy aren’t superheroes, just very well-trained.
Freshly-dead victims drop in sickeningly predictable ways and continue to fall or move with gravity long after they’ve snuffed it. Staged moments feel organic–a terrorist widow picking up a gun out of her dead husband’s hands, a stumbling grenadier who’s barely alive after a helicopter attack, or a surprise attack from behind a door all feel real and dynamic.
Combat has its problems, though. The introduction of Warzone’s breakable armor mechanic, both for yourself and your enemies, is a huge part of the MW2 experience, offering a real challenge even at standard difficulty. Sadly, it’s incredibly inconsistent. For one, you can sometimes find yourself pounding five close-range shotgun shells into an armored enemy, and they won’t even break stride. Even worse is the act of breaking an enemy’s helmet; the stumbling reaction animation often makes them temporarily invincible, meaning you have to wait for them to raise their gun again to land the death shot.
Stealth, too, doesn’t feel particularly well-executed. In the several sections that encourage a softly-softly approach, you come away from them suspecting there’s only one very specific way to successfully navigate or neutralize enemies. Anything less than perfection seems to result in a hail of bullets, and you might just resort to sitting in a corner of a room with a silenced gun, obliterating anyone foolish enough to walk through the doorway with four dead bodies stacked in it.
Luckily, there are plenty of other strengths to distract you from these occasional combat shortcomings, even if they throw up a few problems of their own.
A real variety show
Much like its predecessor, MW2 revels in giving you incredibly diverse gameplay styles, with countless hat-tips to the original series. Sure, you have your ghillie suits and death from above, but in the game’s mid-to-late missions, it pulls out all the stops.
Some work wonderfully. Following the harrowing US Embassy siege in Modern Warfare–during which you guided Stacy to safety with the use of video surveillance–MW2 uses the same mechanic to place the shoe firmly on the other foot, and to great effect. Without giving anything away, gravity plays a brutal but brilliant part in the second half of “Dark Water”–one of the game’s several moments of pure genius.
In what may be the Modern Warfare II’s most memorable mission–coming close to the perfection of MW 2019’s “Clean House”–“Alone” introduces you to on-the-fly crafting, using wax, metal, binding, and more to create a number of items to help you navigate your way to the end of a mission, which itself channels Resident Evil 7 levels of horror, despair, loneliness, and suspense, forcing you to think on your feet in more ways than one.
However, the most notable addition comes in “Violence and Timing”, which debuts Warzone’s third-person driving mechanic in a mainline campaign. The mission is thrilling, even if its vehicle handling model belongs firmly to the PS2 era.
Sometimes, you’re bowled over by multiple new mechanics, perhaps best showcased in a late mission, which plays out like a memorable boss battle from Manhunt. It’s the perfect example of Modern Warfare II’s campaign in a nutshell: an experience that routinely thrusts you into a weird situation with a combination of tasks, quickly resulting in one or many successive quick deaths as you barely grasp what the hell’s going on.
It feels like MW2 is trying to do too much because each of its new ideas feels about 90% complete. Each one seems to suffer from a small glitch or a simple lack of explanation that sees you die quickly–and, sometimes, repeatedly–creating multiple sticking points and resulting in a fundamental breakdown of the campaign’s flow.
Hiding behind doors doesn’t work in stealth sections, as enemies can enter the room and trap you, detect your presence but not be able to kill you, forcing a checkpoint reload. An unavoidable encounter in your ghillie suit sees enemies comb the area, always homing into where you’re placed–but you’ll only avoid them if you’re in a specific environment. The driving section hinges on moving between vehicles, but jumping requires weird timing and often sees you insta-deathing on the road.
Exacerbating this and many other glitches is Modern Warfare II’s checkpoint system, which is shockingly inconsistent. For the most part, it either feels like you’re forced to redo the same long section again–repetitive dialogue and all–or you need to react in milliseconds to repel the same charging enemy, or simply try to understand the task at hand. At higher difficulties, it can ruin the flow of the story and action, when key moments turn to never-ending obstacles–and this continues through to the final stages of the last mission, which itself is a bit of a hot mess.
Taking the long road
For all its faults, Modern Warfare II is a deserving follow-up, even if it may not quite match the first outing’s highs. The biggest surprise is just how long it feels to complete. My initial playthrough took around 11 hours–admittedly with a lot of repetitive deaths and rubbernecking–but just when you think you’re out, it pulls you back in.
Every time you overcome a “boss” or get an open-ended but final-sounding line of dialogue from Price, you gear up for the titles, simply assuming the next part of the fight will be in the sequel. But it just keeps going. While this suspension of closure eventually gets a little exhausting–not least as its final level lacks the gravity that so many earlier points in the game delivered in spades–but it remains a triumph.
Much like Modern Warfare 2019 before it, the post-credits sequence promises a bombastic finale with yet another nod to its contentious heritage. The best may be yet to come.