Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II’s campaign, reviewed


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II (Campaign mode)

Available on: PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One

Developer: Infinity Ward | Publisher: Activision

This review contains spoilers for the campaign of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II.”

The online discourse fired up almost as soon as “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II′s” campaign mode came online last week. The first mission — literally seconds into the game — features a soldier providing visual confirmation of a terrorist leader’s presence at a meeting with the Iranian military. Following the confirmation of identity, the player pilots a rocket to destroy everyone attending the meeting.

The scene drew comparisons on Twitter to the Pentagon-ordered drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January of 2020 outside of the airport in Baghdad. The comparison was made easier by the fact the game’s character looks like Soleimani.

A few missions later, the player is whisked to the U.S.’s border with Mexico as a terrorist leader sneaks over the fence and disappears into a border town, a fear often cited by proponents of building “the wall” and enforcing tighter border control.

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, border security and the killing of a military leader of a country with which the U.S. is not at war are heady, multifaceted topics. And yet these are the sorts of subjects Call of Duty games typically home in on, seeking to offer up the kinds of gritty, ripped-from-the-headlines plots that animate films like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Sicario.” But in contrast with those films, Call of Duty offers these up as setpieces — just empty calorie spectacle. It’s no surprise then that these games often attract criticism for, at the least, appearing distasteful, or worse, villainizing entire nations.

It’s a shame, because aside from the handful of questionable storytelling decisions, “Modern Warfare II” provides a welcome, hard 180 from the substance-less veneer of “Vanguard’s” campaign. What’s more, the varied and gripping gameplay far outshines its story.

The questionable narrative beats aren’t new to Call of Duty, or even to the Modern Warfare branch of the franchise; the first installment of the “Modern Warfare” reboot from 2019 provides a clear example. In that game, a scene depicted the infamous “highway of death” — in which Iraqi soldiers fleeing in a column of vehicles were killed by U.S. warplanes — and relayed it as a tale of Russians killing civilians in the game. In another early-game scene, Russian soldiers tear through a city killing civilians and chasing after children. The plot points so soured a popular Russian streamer who had been contracted to promote the game, he refused Activision’s money.

It is not that terrible things don’t happen in this world, particularly in wars, nor that they cannot be retold in art. But there is a way to engage with them sincerely, and then there is the way they surface in the Call of Duty universe. They don’t really feel like considered meditations. They feel like shock value.

There is absolutely a good in raising awareness of past atrocities so they do not recur. But it hits quite differently when you parachute into a video game, are told an entire nation of people — who actually exist — are the bad guys and exist almost entirely for players’ target practice and then chopper off into the sunset. That is not thoughtful exploration of a topic, that’s sensationalism. A franchise that spends millions upon millions developing games can probably afford to exert a little more creativity and nuance in this department.

The way these controversial scenes or moments are sprinkled throughout the franchise, it starts to feel like Call of Duty is trying to court this kind of attention as a way of being edgy. I’m not sure that’s the best approach for either the game makers or the audience. For me at least, it notably dimmed my enjoyment.

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In comparison to past installments of the franchise, the major plot points of the rebooted “Modern Warfare II” are not particularly controversial. When the original “Modern Warfare II” released in 2009, the game opened with players in the role of an American agent embedded in a Russian terrorist cell who proceeds to shoot up an airport filled with unarmed civilians. The event triggers a war between the U.S. and Russia, which serves as the backdrop for the game as it whips the player into various roles around the globe in an epic, summer blockbuster-type story.

The 2022 version of “Modern Warfare II” is narrower in scope and tries to ground itself more in recent geopolitics, albeit not particularly well. Following the missile strike, the leadership void in the terrorist cell is filled by a lieutenant who has acquired long-range American missiles for use against targets in the U.S. A task force led by British SAS Capt. John Price hops from Amsterdam to Mexico to Chicago chasing terrorists and the missiles and uncovering a coverup by a rogue American general and a group of military contractors that makes the minimal amount of sense required to stitch together a variety of playable missions.

But as the game’s storyline hews closer to a real world in which Russia has invaded Ukraine and border control is a hotly contested topic ahead of a major midterm election in the U.S., some of the game’s scenes may not come across as the game’s designers intended. (And if they did land as intended, that would raise a number of other questions.)

Then again, the game doesn’t really give the player much time to sit and reflect on any of these points it raises. They surface and disappear quickly. The bullets start flying, and you’re more concerned about finding cover than thinking about the inscrutable plot. Which may be for the best: the simulation looks and feels great. It’s just a shame some of the story’s missteps distract from that.

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“Modern Warfare 2” looks stunning, with locations crafted with an astounding amount of detail. The characters’ faces look real, as though captured by a 4K camera on a Hollywood set. It is also applause-worthy for how the latest Call of Duty expands beyond the franchise’s traditional on-the-rails, first-person shooter experience.

The memorable missions of past “Modern Warfares” are all present and accounted for, with the firefights interspersed with stealth and the seemingly mandatory stint providing air support from an AC-130. But there’s also a ghillie suit mission that feels almost like the map is totally open, allowing players to range far and wide as they approach, snipe down on, and then infiltrate a fishery and its adjacent lighthouse. Another ups the difficulty as players battle bad guys on the deck of a cargo ship in a storm, massive containers crashing from one side to the other, creating a kind of first-person “Frogger” level. Later in the game, the stealth mission gets a MacGuyver twist, as players must scavenge household items to craft makeshift traps to help them evade enemies. In several instances, players also get access to a backpack, which further extends their inventory beyond the typical loadout of two guns and one type of lethal and tactical grenades.

When the full game rolls out on Oct. 28 and when Warzone 2.0 is introduced in November, it seems certain the backpack and crafting elements will carry over to some multiplayer modes. That would be a welcome development, as both bolster the ability of smart, thoughtful play instead of just sprinting through the map with guns blazing. This version of “Modern Warfare II” builds upon the 2019 release’s emphasis on tactical planning and methodical map clearing. If you spend the campaign sprinting around corners, you will frequently find a foe with a shotgun aimed at your face, followed by a red screen. Players also must take care where they aim, if they are careless with their shots and clip a civilian or (when in the AC-130) damage a structure with civilians inside, the game fails you.

But then there’s a part of the game where one mechanic snapped me directly back to the “What the heck are you thinking?” type of questions that tend to define critical discussion around Call of Duty games. In one mission, playing as Mexican cops who chased the aforementioned terrorist across the U.S. border, players are instructed to “calm” civilians as the cops run through their homes in the border town. The way you calm said civilians is by aiming your gun at them. This does not need to be in the game. It boggles the mind that it is.

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The defense of these decisions usually resolves to “it’s just a video game,” but that line is often delivered by the same people who are quick to note that video games are more profitable than the film and music industry. Call of Duty’s ad campaigns — which have showcased the game’s resonance by highlighting the excitement of a host of popular celebrities for the game — illustrate how big a deal it is when a new Call of Duty drops. The game will be bought and played by millions. What the game shows to that audience matters.

As enjoyable as “Modern Warfare II” is — and it is certainly enjoyable on the whole — the moments when the story prompts uncomfortable real-world questions about the game’s intentions shatter its illusion of immersive entertainment. In those moments, I forget about whatever it is that Capt. Price and Co. are tasked with doing and just wonder what people were thinking when they made the decision to include whatever cringeworthy moment I just witnessed. As Infinity Ward plunges ahead with this story — teasing an upcoming Russian attack during a mid-credits cutscene that includes a nod to the airport massacre from the original “Modern Warfare 2” — they’d do well to devote a little more scrutiny to such decisions.