War has long been a province of video games. Dozens of titles have pulled players onto the front lines of large-scale military conflicts, some ripped from the pages of history and others scarcely true to reality.
But it wasn't until playing “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” that I first said to myself of such a game, “This is war.” It's chaotic, it's incomprehensible, and your adrenaline surges. And that's just the single-player campaign.
The first-person shooter from Infinity Ward moves the “Call of Duty” series back to the contemporary milieu that also spawned the 2007 mega-hit “Modern Warfare.” In the near future, the United States falls at the mercy of Russia. Terrorist Vladimir Makarov frames an American for an airport massacre in Moscow, igniting anti-American fervor and prompting a full-scale Russian military invasion of Washington.
Casting the player as a few different soldiers balances the campaign's more blitzing warfare in Washington with stealthier episodes of an anti-terrorism unit hunting down Makarov in Brazil and Eastern Russia.
At its core, the mission structure is the same as most first-person shooters: Raid this, defend that. Shoot a bunch of people. But there's a unique frenzy to “Modern Warfare 2.” Orders are rarely understood as cars explode and bullets buzz overhead. Take a spare second to line up a shot, and the screen speckles with crimson as your soldier is cut down by gunfire. Reloading can be a tense few seconds if you have the misfortune of running a magazine dry before killing your target.
Players can't be cautious at this unrelenting pace of combat. Sometimes they must leap before looking, and the thrill of barreling into an enemy bunker with guns blazing or recklessly jumping toward a distant rooftop soars when done so successfully. For the unsuccessful risks, a quick-loading checkpoint system spares players any repetitious play before reaching the trouble spot again.
The thrilling combat peaks with scenes like a thermal-vision shoot-out aboard a smoke-bombed oil rig off the Russian coast and a jaunt through enemy-occupied burger joints in a Virginian suburb. The Predator drone, which pops up in the latter mission, is a missile the player guides with satellite optics into clusters of enemies. It's a respite from the scope of a rifle, and it satisfies with the swiftness of its wrath.
The player's brigade eventually moves on to D.C., where charred landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building slowly materialize on a burnt orange horizon as the player emerges from a bunker in a breathtaking sequence. D.C. and most other maps are festooned with detail, cover points and high ground, but the action permits few moments of gazing.
Only one mission relaxes the pressure enough for players to process what's taking place - but it's far from relaxing. As an American spy infiltrating Makarov's ranks, players take part in the airport massacre orchestrated by the terrorist to ultimately pin on the protagonist. Most of the level consists of Makarov and his men mowing down screaming civilians as they flee. The priority of the mission precludes the player from stopping the gunmen - but there's also no compulsion to take aim at the innocent travelers. Whether the player does so - and why - invites an intriguing moral dialogue amid the game's more instinctual kill-or-be-killed action.
Less murky are the multiplayer modes of “Modern Warfare 2.” The revolutionary online multiplayer mode returns with kill streak rewards that unlock new offense and a host migration feature that keeps the matches rolling. There are few video game activities more addictive than leveling up one's soldier through deathmatch circuits that cycle from one astoundingly deep map to the next.
The game's Special Ops give pairs a chance at cooperative play while mastering the far ends of “Modern Warfare 2's” arsenal, from sniper rifles to mines to Predator drones, in challenging standalone missions that almost match the fun of online multiplayer.
As war goes, “Modern Warfare 2” is a hell of a thrill.
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If you play.
Game: “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”
Parental rating: Mature for blood, drug reference, intense violence, language
Developer: Infinity Ward
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows
Play: Single, local and online multiplayer
The final boss: “Modern Warfare 2” mixes a compelling campaign with addictive multiplayer for an unparalleled first-person action experience.