The Call of Duty campaign seems more and more like a dying breed of game. Fewer and fewer major studios are interested in making a single-player-only shooter with a story that takes six or so hours to finish.
I’ve often found Call of Duty campaigns to be interesting simply for continuing to exist. They’re always lavish, technical showcases for a series fighting every year to stay relevant. For the teams making them, campaigns are a reminder that there’s more to Call of Duty than its air-sucking, conversation-dominating multiplayer.
And even when they’re out of ideas, Call of Duty campaigns are consistently entertaining.Modern Warfare 2’s campaign, on the one hand, is a very standard shooty-bang-bang jaunt across the globe with enough rah-rah attitude and military lingo to almost become its own genre.
Having finished it nearly twice already, however, I was consistently surprised by how much more it offered than I thought it would (and could!) going into it. In many ways, this is the most inventive and bold campaign we’ve seen from the series, ever. If you’re looking at it purely from a gameplay point of view.
Modern Warfare 2’s missions, for the most part, trade the expected spectacle and bombast for a more intimate, yet open-ended approach. Rather than world-ending catastrophes, the events focus on a smaller, more believable threat. You’re put in the shoes of different members of Task Force 141, depending on which of them happens to be in the area and more readily available to respond to whatever escalation is happening this time.
Sharing its name with one of Call of Duty’s most iconic games (and campaigns), will undoubtedly get it compared to the classics. But Infinity Ward didn’t seem too fazed by the pressure of those imposing ‘Modern Warfare 2’ letters plastered all over the marketing. The game is happy to reference past quotes, or wink and nod about certain moments, but it quickly moves past those to introduce something new and interesting, and very 2022.
Almost every second mission flips the script in some way, starting off with a standard style (ghillie-clad sniping, full-on building clearing etc.), before switching gears to play with an experimental idea or demonstrate a surprising new use of mechanics.
A constant this time around is a backpack, which is effectively your mobile inventory. For the more standard missions, it carries lethal and tactical grenades, which you’d typically need to trade for each other. Here, you’re given the freedom to decide which better suits your current situation and equip it. For instance, one mission tasks you with clearing several warehouses on your own.
You’re given the choice of planting C4 on the doors, or climbing up and tossing a gas grenade into the airducts. While you’re there, you may want to take a few shots through the skylights, or pull out your heartbeat sensor to track enemy positions for when you do step inside. You’re given the scope to do the unexpected – which feels dead against what CoD has always been about.
Built on the same backpack system, some missions will force you to play a Last of Us game of slowly creeping around houses and scavenging – using household objects to create makeshift Molotovs, smoke bombs, explosive mousetraps, and sharp objects to pry open doors and locked crates. It’s quiet enough sometimes that you have time to locate clues about how to crack locked safes.
The discovery is part of the joy, and the game often shows restraint; rarely tipping its hand about the different paths you can take or potential items you can craft. Again, it’s very un-CoD.
In one such mission, I wanted to find a suppressed weapon. I did, and that’s how I made it out. Other people relied solely on stealth, and there’s even an achievement for clearing it without using guns. You’re free to improvise, to the point that you may not even come across certain crafting recipes if you didn’t explore enough of the area.
Those missions always pair you up with a partner, but rather than have them tail you (or you tail them, per the convention) they instead offer help over the radio. There are more moments of comradery and character building here than any other Call of Duty I can think of. This is how most of the game’s narrative is told, clearly taking its cues from places outside the Activision oeuvre. And the game is all the better for it.
As ambitious as it is with its delivery, Modern Warfare 2’s narrative ends up being its most puzzling, both in how it flows and what it decides to follow up on from the 2019 reboot. On its own, this is yet another story about an Arabic-speaking brown dude from the Middle East who’s staging a terrorist attack in the West. The squad must hop between different parts of the world, including the obligatory mission or two in Europe, to prevent disaster. It’s as rote as they come.
As a sequel to Modern Warfare 2019, however, it strangely avoids dealing with the events, consequences, and state of the world established by the end of that game. You wouldn’t need to know that the two key drivers of that game’s ground-breaking narrative left to head up a new studio to realise that something changed in the intervening years.
The captains of the current ship look to have been left with what’s essentially a container of characters, events, locations, and very high-level themes – but not how they all fit together. So what we ended up with is a game that does bring back some familiar faces, and uses established factions where necessary, but without the context of the first game.
Farah, for instance, was effectively the protagonist of the 2019 reboot. She’s a freedom fighter who lead her underequipped people to oppose the invading Russian forces with the help of Price and co. The relationship between Farah and Price/the US ranged from personal to symbiotic; she needed the squad’s elite weapons and training, and they relied on her access to catch their target.
Much of the narrative (including the ending) followed Farah’s struggles, and plenty of context arrived through flashbacks that helped flesh out her character. Modern Warfare 2 relegates Farah to a guest character, giving her exactly one appearance in one of the game’s more experimental missions – almost as if the writers couldn’t fit her anywhere else in the game, so that’s where she ended up.
By abandoning that lineage, flawed as it may be, Modern Warfare 2 instead leans on a more pedestrian set of events with predictable twists and turns. The characters, locations, and motivations may differ, but the story beats here could easily be from any modern-day Call of Duty campaign.
Modern Warfare 2’s campaign is a cocktail of modern mechanics, updated characters, and callbacks to classic missions and villains. By the end of it, the campaign ends up saying little of substance. And though that is certainly true of its predecessor, it at least had the gall to try.
Despite that, it’s Call of Duty’s most interesting campaign on a purely mechanical level, and bodes well for a future beyond annualised six-hour campaigns. There are far greater heights this could reach if it was allowed to exist as a new STALKER or Fallout – and I hope we get some form of that from Infinity Ward.
Version tested: PC. Code provided by publisher.