Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II review – new thrills from the old campaign

IIt’s almost comforting in this era of “games as a service,” where franchises exist as endless monetization machines designed to consume every second of our free time, that Call of Duty still gets an annual retail release. Once upon a time, these games sold 30 million copies a year, and people lined up outside stores at midnight to buy them. Those days are gone, but Modern Warfare II shows that there’s still guilty pleasure to be had in these ridiculous annual rounds of macho combat gymnastics.

The campaign’s story takes place three years after the end of 2019’s Modern Warfare. The newly created Task Force 141 is sent to track down an Iranian terrorist who has somehow obtained a set of US nuclear missiles. It’s slickly produced, fast-moving stuff, ricocheting around the world, from the Middle East to Mexico, while gruff guys yell macho spec-ops catchphrases at each other. Along the way, there are some spectacular set-pieces. A section where you infiltrate a convoy of military vehicles as it zooms along a civilian highway might be one of the best driving sequences I’ve ever played in a mainstream shooter; and there’s a brilliant gunfight on the deck of a cargo boat in rough seas, where massive shipping containers slide everywhere, crushing unwary combatants.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II
The gang is here… teamwork is the main theme of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II. Image: Activision

But for the most part, Modern Warfare II looks like one of those new straight-to-streaming action movies with some of Hollywood’s leading actors named Chris. It’s fresh and entertaining without ever really stumbling on an interesting idea. Some of the key sequences are actually borrowed from other places. Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare’s famous All Ghillied Up and Death from Above missions get very accurate nods, while a mission to infiltrate a cartel owner’s mansion is basically a Hitman level, complete with social stealth, multiple routes and flashy architecture. The occasional implementation of a crafting system, which lets you make mines and smoke bombs from materials you find in the environment, is mostly used in a kind of semi-apocalyptic post-explosion survival mission that might as well be called The Blast by us.

It also provides, as it always has, unequivocal support for military intervention. High-tech weapons, bombs and gadgets are gleefully deployed without hesitation, and in an already infamous moment, which takes place while you’re tracking enemies through a small town, you’re told to point your weapon at innocent people to “escalate the civilians”.

The fact that the game simply expects us to accept and act on the language of armed oppression is a great telling of the wider culture that produces these narratives. There is at least a subtle reflection on the imperial fantasy of America as the world’s police force: not all your Western allies are what they seem. But just like the last game, which made us think about the thin line between covert operations and war crimes, the overarching message is that heavily armed, anonymous special forces are 100% purveyors of good; we must all submit.

Down on the streets ... Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II enjoys using civilian locations as battle backdrops
Down on the streets … Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II enjoys using civilian locations as battle backdrops. Image: Activision

And that’s really okay. No one comes here for sharp geopolitical analysis. We make a Faustian pact when we consume mainstream action entertainment—always, alwaysexists in a slightly seductive space between bravery and atrocity.

At the same time, the audiovisual experience is truly astounding. Every setting, whether it’s an abandoned Mexican village or a canalside café in Amsterdam, is rendered in stunning detail. Bullets rip by, enemy footsteps rattle up metal stairs, explosions rattle your head – the sheer physical immersion, mastery of form and function in these hellscapes is unreal.

Campaign aside, the all-important multiplayer component is stronger than it’s been in years. Modern Warfare II offers 12 modes across an initial selection of 15 maps, and as the hugely successful beta test suggested, these are hair-trigger, uncompromising online shoot-fests with turbo-charged pace and unrelenting intensity. There are some genuinely innovative locations here, including the Senta Sena Border Crossing, a stretch of highway full of abandoned cars that players must sneak between; and Crown Raceway, where fights take place in pit lanes, with high-tech super-lit garage workshops as F1 cars zoom past outside.

There is nothing hugely new about the modes. We get several variations on the old “Conquest” concept of occupying a space for as long as possible, while newcomer Prisoner Rescue is a basic Capture the Flag derivative, where two teams fight to defend or rescue vulnerable civilians. But after two years dominated by the battle royale genre, Modern Warfare II reintroduces the lure of tight, focused maps and constant engagement. The perfectly balanced weapons, the precise environmental feedback, the progression system that takes you closer and closer to the perfect grip or muzzle to really balance out your firearms platform; the sheer noise and excitement of it. Infinity Ward revolutionized the multiplayer first-person shooter with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and this is the best contemporary reinvention of what that game was all about: mayhem, skill progression, and the reflexes needed to survive longer than three seconds at a time.

In our age of coldly distanced technological battles, of armored police vehicles on city streets, of protests dampened by blood, we might ask why such violent entertainments as Modern Warfare still have a place on the entertainment calendar. It’s something I’ve pondered over the many hours I’ve spent enjoying this ridiculous game. It’s something I may continue to think through for the many, many hours to come.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II is out now on PC, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, £70

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