Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a near-perfect shooter and a flawless sequel. It capitalizes perfectly on what made the first game great, and then builds on that, creating a stunning experience that's bound to be just about everything you hoped it would be.
In Modern Warfare 2, you will (for example) climb a glacier using ice axes, invade a Russian base during a snow storm, launch an attack on an oil rig from a submarine, defend an American fast food restaurant from a Russian invasion force, shoot a sniper rifle from a helicopter, watch a nuclear missile detonation from space and dodge falling helicopters after an EMP attack. And believe it or not, these "oh sh*t" moments are secondary to the overall experience.
Where Modern Warfare 2 really shines is in the frenetic, adrenaline-charged combat. From escaping a South American slum to invading an American base in Afghanistan, the game puts you in situations that will test every inch of your shooter mettle. If you've been away from Modern Warfare for a while, prepare to get your ass handed to you for the first few levels.
Also, prepare to enjoy a whole new array of weaponry. Modern Warfare 2 can rightly be called "gun porn," and people who read magazines like Soldier of Fortune (and not just for the articles) will have plenty to love here. There are countless weapons available in-game with multiple variations to each. While I can't personally vouch for how "realistic" some of the more exotic firearms are, I can tell you that each weapon has unique characteristics, and half the fun of playing the game is deciding which tool to use for which job. You'll spend as much time looting corpses in this game as you will in any MMOG, just to try new weapons.
The game's story picks up roughly where the first game left off. You'll play as a number of characters from various military organizations. Your first mission is to help a platoon of Army Rangers secure a bridge and witness a badass "danger close" fire mission. Then you're off to help a member of Task Force 141 secure a downed satellite in some very frozen part of the world, where you'll infiltrate an enemy base during a snowstorm and then escape via snow mobile. You'll then take part in a terrorist operation as a CIA undercover operative in order to get close to the game's Big Bad - and that's where things go all to hell.
There are too many twists and turns in this game to even attempt to describe them here (and discovering them for yourself is half the fun anyway), but what I can tell you is that you'll encounter spectacles that will make the "oh sh*t" moments form the last game look like child's play. Did dodging a crashing helicopter in the first game make your heart race? Then prepare to be blown away as you dodge several in this installment. Level after level, playing Modern Warfare 2 is like taking a ride in the ultimate over-the-top, semi-realistic military thriller theme park as the designers imagine every possible awesome spectacle that can be achieved with the current state of videogame technology, then throw them all at you at once.
A testament to the level of attention to detail of the Infinity Ward team is the EMP level. I won't spoil more than I have already, but the level begins after an EMP attack renders all electronic and electrical devices inoperative. All of them, from the enemies helicopters, to airplanes to the holographic scope on your battle rifle. It's a spooky experience, having your eyes and ears suddenly taken away and your technological advantage wiped clean. And it's just one of many moments in Modern Warfare 2 that gamers will be talking about for years.
The single-player campaign is relatively short, clocking in at 6-12 hours, but it's every bit as satisfying as the first game, with more than a few surprises in store. You will be alternately thrilled and terrified, but the end will definitely leave you wanting more. Which is probably a good thing, since the ending makes it abundantly clear there will be a third installment.
The graphics have been noticeably updated for the sequel, but if you notice, it will only be on your third or fourth play-through. The pacing and intensity of the game's story and gameplay drive it like a freight train right through to the end, and, like a good roller coaster, you'll probably want another go as soon as you're done.
On the negative side, I had only one problem with the game: One of the new graphical upgrades was a tweak to the way your grenade inventory is displayed. It took me almost the full game to make sense of it, and by then I'd missed many opportunities to blast people to bits. But it wasn't enough of a problem to motivate me to crack the manual, so as far as negatives go, I'll call it a wash.
About the game's multiplayer side, Features Editor Jordan Deam has this to say in his Video Overview:
If you spent any time with the original Modern Warfare's multiplayer, you likely know what to expect from its successor's: frenzied yet meticulously balanced action with a dose of MMOG-style leveling and item collection. But Modern Warfare 2 makes so many improvements to that formula that it ends up feeling like a different game. With just a few seemingly small changes - including new items, new unlockable Killstreak rewards and breathtaking new maps - the game has become dramatically deeper and more exhilarating. If you're a fan of multiplayer shooters, there's no compelling reason not to pick this up - dedicated servers or not.
Bottom Line: Modern Warfare 2 is what every modern shooter wants to be.
Recommendation: If you never, ever replay games, and don't play multiplayer, then you should give this one a weekend rental. Otherwise, this game is well-worth your hard-earned cash. Games don't come any more highly polished than this.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist.