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During the beta for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, I scored 42 kills and only seven deaths in one round of Ground War in multiplayer combat. And while playing the final game from Activision’s Infinity Ward (and nine other studios) in the past week, that kind of moment never came again.
All glory is fleeting, as they say. And while my run as an esports champion has peaked, Call of Duty has had a fantastic run over the last 19 years, selling more than 425 million copies as of the spring of last year. The only question is whether Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft is acquiring for $68.5 billion, can keep it going. Activision announced the game is off to a good start, with $800 million in sell-through (sold to consumers) in its first three days of sales, breaking all previous records.
Still, brand exhaustion is a good topic to discuss at this point, as it could still be tough to beat Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the reimagined modern combat game that debuted in 2019 and reportedly sold 30 million copies. The subsequent titles, Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War from 2020 and Call of Duty: Vanguard in 2021, weren’t up to the task.
In fact, last year’s World War II title sold so poorly that nobody expects the franchise to return to World War II anytime soon. Put that together with the fact that the company faces a horrifying harassment lawsuit, and it has made many critics wonder if Call of Duty’s best days are in the past.
Modern Warfare II is at least on a good footing to challenge the 2019 title’s numbers, as well as the record-setting Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (from the original series before this set of reimagined titles) from 2011. It really does step up in big and unexpected ways, and yet it is a sequel that might not naturally have the fire of the original game. That’s why it’s so interesting to review this year’s title, to see what is there under the hood in this Call of Duty where, except for the presence of God of War: Ragnarok, the game has a clear run to the holidays as so many other big games have seen delays.
Why the single-player campaign matters
In contrast to the Battlefield series, Activision’s studios are still plunging ahead with expensive single-player campaign development. I feel that’s sensible because it gives you, the everyday soldier, a reason for fighting. I need a cause to keep going back to a game so much, whether that’s as lofty as making the world safe for democracy or at least trying to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
In this case, the campaign gives you iconic characters, both heroes and villains that you’ll remember as you play multiplayer for many more hours than you do the campaign. The heroes include SAS Captain John Price, Sergeant Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, Lieutenant Simon “Ghost” Riley and Sergeant John “Soap” MacTavish. They’re part of the ghostly Task Force 141, which is held together by CIA station chief Kate Laswell, who has evolved from the prior game and gets her hands dirty in “field work” in this game.
They’re joined by allies such as the returning Farah Karim, Urzikstan Liberation Force Commander; Mexican special forces Colonel Alejandro Vargas; and shadowy figures such as U.S. Army General Shepherd and private military contractor (PMC) commander Phillip Graves.
That’s a pretty big cast, not counting other characters, and they’re part of a pretty long campaign that goes on for 17 missions. That gives this campaign the same heft as the 2019 title. They look amazing, as the next-generation graphics technology has done wonders for depicting human faces. And the environments of places like Amsterdam also look exceedingly realistic.
Missions that show off variety and tech
The story takes you across environments like Amsterdam in missions that showcase what is different about the technology for this game.
The first mission with night vision goggles was pretty terrifying, as enemies were waiting behind doors and they approached your locations out of the darkness. Fortunately, I didn’t have to engage in battle against terrorists disguised as civilians — one of the controversial hallmarks of the 2019 game.
I also enjoyed swimming underwater in a marina guarded by enemies. I had to swim near an enemy standing on a dock, reach out and stab him unnoticed, and then return to the water, all the while not running out of breath while underwater. I felt a bit lost sometimes, and I needed to hit a button that gave me a hint about where to swim next. But you could shoot out of the water or use your knife. The graphics worked well, as you couldn’t completely see where the enemies were above the water. And so while I had the element of surprise, I often didn’t know if I was surfacing in the right position.
You find yourself on a giant ship with massive containers sliding back and forth on the ship’s deck in the middle of a storm. You have to dodge bullets at the same time you have to avoid getting crushed by a container. The sound of those sliding containers, the crazy sideways rain and wind, and the enemies trying to kill you making this mission seem like playing chess while the board keeps shifting.
I loved a mission on a skyscraper in Chicago, where I had to shimmy down a rope, walking on the glass windows downward. My biggest decision was to hang upside down, where I could peer into windows before exposing myself to terrorists on the inside, or walk downward while facing the top of the building, which made it easier to shoot villains but exposed me to their view more quickly.
What I didn’t like
Of course, the missions don’t always work well. One of the single-player campaign stages seemed pretty far-fetched to me. Soap goes undercover playing himself into the compound of a Mexican cartel leader. He is almost certainly going to face execution, but he offers the right and honest answers to a cartel leader during an initial interrogation.
And then, rather than guard him closely, they let Soap roam around a floor of a giant villa. And his mission is to sneak around, Hitman style, and find a way to assassinate all of the clueless guards. He can toss bottles, as if the guards are as dumb as the zombie-like characters in The Last of Us, to distract them.
It was reasonably difficult to do this mission in complete stealth on the veteran level, and ultimately I had to go in guns blazing as the guards discovered my nefarious intent. It was reasonably fun, as Hitman games force you to use stealth in combat. But this was Call of Duty, and my patience wore thin, and it wasn’t better than Hitman. The sin of this mission was that it pulled me out of the illusion of a campaign with interconnected missions that immersed me in the anti-terror story. It made me hyper aware that this wasn’t a normal Call of Duty mission, and it broke the story for me.
Another mission involved a car chase, which was difficult but also broke my immersion. While the graphics and engine tech of jumping from one car to another worked well, it felt a bit too much like a car race or an Uncharted mission. A truck ahead of you keeps dropping mines in the road and you have avoid them for an extraordinarily long period of time. That made me feel like adding a mission for the sake of variety had its limits.
I encountered other issues. I had about five crashes during the campaign and perhaps a bad day of crashes in multiplayer. But that is pretty much the norm for online games.
What I did like
On the plus side, I haven’t encountered much cheating yet in multiplayer. I haven’t had to report anyone for shooting through walls or anything like that. We’ll see if this continues with the mid-November launch of Warzone 2, the battle royale game that will use the Modern Warfare II engine.
In contrast to the Hitman and car-chase missions, I felt more immersed in the mission dubbed Alone. This one takes away all of your advantages of modern weaponry. You’re stuck in a hostile city, where you have to hide and are unarmed. You have to scavenge for weapons to use against a well-armed occupying force. And while you search through apartment after apartment, you’re in a place where the kitchens have no knives. That ridiculousness extended the length of the stealth mission, but I liked it in this case.
In this mission, I really felt the sense of desperation as I crawled around, scavenged for parts, and assembled traps that could take down unsuspecting bad guys. It was a tough mission, made much tougher because I didn’t have a gun. In this case, the mission space was a perfect fit for the type of behind-enemy-lines mission, in contrast to the villa of the Mexican cartel.
A good twist
And for the most part, the campaign’s story was good. It has a twist. I won’t spoil it, but the explanation is plausible. And after that, the mission of the heroes changes. Let’s just say that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and those shadowy American leaders turn out to be a bit too concerned with things like damage control rather than caring about their soldiers on the ground.
In past campaigns, we’ve seen this before, especially in the first round of the Modern Warfare series. But this one comes out more believable. And just as Modern Warfare 2019 highlighted the heroism of a female character, Farah Karim, this one draws attention to the fortitude of Vargas, the Mexican special forces leader. This twist takes us away from the propagandistic storyline of Americans and Brits saving the world from terrorists and drug dealers. I appreciated the storytelling and character in my combat game, kind of like having whipped cream on a mocha. But I like it when the story goes off the expected path of propaganda for America’s military might in a dangerous world.
One of the creepy missions of the 2019 game was when you were up in a AC-130 Spectre aircraft, circling a battlefield from far above and watching small white human figures move on the ground. You could rain fire on those people as if it were a video game, looking at a screen, moving a targeting reticle, and then pressing a button. It was a form of warfare that seemed so divorced from its consequences, as if war were nothing more than an arcade game. While that mission was like a marvel of technology in that game, something similar transpires in this game with a far different emotional effect.
In this game, when you find out who perpetrates the aircraft attacks and how they justify the killing, then you can see what the game is trying to tell you. And that is if you think war is an instrument of policy and is more comfortably fought with remote technology, and this is somehow better than killing people with knives or taking them out with sniper rifles on the ground, then you have an education coming.
I’ve played about five days of multiplayer so far and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
I’ve already told you about my glorious 42-7 win, armed with a sniper rifle and an assault gun. It took place on the Sa’id map in Ground War, where 32 players square off against 32 other humans. It’s a massive battle in a desert city, much like Battlefield’s recent massive maps. Your side has five spots on the map to control to win the match, and snipers can stake these places out. As a camper, I prevailed in watching over two victory spots from a tall building. The other side never quite figure out how dangerous this could be, with a Signal 50 sniper rifle in the beta. I’m leveling up to earn that rifle now.
I like how you can still carry both a sniper rifle and an assault rifle (or a light machine gun) at the same time. In many maps and missions, these kinds of loadouts really matter. You can also play on great maps where jumping into a vehicle and wreaking havoc on the infantry is fun.
The new Invasion mode (similar to the massive Ground War mode) is a great place to rack up kills, because a decent percentage of the soldiers are AI characters who aren’t as smart as humans yet. The prisoner rescue mode is one of a few where you only get one life, unless a friendly player revives you. Those matches make you feel like you’re playing a chess match with the other team, and that’s where the really skillful players can shred you by outthinking you in each tactical situation. Or at least they out think me.
I still enjoy the Team Deathmatch and Domination modes, and I particularly like the beautiful colors on some of the maps
One of the things that is missing — I hope temporarily — are the stats. I don’t know my kill/death ratio yet, nor do I know how many hours I’ve played, or my overall ranking. Call of Duty always supplied such meta data in the past, and I’m hoping it shows up soon.
Things to look forward to — or not
I am looking forward to the fact that integration with Warzone isn’t something that was jumbled together this time. Back in 2020, the success of the Warzone battle royale was a complete shock, born from the need to play in a social way during the pandemic. It was on a different engine than that year’s Cold War title, and so it led to things like enormous builds. This time, the Modern Warfare II game, Warzone 2 and Warzone Mobile are all converging on the same game engine, with expected benefits for all.
Warzone 2 debuts on November 16 with a number of advances, such the ability to hide in water or hijack cars like in the MWII campaign. It has a new mode coming dubbed DMZ, which evidently will focus on the extraction mode popular in titles like Escape from Tarkov. (Stealing an idea? You can always trust Call of Duty to adopt ideas that work). I hope this Warzone update will revive the mode’s glory.
When Warzone Mobile debuts in 2023, we’ll see if it’s a good idea to add mobile players into the same battle royale fights as PC and console players. I feel like we’re about to find out if the 10 studios working together on this Call of Duty are all pulling in the same direction, and the beneficiaries are the players.
Perhaps the one thing I am not looking forward to is hinted at in the campaign. Yes, No Russian is coming back. It’s the unforgettable and controversial scene where you massacre a bunch of civilians in a Russian airport for the sake of staying undercover in a terror cell. I was quietly happy to see Call of Duty return to mass-market entertainment, rather than do controversial scenes that made players like me so uncomfortable. I can feel my moral panic button getting pushed again. (There is still a civilian massacre in Modern Warfare II, but not one that you participate in yourself).
Perhaps the big question for the single-player campaign is whether the missions added up to a cohesive story. In Cold War in 2020, the 10 or so missions didn’t really seem like they accomplished much more than a weird Far Cry drug trip. But this story holds together well, like 2019’s Modern Warfare, without the exceedingly controversial bits. It kept my attention, I could follow its threads without getting confused, and I rarely thought to myself that this scene is completely implausible.
I liked how the single-player campaign drew me into the characters like Vargas, Price, Soap and Laswell. The story had something to say and it delivered some incredible action scenes like firefights on both the inside and the outside of a glass skyscraper. It makes us stop and think about modern warfare. But the game doesn’t forget that the reason we’re all here and reporting for duty again is the fun.
I am already enjoying multiplayer quite a bit, even if I’m never going to get to my 42-7 win again. I played the game on a Falcon Northwest computer with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 graphics card and a 12-core AMD Ryzen 9 processor. It’s not the most powerful machine anymore but the graphics of the game looked pretty awesome to me.
I can’t predict if it will outsell Modern Warfare 2019, but it is off to a winning start. For sure, it is running fast out of the gate, and it’s going to get a big boost from the free-to-play Warzone 2 release in 15 days, as Warzone serves as a kind of gateway drug for the full title. I do think this game will have longer staying power with its multiplayer combat, so long as the stats and other new maps arrive in time.
Activision provided a copy of the PC game for the purposes of this review. Our coverage remains objective.