SEB Review: “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2″ for the PC.

It's a great game that has some terrible flaws.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

I’m in a real love/hate relationship with this game and I’m torn on how to present the review. So I suppose I’ll start off with a quick summary: It’s awesome and horribly flawed at the same time. This latest outing manages to improve upon the original in almost every way, but at the same time it also manages to take several steps backwards that mar what would otherwise be a flawless game.

The original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was a big surprise for me and, I think, for a lot of other gamers when we finally got our hands on the release version. Not only were the graphics as new as the setting, but it was clear that Infinity Ward had been paying attention to what the modders had been doing with the multiplayer in previous CoD games. The addition of kill-streak rewards recreated the functionality of some of the most popular CoD2 mods and then when you stacked the RPG-ish XP system that unlocked new weapons, attachments, and perks on top of that it made for a helluva fun experience and a title that is still widely played to this day.

The sequel builds on most of what made the original so damned amazing and that generally is a good thing, though in some places it’s a bit over-the-top. Take, for example, in the singe-player game’s storyline.

Single Player

I said in my review of CoD:MW that I didn’t pay that much attention to the plot in part because it had you jumping back and forth between a couple of different characters in different locations and was hard to follow when you’re busy just trying to survive the mayhem taking place around you. The plot for Modern Warfare 2 is similar in that you jump back and forth between no less than five different characters throughout the course of the game. If you thought that mechanic in the first game was a tad confusing then you’ll just love it in the second one.

The story is set some five years after the events of the first game and it apparently involves the Ultranationalists (Russians) from the first story gaining control of Russia and declaring the main Russian villain from that game as a national hero and martyr. The new villain, an Ultranationalist lieutenant, is engaging in acts of terrorism designed to ultimately bring tensions between the U.S. and Russia to a boiling point. It’s hard to go into too much detail without revealing a lot of spoilers, but suffice it to say there’s a lot of setup for an eventual Russian invasion of America without the use of nukes and then a whole shit load of plot twists that reveals yet another major villain and sets things up for the inevitable sequel.

Here’s the thing about the story in MW2: Imagine the folks at Infinity Ward weren’t happy with the quality of the story from CoD4 and decided they needed to bring someone in to punch it up for this game. Now imagine that they hired Michael Bay to write it and he somehow got a little confused and thought it was a James Bond film. That’s the sort of aftertaste that was left in my mouth by the time I was finished with the campaign mode. It was that over-the-top at times.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Early on in the story you take on the role of Sergeant Gary “Roach” Sanderson who, along with a Captain “Soap” MacTavish, infiltrate an airbase in Kazakhstan to recover a lost ACS module from a downed satellite. It starts off with lots of stealth, but finishes up with a wild snowmobile race to the extraction point and a waiting helicopter. There’s lots of shooting and exploding snowmobiles and trees to avoid until the very end at which point you have to leap the snowmobile over a yawning chasm that in the game looks to be at least a quarter-mile wide. The longest snowmobile jump I’m aware of was around 263 feet by Ross Mercer which is sill a tad bit short of the 1,320 feet in a standard quarter mile. Now I don’t know how big the chasm was really supposed to be, but it definitely looked bigger than what the snowmobile could handle so when I made it across easily it just seemed a rather silly ending to the level. There’s a lot of stuff like that in the single player campaign, but you don’t really notice it being quite so silly at the time because so much of the rest of it is just very cool. When you get done and reflect upon the events, however, you realize how silly a lot of it is.

That’s only a slight disappointment, though. The real disappointment about the single player game is just how short it is. This was a problem with CoD4 as well, but it seems even more pronounced in MW2. I don’t recall how long it took me to finish the first game — it was a couple of nights — but the total time for Modern Warfare 2 was a scant 6 hours. Much like the first game, again, there are collectibles scattered throughout the levels to stretch things out through replaying the campaign mode, but it’s still short by past standards.

Multiplayer

Much like CoD4, it’s in the multiplayer department where this game shines. The operative word for multiplayer in MW2 is “more” as in more weapons, more perks, and more killstreak rewards. The first game had 33 weapons in multiplayer while MW2 has 42, CoD4 had 22 perks versus MW2′s 32 (standard + pro versions),  and 3 killstreak rewards versus a whopping 15. The last of said killstreak rewards is a tactical nuclear weapon that ends the game for your team regardless of who was winning if you can manage to kill 25 people without dieing. On top of that there are 4 new Deathstreak rewards to help players who are having a rough time even out the odds a bit and a crap load of unlockable attachments for every weapon in the game that add everything from various scopes (thermal is a favorite) to grips to rapid fire to increased bullet penetration (formerly a perk). All of this is unlocked over time via an XP based leveling system (various weapons) or by hitting certain achievements during play (various attachments and camouflage patterns for the guns).

There’s also a lot of Titles and Emblems you can unlock that allow you to customize your “call sign” in the game. Some of them are unlocked by gaining specific levels, but others are achievements of their own type. One of the cooler ones is the “Infected” title which you get by being killed with a knife attack by someone else with that title which you can then spread to other players by making it your title and then knifing them. Stab someone who has the STD (sexually transmitted disease) title and you gain the title which can be passed on to anyone who stabs you while you have it active. If you manage to kill someone with a unexploded grenade from a launcher you’ll unlock the humorous “Noob Tuber” title. If you manage to fall 30 or more feet to your death you get the “Pushin Daisies” title. Want to let folks know you’re new to the game? Use the FNG (Fucking New Guy) title that’s unlocked by default. There are over 350 titles and 297 emblems to unlock and you can find a full listing with how they’re achieved by clicking here.

There are 70 levels total and you gain XP not just for kills you’ve racked up, but for completing objectives, defending goals, accomplishing achievements, and winning games. Once you hit 70 you have the option to go into Prestige Mode which resets your level to 1 and all the unlocks you’ve achieved – except for Titles and Emblems – so you can unlock them all over again and you can do that 10 times. To say that it’s incredibly addictive is an understatement. I’ve put in a lot of hours in multiplayer so far (a number I was surprised to see) and I can say you won’t reach level 70 overnight and even when you do you’ll probably still have lots left to unlock if you don’t go into Prestige Mode.

As with the single player, however, there’s a major disappointment with the multiplayer on the PC. Namely the decision by Infinity Ward to not support dedicated servers or put in an ability to kick/ban troublesome players from the game. I’ve covered this previously in other entries, but in summary IW appears to have done as little as was needed to port MW2 from the Xbox 360 and they tried to pass off missing features as somehow being an improvement. They touted their new IWNet service as being better than dedicated servers in allowing players to quickly get into a game without having to figure out which server has the lowest ping and with the added benefit of being matched up with players of similar skill level. From my experience IWNet does neither of these things particularly well.

First let’s tackle the ease-of-joining-a-game claim. When it works it is actually pretty easy, but it’s a crap shoot on any given attempt as to whether it’ll work. The problem lies in the fact that it attempts to pick the player with the best connection/PC to be the host and it’s often pretty shitty about the choice it makes. There seems to be about a 30% chance that the chosen host won’t be able to actually accept incoming connections for some reason, presumably certain ports in their router/firewall not being open, in which case everyone else gets dropped and the game lobby closes. Assuming you do get in, there’s a fairly good chance the chosen host won’t actually be the best of all the possible choices and the game will be laggy as hell until it figures out that it made a bad choice and tries to migrate hosting to a different player’s PC. When it does that you’re again at about a 30% chance for it to fail dumping everyone out of the game. If it does work it’s still a very annoying interruption to the game which can cause any killstreak rewards you’ve called in to time out without doing anything because the game is frozen while it gets everyone back in. Some nights it all works wonderfully and isn’t a problem, but other nights you get dumped from game after game until you quit in frustration and go play something else that isn’t as retarded in how it picks a host.

As for matching you up with other players of similar skill level, yeah, that claim is simply full of shit. Occasionally, yes, you do seem to get evenly matched with others, but most of the time you’re either up against an army of Forrest Gumps or you’re being steamrolled by the Arnold Schwarzenegger Clone Brigade. If it’s attempting to make any evaluation of relative skill at all it’s completely invisible to me.

One of the other attempted selling points was the fact that IWNet is actually run through Valve Software’s Steam service and thus has access to Valve’s Anti-Cheat (VAC) technology to try and keep games free from hackers. The problem with that is the fact that Valve designed VAC with the idea that it would work in conjunction with dedicated servers that would have active administrators to assist in keeping the troublemakers out so the bans it hands out are delayed to try and keep the hack writers off balance. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on VAC:

Delayed bans (see below) means that cheaters are free to disrupt other players until their ban takes effect.

  • This may entice others to cheat, taking an “if they can do it so can I” attitude.
  • The burden of banning individual cheaters who have been detected by VAC but not yet banned remains on server administrators.
  • This also leads to the skewing of statistics and ranking systems, even if the cheaters’ data is removed when they are banned.

If a cheat is found the player’s Steam account will be flagged as cheating immediately, but the player will not receive any indication of the detection. It is only after a delay of “days or even weeks” that the account is permanently banned from “VAC Secure” servers for that game, along with other games that use the same engine. (e.g. Valve’s Source games, GoldSrc games, Unreal engine games).

The upshot being that without a proper dedicated server with an administrator you may have to suffer through many games full of cheaters for weeks at a time until VAC gets around to banning them. Again there are nights when you can play several games without any apparent cheaters and then others where it seems every game you join has a one or more aimbotters going to town in them.

This is arguably the biggest problem with MW2 on the PC. The single player campaign is entirely too short to justify buying the game alone and the multiplayer is plagued with a half-assed match making system and relies on an anti-cheating system in a way it was never designed to be relied on. Everything else about the game is pretty much phenomenal. It looks amazing, plays very well when it works and doesn’t have cheaters all over it, and builds upon everything that made the first game stunning.

This is why my recommendation is as follows: If you can handle playing FPS games on a console then rush out – if you haven’t already – and buy this for the Xbox 360 or PS3, but if you’re like me and insist on a PC for your FPS fun then you’re better off avoiding this game for the time being. Things have improved slightly since I wrote the angry warning not to buy it for the PC a couple of weeks back. A patch was released that addresses some texture exploits (a form of cheating VAC doesn’t detect) and there have been some rumblings of IW possibly considering maybe somehow coming up with a way to allow for custom content which may also maybe possibly be cause for hope that they’ll eventually give us dedicated servers, but for now you should assume it’s never going to happen.

All of that said, I have to also point out that I continue to play MW2 multiplayer even with all the frustration and grief it causes me because the game is that damned good. Then again I was given a review copy by Activision so I didn’t have to fork out $60 for it either. Given the huge drawbacks to the multiplayer game I don’t feel it’s worth $60 at the moment, but perhaps that’ll change soon. If it does you can be sure I’ll mention it.

Oh, one aspect of the game I haven’t mentioned are the co-op missions and that’s mainly because I have yet to try them out. I don’t know anyone else who has a copy of the game on the PC and I’ve not really wanted to try them with a random stranger. I hear they’re quite good, but I haven’t tried them myself.

9 comments

  1. Since I don’t own a console, there is little chance that I will purchase this title. I have been a fan of the COD series since the beginning and looked forward to each title. I also happen to run LAN parties several times per year and COD has been a staple of these event. This is not a single player game and without dedicated servers or customizable content, it is just a poor console port to PC. I did not have issue with the purchase price, until I found out the developers stuck it to the same group that made the franchise a hit. The game looks lush, but unlike the SEB, I do not get love from Activision or Valve.

    let me know when the murmurs of dedicated server support and custom content evolve into something real. I support the industry with my dollars and right now, that is not with CODMW2.

  2. I’ll pick it up eventually for the single player (when it hit’s the £15 mark), the first one was a great to play through. But I doubt i’m going to bother with the multiplayer, I’ve been through a couple of games without dedicated servers recently and I only ever got maybe one good playable round in the lot of them.

  3. It sounds good and has received rave reviews, but I try to avoid games that require walkthrough guides to complete. I guess I just don’t have that much patience.

  4. Great review Les – and happy 2010 by the way. I’ve been playing through the single player MW2 on the 360, and I think much of your criticism is valid there as well. It’s a fun game, although it certainly has its flaws. One of the things I find most fun about most of the shooters I play is the co-op multiplayer. The spec ops in MW2 don’t disappoint, especially on the missions that require two players, like Overwatch. There was something visceral and satisfying when I played this through with my brother. I played as the lone wolf on the ground as he provided “fire support” from his orbiting AC-130 gunship. Watching as he rained the destruction down from above was one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in a while.

  5. All my friends, save two, and I prefer playing world at war still. We were also very dissappointed with the new MW.

  6. Sadly 2009′s FPS games for PC just weren’t that cool unless your into realism because ARMA2 and America’s Army 3 are great. I’d say the winners for PC this year though go to an indie game called Braid, the RPGs Torchlight, Fallout 3, and Dragon Age, and two racing games called Dirt 2 and Burnout: Paradise.

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