Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 looks like it's out of ideas

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is having itself a reveal week. Yesterday, Activision debuted a new trailer and announced that Call of Duty would be returning to Steam this year at a new price of $70. Today, we got a hearty chunk of campaign gameplay courtesy of the Summer Game Fest showcase.

The gameplay picks up on a mission called Dark Water, as Soap, Price, and the rest of the war gang infiltrate an oil rig somewhere on the Atlantic coast with a mission to stop a nuclear missile launch. Sound familiar? That was the takeaway of staff writer Morgan Park and senior editor Rich Stanton, two people who like CoD campaigns but are worried Modern Warfare 2 is just retreading old ground. 

Morgan Park, Staff Writer: Yea, so… that sure looked like some Call of Duty, huh? 

Rich Stanton, Senior Editor: Call of Duty, as a singleplayer experience, feels completely played out at this point.

Morgan Park: I still like a good CoD campaign, but if Modern Warfare 2 is going to be a lot of this, then I'd have to agree. CoD has a habit of repeating itself, but this oil rig mission was some of the most generic campaign fluff I've seen in a while. I can't think of a single thing that happened in those seven-ish minutes that I haven't done a billion times in the past 20 calls of duty.

Rich Stanton: We're in an age where the 'classic' games seem destined to be remade every 10-15 years, and Call of Duty has chosen this weird route of more-or-less directly remaking games that aren't all that old. I'm not really sure where these 'remakes' fall either, because it feels like they're so scared of altering something beloved that they don't ever push the envelope.

Morgan Park: Yea, it does come across like Infinity Ward has some boxes to tick that hold this back from feeling new. Why make it look so much like the intro mission to Call of Duty 4? Maybe the point is to feel nostalgia for games that are pushing 15 years old, but what I got instead was "ah, we're doing this again."

And what's weird is that, just like the 2019 Modern Warfare, this Modern Warfare 2 isn't exactly a "remake." It's taking old characters like Soap, Price, and Ghost and using them for a different story that might be similar, but certainly not identical to the original 2009 game. It's confusing to keep up with (partially because Activision opted to use the same exact name as the old game). It's a different story, but also seems to reference the original? Today's oil rig mission shares a striking resemblance to the "The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday" mission from MW2 (2009). 

Rich Stanton: I vividly remember the original Modern Warfare's arrival, because it was like nothing that had come before it in terms of its hard-nosed look at military reality. People remember that AC-130 gunship mission because it was so deeply uncomfortable and seemed to be bringing something to light about the horrors of modern conflict. I'm not saying it was necessarily a deep or profound look at military culture, fundamentally this world view still has good guys and bad guys, but it did feel quite shocking.

Morgan Park: Remember when you get nuked? That was pretty messed up.

Rich Stanton: Modern Warfare as you know begins with you as a dictator who's about to be publicly executed. At the end of that introduction my jaw was on the floor, and I was hooked. No game had done something like that.

CoD's modern success can arguably be traced back to what the Modern Warfare trilogy did for it, including the multiplayer side, and ever since those it's felt like the series has been stuck in the template they set. They're amazing games but of their time, and I'm not sure Activision has the capability (or perhaps even the desire) to escape that. Certainly I doubt a contemporary Activision studio would be given free reign to go after the military industrial complex like Infinity Ward once did.

Morgan Park: Yea, I think it's important to remember that Activision has stuck to its template because a lot of people would get mad if it didn't. A lot of people want that familiarity. That doesn't mean every 6-hour campaign it puts out needs to feel exactly like the last one, though. 

In fact, that's what I liked so much about the 2019 Modern Warfare campaign. It had some pretty cool twists on old CoD favorites, like the Highway of Death sniper mission that (while shamelessly rewriting the history of an actual American war crime) was basically the natural evolution of "All Ghillied Up". This oil rig mission, on the other hand, just felt like a retread. We're still hiding behind storage containers, stacking up on doors for a breach, and performing canned melee takedowns on guards.

Rich Stanton: I guess that's the thing: how many times can you play one of these things before it just feels like being an AK-toting hamster on a wheel. The self-referentiality you talk about above is cool but it's also a symptom of the larger problem, that these games are being developed on such an unprecedented production line and have a particular set of requirements to fulfill. 

There's also this element where Call of Duty's so much bigger now than the campaigns. Its biggest money-spinner by far is now Warzone, and doubtless Warzone 2 will continue that trend. What began as a singleplayer-focused series has largely been consumed by the multiplayer side and you feel that's where all the resource goes. It's such big business now that you feel Activision wouldn't want it to go too close to controversy anymore: in fact it's more bound-up with the US military and the gun industry than ever before.

Morgan Park: Apparently Infinity Ward is trying to tone back its edgier tendencies with this campaign. I'm all for not having to watch game devs justify tasteless creative decisions in the name of fun playable war.

But you're right, Rich. For as much time and money Activision pumps into these campaigns, at this point they are practically only there to cut a few trailers with. Six hours of pretty good shootin' to get players primed for the thing they actually play CoD for: multiplayer. That's the chunk of this game that we still know nothing about, and as you mention, the standalone Warzone sequel will probably be a much bigger game than MW2 itself. Maybe Activision was right to skip the campaign in 2018's Black Ops 4. If this mission is the most original thing to come out of Modern Warfare 2, it's time for CoD campaigns to take a break. 

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.

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