As much as Activision's extravagant marketing would have you believe Call of Duty's campaigns are the biggest gaming events of the year, CoD is really all about its multiplayer. To many players, story mode is enough of an afterthought that it's common to simply skip the campaign and jump straight into team deathmatch. I'm typically in the same boat, but when Infinity Ward makes a new campaign, I've learned to pay attention.
Modern Warfare 2 relies heavily on the sort of gimmicky, one-off missions that have become the bread and butter of CoD's playbook—routinely stepping back from traditional breach-and-clear operations to explore simplistic stealth, tactics, and even sandbox survival ideas. A lot of it works, a lot of it doesn't, and some of it is couched in the same sort of tone-deaf oo-rah military enthusiasm that makes me embarrassed to be a Call of Duty fan. Let's take a look at Modern Warfare 2's highs and lows.
Note: Spoilers for Modern Warfare 2's campaign below.
⭐BEST: An 'All Ghillied Up' successor that I'll remember for years
Call of Duty has been chasing the highs of its iconic "All Ghillied Up" mission for 15 years to varying degrees of success (2019's Highway of Death mission didn't hit the mark for a lot of reasons), but Modern Warfare 2's "Recon By Fire" may actually outdo the original. The mission starts in familiar territory—ghillied up, cozy in some grass, lying absolutely still while soldiers pass by just inches away. Even knowing that these dumb AI grunts are programmed to not see me as long as I don't move, I still get a genuine rush from these Behind Enemy Lines-type encounters.
Recon By Fire doesn't ride Call of Duty 4's coattails for too long, though. Once Gaz and Captain Price clear the mountainside, the pair scope in to pick off baddies in a compound a whopping 600 meters away. Instead of doing the same "watch the flag" trick to account for wind deviation, Infinity Ward takes cues from dedicated sniping series like Sniper Elite and Ghost Warrior, with Price feeding Gaz tips for calculating bullet drop with the scope's notches. "400 meters. Compensate two and a half notches." While I don't think actual scout snipers need their spotter to teach them the basics of scopes while on missions, it's well-integrated guidance that reaches for greater authenticity in sniping (scope notches are typically just for show in other games).
Then, Infinity Ward flexes its Warzone map muscles by making you go to the place you just shot at from half a kilometer away, revealing that the whole area around you is not a curated funnel of invisible walls, but one big sandbox. The hour-long blend of incognito sniper operations and stealth-action infiltration is a near-perfect example of Call of Duty doing the thing that we always ask it to do: change! Unlike most of the other levels in Modern Warfare 2's 17-mission run, I can't point to Recon By Fire and declare it a cheap knockoff of some other sniper mission from eight CoDs ago. I can, however, point out that if you want sniper missions similar to this that are a little more hardcore, you should really play Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2.
⛔WORST: These jerks with body armor
This is Infinity Ward's first post-Warzone CoD campaign, and it really shows. There are hints of Modern Warfare's battle royale cousin littered all over the campaign, most noticeably in the increased map size in missions like Recon By Fire and actual drivable trucks in a highway chase that would've just been an interactive cutscene in older CoDs. One Warzone hand-me-down I'm not on board with, though, are these armored a-holes that unexpectedly appear in nearly every mission.
I think fighting them is meant to evoke the higher time-to-kill of Warzone (breaking armor even plays the same familiar "crunch" sound), but what they actually do is slow well-paced gunfights down to a crawl as a single armored goon takes between two and three full magazines to bring down. All the while, these emboldened juggernauts march forward with LMGs and shotguns, dropping Soap McTavish faster than he can say "Oscar Mike." Shoving eight pounds of lead into a single target shatters the already-thin veneer of immersion that a good CoD mission can achieve.
😬CRINGE: Pressing Mouse 2 to 'de-escalate' civilians with a gun
Infinity Ward clearly set out to make a more lighthearted military romp after the tonal disaster that was Modern Warfare 2019's campaign, but between cheeky breaks for optional dialogue about Captain Price's favorite gun, Modern Warfare 2 still finds time for a few uncomfortable, teeth-gritting moments that make me utter "jeez, Call of Duty" to myself and wonder why I still play these games.
Like in a mission that begins with the player climbing over Donald Trump's infamous border wall, when on-screen text prompts you to "press Mouse 2 to de-escalate civilians" who are understandably curious why two armed commandos are trampling through their yard. De-escalate, in this context, of course means to threaten to kill them with your gun until they crap their pants and run away. What could've been an appropriate moment to use Modern Warfare's new dialogue system to solve a problem without a gun is instead the dark timeline version of the "press F to pay respects" meme.
⭐BEST: A point-and-click stealth mission that surprisingly works
Another nice surprise. Infinity Ward took one of the low points of Modern Warfare 2019—a point-and-click stealth mission in which Gaz directs an embassy worker via cameras through hallways and offices to avoid enemy soldiers—and made one of Modern Warfare 2's highest highs. The mission Prison Break takes the same CCTV gimmick and flips the scenario: instead of a helpless civilian trying to escape a place, you're guiding Ghost from cover to cover as he infiltrates a heavily-guarded prison.
Ghost can shoot or stab baddies in his way or often avoid them altogether. The controls are intuitive and the animation work for Ghosts' takedowns are top-notch. It feels like I'm watching a security camera replay of John Wick doing a murder. My only gripe is that this section ends too early and what follows is a series of unremarkable firefights.
⛔WORST: This Uncharted wannabe truck chase
Remember that kickass part in Uncharted 4 where you jump from truck to truck, shoot bad guys, and drive to the front of a convoy? Call of Duty decided to do that exact idea, and it's easily the weakest gimmick of the bunch. You might've seen snippets of this mission, Violence and Timing, in some of the trailers—it begins with Gaz shooting out of a helicopter, the heli getting clipped by a rocket, Gaz falling out, and then hanging inverted by a rope whilst shooting with a technique that'd made Nathan Drake proud.
If the entire mission were just increasingly unlikely angles to shoot at trucks from, I'd be on board, but the adrenaline stalls early on as you begin the rinse-and-repeat of truck jacking and headshotting. I'm not sure which part of Violence and Timing rubs me worst: it could be that the convoy is about eight trucks too long, or that all the vehicles feel like they're moving too slow, or maybe it's the absurdly dark miniboss truck that throws landmines onto the street (blowing up dozens of civilian cars in the process) that sent me over the edge. No, wait, it was definitely the last firefight, in which two armored jackholes with shotguns appear five feet in front of me and mow me down before I can tear through their seemingly endless armor.
😬CRINGE: Bombing a small Mexican town with a PMC
Infinity Ward, I know that everyone really liked those AC130 missions from the old Modern Warfare games, but I think I'm done backspacing foreign towns off the face of the planet. The pair of eye-in-the-sky carpet bombing missions, Close Air and Hardpoint, taste especially bad this time around because the air support is supplied by Shadow Company, a PMC led by a guy named Graves who talks like someone who'd steal a stapler from Nacy Pelosi's office during the Capitol riot.
It won't surprise you to learn that (spoiler!) Graves and Shadow Company is actually the third act villain twist, though he's so immensely unlikeable from the start that I wish I could've blown him up with his own plane.
⭐⛔BEST WORST: Crafting
Maybe the biggest swing that Modern Warfare 2 takes are two later missions in which Soap is without his guns and has to sneak around soldiers crafting improvised weapons with random stuff found on shelves. I'm impressed by how far Infinity Ward goes here—it's not just a one-off moment where you stick a cloth in a bottle and call it a molotov. There's a full crafting wheel with six recipes and hyper-detailed animations for crafting each one. I especially like the DIY proximity mine, which is essentially mouse trap + duct tape + gunpowder somehow equals boom.
Crafting mode disappears for a while once Soap rendezvouses with his boys, but it comes back again in the very last mission of the game, a showdown in a Chicago highrise in which a gun-less Soap has to avoid enemies while also following the instructions of the voice in his ear to disarm a mid-flight missile. It's a pretty intense moment, doubly so thanks to the Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes-style inputs you have to punch into the laptop to pull it off, but the encounter feels totally imbalanced. I failed a lot because, no matter which route I took, I struggled to craft any useful gear before either 1) a baddie shot me or 2) I ran out of time to disarm the missile.
I commend Infinity Ward for what is one of the most unique final boss "fights" I've played in a long time, though by my eighth attempt I just wanted it to be over.