Review: Call of Duty Modern Warfare II's campaign is an uneven greatest hits collection
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II delivers a gorgeous story campaign, but struggles with poor pacing and nonsensical writing.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) was one of the few campaigns I've enjoyed from the franchise in recent years, so I was pretty excited to hop back into the rebooted adventures of Task Force 141 with this year’s sequel. For the most part, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II’s story campaign does not disappoint. Developer Infinity Ward delivers an even bigger, action-packed blockbuster of a story campaign compared to its predecessor, bursting at the seams with great ideas and solid level design. Unfortunately, beauty alone does not make a good game - and this campaign proves it with meandering, nonsensical plot beats and poor pacing.
The return of Task Force 141
For the unaware, Modern Warfare II is Infinity Ward’s followup to Modern Warfare (2019), a game that rebooted the entire Modern Warfare franchise with an all-new continuity. Instead of doing a fanservice-laden remake, Modern Warfare (2019) went the Star Trek route and told an all-new story with familiar faces. It was refreshing to see a juggernaut franchise like this deliberately shy from nostalgia in favour of new ideas, which makes it all the more disappointing that Modern Warfare II has chosen to do the complete opposite.
In Modern Warfare II, Captain Price, Gaz, Ghost and Soap have formed Task Force 141 with assistance from CIA Station Chief Kate Laswell. The globe-trotting unit is tasked with investigating Iranian forces that have been funding terrorist activity, all under the orders of one General Shepherd who throws out commands from the other side of the planet. The pursuit of the Iranian forces’ new leader, Major Hassan Zyani, soon leads to the discovery that Hassan has access to American-made missiles, which begs the question: What are American missiles doing with the enemy?
The new Modern Warfare games have a Sicario-esque tension grounding their missions and cutscenes - and that really works here, even when the sequel feels so much more over-the-top than its comparatively intimate predecessor. Modern Warfare II’s campaign takes Task Force 141 on a mission across the world, from a naval ship in the stormy seas to a high-stakes prison break. With such an expansive scope, I worried that the sequel would devolve into a Michael Bay-esque series of mindless explosions and gunfire - but I can only count one or two missions that outstayed their welcome this way. Modern Warfare II sticks to its tactical, slow-burn roots until the second half of its story campaign, at which point it evolves into a bombastic Mission Impossible episode.
What Modern Warfare II nails in spectacle however, it sorely misses in writing. The members of Task Force 141 are a little more distinct compared to the old Modern Warfare games, and it’s rough seeing that potential wasted. The camaraderie between this team mostly unfolds in short bursts of chatter during missions, but that just left me wanting more. A lot of these characters - like Gaz and Soap - feel like cardboard cut-outs compared to the more fleshed out members of the team like Ghost and Captain Price. The newer characters, like Alejandro and Graves, are more interesting by a mile - but only the former is given any time to shine in a compressed campaign.
Modern Warfare II wants to be a tense spy thriller, but it lacks the level of writing needed to pull it off. Its characters lack depth and its story makes confounding twists and turns - one particular beat around the middle had me staring at the screen in bewilderment - when it's not careening towards an all too predictable finish. What makes this all the more disappointing is that the story does have moments where it slows down and truly shines: one mission, titled ‘Alone’, gave me everything I wanted from Task Force 141 in the span of half an hour and cemented this version of Ghost as superior to the original. Otherwise, the game always seems to be in a rush to get somewhere, and that would be fine if its final destination wasn’t so underwhelming.
It’s still a ton of fun
Modern Warfare II feels like a Greatest Hits collection of Call of Duty missions strung together by a very poorly-thought out story. That isn’t to say it’s not a fun time - it absolutely is a blast to play through anyway. Instead of padding out the campaign with endless shooting galleries, Infinity Ward has chosen to build each mission around a single idea - and never let that idea outstay its welcome. As a result, you have a diverse series of missions that refuse to repeat themselves, while paying homage to games past at the same time.
One of Modern Warfare’s most iconic missions is ‘All Ghillied Up’, a sniper mission with Captain Price. Naturally, Modern Warfare II also has an all-sniper mission with Captain Price. Just like the first game had the tactical ‘Clean House’ nighttime mission, the second game also has a nighttime mission that has you breach into neighbouring houses. Every mission in this game serves as a callback to older Call of Duties, which might feel either repetitive or fanservice-y depending on your tolerance for nostalgia-mining, but everything does come together in an impressive package here for newer players. None of these missions are taken from older games wholesale - they’re expanded upon, reimagined and rejiggered to fit this campaign and its characters.
As is expected from a modern Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare II looks fantastic. In fact, it’s hard to describe just how incredible this game looks at times without calling it outright photorealistic. One mission that takes place in Amsterdam is short and relatively light on gameplay, but provides a staggering visual showcase of the city which, on the PlayStation 5, can only be differentiated from real life by watching the unnatural movements of its inhabitants. There’s a lot of environmental diversity to enjoy as the campaign hops from lavish cartel mansions to oil rigs in heavy weather conditions, and every location is infused with enough atmosphere and visual fidelity to keep you immersed. I've heard reports of the campaign being buggy at launch, but that thankfully hasn't been my experience.
Modern Warfare II aims for realism in its tight, often closed-quarters engagements and for the most part, nails that in gameplay. It’s satisfying to enter and exit missions by the skin of your teeth without feeling like some sort of action hero, but that feeling wanes by the second half of the campaign. After a series of grounded, boots-on-the-ground missions, Task Force 141 suddenly gains invulnerable plot armour and gets thrown into ridiculous prison escapes and endless convoy chases that feel like they belong in an Uncharted game. At one point, the player even fights an entire tank boss - which absolutely did happen in an Uncharted game, only those games were well aware of their cheesier tendencies.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II is a blast to play through, as long as you’re not looking for a story that makes even the slightest lick of sense. This franchise has always favoured blockbuster campaigns that feel fun to play, but ultimately fall short of their singleplayer peers. Modern Warfare (2019) bucked that tradition with a story grounded in realism and war commentary and although its execution was flawed, this at least made it stand apart. Modern Warfare II feels like a half-step in the wrong direction, almost as if Infinity Ward is hankering for the older days of Call of Duty blockbusters without wanting to abandon everything fans loved about the previous game.
As a result, you have a fun campaign filled with great ideas, but little connective tissue holding it all together. Most Call of Duty fans will love it all the same, but it’s worth pointing out that diluting the charm of any sub-series in this franchise just makes them all seem that much more homogenous and interchangeable. At least we’ll always have ‘Alone’.