Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Review: A Clunky, Underwhelming Story

For our Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer review, click here.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is finally here, and it has a large legacy to live up to. From borrowing the name of one of gaming's greatest sequels to having to follow-up an incredibly successful reboot, there's a lot riding on this. In some ways, Modern Warfare 2 clears these hurdles with flying colors. In other ways, particularly in some areas of the campaign, it trips over them and slams its face right into the pavement. It's not the definitive Call of Duty game some will want in 2022, but given we just came off of a lackluster entry in 2021 and have had years of so-so entries, Modern Warfare 2 does feel like one of the better games in recent memory.

Following the more grounded campaign of 2019's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward re-introduces Task Force 141 to the world with reimagined versions of Ghost and Soap alongside the ever stoic Captain Price and his protege Kyle 'Gaz' Garrick. This fan-favorite squad along with allies from the Mexican special forces and a group known as Shadow Company are tasked with tracking down a terrorist named Hassan Zyani after it's discovered that the faction he leads is in possession of deadly missiles that belong to the United States. Given the implications it could have if one of these missiles were launched, the stakes are high. Things get even more interesting when our heroes learn that the cartel is involved and much of the chaos exists on the border between America and Mexico. 

On paper, the story is pretty basic, and it has its twists and turns, but it doesn't execute much of it well on a narrative level. The game introduces at least three antagonists, if not more, across 17 very brief missions for a total of 5-6 hours of playtime. The short runtime isn't much of a problem on its own merit, but it becomes one when the game wants to cram a lot of massive things in and does most of it in the last few missions of the game. The justifications for when a character stabs you in the back (it's a Modern Warfare game, this isn't a spoiler) are hardly fleshed out, and there's seemingly no build up to it. It just happens because the story wants to head in that direction, and it never really convinces you that it should be heading that way, especially because two missions later, you tie up that loose end before heading into a different finale that feels somewhat disconnected to what just came before it.

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It doesn't give anything time to breathe and therefore concludes things just as quickly as they're presented to you. If the writers want there to be a betrayal that causes major problems, they need to give the player time to feel those consequences and build the desire to get revenge/justice. Since the game doesn't have the luxury of time, it falls pretty flat and that extends to all of the other antagonists/larger plot elements as well. 

When compared to the original Modern Warfare trilogy, the pacing also feels off. Those games had a sense of escalation, awe, and feeling that there is a real threat. There was the nuke in Call of Duty 4, the EMP blast and fight for the heart and survival of Washington D.C. in Modern Warfare 2, and devastating battles across major cities like New York City and Paris in Modern Warfare 3. For a game that's all about stopping enemies from using missiles, you never really get an idea of the kind of devastation they're capable of in Modern Warfare 2. The game just kind of tells you "this is bad," but doesn't show you in a meaningful way, so the emphasis of urgency and danger isn't really felt.

It doesn't help that the campaign is also failed by some surprisingly clunky gameplay and lackluster missions with questionable design choices, including an out-of-place tank boss battle in an otherwise grounded game. The tone is a bit sporadic, never really deciding if it wants to lean more into the extravaganza of a Call of Duty story or stick to being a grounded adaptation of modern day headlines. The latter is hurt by the fact that the game is constantly introducing incredibly video game-y mechanics that feel like a step back from the tense and realistic night vision raids of its predecessor. 

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On the other hand, the game is aware that most Call of Duty campaigns are usually a ton of fun because they're big, bombastic interactive movies that are reminiscent of classic summer blockbusters. This one tries its best to emulate that, but is let down by the gameplay. It has a lot of variety and every mission has a new gimmick or mechanic, but when the missions only last 15 minutes at most, some of these mechanics are going to feel undercooked.

One mission known as Recon by Fire tries to pay homage to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's most iconic mission: All Ghillied Up. In Modern Warfare 2's version, Captain Price and Gaz are in Mexico on a cloudy, foggy day trying to sneak into a facility to find the aforementioned missiles. At one point, the game properly introduces you to the fact it has a stealth mechanic, and it will be reused not only throughout the campaign but also in Spec Ops. It's probably one of the worst stealth mechanics I have seen in a game of this scale and feels more appropriate for a budget shooter like Sniper: Ghost Warrior

It tips its hat to the sequence in All Ghillied Up where a large group of infantry pass right over you while you sit perfectly still in the grass, trying to remain unnoticed. Eventually, Captain Price directs you to move up to a facility while he covers you from a nearby hill. As you make your approach, some cars stop for no apparent reason and the enemies decide to start walking in your direction. You can lay in the grass and stay perfectly still, but there's still a good chance that someone will see you no matter what you do. Throughout the game, I was spotted through walls and in other ways that seemed unfair and unpolished. They just naturally gravitate toward you.

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After dying once or twice during one of the sequences where you lie in the grass, I decided to run in a completely different direction to avoid this entire issue. It didn't matter – they're not patrolling a specific area. They're patrolling where you are despite the fact they don't even know you're there. The enemies are quite literally programmed to move in the direction of wherever you are. It was incredibly frustrating and felt like the game was artificially creating tension and stealth as opposed to letting me be strategic to find ways around my enemies.

This persisted when I got to the facility and was told I could walk inside a building to clear it, shoot down at enemies from the skylights, or throw gas in the vents to make them run outside where Price could help me kill them. There's no way to do it stealthily, because the enemies are stacked up inside waiting for you, even though there's no reason they should know you're there since you've been quietly crawling through the grass for quite some time. Either way, whatever you choose to do, the outcome is the same: a big firefight, completely defeating the purpose of stealthing your way in there.

You also have to snipe at people on a boat at the end of this mission to save someone from being captured, but I noticed my bullets hitting an invisible wall in front of the boat. No matter what you do, no matter how good your sniping skills are, you can't save this person, and it makes you question why they even ask you to do it in the first place. It's another illusion and makes you wonder why the game is trying to create a mini-sandbox for you to play in when it still funnels you down a specific path.

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The issues continued in a mission where you have to chase a convoy across a desert highway. It starts strong, utilizing thrilling scripted sequences to get the adrenaline pumping, but quickly falls apart when you take control of a vehicle. The handling for cars is stiff, and they get destroyed very quickly meaning you have to jump from your current vehicle to another in a very Uncharted 4-esque way. It's not nearly as smooth, however, and you are incredibly likely to fall on to the ground and die. If that wasn't bad enough, you eventually have to destroy a truck that is deploying a seemingly infinite number of mines and blowing up civilian vehicles that swerve into you via awkward canned animations.

Although there are some strong missions such as one where you control an AC-130 and another one where you raid an oil rig in the middle of a treacherous rain storm, this kind of clunky gameplay is present across the entire campaign and frequently turns something that could be incredibly cinematic into AA jank. It would be one thing if the series had a history of this, but even the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 expertly handled a number of the ideas this game is trying to present. It's an incredibly confusing step back in many ways.

Even the finale (no plot spoilers), comes down to making the player run around a room with no weapon. You're forced to use a poorly made crafting system to make improvised explosives and shivs in anticlimactic set piece, as opposed to making it a big epic battle or intimate showdown between hero and villain. When compared to the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's final moments, it's a bit laughable how underwhelming this game's ending is. The original ends with triumph yet dread over what the future may look like, but it's exciting and leaves you in suspense waiting for the sequel. The battle is won, but the war is far from over. This one just ends on a whimper and puts its chips on a fanservice-y post-credits scene. 

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Given the gameplay and plot are a mixed bag, the story is largely carried on the backs of the characters, which the game assumes you are already kind of in love with. In fairness to the game, I am absolutely enamored with my boys doing cool murders and blowing stuff up. This may even be the best Task Force 141 has ever been. It's a story charged with testosterone and the writers never let that go unnoticed. They know how to use these iconic characters well and when everyone is together, bantering, riffing on each other, and slaying terrorists in style, the game is operating at an incredibly high level. When you're starting to feel a bit bored by the actual story or examining the messiness in which it's executed, the game ropes you back in with the interactions between these characters.

This game makes a great case for a spin-off with just Ghost and Soap as the protagonists. There's an entire mission where Ghost and Soap are talking to each other, leaning more about their respective histories, and bonding. By the end of the game, you feel that these two are connected for life. Even though Ghost starts the game feeling a bit annoyed by Soap, he still cares for him and the two throw their lives on the line for each other. Ghost himself is a standout, as you'd expect, as there's a running joke where he pretends not to know Spanish only for it to be revealed he understood it the entire time and heard the sly remarks and insults from the Mexican special forces. It's great touches like that which help liven a character up. These characters continue to be really special and hopefully, Infinity Ward will expand upon that in future entries.

Infinity Ward has proven it's capable of great things, but Modern Warfare 2's campaign ranks somewhere in the middle of the studio's gameography and is largely held up by its charming heroes. It's uneven, sometimes underwhelming, and clunky, mostly because it can't decide how much freedom it gives you and how much it wants to keep the action on rails. It's not bad, but it doesn't live up to the title of the other game it invokes and even falls a bit short of its predecessor.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is out now on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, PS5, and PC. An Xbox Series X review code was provided by the publisher.