This is our multiplayer review for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. For our thoughts on the campaign, check out the single-player review.
Each autumn I look forward to crisp cool mornings, vibrant foliage, the return of pumpkin spice, and the chance to experience a new year of Call of Duty multiplayer. With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward has brought back a familiar and cozy style of combat with more than enough variety to make it feel like more than a simple reskin of last year’s Vanguard. I'm enjoying it quite a bit, at least in between some annoyingly frequent performance problems on PC. The amazingly flexible weapon progression and tuning system, rock-solid gunplay, and some really awesome and inventive new modes on huge maps have me enjoying this iteration of the CoD formula more than I can remember in a long time. It’s still exactly the kind of Call of Duty experience you expect, but it shifts its focus enough to where it feels distinct and different, and it's easily my favorite Call of Duty multiplayer game of the last few years.
First off, the gunplay in Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer is rock solid. The teams behind Call of Duty have had decades to hone it to a razor's edge, and this year is yet another series of subtle improvements. Each gun feels meaningfully different, with an illusion of weight and handling that's unique not only from class to class, but from gun to gun within each class.
The weapon progression and attachment system should feel familiar to anyone who's played Call of Duty in the last few years, but I like to highlight it because it’s one of my personal favorite features. You have a maximum of five attachments on your weapons, even though there are more than just five categories of available attachments. It's up to you to decide which is more important: Do you value hip-fire accuracy? Well, maybe you should attach that laser sight. Do you prefer recoil control instead? Well, perhaps you'd be better off with an underbarrel grip. Its massively varied options encourage experimentation, and fine-tuning a gun to fit my playstyle is almost as satisfying as shooting someone with it.
Fine-tuning my gun is almost as satisfying as shooting someone with it.
You’re always unlocking new weapons through leveling up the appropriate gun on the progression tree. If you're lusting after a certain sniper rifle, for example, you might need to reach a certain level on your profile, or you might need to level up a marksman rifle to unlock it. I love this because it not only pushes you to try out guns you might otherwise pass over, but it rewards you for doing it in the long run by giving you cool guns you might not otherwise get.
The gun-specific challenges that unlock different skins have returned, which I'm always a fan of. Those nudge you to try for achievements you might not otherwise do, like hip-fire or mounted kills .Shout out to the guy on my team who, on day two of CoD being out, already had a gold skin on his rifle – I’ll be obsessing over those and chasing them for a good while, even if I ultimately fall short of glory.
A revamped and astonishingly flexible weapon system is far and away the biggest game changer for Call of Duty multiplayer this year, and to be honest, at first blush it's a little overwhelming. On top of the traditional system of slotting up to five mods onto your guns to suit your playstyle, you can swap out receivers now, essentially changing the entire behavior of the weapon.
But you can also tune your weapons, setting them up to your precise needs and wants. The different characteristics can be adjusted on sliders, a spectrum of handling between binary choices, so you can do things like increase your aim down sight speed at the expense of hip-fire accuracy, or increase aiming stability at the expense of walking speed while aiming. It basically lets you craft your own custom weapon. Unfortunately, Infinity Ward has currently disabled it because it was causing glitches. I hope it comes back soon, because it’s one of the best improvements to the CoD formula I've seen in a long time.
Modern Warfare 2 sees the return of CoD's familiar modes like the Free-for-All deathmatch and Kill Confirmed, but it also adds some new ways to play that shake things up. New this year is Prisoner Rescue, which is really similar to VIP Escort from Cold War. Actually it's pretty much the same thing, but you don't escort VIPs to the exfil, you carry prisoners instead! Or killing them, depending on which side you're on.This is another mode with no respawns like Knockout and Search and Destroy, and I usually opt out of those because I don’t like all the downtime, but this one earned its spot on my playlist because it's pretty fast paced if you’re on a good team.
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My favorite ways to play this year, though, are the two giant modes: Groundwar and Invasion. Groundwar has five different capture points on its huge maps for the 32-player teams to battle over. I came around from the beta, and now I love the Santa Saño map for its long, vehicle-choked corridors and multi-level playfield, as well as Sarif Bay for its rooftop sniper spots. The chaos of previous years has been refined, to where it feels like the maps are just the right size to give that sense of scale while also encouraging people to commit to the objectives.
I’ve spent the majority of my time so far on these giant maps.
Invasion is basically Team Death Match with 20v20 teams racking up kills. The twist is that there are also AI-controlled waves of soldiers on both teams who drop in and run around the maps like idiots. Seriously, the AI on the "hostiles" is almost hilariously bad, which is probably why they're only worth one point per kill, as opposed to a human player who's worth five. At some points, shooting the AI feels like knocking down tin ducks at a carnival shooting gallery, but that just lulls you into a false sense of security so that the human players can swoop in and nail you. And those brainless bullet-catchers fill in gaps in the large maps where otherwise you might not see any action. I’ve spent the majority of my time so far on these giant maps.
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All in all, I'm really pleased with the maps this year. I haven't had a single one pop up in the rotation that made me cringe. Even the maps I don't get excited about, like Farm 18 and Breenbergh Hotel, are still solid maps. Right now, my favorites are probably Taraq and Embassy, but again, they're all really solid. They accommodate almost every playstyle in every map, whether you're a run-and-gun close-quarters killer or you prefer to hang back and snipe.
I ran into odd glitches like quick flashes where I could see my desktop for a split-second.
One thing I definitely noticed a lot on the big maps, and even the smaller maps, were random graphical glitches. I have all the latest updates and drivers installed on my PC, and still I ran into odd problems like quick flashes where I could see my desktop for a split-second, or it would crash after a match and then apply an update. There were also times when the framerate on the big maps would drop to the point where I couldn't make a shot. It’s very frustrating, especially since I switched to the "performance" presets and saw no improvement in the problems. I’m definitely not alone there – the Steam store page is filled with technical complaints right now.
There's also a third-person mode called… 3rd-Person Moshpit. It's what you're used to playing in multiplayer, only in third-person now! It's kind of fun, actually – it definitely changes up how I approach running and gunning, since I was aiming with a reticle on screen rather than down-sights or scoped. It’s a fun change of pace, and probably more familiar if you're used to playing something like Fortnite, but it’s not a mode I see myself spending too much time in.
One of the most surprising modes this year, and one I absolutely love, is Spec Ops Cooperative. There are three different scenarios for you and a friend (or rando) to hit sites alpha, beta, and charlie, then exfil out. The first mission, "Low Profile," is probably my favorite of the three, just because I love anything that leans toward stealth, and this one has you recovering intel and escaping under the cover of darkness. "Denied Area" is the second scenario, and it’s also a lot of fun because it requires you to steal vehicles to reach the surface-to-air missile batteries you need to take out, which leads to some hilarious moments – like when an approaching enemy helicopter was about to drop off a load of soldiers but I scored a lucky shot with a grenade launcher, causing it to explode before it touched the ground.
All three Spec Ops missions give off serious Metal Gear Solid V vibes, which is a good thing.
The final scenario, Defend Mt. Zaya, is probably my least favorite because it requires you to survive several waves of the same extremely stupid AI as you battle Invasion mode. It's still fun, though. All three give off some serious Metal Gear Solid V vibes, which is a good thing. I hope Infinity Ward continues to release Spec Ops scenarios because it was an unexpected delight, but as fun as it is to play through them, I can't see myself going back too much once I hit that three-star rating.
All Killstreaks in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
There's no hardcore mode as of yet, but Infinity Ward says it's coming with the kick-off of Season 1 later in November. It will now be called Tier 1, and it has the stuff you've come to expect from hardcore mode: limited health, friendly-fire, the kind of old-school gnarliness shooters just don't seem to have these days. If that's your preferred mode of play, it's a bummer you need to wait, but hopefully it's just a temporary delay.
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Skill-based matchmaking is back this year, and while it didn't bother me too much in years past, I think I'm starting to come around on it in a negative way. For those unfamiliar, SBMM is a system that ensures you're only playing in matches against people of or near your current skill level. In other words, you'll never drop into a match and get completely steamrolled by some elite CoD Chad, nor will you be the one doing the steamrolling. I used to be okay with this, because it does suck when you're playing against some high-level player and the match is tilting heavily in their favor.
But at the same time… how do I know if I'm any good? I haven't done the math, but SBMM seems like it’s trying to lead you to an even number of wins and losses. If I do get blown out after a few matches, I know the matchmaking will adjust and drop me down a level, at which point I'll start doing great again. But if I actually improve my skills I get bumped up to a higher level against people just as good, so I don’t feel rewarded for getting better. I wish there were a way to just jump into a match with players of any skill level, even if that’s not the default.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the most fun I’ve had in CoD multiplayer in a good long while. It’s taken what was already a mechanically solid multiplayer game and improved on it with a weapon customization system that’s almost limitless in its possibilities, and its new focus on bigger maps with tons of players has paid off bigtime. The giant Groundwar and Invasion maps have struck a fantastic balance between hectic and manageable, giving them a feeling of controlled chaos, and the cooperative Spec Ops missions are a treat to play through. That’s on top of the usual load of modes, and they all let the excellent, weighty gunplay shine. That said, performance issues on PC and even some across consoles put a damper on the fun, and at launch there are a lot more issues than I would have expected – including temporarily turning off that awesome weapon customization. But aside from those hiccups it’s been great, and the constant stream of unlocks are a really effective carrot on a stick that keep me interested moving forward.