The most difficult aspect of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II’s campaign, far harder than veteran or realistic difficulty, is finding it. Hidden away on menu after menu, after scrolling to the bottom of the screen, there it was, a trial in itself. I do enjoy a linear, scripted, and fast FPS story campaign every year or so, and after being impressed with the first rebooted Modern Warfare, with the original games being a formative gaming experience for me, I eagerly started playing. I wish I hadn’t bothered.
The game begins with a cool new twist on something old. Similar to the Chernobyl mission in 2007’s Modern Warfare, we see an arms deal in progress, laid out in much the same way: a vehicle convoy from afar, identifying the leader, etc. But instead of a sniper shot, the villainous general is taken out, along with his men, by a big impersonal missile. Updated modern warfare, indeed. But soon it became clear this ‘remix’ of an old mission wasn’t a one-off. Almost every mission to be played is a pastiche of the earlier trilogy. All the game does is recycle and reuse. Not just little easter eggs like 2019’s Modern Warfare but the biggest story beats too. Modern Warfare II invites comparison with its predecessors, and therefore always pales.
2019’s Modern Warfare was an updated reimagining while 2022’s Modern Warfare II strides too close to remake territory, which is doubly redundant when remastered versions of the old games are available. You think you’ve found the villain but it’s just a laptop playing a video, like Al Assad in the old game, and then you stumble across a shipping container with a smuggled weapon inside, like the old game. An early Mexico mission is designed like the Brazil favela missions, complete with the same costumes. Two back-to-back gunship missions with the same armaments as the classic missions. A ghillie suit infiltration with identical dialogue. A melding of the old rig and ship missions from the old games. The betrayal of Shepherd and Shadow Company. A prison break with identical character animations. The mission Ghost Team switches perspectives during an assault on a base, just like Rebirth in Black Ops. And then the final mission is taken from Call of Duty: Ghosts of all games. In the interest of time, I have far from listed every example. There is no originality in this campaign whatsoever.
Nor is there an attempt to capture any serious narrative or character drama. Now I’m not looking for much, this is a Call of Duty game after all, but 2019’s reboot tried to tell a denser story. Overall, it succeeded. The campaign was crafted by Naughty Dog alumni who did a good job shaping a narrative and offering a modern update on the series. There is nothing modern in Modern Warfare II. In the last game I was invested in Farah, and thought the story of her and her brother, particularly the flashback, was bold storytelling for this franchise. There’s nothing like that here, just gruff cliché soldiers in a plot from 15 years ago. Anything new is a rip-off of Sicario and Narcos, with the writers forgetting that Narcos is set in the 1970s and this is supposed to be modern warfare.
The game’s plot is very simple. Hassan is smuggling a big missile into the US and needs to be stopped before he fires it. Who is Hassan? Having played the game, I still don’t know. Just a generic Middle-Eastern terrorist I thought stories like this had moved away from. There’s no reason to care about his story, he’s nebulously seeking revenge for the death of a guy we saw for ten seconds at the start of the game. There’re no twists or turns to the plan, just delays to stretch out the narrative. Our handler Kate Laswell is abducted in one mission and then the next we rescue her. No reason for it, it’s just a way to add one more mission without story, and to cram Farah into the game in a lame, brief way. The dialogue is laughably simplistic too. In terms of motivations all we get is, “terrorists are all about the past. Narcos are all about the future.” So profound. The few pieces of optional dialogue could be a way to learn more about the characters but instead seem to be written by children: “what’s your favourite weapon?” And not forgetting the cringiest of all: “war crimes, ugh. Makes me want to commit a few war crimes of my own.”
2019’s Modern Warfare introduced us to new versions of Captain Price and Gaz, similar to their old counterparts but freshened up. They had their own little character journeys over the campaign, with Price becoming a leader rather than a lone operator, building a team, and Gaz coming to join that team and leave his SAS career. They grew and we came to connect with them. Modern Warfare II puts in no such effort. Ghost and Soap are introduced with no actual introduction or arc. The game presumes the player knows the characters from the old non-canon games and inserts them into the story with no new twist or purpose. They are joined by Alejandro, whose characterisation begins and ends with his deep gruff voice and saying “hermano” every other sentence. They don’t grow or develop; everyone is the same at the start of the game as they are at the end. Ghost may take his mask off but there’s no explanation or exploration of this. Why not expand the mystery around this instead of ignoring it like the old game?
It’s great to see Glenn Morshower take on the role of General Shepherd; the actor known for military roles throughout the franchise, and beyond, being given Call of Duty’s ultimate military role. But Shepherd here has none of the interesting motivation or menace of the original, staying in his office before disappearing at the end. I feel none of the vitriol I had towards the 2009 version. He’s kept alive and active at the end, ready for a sequel, but the developers have kept their trump card back for the next game at the sake of this one. Shepherd’s elite squad, Shadow Company, also return and the game initially treats them well. Unlike the original, where they were faceless baddies, we play alongside them, and their commander, Graves, is one of the more fleshed out characters. The eventual betrayal however is lacking. The turn just happens. Nothing seems to initiate it. All of a sudden our allies are massacring civilians and are the worst of the worst. Graves is the only decent villain in the game but we don’t even get to fight him. He’s in a tank at the end; an impersonal battle.
Other villains come in the form of the Mexican cartel, led by the mysterious El Sin Nombre. At the start of a mission, we are led to their compound and face Valeria for questioning. Oh, I thought, she’s El Sin Nombre. But no, she’s talked about as a different character, so I kept playing to find out who else will be revealed to be the antagonist. Five minutes later at the end of the short mission, we find out Valeria is in fact El Sin Nombre. What a twist! There’s no one else it could have been and if the game wanted to commit to a mystery there needed to be multiple suspects. Valeria’s number two is Diego, who is introduced with a series of cliches. Diego beats one of his own men to show how commanding and dangerous he is, and then Valeria holds a knife to his neck to show the hierarchy. By refusing to spend time with these characters, developing them, the game has to rely on tired tropes.
A big problem with Modern Warfare II is that it can’t find the right balance between realism and total ridiculousness. The 2019 reboot offered a well-judged, stripped back, almost grounded version of the franchise while the original games just accepted the huge scale and bonkers set pieces, engulfing the planet in World War 3 just to do so. MWII exists in the lame middle ground pleasing no one. The game includes shooting people in the street in Amsterdam, parkouring down a mountainside while facing an army, and raining down fire from an American plane, destroying a Mexican town and killing hundreds. It’s not realistic, and that’s fine. But then immediately after the plane missions, the story hinges on capturing Hassan but having to let him go because we don’t have the legal right to hold him. We just murdered the entire Mexican army, committing an act of war, and suddenly the guy with a WMD has to be released for legal reasons. It’s insane.
One of the best missions in 2019’s Modern Warfare was Clean House, in which an SAS team slowly made their way through a dark London townhouse and cleared it of terrorists. Completing it with precise shots and no civilian casualties is perhaps the most satisfying moment of the franchise. The sequel features more of these house raids but the game doesn’t allow you to be the same level of clean and precise, making it a wholly frustrating experience. The original mission was very scripted but that’s the only way it could be guaranteed to work. In MWII, there is much more freedom to approach situations the way the player wants but these looser rules ruin these moments. Staying stealthy is impossible and the enemy locations lead to glitches and ragdoll bodies clip through walls or fly into the air upon death. Armour plating also ruins the joy of quickly taking down an enemy in a single, well-placed shot.
The game revolves around a series of set pieces, many of them based on solid ideas, but the execution of them are all slightly off. The gunship missions could be fun but there are so many rules that stop it from being so. I replayed the original AC-130 missions endlessly when I was younger but getting through these once was more than enough. You can’t hit buildings unless cleared to do so, there are civilians everywhere, and there’s so much time spent just watching what is happening before you’re allowed to fire. The ghillie suit sniper mission is also dull compared to the original, with the large repurposed Warzone map taking so long to cross, especially when you are stealthily crawling. Violence and Timing might be the worst example however. It sounds like a fun mission: fight from vehicle-to-vehicle to reach the front of the longest convoy known to man, Uncharted style. The problem is that this game isn’t built like Uncharted. The running and jumping mechanics are awkward and plainly not good enough. Nice idea, poor execution.
The same is true for the more stealth-focused missions, although I do appreciate the attempt and they are closer to being a success. Alone is one of the better missions, although still doesn’t capitalise on all its potential. Weapon-less, injured, and having to sneak past Shadow Company who are actively hunting you is a great idea and it is appropriately tense and finds a new vibe for the franchise. But the crafting system and traps are basic and most of the items I crafted stayed in my inventory, unused. The Soap and Ghost dialogue also could have been better if it felt like they truly connected; it felt more like a Q&A with little impact on the relationship. The final mission sees a reprise of this stealth gameplay but I’m not sure I want a Call of Duty game to end with hiding under a table for five minutes before stabbing two people with a box cutter. Hassan’s death is also lacklustre – a simple, easy sniper shot to the head.
The game ends with a tease of things to come, or rather a lame recreation of something from 14 years ago. Makarov is back and so much weight is put on the name without any effort in explaining why the gamer should care. The name drop is only meaningful if you know the old games and if you know the old games then you’ve experienced a better version of this story and are disappointed in the new one. We get a watered-down tease of the controversial No Russian, a phrase Makarov now texts to his accomplices rather than says. Yeah, because when a record of that text is recovered, people aren’t going to wonder why he said “no Russian” as if Russians are responsible and trying to hide the fact. It’s very dumb; a failure of a tease.
Modern Warfare II’s campaign fails in almost every regard. Shallow characters, thin plot, and gameplay additions which range from poorly conceived to incompetently executed. But the biggest issue is just how much it apes the previous games, making me wish I was playing those instead. Which, you know what, I think I’ll do. It’s such a disappointment that the goodwill and bold push forward that 2019’s Modern Warfare created has been snuffed out by its sequel. I’m off to play the originals; they should just remaster the old Modern Warfare 3 to spare them making a new one.