Being a PC gamer, you're no doubt aware of the inauspicious beginnings of the Call of Duty franchise. Back in 2003 we all marvelled at iD's Tech 3 engine reborn as a cracking WWII shooter that featured not only an extensive and well structured campaign mode, but some of the most addictive and groundbreaking multiplayer action since Gooseman decided Half-Life Deathmatch just wasn't interesting enough.
Call of Duty 2 followed a couple of years later, proving that sequels don't always have to be hollow representations of the original product. All was well in the world, and developers Infinity Ward rode a well-deserved wave of critical success.
Then, something unusual happened. Development of the franchise split in two different directions, one very much angled towards the PC market, the other the next-gen console base. Call of Duty 2: Big Red One and Call of Duty 3 were outsourced console exclusives, presumably freeing Infinity Ward to work on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the first truly cross-platform title for the series. As PC gamers, we didn't mind this - as long as Infinity Ward kept churning out ridiculously good multiplayer titles they could port them to the DS for all we cared. Development of the console versions were pushed out to Treyarch, who took an obvious back-seat to the main event, so once again the best platform to experience Call of Duty on was the PC.
Then came Call of Duty: World at War. Despite a roaringly good co-op mode that encouraged you to kill as many Nazi Zombies as possible, for the PC audience it was about as exciting as every other rehashed WWII shooter on the market. But again, we didn't care, because Infinity Ward would rescue us with their ongoing commitment to PC game development, and multiplayer innovation. I apologise if this reads like a eulogy, but it's unavoidable.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 consists of three components; a campaign mode, online and local multiplayer, and a kind of two-person co-op tactical feature entitled "Special Ops". The campaign mode features approximately four to five hours of compartmentalised, highly structured chapters that linearly present a clichéd, kitsch and largely nonsensical story with more plot holes than a field in Cambodia. You'll move seamlessly from one terrorist hot-spot to another either facing overwhelming enemy resistance, or a couple of sentries with some dogs. You play multiple characters, some of which have the hugely helpful ability to die in the cinematic cut scenes, thus separating you even further from any type of compassion or desire you may have had to see them through to the end.
The game switches between setting up gritty warzones and empowering you to experience modern warfare to a high degree of accuracy, to placing you in a street with a bunch of rabid Rio locals in what can only be described as a turkey shoot without the turkey. Cheap deaths abound - even on normal settings you'll have to respawn and memorise seemingly random locations where enemies are camped and make sure you take them out in a prescribed order before crossing an imaginary line to spawn the next railed-in event, which probably features an explosion. It's a surreal experience that is akin to watching one minute of a Bourne film followed by ten minutes of any Bond film featuring Pierce Brosnan. If you like that sort of thing, you'll be in heaven.
Even memorable moments such as racing full-speed down an alpine incline aboard a snowmobile (and believe me, it is memorable) have been dulled somewhat by the game providing you with a SMG that shoots some kind of heat-seeking ammunition. Travelling at 150kph and you need to take out an enemy snowmobile a hundred metres away using only one hand? No problem. I know the game isn't supposed to be a realistic representation of warfare - we have ArmA II for that - but removing the obvious Hollywood moments would have made for a better campaign. Strangely enough, the only time in which Infinity Ward actually break away from the hollow world of international cliché smuggling is when they provide you with the ability to massacre hundreds of civilians in an airport. I'm not sure whether to applaud them for temporarily smashing down the wall in a title that could generally pass for a mediocre day at the rifle range, or deride them for doing it in such a crass manner.
Graphically speaking, Modern Warfare 2 is a step above Call of Duty 4 as far as destructible environments and character animation goes. As for the outdoor locations however, I couldn't really notice a great deal of difference. The draw distance is acceptably deep, with plenty of sniping opportunities. The indoor areas suffer from repetitive textures and dull lighting effects, but this is largely offset by the accurately modelled enemies who distract your attention sufficiently, particularly when crumpling realistically after a satisfying shot to the kneecap. Crysis this is not however - even at the maximum 4xAA and with all details cranked up my two year old Core 2 Duo 8800GTX machine didn't miss a beat.
Enough about the campaign - chances are you'll probably only play it once anyway. No, the real reason this article exists is to detail the multiplayer component, in particular, the performance of the online matchmaking facility that has replaced the dedicated server mechanism that worked flawlessly anyway.
The way this works involves selecting your particular choice of gameplay mode from a comprehensive list that includes all manners of death match, free-for-all, sabotage, domination, capture the flag, search and destroy, headquarters and ground war offensives. Naturally, you'll need to manipulate Steam first, as well as have the right credentials for iw.net. Hardcore modes are limited to Ricochet S&D and team deathmatch only, and a new third-person mode has been introduced that features team and cage matches. Not all these modes are available out of the box, you'll need to level your profile up until you can unlock them all, again indicative of the continuing constraints Infinity Ward seem determined to place on this release. The third-person perspectives are particularly baffling - are they an innovative new way to provide additional gaming content, or is this some subtle suggestion that the next Call of Duty will be shipping with a controller?
The matchmaking appears to work largely based on your connection strength. Or, at least, if it's designed to work in any other manner it's broken, because the game thought nothing of placing me against other players that were twenty ranks ahead. I'd like to report on the latency with some actual figures, however they've removed numerical ping and replaced it with a signal bar not unlike that found on a mobile phone, so this arbitrary scale is irrelevant and yields no clues as to what sort of a compensatory game I need to play. My eye-chrometer suggests around 150msec across the board, however.
Lag? You bet. Within a matter of minutes I'd been fragged by a bouncing avatar that transported itself across the map, and that doesn't include the noticeable banana bullets that occur just too frequently to ignore. Based on this, it's fairly clear to see why they've limited the game to nine per side, I'd hate to see what it looks like with Modern Warfare's original 64 player limit, presumably like a very tedious slide show from a trip to Borneo. It's of absolutely no interest to me how well the rest of the developed world can play this title online, if it's a miserable experience for Kiwi players then Infinity Ward have dropped the ball, plain and simple.
Killstreaks and perks have been modified somewhat, you can now gain additional points for preventing another players killstreak, along with awards for ranged shots, crouching more frequently, your general proximity to combat, etc. There are subtle modifications to the way in which you can spend your killstreak points too, as well as titles you can select for your character as you gain ranks. In fact, almost every bonus attribute you'll happen across reminds you of the original Modern Warfare, but with a kind of veneer added in a way that almost begs you to believe that the developers have been busy.
The Special Ops mode is a refreshing addition to the franchise that gives you the ability to play either solo or with a team-mate across a variety of short levels with specific objectives. You may need to reach an evacuation point, or shoot a number of terrorists whist avoiding civilian casualties, and there are a bunch of stars to collect in order to rate your prowess against others. Why this is limited to two people is unknown, perhaps Infinity Ward felt that they'd done enough to impress the split-screen console fanbase, or perhaps they'll charge you for some DLC later to open it up, whatever the reason it's unlikely to be altruistic.
From the outset, it seems clear that Infinity Ward have little to no interest in pursuing the PC as a viable development path for the Call of Duty franchise. You can't modify Modern Warfare 2 in any way. You can't bring down the console for any custom commands. You can't lean. There's no way to kick or ban players in a ranked match. Free DLC? Forget it. The lack of dedicated servers will hit the community hard, and the utter nonsense that the host latency advantage causes with console titles seems to have made the transition across to PC in arguably the most anticipated release of the year. The reason for this is simple - it's a money grab. The PC population that has supported and nurtured this franchise from inception will now play second fiddle to the greed of a company that has tasted success on the console, and will now seek to reign in all control of their IP to wring every last cent out of.
I firmly believe that for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that our console review is spot on the money. It is a 95% game for those platforms, it's a great contender for Game of the Year and it'll probably sell better than Tamiflu. Unfortunately however, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for the PC is simply a next-gen console game with mouse support, in-game text chat and rudimentary graphics options. Infinity Ward have made it pretty clear that as a PC gamer, your platform advantages don't count, and neither does your community, your history and your considerable modding skills.
Make of that what you will.