Modern Warfare 2
20th Jun 2009 | 09:30
When you're one of the first in the world to be shown what'll likely be the most successful shooter of recent history, it's bad form to repeatedly point at the game and excitedly bark which movies you've seen its setpieces in before. And, indeed, for flecks of your spittle to land in the eyes of its designers.
After 45 minutes in front of Modern Warfare 2 I'd stopped to excitedly bite my fist no less than seven times to stare with strange intensity at Infinity Ward's studio head Vincent Zampella and community manager Robert Bowling, and yell things like: Goldeneye! Police Story! Vertical Limit! Die Hard 2! To this Infinity Ward return a shrug.
"I don't know that it's intentional... though we watch a lot of movies," offers Zampella by way of explanation, with perhaps an underlying glimmer of alarm that the feverish individual sweating into his leather couch is listing increasingly bad '90s actioners rather than marvelling at the updated graphics, remarkable motion capture and breathless innovations in level design on show.
Yet this isn't a criticism on my part; it's the recognition that more than any other game Call of Duty - or what was once Call of Duty - has increasingly pitted you as the star of the most visceral, imaginative and adrenalin-ripped set-pieces ever committed to 3D engine, or indeed celluloid.
That it occasionally stoops to cherry-pick the very best moments of violent popular culture is an affirmation that Modern Warfare 2 is aimed squarely at fulfilling the Action Man fantasies of a generation. The fact that I'm dribbling as I type this is proof enough that it will hit its target.
This stance is solidified as I watch the Infinity Ward twosome play a co-op mission in Modern Warfare 2's Special Ops mode. As Robert places an explosive charge on a dank brick wall, and they both charge, co-op style, through the flying rubble, accompanied by a beautifully animated slow-motion Russian soldier cartwheeling away, my animated burbling is proved correct. This mission-slice, cut and pasted from the main game for ramped-up difficulty and co-op jollities, is a dingy prison shower-block - a concrete basin full of grey shower fittings and crumbling cover points. Above this, two raised guard gantries on either side provide cover for a barrage of snipers.
"This," I delicately proffer, "is taken out of The Rock." I'm met with friendly affirmatives all round; we pause for a moment and hold each other in a testosterone-charged, yet powerfully emotional, embrace.
Modern Warfare 2's storyline picks up directly after Call of Duty 4's bridge finale, with villain Zakhaev dead by your (well, Soap McTavish's) hand, and everyone else apparently dead bar the oddly-monikered Soap and the heavily-bulleted Price. But what with international foreign policy being what it is, the slaying of Zakhaev has prompted an even more desperate state of affairs.
"Killing Zakhaev has allowed Makerov - one of his main guys - to take power, and use his death as a martyr situation," explains Zampella. With Makerov pointing the finger at the Allies and screaming blue murder, Soap and his boys in Task Force 141 - an international elite military unit dedicated to hunting down terror targets are on the case.
Thing is, this time around you're not playing Soap - in the snowy mountain-top level I was shown he's become an NPC on the battlefield, ordering you around as you both get up to stealthy mischief in the manner of Price's COD4 Chernobyl adventures.
This level begins in a blizzard and halfway up a mountain, with you edging around a tiny ledge with your back to a sheet of solid ice and your front to countless fathoms of fresh high-altitude air. What follows is a remarkable set of stunts, climbs and perilous dangling as you follow Soap up the ice sheet - a subtle mix of player-controlled movement, predetermined slips and acrobatics.
You'll slam ice axes into the glacier with your left and right hands through alternate mouse clicks, hauling yourself up and watching the ice crack as you put your weight on it. You'll watch Soap heroically leap a massive gap with ice axes flailing (in the manner of the only good bit of Vertical Limit), then do so yourself before the ice breaks beneath you and Soap dashes to grab your arm.
This is all far removed from what you'd expect, and an example of the way Infinity Ward are manhandling a multitude of different experiences, peaks and troughs into each and every level. Always ensuring that you'll never know what to expect. What you should expect next is a two-man stealth assault on an enemy airbase. A blanket of fog rolls in and out, while flurries of snow covers all so you can just about see the silhouettes of patrolling guards, beautifully animated and hunched against the elements, and the red glow of their cigarette butts.
What pans out is similar to the early stages of the assault on Chernobyl in COD4, moments such as the memorable "You take the one on the left on the count of three" trick are elegantly woven into the level's gameplay and are no longer stand-out moments. You're even equipped with a heart-beat sensor, and can make out where your prey are patrolling - and soon Soap retreats to a sniping position to help you take out the periphery soldiers.
Again, this leads to semi-scripted moments of utter genius - such as Soap lining up a kill and saying "I've got this one..." the second before you launch into a melee attack, taking out his target and leaving him to mutter, "Oh... never mind." Small details like this pepper the game, even more so than in the original, and the result is a smooth and organic experience where you simply can't see the joins.
Eventually, having perched explosives on the required targets, you meet up with Soap and venture inside one of the airfield's hangars. It's at this point that the ever-evolving gameplay of the level turns from sneaking and stealth, and enters the familiar Call of Duty phase in which the shit hits the fan and you find yourself involuntarily hiding behind the scenery just to catch your breath. You run up to the hangar gantry, and look over the building's floor to see Soap with his arms raised and around 20 Russians at the, now open, hangar doors aiming their guns at him (GoldenEye comparisons begin here).
At first you assume he's a goner, but then the game casually reminds you that you've got a detonator in your hand and Soap soon makes his escape alongside billowing smoke and flame. "These moments of peak gameplay are more punctuated, they stand out more, when you have quiet moments that lead up to them," Zampella says, standing on the now mist-free runway and watching soldiers flood in from every direction towards him; MIGs and fuel tanks exploding nearby in the crisp mountain air. "We go for peaks and valleys in the gameplay. We make the whole game that way, but within a single level we do the same thing."
As Soap and the player leg it over the runway with every available evil-minded Russian on their tail the distant reedy engines of enemy snowmobiles can be heard: "It's not our game unless there's eight different games inside of it..." explains Bowling, as three Ski-Doos leap over the crest of a hill towards the player.
Soap, meanwhile, hides behind the corner of a rustic outhouse and hooks a passing enemy snowmobile driver off his steed with an ice axe (in a move that will cause grown men to whimper with admiration) and in no time at all you're both bombing down the mountain on stolen snow-motors. Turning pursuing enemies into snow-melting balls of fire, giggling to yourself more than is healthy and doing spectacular jumps over what can only be described as the thinnest of air. (Die Hard 2). So ends, having reached your waiting helicopter, a frankly stunning Call of Duty mission - a perfectly structured mixture of tension and exhilaration, prevailing weather conditions and a brilliant bit I forgot to mention in which Soap runs up behind an enemy and bodyslams him into a set of lockers. Probably the best example of stunt motion-capturing I've ever seen.
Infinity Ward won't be drawn out on storyline particulars or the character(s) you'll play, but it seems they feel as if they've already done the tale of the war on two fronts and the red herring twist. They will, however, talk with a great deal of enthusiasm about the chaps of Task Force 141, recruited to go after high-value targets around the globe. "It's like the task forces that went after Saddam Hussein [Task Force 20] and Osama [Task Force 121]," says studio head Zampella.
"It's international. It's SAS, it's special forces, and it's linked with Delta Force a lot - with CIA implants... so you have at your disposal the best of all the best armed forces of the world. The task force, in real life, are the elite soldiers of the elite soldiers." What's more, so badass is this cosmopolitan brew of casual murder and bodily odour, that they get a fair amount of leeway in the manner they conduct themselves.
"The cool thing about Task Force 141 is that they're the guys that have earned the right to customise their own gear," picks up Bowling. "If you're infantry you have the standard load-outs, but if you're in the Task Force they'll use what's most useful."
As such, when you look at the heavily detailed character models of your allies you'll notice self-customised things like shoulder antennas bent in two, duct tape hanging between their legs and battery packs tucked on the back of their necks.
Such is the Infinity Ward dedication to the feeling, if not practice, of accuracy that soldiers are regularly drafted into their studio to advise on, for example, the gloves Task Force 141 should be wearing. Typically a soldier would choose to wear pilot gloves, apparently, since they're thinner and that means that fingers are closer to the triggers. "They'll take a standard piece of gear, and they'll say - you know what? That thing's shit. As soon as it gets sand in it, it stops working," confirms Bowling, himself a former military type who'd wrap the aforementioned duct tape around his handguards (whatever they are) when out in the field. "And we use the cage for something else... or we use the belt for this. We do a lot of work to make sure the gear is what the soldiers in the field are using."
This added emphasis on character detail doesn't begin and end with Task Force 141 either, since now whatever weapons an enemy is carrying will have a direct implication for the gear, ammo and outfit you see on his body. So in both single-player and online play you'll face a variety of differently equipped enemies, but also be able to instantly tell what weaponry your foe is packing and thinking about the best way to deal with them.
But how do you balance this obsession with reality with a game that, with the best will in the world, hardly replicates what you see on Channel 4 news? After all, the COD series has never claimed to be another ArmA or OpFlash. "We call it authenticity, not realism," trots out Zampella. "We don't want to make a sim-shooter. But it has to be authentic. Like when you see a guy in an action movie. If it all looks real and legitimate you think 'Hey, that guy looks like a soldier', but what he does can be over the top - part of an entertainment experience. This is like that - an interactive action movie."
Back to the interactive action then, this time in Brazil (Rio De Janeiro to be precise) where the Task Force are hot on the trail of an arms dealer by the name of Faust. A trail that turns bloody when a bullet from one of Faust's men kills the driver of the Task Force vehicle tailing him. With the car's interior decked out in glass and glistening droplets of blood your character leaps out and chases the hoodlum through the colourful and crowded streets.
That's right: non-scripted civilians have finally entered Call of Duty, their role seemingly being to run around while screaming, and occasionally to be clipped by passing gunfire. One non-lethal takedown later (a shot to the leg) and the miscreant is strongly encouraged to give up the shanty town location of his diabolic leader.
I haven't seen the gameplay that follows, but I've been on a fly-past of where the action takes places - and it's beautiful. It's an uphill fight and a downhill escape through the said favela with the backdrop of Rio's famous Christ the Redeemer statue towering above, and presumably disapproving of what he's watching.
Here multiple paths will lead you through armed locals and petrified bystanders to a confrontation with Faust at the top of the shantytown - with enemies dashing over rooftops, popping out of side-streets and more fruit, bricks and random furniture to blast past than has previously been imaginable. It'll be good in single-player, but you can't help but think that when it appears as a multiplayer map it'll be an utter marvel.
Elsewhere on planet Modern Warfare 2 I'm shown a snowy Russian pine forest with distant cable cars crossing a valley and beautifully rendered churned up mud on the roads. Here, I'm told, enemy APCs will storm over a nearby ridge and slide down the icy incline - firing as they slip and forcing you into the woods with shell-rocked snow falling from the trees around you. Beyond this, a snowdrift-packed village emerges beyond the misty forest, and beyond that again a full-on military installation - complete with tanks, submarines and various combat paraphernalia. This, combined with your forays into Afghanistan, proves that Modern Warfare 2 will be a truly globe-trotting action adventure.
All that's left to ask then is, when you've got the world's most recognisable military game name in the palm of your hand, why dump the Call of Duty tag? "We're just trying to get across that this is Modern Warfare 2, not Call of Duty 6," deadpans Zampella. "It's important that people know that. That's the only reason."
Nothing to do with the dilution of the franchise by other, lesser, developers then? Then again, frankly, who cares? Modern Warfare 2 is going to be an utter barnstormer of a game that I'd buy, even if it had Medal of Honor in the title.