Epic. Essential. Amazing. Modern Warfare 2 is, predictably, all of these things. But you knew that already, right? A game rarely generates this much hype unless it's got the pedigree to match. But there's a lot you won't know. You won't know about the new co-op Spec Ops mode and how, in some ways, it's superior to the solo campaign. Or the series' most shocking set-piece. And you definitely won't know about visiting space.
Infinity Ward have created something special. A super-sequel. A nuclear explosion of a game that quickens the heart, bombards the senses and shatters expectations. The dev team's uncanny ability to hide linearity with misdirection and clever design is as impressive as ever, and everything that made COD4 great - the pacing, surprises, drum-tight combat, engaging story and sublime level design - is back, but honed to a gleaming point. The shooter of the year is everything you wanted it to be - and maybe a bit more.
It's been five years since that last, fateful round flew from Soap's M1191 pistol. Zakhaev fell and the world was saved from nuclear destruction. But five years is long time. Long enough for a new terrorist, Vladimir Makarov, to form an even bigger army. And he's just played the world's superpowers against each other, igniting a bitter war between Russia and the United States. And worse still, you helped him do it.
Four missions in and we find ourselves in an elevator, cradling a belt-fed machine gun. There are three men with us wearing bullet proof vests, one of whom is Makarov. "Remember, no Russian." He whispers as the elevator pings and its doors slide open, revealing an airport terminal throbbing with life. Then we open fire. Screams fill the air as the crowds are torn apart by our M240s. It's a massacre, and by actively making you a part of it, it has much more impact than, say, Jackson's death or Al-Fulani's execution in the last game. You really don't want to pull the trigger, but you will anyway.
Back to basics
We won't say exactly how, but it's this event that prompts the Russians to invade Washington DC. And it's on the streets of the American capital - and the surrounding suburbs - that the game's trademark action comes into its own, but with a few surprises. The basic shooting mechanics are as slick and precise as ever. Little has changed since Call of Duty 4 (the controls and general feel are identical), but they nailed it last time, so why change it? However, the respawning enemies are gone - or more cleverly masked - which makes pushing through the opposition feel more rewarding and less predictable.
Breach and clear
But it's not all traditional linear, level-by-level shooting. On a few occasions you're tasked with defending an area. The best example of this is a complex of fast food restaurants in the mission 'Wolverines'. Waves of Russian soldiers, choppers and ATVs descend on your position, and you have to think tactically to repel them. You're aided by AI squad mates, mobile turrets (hold square to pick them up, then drop them wherever you like) and Predator Drones. These are missiles that you guide towards the enemy using a thermal camera, and they're brutally destructive - especially against vehicles. This level is one of the best that Infinity Ward have ever designed. The map is absolutely huge, the action is brilliantly hectic, and the combat set-pieces are expertly crafted, leaving you feeling constantly overwhelmed and teetering on the edge of failure.
But there are quieter moments, too. Usually when you're playing as new character Roach, a member of an elite squad of American and British soldiers known as Task Force 141. These missions are usually focused on stealth and infiltration, like storming a Russian gulag to free a high-priority POW, or rescuing hostages from a bomb strapped oil rig. Between bouts of regular combat you have to perform 'breaches' on rooms where the prisoners are being held. You blow the door, and the game immediately slows down, giving you a few precious seconds to pick off the guards through the smoke without harming the hostages. Fail and they're executed, although mercifully there's a checkpoint before each one. A terrific mini-game (sort of) that breaks up the action and gives the Task Force 141 levels a knife-edge tension.