Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (2009) 2

Is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 really fifteen years old now? Has it really been a decade and a half since it hit store shelves? Call it a testament to the exponential pace of technological progression or simply an illusion conjured up by a brain desperate for a personal narrative, but this feeling of either nostalgia or remembrance for such a bombastic encapsulation of the late 2000s feels somewhat warranted.

Arguably the most widely beloved, if not the single most culturally influential entry in Activision’s long-running cash cow series, Modern Warfare 2 would be a cornerstone of both the Call of Duty franchise and of the seventh generation of consoles as a whole. It’s iconic, almost to a fault. The game’s recognizable visage of a faceless soldier carrying a rifle in one hand in some kind of brown world with brown sand and dust has become the de facto face of the “modern military shooter” subgenre.

This remains true years later, despite the fact that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 ventures a bit further away from that setting than its predecessor. It’s a game whose influence can be felt today, even if the product itself is somewhat humble compared to how it used to feel.

A Condensed History of Call of Duty

Call of Duty (2003)
Call of Duty (2003) | Activision

A bit of context: the roots of Call of Duty can be traced back to the original success of the Medal of Honor franchise, a series of World War II games initially brought to life via famed filmmaker Steven Spielberg. In teaming up with Microsoft, the two entities would form DreamWorks Interactive in the mid-1990s, with a handful of miscellaneous titles developed prior to Medal of Honor‘s eventual release near the turn of the millennium.

Following Spielberg’s work on Saving Private Ryan, an acclaimed World War II film that debuted in 1998, there was a desire to further replicate the intensity and emotion of war through an interactive medium. Work subsequently began on Medal of Honor in order to accomplish said goal. In spite of some controversy surrounding its subject matter and its level of violence, Medal of Honor would eventually be released towards the end of 1999, firmly rooting itself as a staple of the PlayStation library before becoming a full-on franchise. Two sequels were released in as little as three years: Medal of Honor: Underground in 2000 and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault in 2002.

The latter is where Call of Duty comes into play. A group of over 20 developers from Medal of Honor: Allied Assault would enter a deal with publisher Activision in 2002, forming what would become a brand-new studio by the name of Infinity Ward. Utilizing their experience from the Medal of Honor franchise, the Call of Duty games would offer an alternative interpretation of the World War II genre, leaning more on action and squad-based gameplay over historical accuracy.

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Elements of gameplay that would become synonymous with Call of Duty would have their seeds sown with the first three titles. These include regenerating health, bombastic set-pieces, chatty companions, a focus on spectacle, and an overall narrative that focuses more on delivering memorable moments than typically arcadey gameplay. It was a winning formula. Activision would even bring in Treyarch, a companion studio, to help develop entries in the franchise alongside Infinity Ward for the coming years.

But then 2007 came along. By this point, Infinity Ward ballooned to a size of over 100 team members, with a growing desire to branch out into other ventures. Call of Duty had become a recognizable brand. World War II games were as saturated as a wet Kleenex. There was a need to innovate, and firmly in the midst of a new generation of consoles, there was one direction the franchise had wanted to turn towards — modern warfare, complete with a contemporary setting and high-tech gadgets based on current technology.

Thus, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which saw a full retail release in 2007. To say that this single game had a monumental impact on the industry would be an understatement. Millions of copies sold, multiple Game of the Year accolades from a plethora of respected institutions, and a comprehensive multiplayer mode that rewarded progression with unlockable items all amounted to a game that dozens of imitators would attempt to recapture throughout the rest of the seventh console generation. It felt impossible to top. Until it was.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Hits the Scene

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (2009) 1

Released in 2009, Modern Warfare 2 is a direct follow-up to Modern Warfare in terms of story. Set in an alternate reality throughout the 2010s, a pair of international conflicts break out — one involving the assassination of a political figure in the Middle East, the other involving an ultranationalist civil war in Russia. Whereas the first game sees the Russian ultranationalist leader Imran Zakhaev killed and a coup d’etat led by Khaled Al-Asad shut down, the two’s connections to each other are ultimately covered up, leading to where we are now. Nuclear war may have been averted, but Zakhaev has since become a martyr. Thus, the ultranationalists ultimately claim control of Russia.

One of Zakhaev’s extremists, Vladimir Makarov, commits a terrorist act at a populated airport, leaving a deceased undercover CIA agent to take the blame for the attack. When war between the United States and Russia breaks out as a result, with the latter besieging the American countryside, it is up to Task Force 141 to hopefully put a stop to Makarov. Meanwhile, on the homefront, a group of lone marines are left to repel the Russian invasion by all means necessary.

If you’ve never played a Call of Duty game before, most can be described as an entertaining amusement park ride. A militaristic story is driven down a single, non-diverting path, with plenty of loud and colorful attractions along the way until an explosive climax is reached. Of course, instead of sitting still and enjoying the adventure, you’ll be shooting at targets that pop in and out of cover just about everywhere.

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The Call of Duty experience varies drastically depending on your choice of difficulty. On lower settings, you may as well be living out a power fantasy, mowing down hordes of faceless military goons with your weapon of choice. On higher settings, it becomes a more complex version of Whack-a-Mole, as you’re given scant seconds to trade shots in the open before facing imminent death.

Venturing off the beaten path is occasionally encouraged. Some collectibles, like various laptops that contain confidential intelligence, can provide some additional details on the game’s story and the surrounding world. Other times, you may find useful weaponry more suited to solving a particular problem at hand. It’s not exactly amazing stuff, but it’s appreciated; you just won’t be able to go too nuts with your options. It’s less like taking a detour and more like walking along the curb, something done to occasionally throw in some variety.

The whole of Modern Warfare 2 can be described as being “varied,” honestly. Every level feels like some kind of playdate scenario where you’re hoisted to some corner of the globe with a set of fancy militarized toys, be it armored vehicles, assault rifles fitted with heartbeat sensors, night vision goggles, silenced pistols, smoke grenades, speedboats, and so on. Each level can be boiled down to an “it would be cool if” scenario, with little in the way of meaningfully developing the foundations of its gameplay in exchange for memorable, one-off situations that exist in bubbles. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but you can tell that it’s tailored more towards a specific set of tastes and expectations.

There’s not so much a natural progression to the campaign as there is a sense that it’s ferrying you from one scenario to another, if that makes sense. This is storytelling 101: a connecting thread stitches important events together, gradually escalating until the climax and then coming down in the resolution. It’s not to suggest that this is absent in Modern Warfare 2, but there’s a definite sense of jumping all over the place, both literally and figuratively. The game’s short length, which dinged some points off of review scores at the time of its release, certainly doesn’t help things. It works in some ways: memorable moments are often strung one after another in a way that remains consistently engaging, but they don’t necessarily combine into a cohesive whole.

Take Act I, for instance. We start with “S.S.D.D.,” essentially a glorified tutorial that puts you in the boots of a U.S. soldier, Allen, in Afghanistan. “Team Player” sees you liberating a town with the assistance of a convoy in the very same area, with your performance granting Allen a promotion to the CIA. All of a sudden, “Cliffhanger” takes us to the other side of the planet, with Task Force 141 climbing mountaintops in order to secure a piece of stolen technology from an isolated base. Returning back to Allen, “No Russian” sees Allen undertaking an undercover operation with Makarov himself at a Russian airport before it culminates in a horrifying tragedy. The last mission of Act I, “Takedown,” brings us back to Task Force 141 as they’re now back on an entirely different continent, running and gunning through Rio de Janeiro in order to find a person of interest. Mind you, canonically, all these events take place in the span of just a few days, almost mirroring the brief length of the game itself.

We’re not even acknowledging the other famous moments from Modern Warfare 2, either: the slow-motion breach sequences, the final battle with a twist villain, a global EMP blast, the lengthy siege on a Russian gulag, taking back the White House, they’re all memorable if not at the very least enjoyable on a surface level. I couldn’t tell you the order in which these events happened offhand, but I at least remember them.

That One Level Everyone Remembers

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (2009) No Russian

Speaking of “No Russian,” it’d be slightly dishonest to discuss Modern Warfare 2 without at least mentioning this infamous moment in passing. If you’re unaware, this particular level is easily the single most memorable portion of Modern Warfare 2, even though you’re free to skip it in its entirety. Its tastefulness, however, has been questioned ever since it was initially revealed to the public.

Let’s not mince words: “No Russian” is, for all intents and purposes, a simulation of a terrorist attack. A mass shooting, specifically. With Allen having successfully infiltrated the ultranationalist terrorist cell, the level starts with Allen, Makarov, and two other men armed with flak jackets, pressed suits, and heavy weaponry in a cramped elevator. As soon as the doors open, the four men step out, ready their weapons, and fire upon the hundreds of occupants of an airport, all while walking at a deliberately methodical pace.

Mind you, you’re not forced to participate in the shooting. You can simply walk along the other gunmen and observe the carnage unfolding until the riot police show up in droves. Alternatively, the level can be skipped outright with no consequence, as its events are recapped prior to the start of the level following it. By the end, as you make your escape, it is revealed that Makarov knew of Allen’s status as an undercover agent before leaving him for dead at the scene, setting the stage for the ensuing war with Russia.

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It was a shocking subversion of what you’d expect from Call of Duty. Even now, it’s still a bizarre thing to experience for the first time. Your movement speed is reduced to a slow, deliberate walk. Quiet moments littered with people’s screams and dozens of bodies punctuate periods of prolonged gunfire. Several moments allow you to peer above the carnage you were involved with.

Naturally, a question comes to mind when you consider No Russian’s implementation in the overall story: why?

The answer isn’t really clear. One thing that immediately comes to mind is the simplest answer: controversy breeds attention. A lot more eyeballs were glazing over Modern Warfare 2 and openly speaking about it than they would’ve otherwise if “No Russian” wasn’t present. It’s no surprise that this level reignited moral panics surrounding violent video games and their alleged negative impacts on society, inadvertently drawing more of America’s youth to one of the hottest games of the year.

A slightly more nuanced answer, however, requires looking back even further. Modern Warfare featured a similar level of catastrophic destruction in the form of “Shock and Awe,” with a tense effort to capture Khaled Al-Asad going terribly wrong. After failing to capture Al-Asad and rescuing a downed helicopter pilot, an armed nuclear device is set off, obliterating the entire city and killing off the player character, Jackson, as he looks on at the blossoming mushroom cloud. It’s a moment that caught many players off guard, as it seemingly defied the common trope of jettisoning away at the last minute or successfully saving the day by disarming the cataclysmic device. Most importantly, it was the most iconic moment from Modern Warfare next to the now-famous Chernobyl infiltration mission, “All Ghillied Up.”

Did “No Russian” accomplish a similar goal? Was this the moment that stands out in people’s minds, the one that cements its conflict as something to take seriously? Arguably, yes, even if its ability to be skipped seemingly undercuts the entire purpose of its existence. The decision to incorporate such a feature wasn’t taken lightly. The mission as a whole was a polarizing portion of the game for both the development team and playtesters, even if Activision didn’t have a particularly strong opinion either way. One of the playtesters outright refused to play the mission due to its content. It’s bizarre to think that something such as this not only made it into a mainstream console release but from a gargantuan AAA publisher as well.

In the context of the Modern Warfare trilogy as a whole, it comes off as being the big “shocking” moment that would become a feature of each mainline entry. Modern Warfare had the nuke, Modern Warfare 2 had “No Russian,” and Modern Warfare 3 had the even more seemingly pointless “Davis Family Vacation,” which put the player in the shoes of a father in the midst of a terrorist attack in London. Not only did it feel unnecessary in terms of the overall plot, but it failed to capture the same kind of widespread media frenzy that undoubtedly made Modern Warfare 2 a cornerstone of the late 2000s.

Ed Smith of Vice would draw similar parallels between these three moments in 2017, albeit in a way that was more pointedly critical. While the nuke in Modern Warfare accomplished its goal of being a talked-about moment that added to the story, Smith noted that Allen’s brief role in the game ultimately amounted to nothing, stating:

“So long as it pricks people’s attention, no matter how fleetingly or artificially, Modern Warfare 2 will kill off anybody. Allen is an empty nothing of a character in the grand scheme of the story. . .  as it stands, Modern Warfare 2‘s depiction of the murder of hundreds of innocents is delivered without any real moral burden at all. Therefore: why does it matter to the game, at all? There’s no reason for it to be here. Skip it.”

15 Years Later

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (2009) 3

Modern Warfare 2 is humbling, ultimately. Looking back at what was one of the biggest games of all time, a staple of childhood and teenage years, compared to what’s available nowadays, it’s easier to see how a game such as this reached such a wide audience. This goes beyond its simple structure, its quippy characters, its funhouse attractions, and so on.

You have to think about the environment that the seventh generation of consoles existed in, specifically in 2009: we are only four years removed from the creation of YouTube, WhatsApp is set to debut as an instant messaging service, and Facebook is continuing its climb in popularity with every day. Outside of the most die-hard of gaming enthusiasts, the independent gaming scene as we know it today is nonexistent for most, especially for the widespread audience brought in throughout the 2000s. You want the best of the best when it comes to your games, and seeing something along the lines of an interactive action movie with high-definition graphics, intense explosions, and a plot that hands over just enough surface-level wisdom and quotes from famous war figures, sparks enough of an interest to prompt a purchase. Soon enough, you’re playing it, you’re doing the Special Ops challenges, you’re playing multiplayer — something that could deserve its own little dissertation in the future — and you’re talking about all of it with your friends, both online and in-person.

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It’s not as if this phenomenon isn’t still real. Quite the opposite, with games like Baldur’s Gate 3 and even the recently released Palworld causing quite a splash with an incredibly vocal following. But the big difference here is sheer numbers relative to the permeation of video games in the market. Modern Warfare 2 sold upwards of 4.7 million copies on its release day. It may not be as impressive of a number nowadays, but consider the sheer number of options and platforms available to a prospective audience nowadays, let alone other options like mobile gaming or other entertainment avenues. Nearly five million copies in a single day is nothing to scoff at.

Did it deserve the hype? Does this product of an era far removed from contemporary tastes deserve success? It’s not necessarily up to one person to decide.


But it clearly had an impact. The Modern Warfare franchise as a whole can be attributed to kickstarting the maligned “modern military shooter” subgenre, a series of shooters that embodied brown-and-grey color palettes, questionable ethics, and an overall intent to chase trends in exchange for the beaucoup bucks that Modern Warfare was consistently raking in. The movement was so widespread that a game called Spec Ops: The Line, released in 2012, existed solely as a deconstruction of the trend through the lens of a Heart of Darkness reimagining, painting the supposedly heroic protagonist as someone driven by pride and ego, with the collateral destruction caused in their journey serving to make them “feel” like a hero in lieu of actually being one.

In a bid to keep the franchise going, both a remaster and outright remake of each Modern Warfare game would be released in the last few years, modernizing the franchise’s tired formula after more than a decade of annual releases while attempting to take a more contemporary approach to its war-themed antics. Were they successful as well? Short answer: yes.

Is Modern Warfare 2 ultimately worth playing again nowadays? Sure. Its enduring popularity exists for a reason, and though the actual experience of playing it isn’t exactly mind-blowing, it certainly had a substantial impact on both its own franchise and the surrounding video game industry.

The original Modern Warfare 2 can be bought on Steam for around 20 USD, with backward compatibility support available for Xbox One consoles.

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