- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2009

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (from Activision, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated M for mature, $59.99).

A sequel to the best-selling first-person shooter of all time plunges players into another adventure featuring lively battle zones defined by brutality and cinematic realism. Only the most cunning and desensitized will survive this war, which ultimately mixes special operative and espionage missions within a massive showdown between two superpowers.

What’s the story? Cold-blooded Russian terrorist Vladimir Makarov threatens to bring the world beyond the brink of war, and it will take every ounce of courage, skill and sacrifice from members of Task Force 141, an elite commando unit, to stop the maniac.

Play the role: From the pulse-pounding, vertigo-inducing first-person perspective, a player finds himself in the role of multiple characters over the course of the solo campaign tasked with putting an end to Makarov’s plans for global domination.

Be it controlling Sgt. Gary “Roach” Sanderson of the 141 or grizzled veteran Capt. John “Soap” MacTavish or U.S. Ranger Private James Ramirez, who helps defend the Eastern United States against an invasion by Russia, gamers will find a harrowing, bloody set of engagements. Each will leave the player feeling as if he just took part in the an R-rated blockbuster version of “Black Hawk Down” and an episode of “24.”

Get to the action: Concentrating on the three-act, solo-player campaign mode, the Call of Duty universe affords a gamer access to nearly limitless firepower within the missions as he shoots a variety of weapons. The assault rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles and rocket launchers are incredibly satisfying to use and even watch reload - the M240 machine gun is a thing of beauty. Attachments such as heartbeat sensors, thermal sights, silencers and laser sight modules add to the weapons’ lethal charm. Other arms available include claymores, fragmentation grenades and a trusty knife.

Memorable moments, in no particular order: making an absolutely stunning high-speed snowmobile escape in Kazakhstan; climbing an icy mountain; using a Stinger missile to shoot an enemy helicopter out of the sky; peppering an armored personnel carrier with smoke grenades and sneaking past it; defending the Burger Time fast-food joint and finding out the classic chicken sandwich is still $4.99.

Violent encounters: The unfettered ferocity of close-quarters combat seen in many missions provides a sickening array of brutality that is not for the squeamish or anyone younger than 17. Snapping the necks of attack dogs, seeing a teammate’s brain splatter on a dashboard, dying as droplets of blood fill the screen, and watching enemies writhe after being shot and quiver on the ground as they die takes the video-game experience to a level I sometimes found discomfiting.

Most unsettling is the mission of going undercover as a terrorist and walking through an airport, randomly murdering civilians and law enforcement officials. The developer allows gamers to skip the carnage, but this sensationalistic addition seemed gratuitous rather than a crucial plot point.

Read all about it: DC Comics’ imprint Wildstorm Productions offers a six-part miniseries called Modern Warfare 2: Ghost ($3.99 each) written by David (Stray Bullets) Lapham and highlighting a famed Task Force 141 member known for wearing a skull mask.

Pixel-popping scale: 9.0 out of 10. Realism plays a key role in making this game shine. Gorgeous locations such as a Northern Virginia town overrun by Russian soldiers, the sweaty streets of Rio de Janeiro and a devastated Washington, D.C., combine with detailed weapons, gear and the sounds of soldiers in war to suck a player completely into the experience.

Extras and unlockables: What helps make the multiplayer action cooler is the addition of Killstreak awards. Presented for a certain number of enemy kills, these power-ups lead to slick actions, such as calling in a Stealth bomber, firing a remote-controlled Predator drone missile, dropping a tactical nuke or even being the gunner of an AC-130.

Multiplayer: At the pounding heart of Modern Warfare 2 is the extravagant and deep multiplayer universe where up to 18 virtual warriors (including nine-versus-nine matches) can participate in eight types of modes amid 16 maps.

Extras such as weapon customization, leader boards, selection of team clans, customizing classes of weapons and Deathstreaks (to help novice players) really take the game to a lifestyle level for participants.

The new two-player cooperative mode, Special Ops, challenges through 20 time-trial and objective-based missions. Gamers also can play solo, really extending the action beyond the story campaign.

What’s it worth? Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 manages to outshine even Halo ODST with its multiplayer minutia and stunning firefights. It’s a game with loads of online replayability and incredibly accessible combat to satisfy the mature gamer’s thirst for stress release and hard-core action.

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