Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, almost certain to be the year's best-selling video game, has also become its most notorious. That's because of a prerelease leak showing a terrorist raid on an airport -- exactly the sort of thing that's guaranteed to rile up anti-violence watchdogs and generate free publicity.
Now that I've played Modern Warfare 2 (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99), I can report that the airport massacre is absolutely essential to its story. The rationale behind your character's participation in the assault, however, is idiotic: You're really a good guy who has infiltrated the terrorist cell. So fire away.
The remainder of MW2 deals with the repercussions from the terrorist attack, which causes escalating global tensions to explode into all-out war. Tanks rumble through the Virginia suburbs, helicopters circle the Washington Monument and millions die -- all because of an awesomely ill-conceived plan to get intel on a terrorist.
I'm not giving anything away that you haven't already seen in Activision's TV ads. The sight of D.C. in flames is spectacular, and it's a terrific setting for virtual combat. MW2 is filled with such mind-blowing set pieces, from the slums of Rio de Janeiro to the snowy mountains of Russia.
It's in getting from one set piece to the next that developer Infinity Ward stumbles. The overarching story concerns a special forces team's efforts to bring down Vladimir Makarov, the terrorist mastermind who engineered the airport attack. But it's easy to lose sight of that goal when the White House is under siege.
Granted, the plot isn't that much more ridiculous than a typical season of 24. In comparison with some other video games -- say, Metal Gear Solid 4 -- the MW2 script is almost elegant.
And most players won't give much thought to the story, given the frenetic, headlong action. The controls are tight, giving you an intuitive feel for even the most exotic weapons. Combat varies nicely between levels: Sometimes you need to be sneaky, sometimes you need to be destructive, and sometimes you just need to run like hell. Occasionally it's difficult to figure out what your goal is, but such confusion isn't entirely out of place in the fog of combat.
The solo campaign is short -- about eight hours -- and Modern Warfare veterans will race through it to get to the multiplayer offerings. The major innovation is a collection of 23 cooperative, two-player missions, which can be completed online or with a friend on the same couch. It also has a full complement of competitive modes, with enough new maps, weapons and gameplay tweaks to keep franchise fans fighting for months.
If you're into online combat, MW2 is a must-buy. I just wish Infinity Ward had taken the time to write a more coherent story for the single-player adventure.