So. This is awkward. I mean it’s fine, obviously, but I did sort of invite you to my birthday and a few people didn’t show up. No, no - it’s alright, really! I know Tuesday nights/Wednesday mornings between 11pm and 1am are ‘you-time’. Overtime, date nights, Zumba… It’s all go at all hours for you in this crazy world. But I did spend an hour on the invites and I did send them to everybody.
Well, everybody in Modern Warfare 2’s basic in-game text chat, that is. You see, according to Steam I’m one in just under 1,000 people who still regularly plays MW2, which means if you spend an hour tipsily spamming the lobby with birthday invitations, you can get through a good chunk of the 2019 playerbase. And spam the invitations I did. In the hour leading up to my 31st birthday, I’m not sure I killed anyone at all for all the typing.
If you tot up all the time I spend playing games month-to-month, Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer easily tops out the list. More than nine years after its November 2009 release, it’s my waiting-for-an-email time-sink. My just-30-minutes-after-lunch brain-sharpener. My ‘your-call-is-valuable-to-us’ answer to crackly looping hold music. I will take any excuse to quick-launch myself into a Rust Free-For-All or a Karachi Domination because after nine years, no-one has yet made an online shooter that can hold a flare to Infinity Ward’s second instalment in its bananas, Red-Dawn-meets-Red-Dwarf vision of World War III.
Yes, a few things have changed in the near-decade since those heady student days of pre- and post-drinking deathmatches. Mostly for the better. As a result of the die-hards’ refusal to move on, the game’s matchmaking system has gone a bit wonky. Everyone (aside from the odd nostalgic dipping a toe back into their gaming youth) is at least top level; most have 'prestiged' multiple times. The learning curve is now more of a learning vertical rock face, but that only makes each victory all the sweeter.
Another upside is that because it can’t match players by skill-level, the game now focuses entirely on ping. I am exclusively dropped into European lobbies where lag is still minimal (sub-50ms!) and as a bonus I can be sworn at in German, French, and some Eastern European languages for which my computer has no character set. I pull the trigger with my shotgun pointed at the skull of some oblivious camping sniper, cue the storm of furious Wingdings. A gloriously addictive gameplay loop, and not even in my top five reasons MW2 still sucks me into its unique brand of chaos four or five times a week.
Shooting down enemy aircraft definitely makes that list. I am still the guy who takes a Stinger ground-to-air launcher with every class. Blowing a hard-won Harrier killstreak out of the sky before it’s even entered the map is top-tier trolling hiding behind a mask of tactical expediency. Then there’s the 25-kill tactical nuke - effectively a magic button that says, ‘this match displeases me’ and ends the game, for everyone. There are throwing knives (a surprise announce at E3 2009, greeted with rapturous cheers), heartbeat sensors and a special badge for your gamertag if you kill someone by dropping a care package crate on their head. It’s a magical balance of precision shooting and joyful silliness that no Call of Duty game since has matched.
I’ve played every CoD of recent years, each one feeling more and more like a bunch of disparate ideas fighting in a bucket (increasingly for my money), culminating in last October’s Black Ops 4. I really wanted Blops to break me out of my habit, but from the moment I started playing, I began pining for my vintage fix.
I miss when CoD was crafty. Miss the crouching, the sneaking, the camping. The wide-open maps with sniper-nests to perch on and bushes to burrow into. At the same time, I miss the unpredictable explosiveness of two teams peppering the map with grenades, and the ‘cha-chunk-cha-chunk-cha-chunk’ of the horrifically overpowered chopper gunner cannon. MW2 is CoD multiplayer at its apex: the product of a developer that knew its only mission was to take Modern Warfare’s already stellar multiplayer and stir in Michael Bay until no more would dissolve.
For a good measure of how far ahead of the competition MW2 was in 2009, you only need to look at what the developers left unpatched. In 2018, Blops 4 players were in revolt when glitchers figured out a trick to stack the Skulker perk and career off round the map like gun turrets on rocket-skates. This was terribly unsporting behaviour, and Treyarch quickly began rattling its banhammer at any player who might be having too much unsanctioned fun with what was (lest we forget) their screw-up in the first place.
In Modern Warfare 2, hilariously broken mechanics remain proudly untouched. The One Man Army perk trick, whereby you can convert your grenade launcher into a bottomless tube of noob and shrapnel, remains unpatched. The Akimbo Glock 18s – two machine pistols with broken, pinpoint accuracy - are still present incorrect. The useless killstreaks no-one ever picked - the precision airstrike, the stealth bomber, the insane 15-kill EMP - are there if you want them. Nobody does, but that’s Modern Warfare 2: preserved like a Roman sculpture or Renaissance masterpiece, somehow all the more glorious for its imperfections.
But playing in a 1,000-person microcosm, a wonderful thing happens: the evolution of an unspoken etiquette. Nobody who plays MW2 in 2019 is really a ‘noob’; they can only selfishly or spitefully indulge in noobish behaviour. Camping will bring out the Wingdings. Grenade launchers are tacitly forbidden. And those Akimbo Glocks? Basically a war crime. Everyone knows the rules, and because of the low player count, everyone knows the trolls who break them. I can recognise on sight the two or three players who invariably bring RPGs to the gun fight, and if I see them in a lobby, it’s a scramble to reconfigure my loadout and killstreaks before the 60-second between-match timer ticks down.
Unlike the MW2 I remember from my student days, you also make friends. Reputation carries over when you’re playing in such a small group of people. One player and I even had an informal agreement that, should we end up in the same lobby, we would immediately switch to ‘zombie mode’ and fight our corners using only hyper-mobile Knife classes. Slowly, other players would join the fray, swarming over the map in a commando-jumping frenzy of blades, to the chagrin of those screaming for everyone to ‘play properly’.
What better place, then, to host an impromptu 31st birthday party? I was sat in my chair the night-of, with no plans until the next day, when the idea hit me. Could I, after nine years, finally bring peace to Modern Warfare 2’s pockmarked battlefields? Instigate a temporary ceasefire, like that famous Christmas football match in no-man’s land? Of course I could. That’s exactly the sort of mad thing that could happen in this game.
After a stream of steady warnings and invitations, finally my birthday came on Sub Base - a complex, close-quarter map with only a few quiet venues for festivities. I explained that for the whole ten minutes I would not be killing anybody, and would instead be having cake and friends round to the end of one of the map’s submarine docks. In place of an actual cake, I dropped a tactical insertion - a bright green flare that works like a deployable respawn point - and announced to all that this was a candle and the snow was icing. Bam. Cake.
I’m not an idiot. I knew some people would see the flare as an invitation for a couple of easy kills, even if for this round I was technically playing a civilian. So I loaded up: a riot shield to protect against bullets and a blast shield to better shrug off errant grenades. And there I sat, my candle fizzing away, waiting excitedly for my guests – Lumiere in combat fatigues.
It was a long wait. Though I got some lovely well-wishes, people seemed more interested in continuing hostilities than ambling over for a chat or a shimmy. Once I had to break my rule and shot a gate-crasher who turned up to the party with a live Semtex grenade. And then resumed my lonely sitting, next to my staked-out pier-cake.
Then Martin appeared.
Martin sprinted the distance from the hangar and crouch-crunched his way through the snow. His gun was up, but not pointed at me; he was checking the overhead walkway for snipers. I like that in a party guest. Satisfied, he turned and made a quick dash over to my candle and crouched down next to me.
“Hey!” said Martin.
“Hi!” I said back.
Martin stood up and started jumping. I stood up and started jumping. Jumping, jumping, jumping for joy. I did a little pirouette. Martin did the same. We pirouetted around my birthday candle. Me and Martin. Martin and me. Dancing round my candle in the corner of Russian submarine base as bullets flew and grenades exploded around us.
Happy birthday to me!
"Happy birthday!” he said. “How old are you?" I told him I was 31 today. He asked if I had kids. I said no, but that I'd like to, someday. I asked if he had kids. He didn't either. In retrospect, I should have lied. Or he should have. But fortunately before things could get awkward, a grenade appeared. And a lot of things happened at once.
Martin clocked the grenade, too - but without a riot or blast shield, he was easily in the kill radius. He cycled backwards toward the concrete barriers dotted along the pier, but I knew he wouldn’t make it. With a heavy clunk, my blast shield came down. I stepped right, between the grenade and Martin. Angled my riot shield. The grenade rolled slowly in the snow, centre-vision through the perspex of the Shield. And then it exploded.
I took the hit full in the face. Both layers of protection caught the shockwave. The screen filled up with the pink jelly that’s meant to be blood (but looks more like blancmange). Extreme danger. Death imminent. Bullets battering and cracking the shield.
And Martin saved me.
Stepping out unscathed from behind my shield, Martin gunned down the assailant, who was still preoccupied trying to get bullets under the edge of my riot shield and into my feet. It was a birthday miracle. We both died immediately after as someone punched an RPG into the snow behind us, but still: a short-lived birthday miracle.
I had a real party with real people and real cake the next day. There were no grenades and no snipers. But my pre-party in Modern Warfare 2 will stick in my head longer. CoDs of recent years might have ditched players like me for a younger, e-sportier crowd - but my glib little celebration was a lovely reminder of a time when the series took itself less seriously and was - and still is - more fun for it.