To say that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is provocative is an understatement. It makes you reflect on the horrors of war, violence towards others and the value of life. It also makes you question just how much violence a video game should have.
For the 16th instalment of the Call of Duty franchise, Activision’s Infinity Ward studio has created a military simulation first-person shooter that conveys what it’s like to fight in foreign and homeland wars in present day, with all of the atrocities and horrors associated with dragging civilians into war.
It is very disturbing and very moving.
There are a few scenes that are deliberately harrowing. I’m talking chemical warfare, civilian and animal deaths, child combat, torture, and the shooting of unarmed women.
You can’t unsee these scenes, and in only one of them is it possible to choose not to participate. It is dark, and there is no shirking from your duties as a soldier—this is what modern warfare looks like. Whether the fighting is at home in the West or abroad in the Middle East, this game shows the reality of war. It has gone further than any Call of Duty has before.
I am writing this on Remembrance Sunday here in the UK. My Grandfather died in World War II. I never met him for that reason; his death left my Dad fatherless at the age of five. It is so very important to remember what the impact of the wars of the rich, the religious fanatics and the politicians have on everyday people. It is not only the soldiers who are scarred for life. With that in my mind, I think I am glad that this game goes as far as it does; we shouldn’t ever forget the true horror of battle, in its many forms.
Last year’s Call of Duty: Back Ops 4 did away with the single-player campaign and focused solely on multiplayer. They received a surprising amount of criticism for doing so, despite having a core fanbase obsessed with online multiplayer. Infinity Ward listened and made an about turn with a new focus on its single-player campaign.
single-player mode focuses on the actions of the CIA and SAS operatives trying to thwart both Russian meddling in a fictional country called Urzikstan and terrorist operations conducted by a group called Al-Qatala. Players control CIA officer Alex, SAS Sergeant Kyle Garrick and occasionally, Urzikstan rebel leader Farah Karim. Although you don’t play as him, SAS Captain John Price, the fan-favourite from the original series, returns to once again play a pivotal role.
Captain Price is particularly striking during the cinematics, where his glorious moustache gets to shine. Infinity Ward went all out with the campaign cut scenes. The cast play their roles on par with any quality TV show, and the visuals are just stunning.
Modern Warfare has 14 different missions that take around seven hours to play. They present you with a series of combat challenges that are varied and difficult, such as infiltrating a base, escaping from a prison, or hunting down terrorists. But it’s not just a collection of stories.
Each mission shows the difficult job of the soldier in a world where the line between soldiers and civilians has blurred. Are the rules of engagement holding you back? Should you fire upon the civilian who is acting suspiciously? Should you use chemical weapons to gain an advantage? Will you participate in torture to get intelligence for your mission?
The circumstances are gritty, raw, and ugly. Soldiers are put in impossible situations, and the game forces you to feel empathy for what soldiers and people who are stuck in war torn communities go through.
Strength of Character
The story is strong. Farah Ahmed Karim, played by Claudia Doumit. She is a leader of freedom fighters in Urzikstan, and is a unique character in Call of Duty history, which until now has mostly pitted Western heroes against enemies from foreign regions.
Farah has to face her own values. She believes that what distinguishes her from terrorists and occupiers is that she doesn’t cross the line between aggressor and defender, and so she won’t cross the borders of her country. But she has to consider moving the line. As Captain John Price says in a conversation with another character, “You draw the line wherever you need it to be.”
Farah’s story is what holds the narrative together. She is able to articulate where she stands because she is pushed to that boundary every day by the occupying Russians and the terrorist Al Qatala faction. If the Americans were to use the same chemical weapons as the Russians did in her country, then the Americans would become her enemies, she tells a CIA agent. No exceptions.
Every character—her brother Hadir, the operatives Kyle, Alex, and Price—is tested in the same way, in how far they will go to eliminate the threats from Omar “The Wolf” Sulaman, presumably modelled after Osama Bin Laden, and the Russian general Radoslav Barkov. Where do they draw the line? In our modern world in 2019, it isn’t that easy.
Fresh multiplayer gameplay
The new multiplayer maps and the realistic terrain draw you into the world of Modern Warfare. The environments include a cave in the mountains and a bridge over the dry Euphrates River. It feels like these places are familiar to you, they look so much like the footage you see on news channels.
The weapons and forces and spawn locations were carefully constructed for balanced play. I haven’t played against the masses yet, but nothing seemed unfair. I was able to level up with a light machine gun and get some kills in matches. My scores looked familiar compared to past years.
Team Deathmatch with 10v10 is a good addition, as is the larger Ground War mode that pits 32 players against 32. Some of the situations in Ground War were a bit crazy, like a map with skyscrapers. Snipers could shoot each other from the tops of those buildings. It’s not realistic in the slightest, but it was fun.
Perhaps the best addition is Gunfight, where two players square off against two others in a small area. It is close combat that tests how quick and clever you are. You can take an enemy on point-blank, fire from a distance, or sneak up behind them. If the match goes on too long, you can end it by capturing a flag in the middle. That forces players to come out of cover.
It showed me how to use all the weapons, and it also showed how I could improve with levelled up weapons. This is the kind of multiplayer that I could spend a lot of time with because it puts you on a path to become better and delivers on improvement.
Immersive Sound and Photorealism
Modern Warfare features a new game engine that Infinity Ward designed to make the world feel more immersive and photorealistic. The tech uses a physically-based material system allowing for state-of-the-art photogrammetry, which just makes things like a pile of garbage on the ground look more real.
It has world volumetric lighting, 4K HDR, and DirectX ray-tracing. That means the water and surfaces reflect light in a more realistic fashion, the PS4 version looked stunning to me. It is the best-looking Call of Duty game that I’ve seen.
The audio is also excellent, supporting full Dolby Atmos, so that the sound of gunfire is very different in a subway tunnel compared to the outdoors, as you experience in the Piccadilly Circus level.
The added realism of the visuals and audio combines with the added realism of the characters, story, and environment to deliver a great overall experience.
No Loot Boxes
Infinity Ward studio head and creative director Patrick Kelly said that the game will have no loot boxes or supply drops. Players have reacted badly in the past to the microtransactions that helped unlock weapons and other items in the game, and both Infinity Ward and Activision have listened. That’s a welcome development for triple-A games, and players will still be able to make cosmetic changes to their characters and weapons. Players have been very suspicious about this, but Infinity Ward has been equally emphatic about its stance.
Some elements of crossplay with PC players and console players are both good and bad. Crossplay lets you play with your friends on all platforms, but it introduces some uncertainty about whether you can really have a fair fight between someone playing with a mouse versus a controller. Infinity Ward has introduced some controls that keep the balance.
The crossplay will be particularly useful in the Special Operations co-op mode, where players can fight together in groups of four.
The Dark Side
When a suicide bomber blows himself up in Piccadilly Circus at the beginning of Modern Warfare, you don’t actually see it. No body parts fly as the explosion happens. He holds the detonator in the air, and then the scene cuts away to something else. You hear the explosion in another part of the square, but it’s happening around you. Somehow though, this is just as upsetting.
In this case, we’re held back from seeing what would be horrific, traumatic, and very bloody scenes. But in other parts of the game, there is no shielding from the violence. All told, three or four scenes are really quite upsetting; reminiscent of the ‘No Russian’ scene in Modern Warfare 2, where terrorists slaughter civilians at an airport. As with ‘No Russian’, you don’t just witness these scenes. You are a participant. Most of the time, you are on the good side, but it is still very tough to go through.
In a scene that gives you the backstory for the key character Farah and her brother, Hadir, you fight one-on-one as a Middle Eastern girl against a Russian soldier (who has already murdered your father) as he attempts to murder you with a gun or his hands. After you kill the soldier in a horrific fight, you escape to the outside, where you see the victims of a poison gas attack, like a dead child and a quivering dog.
Later on, you will see a Russian guard waterboarding you so that they can extract information—information that they already know. In another torture scene, the Americans are extracting information from a prisoner. Thankfully, you have the choice to opt-out and not participate.
In another scene, a special operations team is clearing a house. As a soldier, you have to decide whether to pull the trigger as you aim at an unarmed woman who is not heeding a command to halt. You cannot progress in that mission until she is dead.
Collectively, this is all very disturbing. The context fits in the story, and I understand why the developers wanted to include these scenes. They could, perhaps, have cut these scenes short without losing the horror of it all. The child combat scene, in particular, goes on and on. But I guess the fact that despite its length, I did not become desensitised to it, is a good thing. To hold back too much is to dilute the message of empathy for the soldier. If you are faced with such criminal cruelty on a massive scale, how do you respond? Where do you draw the line on what you would do to make the world safe?
Single Player vs Multi-player Inconsistency
The developers say they tried to keep the same tone throughout multiplayer, the single-player campaign, and the Special Operations co-op missions. On the whole, I would agree with that. You don’t see any cutscenes in multiplayer, so the storytelling doesn’t extend into this mode.
But in multiplayer, you’re trying to kill as many enemies as possible. It’s not gleeful, but it is competitive, so more like a sport. It doesn’t resemble the serious, high-stakes world of the single-player campaign. It is not problematic, it’s just a confusing message for players. I totally get that many people buy Call of Duty games for the multi-player campaigns. They are fun! There is no denying that. Does playing the Single-player mode make you feel guilty when you’re tasked with killing as many people as possible along with your squadron? Probably not. Should it? Probably yes. I know, I know, it’s just a game at the end of the day.
I’ve played through the game, and it was an intense and memorable experience. The story had lots of moving parts and characters who had very different reactions when put into the crucible of unjust warfare. I can’t fault the creators for their intentions in waking us up to the horrors that are around us in our world of constant warfare. This game is so reflective that it would be a shame if players skipped the single-player campaign and headed straight for multiplayer.
Modern Warfare hits on all the important aspects of a great Call of Duty game. It has a campaign storyline that’s compelling and what could be a great multiplayer mode that’s in need of some quick balance changes. While it’s not a revolutionary game like the original, it’s good enough to bring back fans who’d grown tired of the franchise.
Let’s hope and pray that playing this game is the closest any future generations get to actual warfare.