Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is about knowing what not to shoot

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War isn’t black and white

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The developers behind the Call of Duty franchise are restless. Yes, the series is the current king of games, routinely topping the end-of-the-year sales charts with only occasional disruptions from Rockstar. It doesn’t need to change. It could continue coasting on its success knowing it has an army of fans to gobble up every entry. But like I said, the developers are restless.

The world is changing and games are changing right along with them. When Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare launched 12 years ago, it set the standard for gameplay and storytelling in military first-person shooters. It continuously upped the ante, doing what it could to shock players with the horrors of war. But as it escalated from “No Russian” to blowing up children, the effects of these moments started to wane. It was horrific for sure, but the real world provided violence more visceral than anything Modern Warfare was attempting. Couple that with gameplay that cared far more about making players a bad-ass soldier than giving any sort of insight into the nature of war and warriors, and you end up with a series that’s an immature person’s idea of mature.

Modern Warfare, coming to PS4, Xbox One, and PC this October, aims to give a more honest look at war and conflict. Rather than continue as a series that pushes you to shoot anything that moves, this re-imagining of the Modern Warfare concept would rather players know when not to pull the trigger.

Taking inspiration from such Hollywood films as Sicario, American Sniper, and Lone Survivor, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is grounding itself in the reality of conflict. Infinity Ward developers Joel Emslie and Jacob Minkoff said they wanted to make this game more relatable, focusing on the conflicts that Call of Duty players see each night on TV. 

“We want to speak to threats and fears and worst case scenarios people imagine today,” Minkoff said during a roundtable on the game. “We all have the things that scare us on the news and I think that video games are a great opportunity for catharsis to be a hero, to take control in a world where you otherwise feel like you don’t have so much control.”

Control is going to be key to succeeding in Modern Warfare. During one of the levels they showcased for us, Minkoff and Emslie demonstrated how a more nuance approach to volatile situations kept you and your squadmates alive. Dubbed Piccadilly & Townhouse, this is one of the first missions you’ll tackle in the game. A terrorist group ignites a truck bomb in London’s Piccadilly Circus before opening fire on random passersby. After the attack, an elite squad of Tier-1 Operators executes a kill mission on the suspected safe house for the terrorist group. 

Call of duty modern warfare

This mission, though heavily scripted, is a fantastic showcase of the not only the ideas Infinity Ward is trying to push with Modern Warfare, but also the advancements made in how you fight. While players are free to kill everyone in the house, it’s quickly made apparent that isn’t the right tactic. This house is full of people, each armed to the teeth. Executing the mission requires a less John Rambo approach. So when they run into the first person in the house, a woman coming upstairs to put a kettle on the stove, the soldiers quickly take her down in a non-lethal manner, leaving the rest of the house unaware of their presence. Again, this moment is heavily scripted and it’s unclear if players will be able to make a different choice in the final product, but it does illustrate why it’s important to stress caution.

When it is time to open fire, the new engine Activision has been developing for five years is ready to accommodate the various weapons developers have put into the game. Firing through walls, something that happens multiple times in the mission to clear the house, is now more grounded in reality. Each gun carries with it a caliber and every surface in the game has a penetration value in relation to the calibration of the weapons. Not only does this affect which guns can shoot through which walls, but also the sound that is made when a bullet hits the drywall.

Outside of another woman running to a infant, the Tier-1 team easily executes the rest of the suspected terrorists in the house. Both men and women are gunned down before they have a chance to fire back. Some beg for their lives only to reach for a rifle a moment later. The entire sequence is nerve-racking, a feeling that is only amplified by just how real everything looks. The night-vision employed in the game isn’t a filter, as it has been in past titles, but actual night vision technology. The Modern Warfare engine uses photogrammetry to give the settings a life-life appearance. I have no reservations saying this might be the best looking game I’ve seen, and having it run at 60fps at 4K on a PS4 Pro was something to behold. For games that aim for realism in their art direction, I can’t name one that’s done it better than this.

Call of duty modern warfare

Graphically, the Townhouse mission was amazing. But in terms of gameplay, pacing, and story, it was par the course for the series. There is really no ambiguity to what is going on here, no second guessing who is in the wrong. The mission is quite black-and-white, something the Call of Duty franchise has been giving us for years. If Townhouse left me indifferent to the direction Infinity Ward was going with the game, the second level showcased shook me to my core.

Dubbed “Hometown,” this level is a flashback that takes place 20 years before the start of the game. In an unnamed Middle East country, a young girl named Farah is trapped under the rubble of a house that had just been bombed. Her mother is nearby, dead. As she slams a brick on a grate above her, rescuers pull her from the wreckage and reunite her with her father. More dead bodies are pulled from the rubble. Farah and her father start to look for her brother when Russian soldiers arrive and begin shooting wantonly into the crowd.

The two manage the escape the gunfire and gas, making it back to their house. Her brother is alive, but soon the three of them are staring down the barrel of a gun. Her father pleads for their lives only to be shot down in front of his children. Farah’s brother runs into hiding as she gets away from the gunman. Hunting them down, in this moment a child is forced to become a child soldier.

Farah quickly finds one of a few screwdrivers scattered around the house and starts stalking the man hunting her. She stabs him once, runs away to another screwdriver and stabs him again. The cat and mouse game continues until the soldier pins her to the ground. As he’s about to choke Farah out, her brother returns. He attacks the soldier, freeing Farah to stab him once more. Seriously injured, the soldier goes to kill the brother when Farah reaches for his gun and fires.

Call of duty modern warfare

It’s too much for a child like her to handle. The gun falls to the ground, sending multiple bullets into the soldier. He’s dead, but the kids aren’t out of hot water just yet. Russian soldiers are going door to door, killing survivors of the bombings. Saying one last goodbye to their father, the two head out into the streets, sneaking behind soldiers as they fire point blank at the injured people on the ground. Like the Townhouse mission, this sequence is heavily scripted and soldiers seem as though they suffer from a case of convenient blindness. But it doesn’t make the experience any less harrowing. In fact, this mission is proof Modern Warfare has no problem making players uncomfortable with the realities of war.

The situation Farah and her brother go through is something that is happening to kids right now. In countries like Syria and Yemen, children have been rendered homeless by bombs, their families killed by gunfire, and thousands are on the verge of starvation. These are the side effects of war most Call of Duty games have glossed over, choosing to mostly focus on conflicts from a soldier’s point of view. But as games like This War of Mine has shown us, war isn’t contained to just soldiers.

If past Call of Duty games dismissed the collateral damage of their globe-trotting campaigns of massacre, the Hometown mission of Modern Warfare puts it front and center. Children fighting to stay alive as unknown assailants rain fire from above is modern warfare. It’s what we see on Twitter when a child, covered in dust from a blown-up building, goes viral. It’s what we see on shows like Vice that detail the struggles of people unable to flee from Aleppo in Syria. Hometown is that stark reality of war on full display for consumers who’ve been shielded from the consequences of their actions by military shooters, that embody the “hoorah” attitude of military industrial complex. 

It is not an easy watch and I can’t imagine how it’ll be like to actually play through it. A tear came to my eye when I watched Farah point a gun at a solider at the end of the demo, knowing that somewhere in the world real children have been forced to make the same decision. It’s absolutely impactful, but I do wonder just how far Infinity Ward is ready to go with this idea that enemies and allies on the field of battle are not simply defined.

Call of duty modern warfare

In Modern Warfare, it’s easy to look at the soldiers killing all these innocent people as evil because they’re Russian. But 20 years ago, give or take, the soldiers destroying cities in the Middle East represented the United States. Watch any documentary on modern war that’s worth a damn and you’ll no doubt learn how much terrible shit the U.S. inflicts on thousands of innocents affected by war. From the banned cluster bombs we still sell to our allies in the region, to the hospitals we can’t just seem to stop bombing, America’s hands are stained red by the blood of the casualties of war. Given the pro-America plots of past Call of Duty titles, I wanted to know how much of the reality of modern conflict Infinity Ward is willing to explore. 

“This is a fictional conflict,” Minkoff explained. “We don’t want to be bound by telling specific facts of existing conflicts because it would tie our hands as developers. We couldn’t make the type of game we want to make or tell the stories we want to tell. So what we want to do is make a story that feels spiritually true to the conflicts of today and the conflicts of 20 years ago but that isn’t specifically accurate.”

“We can’t focus on every piece of the conflict in every asset we show you. But what we do know, I think everyone living in the world today dealing with these conflicts understands that nobody’s hands are clean. Everybody is a hero to their own people. Everybody is a villain to some other group. We make sure in this story to represent modern conflict from all of the perspectives.”

“I don’t want to spoil the story, but what I will tell you is we have Middle Eastern allies and Middle Eastern enemies. We have Western allies and Western enemies. And we have Russian allies and Russian enemies. There is no group that is represented as wholly good or wholly evil. We don’t really even deal with the idea of good or evil in the game. It’s just what do you believe? What are you fighting for? Every villain sees themselves as the villain of their own story and we try to make you understand why they think they’re right. Many of them have completely legitimate reasons to why they’re fighting, it’s just their actions may take them over a line that now they are seen as a villain by other people in the story. We really want to handle all the sides evenhandedly and leave you the player to make your decisions about what you believe.”

That’s a monumental task Infinity Ward is setting up for itself, and if any developer is capable of pulling it off, it’s probably the one that defined modern military shooters more than a decade ago. I’m very interested to see how far down the rabbit hole of war we go and to see the direction they take with Farah as she goes from child survivor to freedom fighter.

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CJ Andriessen
Editor-at-Large – CJ has been a contributor to Destructoid since 2015, originally writing satirical news pieces before transitioning into general news, features, and other coverage that was less likely to get this website sued.