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Why bother joining the army anymore? Why bother seeing the world, meeting people and then shooting them when a video game can give you the same experience? Ever since Call of Duty left the Second World War behind the series has never been the same. Occasional returns to mankind’s greatest conflict could no longer give players the immediacy that modern wars or even future wars could. We had left history behind and begun to write our own stories of dubious heroism and shaky politics. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare started all that 12 years ago. Now, in 2019, it’s back to revisit and remix the story and multiplayer that made it the most popular gaming franchise on Earth.
Solid Foundations, Shaky Singleplayer Politics
Within days of it’s release Modern Warfare was accused of attempting to rewrite history by blaming an infamous U.S. war crime on the Russians. The names have obviously been changed: America is now Russia, Iraq is Urzikstan, al-Qaeda are Al Qatala and Operation Desert Storm is a U.S. assisted rebellion against the cruel invading Russians. History is no longer written by the victors, it’s written by everyone with access to the internet and not even one of the most popular video games ever can change that.
C.I.A operative Alex is tasked with finding Russian manufactured poison gas that has fallen into the hands of terrorists. Elsewhere S.A.S operatives Sergeant Kyle Garrick and Captain John Price are tracking the international terrorist organisation Al Qatala who are responsible for attacks in London and elsewhere. The three will eventually ally with Farah Karim, leader of the Urzikstan resistance, in an effort to stop Al Qatala as well as the rogue Russian General Barkov and his evil, gaseous machinations. It’s a story that aims for a more progressive view of modern warfare yet still ends up with propaganda.
As time went on the Call of Duty campaign mode became more of a footnote than a feature until Black Ops 4 dispensed with it completely. Regardless of how detailed or varied they were the campaigns were always afterthoughts when compared to the gargantuan and complex multiplayer modes. The same occurs this time around regardless of how progressive or regressive the current iteration of the campaign is.
From the made-up, amalgamated Middle Eastern nation of Urzikstan to the streets of London to the rural Georgia steppes Modern Warfare places you in a variety of familiar locales with familiar weapons and even more familiar faces. With that said this reboot or remix of the 2007 game adds enough to make its single player campaign feel unique if not the more nuanced update those at developer Infinity Ward obviously wanted. These nuances come in the form of gameplay changes rather than anything truly radical in terms of story.
The ability to play as a refugee child in games is something that should be approached very carefully. Not even the game about refugees, This War of Mine, allowed you to play as the refugee children it featured in it’s Little Ones DLC update. So, for the biggest war game in the world to attempt it feels almost cheap especially when you consider how short – roughly six hours – the campaign is. Characters, other than Farah, never feel whole and not even Captain Price’s infinite cool can add any more to a game that, by it’s second act, already feels rote despite it’s attempts at shock and awe.
Shock and awe has always been part of the Modern Warfare series. Whether you were a Middle Eastern President getting shot in the face, a U.S. soldier dying in a nuclear blast or a C.I.A agent participating in mass murder Infinity Ward paved the way towards these experiences eventually feeling like bum notes rather than elegantly surprising movements. So the opportunity to play as Farah as both a child surviving a frenzied Russian soldier and as a young woman being waterboarded in an internment camp feels like it’s been done before, even if it hasn’t. Call of Duty nowadays is less shock and awe more stretch and yawn.
With all of that said Modern Warfare still reaches some incredible, blockbuster heights. Each game feels like it’s skewing closer to Zero Dark Thirty or The Hurt Locker in its action scenes as well as it’s rich, textured animations. The sniper level on the Highway of Death expands upon the Pripyat mission from the original making you factor in wind, distance and counter-snipers while still making it fun.
A night-vision raid on a four story house in London feels like the best of the series’ breach-and-clear moments distilled into one unforgettable level. Still it’s a large open-ended late-game mission that feels the most unique but similar in some respects to Call of Duty’s arch-rival series Battlefield. It might be linear but the variety of ways to tackle this linearity put up a convincing smokescreen.
The ability for a Call of Duty campaign to distinguish itself has grown more and more limited as the years have gone by. It was never a series that could rival the likes of the Halo or Gears of War campaigns but as these two series slipped further away from their origins and even their late stage creativity Call of Duty was there to pick up the slack. The people wanted fast paced, exciting action with minimal emotion and Call of Duty was there to give it to them.
Misfortune in Map Choice Doesn’t Mar Multiplayer
Call of Duty has always been better known for its multiplayer than it has for its singleplayer modes. The gun play, movement and match times are wound as tight as new drum skins and although the series will always lose a bit of realism in service to functionality it still feels as real an online FPS can. It has the focus of a laser pointer and the muscle memory of one too or maybe trigger action is more appropriate?
For it’s entire 16 year existence the Call of Duty series has been obsessed with guns. Obsessed with how they sound, how they feel and how they look. Firing a gun in real life requires factoring in a huge amount of variables: wind direction, distance, recoil and ammo count. Modern Warfare factors most of these in as well but without the juddering shoulder pain of recoil or the PTSD-inducing threat of real death. The series has always seen it’s guns as apolitical tools that serve an end and in Modern Warfare they are no different.
Modern Warfare does not introduce sweeping changes to the Call of Duty formula. Why would it considering all of its competitors have been chewing its dust for years now? Instead Modern Warfare doubles down on the things that make every Call of Duty player happy just with less zombies this time. Team Deathmatch, Headquarters, Free-For-All and Domination all make a welcome return. Cyber Attack – a revive heavy spin on Headquarters – adds little when compared with the classic modes. Ground War returns and with it the series continues to chase the crown of large-scale battles long held by Battlefield. With no new Battlefield game in sight for at least two years Call of Duty may just come for the King.
As a surprise Modern Warfare comes stacked with an arsenal devoid of loot boxes and micro-transactions focusing instead on giving players more bangs for their bucks. A wealth of assault rifles and sub-machine guns is followed by a specifically limited array of shotguns, snipers, LMGs and DMRs. Along with that come the requisite kill streaks but what really makes a difference are the new Field Upgrades. From ammo boxes to stopping power rounds they really make a tactical difference in how matches are played even if the areas they are played in feel quite similar.
They say only three things are certain in life: death, taxes and a new Call of Duty every year. In Call of Duty only three things are certain: exciting gameplay, a story based on shaky politics and multiplayer maps with similar geographic features. Modern Warfare seems to take this third point extremely seriously. Almost every map follows the exact same layout.
The buildings may be in different places and the pathways may take twists and turns or move according to the placement of objects but each map takes from the same design idea. There are always three corridors stretching from one end of the map to the other with another, wider corridor bisecting these three corridors. Each of the three funnels into the wider corridor which acts as a killing floor. It’s classic Call of Duty map design but at this stage it’s also old hat.
This is what makes the wide open spaces of Ground War or the crammed in tightness of Gunfight more exciting. Both act as great palate cleansers when you’ve had a couple of bad games of Domination in a row. They both also require a lot more teamwork than any other Call of Duty game mode has before.
In Ground War two 32-player teams of eight four-player squads attack and capture objectives. It’s Call of Duty blown up to an enormous scale with all of the chaos it’s lone wolf style of play usually gives but in a setting that requires some semblance of camaraderie, if not teamwork. Gunfight meanwhile distills the average Call of Duty match down to its bare essentials. A rotating set of pre-set weapons with two two-player teams attempting to kill each other. Rounds often last a minute if not seconds with skill winning out over blind luck. It promises to be a hit with streamers and E-Sports pros but I can only see the average Call of Duty player returning to it intermittently.
The Call of Duty games rarely promise more than they give. Modern Warfare was different in that it promised to deliver a singleplayer campaign mode that felt progressive. Expecting a war game published by Activision – a company more than willing to support the U.S. war machine – to be progressive in terms of modern war is a fools errand. Still, seeing characters so blithely descend into darkness in the name of defending countries fueled by greed and avarice hurts. What perhaps hurts more is seeing this crumbling facade get propped up by core gameplay that feels both satisfying and innovative. Call of Duty keeps trying to progress but as long as it’s under the boot of the system it serves there will never really be progress, only propaganda.