The biggest challenge Call of Duty: Modern Warfare faced was inevitable for a franchise of this size: how do you innovate a series that runs yearly, while also staying true to its heart? Infinite Warfare, like Ghosts before it, failed to grab fans in the same way the original Modern Warfare games did. While Treyarch was still finding decent success with the Black Ops licence, Infinity Ward felt this was the right time to return to its genre darling.
The campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare aims to move past the pulpy sci-fi nonsense from recent titles and return to a grittier story grounded in realism. It explores how soldiers must sometimes do bad things for a greater good.
“We get dirty and the world stays clean”, as Captain Price puts it, and over the course of the next six hours you face a series of moments where this quote rings true. You’ll be making quick-fire decisions to save hostages during a terrorist attack in Piccadilly Circus, escorting civilians to safety throughout a siege on a national embassy, and even taking part in mass raids on residential homes. It’s a game that doesn’t hold back its punches as it presents you with some very real, gritty situations that require thinking on your feet.
But while the Modern Warfare games are no strangers to these types of missions—look at 2009’s No Russian for instance—this one feels a lot more gratuitous in its inclusion of these moments. Almost all campaign levels feature at least a couple of people caught in the crossfire, and there’s no penalty for actually killing them; no game over screen, hardly even a reprimand by your sergeant. Instead, there’s a score at the end of each mission ranking you on how well you avoided innocent casualties. It’s a tiny statistic in a menu you probably won’t even glance at, and is given very little meaning as a result.
As Daniel Hollis at Twinfinite put it: “Situations like this in past games, such as No Russian from Modern Warfare 2, were used to create a moral dilemma for the player. Here the situation has evolved into nothing more than a simple Easter Egg with no long-standing repercussions for your actions. Comments can be seen on a variety of YouTube videos mocking the scene which goes to show its misinterpretation to players.”
It’s just an extremely, for lack of a better term, ‘gamey’ thing to do. As soon as I learned about this mechanic, I questioned if this will ever motivate players to make the right call. Are they avoiding killing civilians because it’s a real moral impasse, or because the game tells them they shouldn’t? It’s made worse that the characters, which to Modern Warfare’s credit are performed incredibly well by the actors, don’t seem to care about the horrors going on around them. It ultimately cheapens these moments, and doesn’t deliver shock to the player in the same sense that No Russian did.
This also extends to the rest of the campaign, which combines two tropes I never want to see again in a shooter: enemy Russians and a middle eastern country backdrop. There’s a level where you control a child who has just witnessed the death of her parents in a war-torn city at the hands of a big scary soldier. Any semblance of gripping political commentary on the truth about modern warfare is then thrown out of the window as it turns this moment into a very typical video game boss battle, complete with quick-time events and on-screen button prompts.
Basically: I do not think Modern Warfare has anything important to say about its politics. If it does, it’s still too concerned with making it into a big bombastic blockbuster that there isn’t enough space to explore these themes carefully. It’s a Frankensteinian mess of problematic content and explosive action set pieces and can’t be treated as more than that.
As for the multiplayer, the experience is largely similar to as it has been in past titles. This iteration goes back to what Activision calls ‘boots on the ground’, with a stronger focus on skill and utilising the right loadouts. The old ‘Pick Ten’ system is gone in favour of a feature known as the Gunsmith, where you can modify your weapons with up to five different attachments, with each one having their own advantages and drawbacks. Now it becomes a tactical choice if you want a bigger magazine on your gun at the cost of slower movement, or if you’d prefer to make it lighter with more unstable recoil. It results in every weapon you customise having its own unique feel, and this alone is a huge game changer for the series.
Popular modes such as Team Deathmatch, Hardpoint and Kill Confirmed make a comeback, available to play in either 6-vs-6 or the brand new 10-vs-10 lobbies to up the chaos. The twenty-player games feels like the standard for which Modern Warfare is balanced around, as some maps are too large for the matches with lower player counts. Many of those end on time rather than score, as everyone is spread out with very little action occurring even in the hottest spots. Most of the time you’re running around or camping, and it doesn’t quite feel like the right amount of drama for an online arcade shooter.
It’s better on the smaller maps, such as Hackney Yard or Shoot House, where the action is contained and objective points are focused. These stages adhere to the traditional three-lane principle that players complained about in previous Call of Duty games, but the corridor-like design is relaxed a lot more to make them flow smarter while still feeling like realistic locations.
Modern Warfare’s two best additions to multiplayer are its new large- and small-scale modes that drastically changes your approach. Ground War pits teams of 32 against each other as they capture and hold certain strategic positions on a huge map. Vehicles like tanks, APCs and helicopters are included to aid teams, and the inclusion of squads means the gameplay becomes a lot more tactical than in the standard playlists. It’s slower, with a bigger emphasis on communication and teamplay. You can’t just Rambo your way to victory, you’ve got to work together to gain the upper hand. It feels closer to Battlefield rather than a Call of Duty game, and there’s no doubt it’s made possible by the improved engine it runs on.
On the other end of the spectrum there’s Gunfight. Small-scale battles in tiny arenas. The rounds are short and fast as you work with a buddy to eliminate the other team. Every second counts, as you take the corners slowly and keep a watchful eye out for the tiniest sign of movement, as a hasty action could spell the different between a win or loss. It’s an opportunity to really flex your skills as you’re continuously planning your next move carefully, tricking your opponents with mind games to gain an advantage. Despite the small player count, it’s just as co-operative as Ground War and is the perfect mode for when you want to play with a friend.
It wouldn’t be Call of Duty without some additional monetisation, but the system is a lot fairer here. Loot crates are a thing of the past, putting an end to the gambling seen in previous titles. You now at least know what’s in every pack before you buy it. There’s also a battle pass which you can level up as you play, unlocking cosmetic items and other goodies to customise your loadout. This can be off-putting to people who aren’t interested in that stuff, and rightly so as it sometimes feels grossly intrusive, but it also funds the development of maps and weapons that are later added into the game for free. Everybody wins, whether you regularly spend money on these microtransactions or if you never pay it any attention.
I still don’t think Call of Duty is at a place where it once again feels like a special thing in the FPS genre, but Modern Warfare definitely makes a stride on the right path. The directionless campaign—that promises a lot but fails to deliver—is a shame, but the new engine, multiplayer modes and overhauled loadout system is a fresh breath of air the series desperately needed. At the very least, Call of Duty is going through a transitional period into something more reactive, and I believe this game will come to be known as the kick-starter of that revolution.
Tested on Xbox One
Also available on PS4, PC
Developer Infinity Ward