Within moments of the first hands-off demo of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, we know there is something abhorrent afoot. We watch as elite soldiers—or as developers Infinity Ward call them, Tier 1 Operators—sneak into the backyard of a townhouse, pop open a ladder, and creep into an unsuspecting home. Silently with efficiency, they happen upon a room, and take their first shots in killing the people inside. Soon, they shoot the lights out completely, night vision goggles go on, and the team moves through the house murdering everyone inside with no questioning of orders.
And that's not even, arguably, the most shocking thing we were shown that day at Infinity Ward. In a second demo, we watch from the perspective of one of two kids in the Middle East, as they murder a soldier who has just killed their father. They're left in a desperate scramble for survival after their town is bombed and invaded by Russia.
This year's Call of Duty feels like the polar opposite of last year's Black Ops 4 from Treyarch, which was closer to a campy splatter film than a military sim. Infinity Ward emphasizes at a presentation for press that this year's Call of Duty is not a sequel; it's not concerned with body horror or gore. It's instead aiming for a mature take on the series. Something "morally gray," something grittier. Infinity Ward then unveiled Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the fourth technically in its subseries, but a reimagining this time around.
The Modern Warfare series has always been synonymous with controversy. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's "All Ghillied Up" has you sneaking through the decimated ghost town of Pripyat, better known as Chernobyl nowadays, for an assassination. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has the most controversial mission in maybe all of gaming: "No Russian." In "No Russian," as an undercover CIA agent in a Russian terrorist group, you witness—or even participate—in a terrorist attack in a Moscow airport. In Modern Warfare 3, you take the perspective of an innocent in London watching a child and their mother play on a sidewalk, just moments before a van parks close by, explodes, and releases a toxic chemical agent. In multiplayer, the Modern Warfare series ushered in Killstreaks, which include drone strikes and airstrikes—both common in actual modern war. Modern Warfare has always been dark.
At its best, the series makes us uncomfortable but contemplative. At its worst, it's exploitative and makes us feel gross in a whole other way. That's just talking about the campaign though, and not the multiplayer that is unavoidably often at odds with the story's tone.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Brings Back the Campaign
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is bringing a campaign back to Call of Duty, after last year's Black Ops 4 skipped a story in favor of the battle royale mode Blackout. The new campaign has been in development for two and a half years at Infinity Ward, with its development led by campaign gameplay director Jacob Minkoff and studio narrative director Taylor Kurosaki. Both developers cite having worked on the Uncharted series at Naughty Dog in the past, having both joined Infinity Ward in 2014.
Casino Royale is the first movie named as a reference for the new Call of Duty entry, with Kurosaki and Minkoff hoping the new Modern Warfare reinvents the series like how Casino Royale reinvented James Bond back in 2006. Other films referenced as inspirations in the presentation include American Sniper (yikes), and in a surprising nod, the documentary Last Men in Aleppo.
In a phone interview this week following the event, Kurosaki reiterates the comparison to Casino Royale in discussion of recasting one of Call of Duty's most recognizable faces, Captain John Price, who is back for the reimagining. "You're not looking for a look-alike or a sound-alike of Pierce Brosnan; you're looking for a guy who embodies the essence of Bond," he tells us. "For this new Modern Warfare, we have found actors who embody the essence of these beloved characters and who bring them forward to today."
The campaign will have players ping-ponging between two perspectives: Freedom Fighters and Tier 1 Operators. The latter have a lot of technology at their behest, like night vision goggles. Meanwhile, Freedom Fighters utilize more guerilla tactics and use homemade tools like molotovs as weapons. They also have strength in numbers, though we didn't get to see what that looks like.
The first demo we're shown from footage captured on a vanilla PS4—"No trickery at all," Kurosaki tells me of the in-game footage—leans into the Tier 1 Operators' peculiarities. The demo starts with a terrorist attack in London. (Not the same as we saw in Modern Warfare 3, though.) Then we spawn onto a scene sometime after, with soldiers in a dark alley as they sneak into a townhouse. It's a muted tone, and I notice that even the UI is more minimal than I'm used to in Call of Duty games, with cleanly designed markers in the corner showing their gear and nothing else cluttering the screen.
With night vision goggles on in the eventually pitch black house, they silently move as they kill everyone they come into contact with. It's immediately reminiscent of the likes of the dramatized assassination of Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, as it's presumed this is the terrorist cell that enacted the London attack.
It's a harrowing sequence. In one room, a man grabs a woman as a hostage, holding a gun to her head. After he's shot, the woman then grabs a gun, and the player shoots her too. Other sections have the player shooting through walls of the domestic space. In one troubling part, a woman leans into a crib to grab a baby as a gun's pointed at her; she's the only person left unscathed the whole demo. In a follow-up interview, I ask if it's possible to shoot the woman, even as she's holding a baby. Kurosaki doesn't give a straight answer, but notes that discerning friend from foe is even more prominent of a task in Modern Warfare compared to past games. And judging from the whole pitch of Modern Warfare, making morally questionable decisions in the moment to moment seems to be the point.
The last person killed is a woman on the top floor, who is shot after pleading for her life and reaching for something. It's a detonator, we see, after she's killed. The operators find plans for attacks and have killed nearly everyone in the townhouse, meaning mission successful, I guess. Doesn't mean it didn't feel grimy to get there though.
Watching it in Infinity Ward's mini-theater, it felt like oxygen was sapped out of the room, and we were all marinating in what we just saw. Infinity Ward wastes no time in moving on though. It's not shy about the fact that these provocative situations, for better or for worse, will be what players experience first-hand in Modern Warfare. It's "ripped from the headlines" subject matter, as Infinity Ward reiterates during the presentation multiple times, and there's no borderline superheroes with ultimate abilities like you find in Black Ops here.
The "Other Side"
The second demo we're shown is less effective, which is surprising as it shows the other perspective we'll be playing as. It's where some heavily guided Uncharted-ness rears, which makes sense considering its campaign leads' DNA. And worries me, too.
This demo is a flashback sequence, set 20 years prior in our other protagonist, rebel Freedom Fighter leader Farah, and her brother's childhood. It starts off with a young Farah buried in rubble, her mother dead alongside her; we're in her first-person perspective for all of this. Townspeople work to dig her out quickly. Her father emerges from a crowd, devastated at the loss of his wife, though he doesn't have time to grieve. He takes his daughter in his arms and then moves quickly back to their home as bombs sound all around them and trucks filled with armed soldiers pour in.
They're in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Urzikstan. "We did that on purpose," says Kurosaki of opting for a fictionalized country to depict rather than a real one. "[I]t didn't feel right to me and the team to take these incredibly complex situations—and we know how complex they are because we've done our research, where there are wars with 17 separate factions all in the same area—to distill that down into really rockable situations felt like it wouldn't be doing us any justice to be calling it out. This game is inspired by a lot of different scenarios, a lot of thematic situations that are applicable to the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the '80s, up through the Iraq War, and even into Syria. A lot of those situations have a lot of similar scenarios and we were inspired by a lot of them and so, hence the fictional country."
The father and Farah find their way home to her brother just as things get worse as a chemical gas starts emitting from grenades. The three plan to escape, with just one gas mask to be worn by Farah's brother, the youngest. Soon, though, there's a knock on the door and a soldier breaks in. Their father barges at the tall man, but is shot multiple times as Farah and her brother hide. It's here where we take control of Farah.
It turns into a stealth sequence, with Farah sneaking around with a screwdriver. On occasion, she's able to sneak up on the soldier and stab him. The scenario reminds me of the boss in The Last of Us where you creep around as Ellie. After three stabs, Farah's brother jumps in, and the two successfully kill the soldier. It's their first murder for survival.
Farah takes the man's gas mask, and after a farewell to their dying father, they sneak through the soldier-infested town to make their escape. Despite having to keep quiet, her brother talks the whole time they're being stealthy. Eventually they come up on the outskirts, witness more innocents get slaughtered by the men who bombed the town, and Farah moves slightly onward to clear out a path for the two of them. She grabs a pistol, takes her first shot, and the demo ends.
While the long demo is provocative in its own right—kids resorting to violence out of necessity is grim—I found it all to be a little cloying in its emotional beats, and mechanically it wasn't as alarming as the first demo. Despite Infinity Ward pressing on this being a narrative with perspectives from "both sides," I can already see it being an obvious plot twist of adult Farah's Freedom Fighters teaming up with the technologically advanced Tier 1 Operators to take down whoever the Real Big Bad is, because at heart they're all fighting for the greater good and survival. And as always in the Call of Duty universe, everyone hates Russians because when they're not tampering with United States elections, they're doing something evil.
"Underdog vs. Military Industrial Complex"
One bullet point in the presentation couldn't help but make me chuckle at first sight: Underdog vs. Military Industrial Complex. It's silly sounding out of context, but still, it's how Infinity Ward is pushing the perspective split in the campaign between the technologically savvy military and the scrappy rebels who are only taking up arms out of rough circumstance. It will extend to encounters too, though we didn't see that in action in either demo.
Tier 1 Operators are, at first blush, stronger than their counterpart. When battles situate operators versus operators, they are on an even footing; same with Freedom Fighters versus Freedom Fighters. When one is against the other though, this makes for a very different dynamic. Tier 1 can have the advantage, or the opposite can be true. This can make for four very different sorts of battles, and it's something that carries through the multiplayer and the all-new cooperative mode (which will be detailed at a later date) too, according to Kurosaki.
"[A] big central tenet of this game is that it is one unified experience across all the modes," Kurosaki says. "The fiction that governs the campaign also governs multiplayer and also governs cooperative play. So all of the factions that you saw represented in that graph are represented in all of the modes across the game."
A new engine powers Modern Warfare, of which Activision says it will share more details about at a later date. Infinity Ward outlined the technical improvements—from volumetric lighting to sound that's even more heavily determinate on context like looking down a sight or not—that are possible thanks to the new purpose-built engine, which you can read more about here. This is a Call of Duty that's trying to improve the basis that powers it, leading to more impact not just in mood but in design as well, similar to how seriously EA's Battlefield takes the minute details of its locales and weapons.
It's been ages since Infinity Ward had a real winner in the series. Treyarch's Black Ops is where the popularity is often at, with a dedicated following thanks to Zombies and now Blackout. For a number of years, Call of Duty games have been performing well commercially, but haven't been the center of critical conversation as they once were. Modern Warfare is fighting to change that trend. After nearly a decade of the subseries in hibernation, it might be Call of Duty's most risky bet yet.
I'm not wholly convinced it will pan out tastefully yet, but unlike most Call of Duty campaigns of the past decade, I'm at least intrigued for the first time in a long while by where it's headed. We'll all see where Modern Warfare takes us when it launches on October 25 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.