Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Developers React to White Phosphorus Controversy: "We've Had a Tactical Nuke in the Game for 10 Years Now"

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Developers React to White Phosphorus Controversy: "We've Had a Tactical Nuke in the Game for 10 Years Now"

Plus why Infinity Ward is going back to Killstreaks over Scorestreaks.

I was at the receiving end of a new Killstreak in my recent hands-on time with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's multiplayer. It happened very fast: an opposing player with a high streak of kills dropped something from the sky, and before I knew it, I was caught in a white, thick fog. I died almost instantly. Quick respawn, as always, but the Killstreak, White Phosphorus (better known as "Willie Pete"), was felt.

White Phosphorus is an incendiary chemical weapon of war known to burn everything it touches, all while emitting a white smoke. For people who inhale the smoke, it can cause severe illness or worse, death, as it burns from the inside. It is often used to flush out targets. It is prohibited by the Geneva Convention, or international law, for use in areas with civilians, a law that the United States reportedly ignored as recently as during the Syrian Civil War in 2017. In many cases across history—perhaps most famously with Israel's use in Gaza—its use amounts to a war crime. The United States military using it, and then seeing the aftermath of how it devastates a town, is even a plot point in Spec Ops: The Line, a video game that is highly critical of war.

In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it's a Killstreak you can equip, of which you have three in total. Get a lot of kills, and you can go from summoning a UAV to spot your enemies on the map to eventually dropping a devastating chemical smoke. Multiplayer design director Geoffrey Smith and animation director Mark Grigsby equate the implementation of White Phosphorus to other instruments of war that have been in the multiplayer across Call of Duty's history.

"With MP it's more of this playground, and we've always tried to represent things that are changing the escalation and the scale of stuff," says Smith. "You know, we've had a tactical nuke in the game for 10 years now. It's just another one of those types of events. It actually grew out of our EMP strike that we had in previous games. And it was just really hard to kind of contextually and visually sell a state change of electronic pulse like, 'oh, our electronics are down!' [...] We kind of fuzz the HUD and things like that. We were looking for something that gave a bit more of a state change."

In a recent tweet, Infinity Ward confirmed that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will be bringing back Killstreaks, with White Phosphorus included. Killstreaks began with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, with its last proper appearance being Call of Duty: Black Ops. (In addition to a negligible single Killstreak in Call of Duty: WWII, which dominantly uses the Scorestreaks system otherwise.)

The switch from the more series-dominant Scorestreaks back to Killstreaks is actually meant to streamline how strong play overall is measured. Scorestreaks were a bit more complicated, taking into account not just kills, but also objectives you were successfully completing. Killstreaks are more barebones: it all comes down to kills, and you can even equip a perk where your Killstreak carries over after you die.

"Killstreaks, I think, just gives you an easier goal to quantize," says Smith. "I think with Scorestreaks it's really hard—like you're at 350, you need 400, I should go over and grind a rail and get a hundred points from a Tony Hawk move, and it's really hard to look out into the world if you're not playing an objective mode. Also if you're picking those Killstreaks and you're picking those goals for you to achieve, we also give you a nice little heads up display of like, you have two kills, you have three kills; it's just a bit more visceral and easier to quantize."

During my hands-on time with many of Modern Warfare's multiplayer modes, I can confirm that the Killstreaks tick upward at an easier rate than the more complicated Scorestreaks, which usually were buried in the HUD somewhere in a meter. When another player is on a particularly good Killstreak, their flashy calling card and how many kills they have at the moment (such as five) appears at the top left of the screen. It feels like an ominous warning: watch out for this person.

Killstreaks in tact, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will be out on October 25 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. It will have input-based crossplay too. An early access beta for players who pre-order kicks off on September 12 for PS4 players, while an open beta for PS4 players starts September 14. An open crossplay beta test for all platforms will commence later from September 21 to 23.

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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