Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019 is a "soft reboot" of the original Modern Warfare game that Infinity Ward developed in 2007. Like its predecessor, the new Modern Warfare wants to portray military combat in a realistic way, based on real-life events. But is this dedication to realism successful as an artistic choice, or is it just a tagline to sell this year's new Call of Duty?
Several members of the press, including USG, had the opportunity to check out the new Modern Warfare and speak with Infinity Ward about the process behind developing this year's Call of Duty. You can read our summary of the preview here, but press was essentially shown two distinct portions of Modern Warfare.
The first focuses on a group of Tier 1 Operators as they infiltrate a home to stop a cell of domestic terrorism. We called the sequence "harrowing" and compared it to dramatization of assassinations in films like Zero Dark Thirty.
The emotional complication for this scene arises from the fact that the terrorists disguise themselves as civilians, making it seem like the soldiers are shooting what could be innocent women and children. While there's a potential to just show shocking images for the novelty of it, members of the press did express interest in how the final game tackles these moral ambiguities.
Austin Walker of VICE Gaming was similarly interested in this segment of the Modern Warfare press demo. "It wasn't perfect–there's a moment that uses a baby in a low-hanging fruit way to ratchet up tension... But in that level, I could see the game beyond the fact sheets and the slideshow and the carefully designed taglines," Walker writes. "I was ready and eager to see what else this team would do."
Others like Dean Takahashi from GamesBeat felt otherwise. "I am told that the narrative of the story, which is generally secret, will explain the context for this scene. But as it is, as I've seen it, I found it profoundly disturbing and unjustifiable."
"This might be a confirmed terrorist cell but there's still something uncomfortable about shooting ordinary looking men and women in very ordinary looking rooms," writes Leon Hurley from GamesRadar. Especially when they panic or cry out for help–forcing a moment's hesitation until you realize it's a distraction as they reach for a gun."
The other campaign segment highlights the other side of the global conflict focusing on Farah, a future freedom fighter who in the demo is just a child that must escape soldiers in a fictional Middle Eastern country. Russian soldiers are invading her fictional nation of Urzikstan. Farah, who just saw her father shot down by soldiers, must take her younger brother and stealthily navigate their way out of town, avoiding Russian soldiers. And at the start of it, Farah and her brother kill a soldier. This demo was as provocative as the first, but "a little cloying in its emotional beats," from what we perceived.
This sentiment was more common among the press members present during the demo. "While many war-focused FPS games are eager to highlight 'the horrors of war' in the abstract, very few take critical positions on particular military ventures, least of all America's own," Walker writes of Farah's demo. Walker instead expresses frustration this sequence "could've been ripped from any other FPS in the last month."
The campaign scenario for this year's Modern Warfare is handled by two ex-Naughty Dog veterans, campaign gameplay director Jacob Minkoff and narrative director Taylor Kurosaki. Both developers cite their work on the Uncharted series, but also films like Last Men in Aleppo and American Sniper as influences for the game's realistic tone. But despite the flashy storytelling and mature action direction, Modern Warfare is still a Call of Duty game.
Infinity Ward also spent a good amount of time talking about the latest standard Call of Duty improvements like enhanced visuals, more realistic weapons, and the new engine powering Modern Warfare. But mixing the directors' pitch that this year's Modern Warfare wants to recontextualize military violence, while also selling it as the latest blockbuster military shooter, might have cheapened the message.
"The overall dramatic effect of the intense scenes should be memorable and artistic. Not gratuitous or base. The developers can fall back on the argument that this is our world. Their game is 'ripped from the headlines.' But this puts us on a slippery slope," concludes Takahashi. "What about school shootings? What about Christchurch? Do we want to put those in video games because they exist in the real world?"
Infinity Ward appears to genuinely want to showcase the mature direction of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but it must also be marketed as the next great achievement in the long-running Call of Duty series. That contrast, it seems, is already taking a toll on Modern Warfare's central pitch, because it appears that the two messages cannot exist together cohesively.