WOODLAND HILLS, Calif.—The rumors are all true. The next AAA military shooter from Activision and Infinity Ward, coming to PCs and consoles on October 25, will be titled Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Don’t let the name fool you: some of its content is decidedly unfamiliar.
Despite reusing the old series name without a number attached, this game is neither a remake nor a remaster. CoD:MW hits reset on the series’ timeline. Infinity Ward has rewound a few of its familiar characters and concepts, then placed them in an entirely new, “current-day” storyline. The development team is doing this in part to usher in a first for the series: an entire half of the campaign played from the perspective of an Arab soldier.
This woman character, hailing from an unnamed Middle Eastern country, was introduced to a select group of journalists earlier this month at Infinity Ward’s Los Angeles-area headquarters, and her military allegiance was left unclear. At this “pre-E3” event, we watched “real-time gameplay” from two missions, and both emphasized a level of realistic rendering and brutality comparable to the visceral Last of Us series.
Based on 30 minutes of gameplay, Call of Duty seems poised to kick the whole “no Russian” thing up a notch.
“Check your shots”—yeah, right
Before diving in, I want to clarify one point. CoD:MW‘s world premiere gameplay is some of the most on-rails content I’ve ever seen in a CoD game. While Activision didn’t clarify how far into the game this content appears, I have to assume it will be early content to either tutorialize controls or set plot stakes into motion.
Each of the two revealed missions features soldiers from the game’s rival factions: the “Tier-One Operator,” a London SAS sergeant who battles alongside the familiar, cigar-chomping Captain John Price; and the “Rebel Fighter,” the aforementioned woman from a country full of poppy fields and vaguely Arab citizens (presumably Afghanistan, but Activision won’t say). Since these are early campaign missions, neither sees the rival protagonists face off directly.
The T1 mission, “Red Crown,” begins with first-person footage of a soldier advancing on a possible terrorist in the streets of London, then failing to neutralize the person before a bomb goes off. The scene is followed by a briefing about a located terrorist cell on London’s outskirts, which leads your squad to a five-story townhouse. “There may be non-combatants on target,” Price warns you via radio chatter. “Check your shots.”
How will the final game handle players who try to, ugh, shoot the baby?
Spoiler alert: You’re not checking many shots. After clambering up a ladder to enter via a second-story window, you strap on night-vision goggles and begin violently killing two to four plainclothes terrorists per floor. You may be used to elaborate, even disturbing death animations when killing armored soldiers in modern video games, but the detailed graphics pipeline attached to this game’s night-vision mode—with incredible light-bounce effects that add a certain realism—emphasizes just how disturbing these enemies’ non-armored deaths look.
One apparent terrorist uses a woman as his human shield. Since his head is exposed, you aim accordingly, and down he goes… but then the woman bounces off that man toward a table, hands reaching for a gun. Thump-thump-thump, go the rounds into her body, after which she slumps over in horrific fashion. Two rooms later, a woman holds a crying baby up, and she turns out to be the only person in this compound to not take any bullets. (We’re not sure how the final game will handle players who try to—ugh—shoot the baby.)
A few more floors and kills later, the mission is clear, and all targets have been neutralized. As if to make players feel better about this stomach-turning level of brutality, Price concludes the mission by reassuring you: that last woman you violently shot was about to trigger a bomb and blow the whole townhouse up. You had to, soldier.
The sequence’s tension is compounded by an impressive destructible-wall physics pipeline, which lets both your squad and your targets shoot through walls—and thus reveal smoke, light-shaft, and particle effects with every round pumped through the building’s plaster-and-fiberglass foundation. It’s not just the walls. When one enemy crawls beneath a bed, you rain hellfire through its wood-and-mattress foundation to take him out.
“Jaws, not Saw”
By this point of the event, Infinity Ward’s staffers had gone to great lengths to talk about the “morally gray” concepts and characters that they want to explore—and how loudly they want to differentiate their game from the bombast of Treyarch’s Black Ops series.
A slogan of “Jaws, not Saw” popped up on a presentation screen while studio head Dave Stoll offered a few slogans of his own: “intense and mature over gratuitous body count and gore,” and “while Black Ops has gone into its own special superhero thing, this is a military sim.”
“We were also strongly influenced by stories of normal people trying to live their lives in the context of war,” another IW staffer said before introducing the other campaign protagonist, a woman named Farah. After name-checking documentaries like 2016’s The White Helmets and 2017’s Last Men In Aleppo—both centered on the Syrian Civil War—the staffer gestured to a theater screen.
This mission, which includes a “20 years ago” notice, begins from Farah’s perspective beneath a massive pile of rubble. The blurry darkness and muffled, panicked voices only clear up once a hand-operated blade saw comes whirring into the frame, mere inches from your character’s nose. This alarming, clanging moment is followed by many hands reaching in to free the character before her father comes in close with a hugging embrace and a frantic call to action. A dead woman lies nearby. Both your view and your father’s gaze linger on her for a moment before they start running.
As planes whizzed overhead and bombs went off, I thought to myself, is Call of Duty really going there, in terms of telling the story of a Western assault on Middle Eastern territory gone awry? Maybe this is stark commentary on collateral international damage caused by the American military-industrial complex and a way to ground the story of a woman hell-bent on revenge against the West? That would be heavy stuff for a CoD game.
Screwdrivers and trucks full of young women
But that’s not what emerged.
After alternating between mad dashes and careful stealth, you and your father duck into a home and find your older brother Hadir hiding there. “Why are they doing this, papa?” he asks. “They think we helped the rebels,” father replies.
After your father hands you a Nokia-styled candy-bar cell phone (“use them if we get separated”), a Russian soldier kicks his way into your home. Your father grapples with him and manages to stab him so you can hide. The soldier responds by shooting your father, which you watch before crawling into a hidey hole and picking up a screwdriver.
This sequence sees you sneaking behind the soldier, violently stabbing him, getting tossed off, and repeating a few times until you and Hadir subdue him for long enough to take his AK-47 and kill him, despite losing control due to recoil. This awkward assault—inefficient stabbing, the pitter-patter of terrified crawling through tiny spaces, the sheer height differential between Farah and her assailant—is one of the most striking moments I’ve seen in a first-person shooter in some time.
However, once you grab a gas mask, take parting advice from your dying father, and leave the house, the mission gives up on any semblance of a “morally gray” fight. Russian chatter from nearby soldiers, translated in captions, makes very clear that these soldiers have been ordered to kill all the village’s adult men, then kidnap all the young women for a leader named Barkov—”he wants the young ones,” one soldier says, while another quips, “he should have a full roster by now!” The rest of the mission sees you stealth-crawl through waist-high fields of poppies until you happen upon a truck full of kidnapped women, at which point you distract guards and sneak up to a gun. You grab it, aim, shoot, and the scene fades to black.
The gun: “one of the game’s characters”
To conclude, Farah’s life as a “rebel fighter” begins because Russian soldiers kill her father and kidnap a cargo truck’s worth of young women while making suggestive comments about raping them—and not otherwise hinting to a government-backed reason for this military engagement. That is some pretty clear, almost cartoonish villainy, compared to the brutal and complicated subject matter of the aforementioned Syrian war documentaries.
Is Infinity Ward up to the task of telling a nuanced, culturally sensitive story of how Middle Eastern citizens might emerge from war zones and become “rebel fighters”? I’m not so sure. The developer’s two-hour CoD event included one mention of “researchers going around the world,” with zero specific examples of Middle Eastern collaborators, researchers, or consultants.
Compare that to a roughly 20-minute speech about the game’s visual and audio rendering engines. “The weapons are the star,” we were told before a specific presentation about how guns animate in soldiers’ hands and how reload animations will play out with specific, subtle nuances. This presentation had a second Infinity Ward staffer come up and remind us, “We see the gun as one of the game’s characters.”
Obviously, when your game revolves around a gun taking up part of the screen the entire time, how those guns look, sound, and feel is relevant preview fodder. We were subjected to an impressive sound-modeling presentation, where all nearby materials and structures affected how sounds of gunfire and explosions reflect back to players. We saw a clever new “ADS reload” tweak, so that a zoomed scope stays focused on a distant target even while players reload. And we saw hints of major changes to the game’s rendering engine, focused on geometrical “sub-dividing” to enable roughly five times more polygonal data per frame of action—so that this CoD can look visually richer without sacrificing the series’ 60 frames-per-second standard.
Infinity Ward was more coy about this boost in rendering efficiency, showing us only a single wireframe image of a massive crowd of civilians. “We’ll get to that asset later but not today,” principal rendering engineer Michal Drobot said.
Hello to cross-play, goodbye to season passes
But without interview opportunities at the event, I left Infinity Ward’s offices with more questions than answers. The game’s producers repeatedly insisted that this series timeline reset is because they want subject matter “ripped from the headlines,” but what will those “timely” plot elements be? We were told that battles between the game’s four factions—Tier One Allies, Tier One Enemies, Rebel Allies, and Terrorist Enemies—will criss-cross and create different tactical possibilities, cool tech toys and the best guns, or guerrilla tactics, improvised weapons, and greater numbers. But how will those tactical flavors play out? Will we see missions with serious strategic depth and divergence, as opposed to this event’s linear content?
And since we’re rewinding the Modern Warfare timeline to bring back familiar characters but undo events like Russian nuclear strikes, what other character, voice, or actor cameos should we expect from past games? Might familiar plot elements repeat or return with serious twists and shake-ups as easter eggs for series fans?
Also, what of the game’s online and multiplayer modes? Infinity Ward is remaining mum on exactly what to expect, but today’s announcement includes a few interesting tidbits. First off, CoD:MW will support cross-play between PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One platforms, though the developer hasn’t promised that every single game mode will be supported. Second, Activision says it will “eliminate the traditional season pass so that [Infinity Ward] can deliver more free maps and content as well as post-launch events to all players.” The publisher did not clarify whether to expect any other kinds of paid microtransactions.
Instead of outright describing what online modes to expect, the company instead teased plans for “a classic multiplayer experience and an all-new cooperative play mode featuring a collection of strategic co-op missions accessible to all skill levels.” Questions about possible “battle royale” modes were not answered.
Ultimately, I can’t yet answer whether Infinity Ward has bitten off more “relevant” wartime subject matter than it can chew. But after seeing the studio announce such massive plot aspirations, I’m already getting some popcorn ready to watch the studio try to pull it off.
Listing image by Infinity Ward / Activision
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