Last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 made players feel like superheroes with all sorts of Specialist abilities. But Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is taking a very different route toward a mature, gritty, and authentic combat experience with its single-player campaign.
Activision unveiled the game today, and I saw it at a recent preview event at game studio Infinity Ward. Modern Warfare launches October 25 on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. The team said it wanted to create a dramatic game that was more like Jaws rather than the horror film Saw. I think the game is very disturbing, based on a couple of scenes that I saw from the single-player campaign.
But Dave Stohl, the co-studio head at Infinity Ward, challenged a group of press to look at the game with fresh eyes.
“It’s a very different version, not just of Call of Duty, but Modern Warfare,” Stohl said. “As much as you can, try to look at this differently and with open minds.”
The mature distinction, particularly between single-player campaigns and multiplayer modes, is often contradictory within Call of Duty games. The multiplayer modes are often sporty, where players trash talk and rack up the kills. But the single-player campaigns are more respectful of the sacrifice of soldiers and they are often intense and dramatic in their storytelling. Last year’s Black Ops 4 tilted in favor of the zany sport, as there was no single-player campaign. And this year, Modern Warfare will tilt it back toward mature drama with a vengeance.
Stohl said, “It’s just a different world than it was 10 years ago. It’s one game, not a disc with a bunch of different modes. It is a game, with progression and continuity across all modes.”
That sounded like a jab at fellow Call of Duty studio Treyarch, whose Zombies, multiplayer, and Blackout battle royale modes from the previous game certainly feel like a “bunch of different modes.”
Modern Warfare has always been gritty and terrifying, as it depicts how modern U.S. and British forces break the rules to go after terrorists in the Middle East and in major Western cities. Civilians are often caught in the crossfire in these games, like with the No Russian airport massacre in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and the death of a child in an explosion in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
Stohl warned us it would be edgy.
“We are still finding that line. It is important we treat the content because it is ripped from the headlines, respectfully. I hope you will see it,” Stohl said. “This is a more mature Call of Duty from a thematic point of view. Authentic and gritty. I hate it when the industry says ‘boots on the ground.’ I work on the whole franchise. I’ve worked on all the games. We like the fact that Black Ops and Modern Warfare are different. You see Specialists with more over-the-top powers in Black Ops. This is not that. More [military] sim. More realistic. Weapons of war. More kick.”
Then his team showed off scenes that were very disturbing. In one scene, a team of British SAS operatives storm a safe house for a terrorist cell. They clear the building room by room, sometimes gunning down unarmed women who are part of the terrorist team and who make aggressive moves. It has a gritty, photorealistic feel, with tight camera angles that focus close-up on the stacked assault team.
In the second scene, a child survives an explosion of a build that claims the life of her mother. She returns home, only to find Russian soldiers shooting chemical weapons around her village. A Russian soldier kills her father, and her young brother and the girl have to hide from the Russian soldier and eventually kill him.
These two scenes are a small part of the game, and we don’t know much of the story yet. But I found them to be very disturbing.
The presence of the non-combatants makes a big point about the thin line between soldiers and civilians in today’s world. War is not at all black-and-white. Instead, it takes place in a moral gray zone.
Taylor Kurosaki, studio narrative director, said that the team had to take into account that many of today’s players have never played the original Modern Warfare. So they decided to do a reimagining, rather than a sequel or remake. The team put the storyline to bed, took some of the good things (such as characters like Soap), and created it for 2019, inspired by “the world we are living in today,” Kurosaki said.
“The battlefield has never been less defined. Enemies more often than not don’t wear uniforms. That means collateral damage, civilians, is a greater part of the equation now than it has ever been,” he said. “Those situations are what our heroes are up against.”
“This is the most authentic and realistic game we’ve ever made,” said Jacob Minkoff, the campaign gameplay director at Infinity Ward, in a press briefing. “Taylor and I, as storytellers, all we ever really want to do is make players feel something. I remember playing the first Modern Warfare in the AC-130 mission. The aerial combat. You are firing down at enemies below. Thermal vision. There is no consequence. They cannot hurt you. All you are hearing deadpan is ‘Lots of little pieces.’ That feeling, I found profoundly uncomfortable. … It felt too easy. It felt dishonorable. It felt wrong. But I understood I was protecting my allies. I understood why this tactic is used in real life. It made sense. For the first time, I felt why it is emotionally uncomfortable. And then every time I saw it in the news from then on, I thought about that experience. That game made me think about the real world in a completely different way.”
In the single-player campaign missions that we saw, the emotions run high.
He added, “We’ve done a ton of research coming into this game. What we’ve determined is social commentary like that has always been in the DNA of Modern Warfare. We’ve sent research teams around the world. Players have unanimously told us they want those emotional connections. They want complex, morally gray characters. They want gameplay that feels ripped from the headlines and delivers relevant, relatable, and provocative moments that only Modern Warfare would have the guts to show. For me, as a developer who wants to push the medium forward, and do things people have never seen before, getting to work on a franchise, Modern Warfare, where that is expected, is a dream come true.”