To say that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is provocative is an understatement. It makes you think about a lot of things, including how much violence a video game should have.
For the 16th installment of the Call of Duty franchise, Activision’s Infinity Ward studio has created a first-person shooter military simulation that conveys what it’s like to fight in distant and close wars in 2019, with all of the atrocities and horrors associated with dragging civilians into war.
It is disturbing and thoughtful.
It’s so disturbing that I recommend strongly that parents pay attention to the Mature rating (17 and up). I also wonder why we didn’t see more public discussion of whether it should be rated Adults Only (18 and up), based on a few scenes that are deliberately designed to make you feel so uncomfortable. I’m talking about chemical warfare, civilian and animal deaths, child combat, torture, and the shooting of unarmed women.
You can’t unsee these scenes, and in only one of them is it possible to choose not to participate. It is dark, in the same way that Game of Thrones and Westworld are. If you think of entertainment, it’s more like the hardest scenes of Saving Private Ryan or a documentary like Last Men in Aleppo, about the White Helmet rescue teams in Syria.
The developers tasked themselves with re-imagining modern warfare in 2019. They succeeded. Whether the fighting is at home in the West or abroad in the Middle East, this game shows the reality of war. In that, it has gone further than any Call of Duty (which has sold more than 300 million copies to date) has before.
This review has some spoilers, but I’ve tried to minimize that.
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What you’ll like
A story that makes you think
Modern Warfare has 14 different missions that take about seven hours to play. They present you with a series of combat challenges that are difficult and varied, such as infiltrating a base, escaping from a prison, or hunting down terrorists. But it’s not just a collection of stories.
Each mission shows the difficult job of the soldier in a world where the line between soldiers and civilians has blurred. Are the rules of engagement holding you back? Should you fire upon the civilian who is acting suspiciously? Should you use chemical weapons to gain an advantage? Will you participate in torture to get intelligence for your mission?
The circumstances are gritty, raw, and ugly. Soldiers are put in impossible situations, and the game forces you to feel empathy for what soldiers and people who are stuck in communities at war go through.
Strong characters and voice acting
The story is strong. Farah Ahmed Karim, played by Claudia Doumit, is a unique character in Call of Duty history, which has mostly pitted Western heroes against enemies from other regions. She is a leader of freedom fighters in the fictional country of Urzikstan.
Farah has to face her own values. She believes that what distinguishes her from terrorists and occupiers is that she doesn’t cross the line between aggressor and defender, and so she won’t cross the borders of her country. But she has to consider moving the line. As Captain John Price says in a conversation with another character, “You draw the line wherever you need it to be.”
This character and her story is what holds the narrative together. She is able to articulate where she stands because she is pushed to that boundary every day with the occupying Russians and the terrorist Al Qatala faction, a fictional proxy for Al-Qaeda. If the Americans were to use the same chemical weapons as the Russians did in her country, then the Americans would become her enemies, she tells a CIA agent. No exceptions, she reiterates.
Every character — her brother Hadir, the operatives Kyle, Alex, and Price — is tested in the same way, in how far they will go to eliminate the threats from Omar “The Wolf” Sulaman, presumably modeled after Osama Bin Laden, and the Russian general Radoslav Barkov. Where do they draw the line? In our modern world in 2019, it isn’t that easy, the developers say.
The echoes of this theme about where you draw the line in warfare is what makes the story good.
Fresh multiplayer gameplay
The new multiplayer maps and the realistic terrain draw you into the world of Modern Warfare. The environments include a cave in the mountains and a bridge over the dry Euphrates River. It feels like these places are familiar, based on news reports from distant wars.
The weapons and forces and spawn locations were carefully constructed for balanced play. I haven’t played against the masses yet, but nothing seemed unfair. I was able to level up with a light machine gun and get some kills in matches. My scores looked familiar compared to past years.
Team Deathmatch with 10v10 is a good addition, as is the larger Ground War mode that pits 32 players against 32. Some of the situations in Ground War were a bit crazy, like a map with skyscrapers. Snipers could shoot each other from the tops of those buildings. It wasn’t realistic, but it was fun.
Perhaps the best addition is Gunfight, where two players square off against two others in a small area. It is close combat that tests how quick and clever you are. You can take an enemy on point blank, fire from a distance, or sneak up behind them. If the match goes on too long, you can end it by capturing a flag in the middle. That forces players to come out of cover.
It showed me how to use all the weapons, and it also showed how I could improve with leveled up weapons. This is the kind of multiplayer that I could spend a lot of time with, because it puts you on a path to become better and delivers on improvement.
Realistic graphics and audio
Modern Warfare features a new game engine that Infinity Ward designed to make the world feel more immersive and photorealistic. The tech uses a physically-based material system allowing for state-of-the-art photogrammetry, which just makes things like a pile of garbage on the ground look more real.
It has world volumetric lighting, 4K HDR, and DirectX ray-tracing, and this looks best on the PC version. That means the water and surfaces reflect light in a more realistic fashion in the PC game, and the PS4 version looked pretty good to me as well. It is the best-looking Call of Duty game that I’ve seen. I’ve played a little in both multiplayer and single-player on the PC, and it looks great.
The audio is also excellent, supporting full Dolby Atmos, so that the sound of gunfire is very different in a subway tunnel compared to the outdoors, as you experience in the Piccadilly Circus level.
The added realism of the visuals and audio combines with the added realism of the characters, story, and environment to deliver a great overall experience.
No loot boxes
Infinity Ward studio head and creative director Patrick Kelly said that the game will have no loot boxes or supply drops. Players have reacted badly in the past to the microtransactions that helped unlock weapons and other items in the game in the past. And both Infinity Ward and Activision have listened. That’s a welcome development for triple-A games, and players will still be able to make cosmetic changes to their characters and weapons. Players have been very suspicious about this, but Infinity Ward has been equally emphatic about its stance.
Some elements of crossplay with PC players and console players are both good and bad. Crossplay lets you play with your friends on all platforms, but it introduces some uncertainty about whether you can really have a fair fight between someone playing with a mouse versus a controller. Infinity Ward has introduced some controls that keep the balance in mind.
The crossplay will be particularly useful in the Special Operations co-op mode, where players can fight together in groups of four.
What you won’t like
The occasional glitch
The game was surprisingly stable when I played it at a review event as well as in the multiplayer beta. We’ll see how it holds up as millions play, but I only had a few occasions where a cutscene didn’t look right. Only once did the PS4 crash on me entirely during gameplay. The first day of multiplayer has also been spotty in terms of server availability.
Scenes that make you uncomfortable
When a suicide bomber blows himself up in Piccadilly Circus at the beginning of Modern Warfare, you don’t actually see it. No body parts fly as the explosion happens. He holds the detonator in the air, and then the scene cuts away to something else. You hear the explosion in another part of the square, but you don’t see much of it.
In this case, the developer holds back from showing you what would be horrific, traumatic, and very bloody scenes. But in other parts of the game, you see it all. All told, three or four scenes are quite disturbing, reminiscent of the No Russian scene where terrorists slaughter civilians at an airport. As with No Russian, you don’t just witness these scenes. You are a participant. Most of the time, you are on the good side, but it is still very uncomfortable.
In a scene that gives you the backstory for the key character Farah and her brother, Hadir, you fight one-on-one as a Middle Eastern girl against a Russian soldier (who has already murdered your father) as he attempts to murder you with a gun or his hands.
After you kill the soldier in a horrific fight, you escape to the outside, where you see the victims of a poison gas attack, like a dead child and a quivering dog.
Later on, you will see a Russian guard waterboarding you so that they can extract information from you that they already know.
In another scene, a special operations team is clearing a house. As a soldier, you have to decide whether to pull a trigger as you aim at an unarmed woman who is not heeding a command to halt. You cannot progress in that mission until she is dead.
In still another torture scene, the Americans are extracting information from a prisoner. You have the choice to opt-out and not participate.
Collectively, this is all very disturbing. The context fits in the story, and I understand why the developers wanted to include these scenes. Perhaps they could have cut these scenes short. The child combat scene in particular goes on and on. I think it could have had a similar effect, as I felt when the suicide bomber attacked but the developers didn’t show it all.
An inconsistent tone
The developers say they tried to keep the same tone throughout multiplayer, the single-player campaign, and the Special Operations co-op missions. You don’t see any cutscenes in multiplayer, so the storytelling doesn’t extends into this mode.
But in multiplayer, you’re trying to kill as many enemies as possible. It’s not gleeful, but it is a competitive match that is more like a sport. It doesn’t resemble the serious, high-stakes world of the single-player campaign. I don’t find fault with this difference. It’s just noticeable.
As I said, Infinity Ward could have left some of those most disturbing scenes on the cutting room floor, just as it does in the beginning with the bombing in Piccadilly Circus. Sometimes it is better to hold back, without hurting the story, and I think that is a lesson that the studio should reflect upon.
But to hold back too much is to dilute the message of empathy for the soldier. The studio argues that the difficult scenes are necessary to make the point about the horrors of modern war. If you are faced with such criminal cruelty on a massive scale, how do you respond? Where do you draw the line on what you would do to make the world safe?
I’ve played through the game, and it was an intense and memorable experience. The story had moving parts and characters who had very different reactions when put into the crucible of unjust warfare. I think it is very well done, but probably could have left some parts out.
Yet I can’t fault the creators for their intentions in waking us up to the horrors that are around us in our world of constant warfare. This game is so thoughtful that it would be a shame if players skipped the single-player campaign and headed straight for multiplayer, which is a great experience as usual.
Ultimately, I think it is a good game because it might very well be the only way a new generation of players learns about modern warfare.
I played the game on the PlayStation 4 at a review event. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare comes out October 25 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Activision also provided me with a copy of the game for the purpose of this review.
For fun, I checked my previous ratings of Call of Duty games. Here they are: Black Ops 4: 90; WWII: 94; Infinite Warfare: 93; Black Ops III: 92; Advanced Warfare: 86; Ghosts: 80; Black Ops II: 89; Modern Warfare 3: 90.