Call of Duty: Modern Warfare — Franchise's latest 'comeback' attempt offers mixed messages in the gritty but lacklustre world

The new Modern Warfare brings plenty of tension and action, but there is a strong sense of restraint that previous titles don’t have.

Vinay Viswanath November 16, 2019 13:19:36 IST
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare — Franchise's latest 'comeback' attempt offers mixed messages in the gritty but lacklustre world
  • The new Modern Warfare brings plenty of tension and action, but there is a strong sense of restraint that previous titles donâ��t have

  • The new and possibly improved Modern Warfare is so low-key that the events depicted throughout most of the game could very easily have happened in real life and most people would have been none-the-wiser

  • Unfortunately the campaign lacks impressive set pieces or interesting, inventive missions

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a strange animal. When previews of this game were shown to journalists several months ago, some attendees decried the developers as having gone too far, with at least one even calling for the game to be banned because of what they claimed was an unreasonable level of violence.

But now that I’ve completed three playthroughs and seen everything that the game has to offer multiple times, I’m left wondering if those pre-views looked anything like the game we were given. Thinking about it now, I have to wonder if that journalist was knowingly or unknowingly playing into Activision’s plans to help build hype for a Call of Duty game that many were, quite reasonably, cynical about.

Can we call it a comeback?

But that’s not to say the latest instalment in the venerable series is bad. It really isn’t. In fact, it is one of the most competent and coherent campaigns we’ve seen from Activision’s premier franchise in years. Although to be fair, it’s not been up against particularly stiff competition.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare  Franchises latest comeback attempt offers mixed messages in the gritty but lacklustre world

Press F to pay respects to Kevin Spacey’s career | Activision Blizzard

I honestly didn’t think the game’s developer Infinity Ward had it in them to revitalise the series’ time-tested gameplay. Adding a greater focus on stealth mechanics to their annual over the top action-fest sounded like a terrible idea the first time I heard about it, but I’ll be damned if the handful of sneaky sections aren’t the best parts of the game.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare  Franchises latest comeback attempt offers mixed messages in the gritty but lacklustre world

These night-vision sections could honestly be mistaken as real-life helmet cam footage | Activision Blizzard

Judging from its early sales, it looks like players are curious to see what form this reboot has taken. Sales for Modern Warfare quickly raced past the previous instalment in the series, Black Ops 4, and reversed a more than seven-year downward trend in sales for the franchise. So, as I said before this is definitively not a bad game. But is it a great game?

Unfortunately, and I hate to say it, but no. It’s not.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare  Franchises latest comeback attempt offers mixed messages in the gritty but lacklustre world

I’m sorry Captain…the facial hair is still top-notch though | Activision Blizzard

Something’s missing

As sound as the game is mechanically, there’s a certain something missing from Infinity Ward’s latest offering. As things have taken a shift towards more “gritty, realistic and morally grey(TM)” story-telling, we’ve also lost some of the most stand-out moments that made the Call of Duty games so iconic, to begin with. This year, Call of Duty has chosen to tell a far more intimate story, one that follows only a few key characters in a cast that is heavily pared back.

If that doesn’t sound like a criticism, it’s because it isn’t. The new Modern Warfare brings plenty of tension and action, but there is a strong sense of restraint that previous titles don’t have. This means that there are no crazy snowmobile chases, no massive raids on prison complexes, no nuclear missile launches and no simultaneous Russian invasions into all or most NATO nations. It was often ridiculous, but it was usually fun, unique and never boring.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare  Franchises latest comeback attempt offers mixed messages in the gritty but lacklustre world

And it still impresses many years and playthroughs later | Activision Blizzard

No, this new and possibly improved Modern Warfare is so low-key that the events depicted throughout most of the game could very easily have happened in real life and most people would have been none-the-wiser. This sort of story-telling feels like something more at home in Call of Duty’s primary rival, Electronic Arts’ Battlefield series, particularly Battlefield 3. Unfortunately, like Battlefield 3, the campaign’s lack of impressive set pieces or interesting, inventive missions means that now that I’ve completed the game, I have no intention of ever going back, which is a first when it comes to me and the Modern Warfare series.

And it’s not helped by the fact that the game’s soundtrack failed to make any impact on me whatsoever, a far cry from Hans Zimmer’s work on the original trilogy that I inevitably find myself humming every time I think of the Call of Duty franchise (I’m doing it right now as I type this).

But supposedly the biggest change is that…

We can be bad guys now!

Well kind of… okay, not really. One of the key messages of the new Modern Warfare game revolves around the idea that ‘the good guys’ may have to do questionable or downright evil things in order to serve the greater good. Things like assassinations, abductions and some good old-fashioned enhanced interrogation. Right from the first trailer, we’ve been warned that we’ll have a chance to see the not so heroic methods our heroes resort to in order to save the day. “We get dirty and the world stays clean, that’s the mission,” growls Captain John Price, our moustachioed commanding officer. It’s a good line, and a sentiment I can get behind. But unfortunately, it appears that Activision is still not comfortable giving us free rein to actually go too far, despite their allusions to the contrary.

For example, and this is where we get into the spoilers, near the end of the game, a secondary antagonist, charmingly named “the butcher”, has been captured and we require information that will help us stop an all-out war between the United States and the Russian Federation. In order to effectively threaten an enemy that does not fear death, we instead reveal that we have kidnapped his wife and son, seemingly threatening to harm them if he does not cooperate. So far, so good.

The only problem is that it’s an empty threat. After gaining the information we needed, any attempt at silencing the family (this was a black-op conducted on foreign soil after all) led me to discover that I was unable to shoot anyone but the butcher himself under any circumstances. Just to clarify, I’m not upset I couldn’t attack them, I’m annoyed that Infinity Ward set me up to think that I could, but immediately locked my weapon the minute I called their bluff.
So we can be bad guys… as long as, you know, we don’t actually do anything irredeemably bad. And that is where the game really stumbles. It makes no difference what you choose to do, things will play out the same way regardless of your performance.

More than anything else, I think the game chickening out at this crucial juncture is the perfect example of how Modern Warfare tries to handle a great deal of dark and controversial subject matter but shies away from giving you any real agency and allowing you to make some questionable decisions. For that reason, it ends up falling flat when it comes to the follow-through.

Be good, be bad, it makes no difference so who even cares. That probably wasn’t the message that they meant to convey but it’s definitely the one I walked away with.

Am I just an unfeeling automaton ready to mow down digital people if it suits my goals? Maybe. But I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way as several friends who have also finished the campaign were similarly unmoved by the oh-so controversial content and it’s unlikely that every single one of us is a sociopath.

via GIPHY

Unlikely... but not impossible.

And I’m not even going to touch the whole controversy of the Russian army being portrayed as being evil just for the sake of villainy. Or how the questionable actions taken by American and allied forces during conflicts in the real-life Middle East have been recast to add it to the long list of Russian war crimes we witness them committing against the civilian populace of a fictionalized Syria/Afghanistan hybrid nation. You know your jingoistic messaging has gone too far when scenes of the target of your vilification gunning down unarmed civilians exhort incredulous chuckles instead of… whatever they were going for, I assume horror.

Ultimately, despite its narrative problems and lack of memorable moments that will bring you back to the campaign, the great visuals and a large helping of warm syrupy nostalgia help make raise this Modern Warfare reboot to the level of a palatable but uninspiring instalment in the series. What I will say is that if the original Modern Warfare was as dour and unimaginative, I can’t imagine it would have become the massive gaming and cultural phenomenon that it did and catapulting the series to a household name (for better or worse).

It’s not clear whether Infinity Ward plans to follow up this soft reboot with more instalments, but if they do decide to retread or reimagine any more of this iconic series I have only one request; don’t forget to make it fun. Call of Duty’s campaigns have been many things but until now I don’t think I could ever call one boring, and knowing that I can’t say that anymore hurts more than I would have anticipated.

As for me, I’m off to spend a few more hours embarrassing myself in the multi-player by getting effortlessly sniped by other players, and once I’ve had enough of that I’ll probably just give up and go back to the safe, familiar and luridly colourful confines of The Outer Worlds.

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