Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Review: Reboots on the Ground
Ben Sheene / Oct 24th, 2019 No Comments
Infinity Ward‘s last attempt at a Call of Duty took players to space with Infinite Warfare. It was polarizing, to say the least. Going beyond the terrestrial confines of Earth was a risk the franchise had yet to take and whether or not it paid off was a matter of who held the controller. But polarizing is almost inherent in Call of Duty‘s DNA. A yearly release cycle ensures there will always be a new entry to play but also at the risk of stretching the formula too thin.
The backlash against science fiction was given a soothing balm in the form of WWII, the entry that took us back to where it all started, just with modernized systems of gameplay engagement. Black Ops 4 brought battle royale to Call of Duty and with it, the absence of a weirdly unique Treyarch campaign.
The back-and-forth shift between time periods and development studios has brought Call of Duty to a somewhat conceptual stalemate as Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer, and Treyarch attempt to inject each release with equal parts new and familiar. Maybe, then, it makes sense that on the cusp of a new generation of gaming consoles, Infinity Ward is going back to one of its strongest roots, one that redefined the genre.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is in no way old. It is a spiritual extension and soft reboot of Call of Duty 4, the first game in the franchise to leave the confines of World Wars behind. But don’t assume it is copied, pasted, and stitched to a new game engine. Modern Warfare is a bold retelling of a classic character. Modern Warfare is gritty and realistic in its portrayal of modern world conflicts. Modern Warfare is stripped of most excess, becoming a true test of gun skill.
Above all, Modern Warfare is back. The king has returned.
A Post-Modern War
Call of Duty campaigns and their bombastic, set piece moments never shy away from the sheer spectacle of budget and production value. Over the years, it has been a pleasure and thrill to play through moments where all hell breaks loose and explosions litter the screen.
Modern Warfare recognizes a second truth to these hours-long excursions into fictional battles: when conducted the right way, Call of Duty can be devastating in its portrayal of the human cost and psychological toll combat takes. Even the weakest campaigns in the series have managed to gently tread around the suffering and deliver poignant moments.
Marketing for Modern Warfare has teased at the uglier choices real soldiers have had to make when looking down the barrel of a gun. Innocent civilians getting caught in the crossfire and chemical warfare–very real scenarios with very real consequences–are a few of the issues touched on in Modern Warfare‘s gritty take on a near-current international conflict. Yet I think many players who always engage with a Call of Duty campaign will be shocked at how Modern Warfare carries itself.
Set against the backdrop of a failed attempt at recovering chemical weapons and a terrorist attack on the busy streets of London, Modern Warfare pulls no punches from the start. The second mission, “Piccadilly,” opens with a literal bang as Sergeant Kyle Garrick, a member of the British Army, tracks down a terrorist cell only to watch one of its members blow themselves up in the middle of the congested London locale. The mission proceeds with Garrick desperately fighting his way alongside local police with only a pistol in hand. Terrorists rush from all sides as innocent civilians run from bullets and devastation.
“Piccadilly,” in terms of Call of Duty campaigns is not necessarily grand in its spectacle. In terms of enemy casualties, it barely scratches the top of the leaderboard. But the whole time, I was on the edge of my seat, gripping the control with a bundle of nerves, afraid of shooting an innocent person. Infinity Ward spends most of its time reminding players of the stakes.
The opening mission, players infiltrate enemy lines as CIA operative Alex. Alex is informed to not down any soldiers in Russian garb as to avoid an international crisis. Once the lights are turned on after a small scuffle in a warehouse, the downed troops are found to be–you guessed–Russians.
Choice in Modern Warfare is often an illusion, a decision players wish they could make but rarely have little control over. It speaks to a larger issue that rank and file soldiers are often disposable, pawns to be used in a larger game. Rather than be given constant difficult choices, players are put into numerous uncomfortable situations, a goal Infinity Ward rapidly pushes towards.
Alex and Kyle are the main playable characters in Modern Warfare but they are not the main actors in its tale. Alex soon joins Farah and Hadir Karim, a sister and brother fighting Russian and domestic terrorist forces in the fictional country of Urzikstan. Kyle teams up with Captain Price, fan-favorite of Modern Warfares past. The two teams blaze a trail across the Middle East and Europe on the hunt for the lost chemical weapons and a terrorist leader named The Wolf.
As is standard in Call of Duty, the finer details of main villains and their motivations may get lost in the shuffle if you do not pay attention. The campaign, unfortunately, can feel tragically short at about 6-7 hours on a harder difficulty setting. By the game’s end, I felt the final act a bit rushed and the payoff somewhat dampened by the lack of character sendoff.
Despite these shortcomings, I’m comfortable with saying that Modern Warfare features one of the best Call of Duty campaigns to date. Part of that is due to the “supporting” cast while the other part is because of mission variety and pacing.
Captain Price is a welcome face, giving Modern Warfare veterans someone familiar to latch onto. His roguish charm and gruff accent hint at an inner kindness but as Kyle’s near-constant companion, he acts as the hardened veteran to the soldier who at times is in over his head. Price has seen wars before and knows the tough choices to make. One of these choices comes in after the halfway point. Kyle races to intercept a stubborn target who is being interrogated for information. Players are then faced with a choice: persuade the man to cooperate by threatening to kill his wife and child in front of him, or stand outside and keep your hands clean. Ultimately, either decision leads down the same path but I chose to participate. Saying it was uncomfortable would be putting it lightly.
Uncomfortable. Keep that word in mind.
Farah may trump Price in terms of likability. The dynamic between her and Alex is one of mutual respect, two soldiers fighting for what they believe is right. Like every character in the game, Farah comes to live with the effortless skill of her voice actor. Whether in the dozen or so CGI cutscenes or in-game dialogue, the cast comes alive like never before. There is no reliance on a Hollywood star, just pure acting skill. Farah steals every scene she is in, the passion for her cause and her homeland coming across in the writing.
Two missions in Modern Warfare serve as flashbacks to provide us with context on Farah and the true villain of the game. These two missions may also account for some of the most uncomfortable context in a Call of Duty game in years. We learn that as a child, Farah’s village was devastated by a Russian chemical weapon attack. After a sequence where players brutally stab and shoot a Russian soldier as a young girl, they run through the town. Humans line the streets dead or dying. Dogs and farm animals twitch and choke from the poisonous gas.
It was difficult to play through and at times uncomfortable. But there was a certain release guiding Farah and her brother through this trauma. It put a magnifying glass on a terrible reality that some in this world have to face. In fact, Modern Warfare‘s story dances quite close to current world events happening around the time of the game’s release. Though I won’t call Infinity Ward soothsayers, it’s eerie nonetheless.
Later on, we witness Farah imprisoned by Russians, starved and tortured in jail. At one point, she is strapped to a chair and waterboarded. As players, we must move Farah’s head left to right out of the flow of water and click on the thumbstick to take a breath.
I suspect that gamifying waterboarding and white phosphorous and shooting mothers in front of their children will be a major talking point when discussing Modern Warfare. Do these things belong in a game? Should these things be gameplay moments? I suspect that Infinity Ward knew these questions would be asked.
When I finished the waterboarding sequence, I felt uncomfortable, stressed, and exhausted. Part of me thought, “I can’t believe they did this.” But a larger part of me began to dissect what just played out. Waterboarding is not fiction. Captives are tortured for information. None of it is comfortable. By forcing us to play this sequence out rather than just leave it as a cutscene emphasizes just how awful this scenario is, how uncomfortable the brutal realities of war can be.
Modern Warfare‘s campaign pushes players into these moments of life and death, fully aware that it is attempting a close simulation of the real thing. Some might lament that Farah’s game time and drive are told through scenes of trauma. I mostly lament that players don’t have a full game playing as her. That’s how powerful the characters and story beats of Modern Warfare can be.
Though narrative context and depth has seen a complete overhaul in Modern Warfare, it is buffered by a constantly engaging pace that tasks players with a constantly rotating buffet of tasks. Of course, the game is chock-full of large combat sandboxes where players can shoot enemies with a variety of guns from a number of vantage points. These sections are basic fun but not too frequent to become stale.
Over the course of the campaign, players are treated to deadly infiltration missions requiring the use of night vision goggles and trying not to have too itchy of a trigger finger when rounding corners. A sniper segment akin to “All Ghillied Up” makes an appearance. Players will escort a civilian through enemy territory using security cameras. At one point, the main cast must ward off a siege at night, shooting flares into the sky to light up the field the enemy is sneaking through.
Infinity Ward manages to weave narrative and mechanics in interesting ways that keep players on their toes. It’s a thrilling pace, befitting of an action movie, and yet another reason to wish it were just a handful of hours longer.
When the dust is settled, however, I truly believe that Modern Warfare‘s campaign will rest among the franchise’s best. Not only for its darker tone that pulls few punches, but for its work in crafting a game that touches on what war means, how it affects those victimized by it, and the triumphs it can ultimately lead to.
The New Normal
Before diving into the multiplayer, praise must be given to the new engine Infinity Ward has used for Modern Warfare. The game comes to life with brilliant detail and Call of Duty has never looked better. This near-future world is brimming with activity and the busy streets of London and the dusty villages of the Middle East feel like real world places. Weapon animations are crisp and there are some especially sexy reload animations on the pistols that left me in awe.
Combined with the sound design, Modern Warfare‘s production value seeps out of every pore. It is a technical marvel, through and through. It will be exciting to see how this engine evolves over time and whether or not other studios will extract more and more value out of it.
Compared to many of its predecessors, Modern Warfare is a stripped down, back to basics experience. Combat is boots-on-the-ground and there is a definite lack of any kind of “specialist” classes that have been commonplace since Black Ops 3. After spending several hours with multiplayer, it becomes apparent that there is an increased focus on gun skill and mastering your handheld arsenal.
The modes on offer are not dramatically different from the expected playlists. Team Deathmatch has 6v6 and 10v10 variants. Kill Confirmed, point captures, and Search and Destroy are here too, offering up the same pleasures as years before. Infinity Ward diversifies these modes by providing a few unique spins on them. Cyber Attack is a variation of Search and Destroy where players can actually revive downed allies. A Night Vision Goggle variant of a few maps are also available, where visibility is limited and players can’t aim down the sights, meaning a glowing laser sight indicates where you will fire but also reveals your location to others. However, these maps have been taken out of rotation and will be patched in later, which is a shame.
Gunfight is an exciting new 2v2 mode where players are dropped into smaller arenas and spawn with a different loadout each round. The seven maps designed for Gunfight are tense boxes of death full of choke points and tactical lines of sight. A variation of Gunfight forces players to pick up guns as they only start with fists.
Realism hides all elements of the HUD and is one of the more interesting and… realistic ways to play Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer. Unlike the Hardcore modes in previous games, health is normalized but the lack of any killstreak indicators and other essential feedback makes the Realism playlist a unique addition to the stable of playable modes.
Ground War is the major addition to Modern Warfare where two teams of 32 players attempt to dominate massive maps and take over control points. Akin to the Battlefield franchise’s multiplayer, Ground War is a fascinating extension of Call of Duty‘s normally confined structure. At launch, three Ground War maps are available and it’s truly surprising how complex they are and allow for varying playstyles. As long as a point isn’t being contested or a friendly in a fight, players can spawn on points and players to try and gain the best ground. While not as big as Blackout maps, Ground War has potential for juggling vehicle combat along with killstreaks to make a ridiculous experimental deathmatch where new things can be added over time.
Maps in Modern Warfare deviate from the three-lane structure that has become a crutch in previous entries. Players can sneak into multiple buildings and peek through doors to gain a tactical advantage. Long lanes allow for sniper matches while obstacles dot the normal paths and force players to roll with a team to cover blind spots. It feels great to live inside these zones Infinity Ward has crafted, learning their ins and outs to maximize combat effectiveness.
Modern Warfare‘s shooting mechanics still maintain Call of Duty‘s incredible baseline but here, guns have more weight and punch. After becoming acclimated with a gun, you get a feel for its reload animations and recoil patterns. What results is a more deliberate pace than the frantic nature of a Black Ops game. Time-to-kill is still quite short and lethal but it’s amplified by the new feel of firing guns. It feels so good to go toe-to-toe with another player and come out victorious. As time goes on, killstreaks and weapons will likely be balanced out as inconsistencies become apparent. But currently, everything works as expected.
Creating a class in Modern Warfare requires much less thought than the systems requiring players to pick and choose perks and specialists. Not wanting to stray too far from the pack, Infinity Ward gives players the chance to choose a field upgrade, which is a bonus ability with a set cooldown. Munitions boxes, dead silence, deployable cover, and drones have varying recharge times and can be used in the middle of combat when seen tactically advantageous. They act as a kind of bonus perk or ability that, unlike a specialist ability, doesn’t guarantee a kill or extreme advantage. Instead, field upgrades are small boosts to enhance your current playstyle.
Unlocks in multiplayer work a bit differently in Modern Warfare. One of the chief differences is the lack of a prestige mode after reaching level 55. Once hitting that fabled goal, players no longer will need to reset their rank and grind for unlocks again. Officer Ranks are now introduced to the formula as incentive to keep playing and grinding out rewards. Each new season, players can earn 100 Officer Ranks that reward cosmetic items, weapon variation blueprints, and badges representing the climbing of Officer Ranks. At the end of a season, Officer Ranks will be reset but cosmetic unlocks will remain.
Weapons can also rank up but are significantly overhauled. Traditionally, Call of Duty weapons would have around 10 levels that would reward a new attachment with each unlock. Now, players can unlock dozens of attachments but only equip five total. Hovering over an attachment, players can see the pros and cons of each and how they affect the gun. Additionally, weapons have a long list of camos that can be applied to them (along with stickers and decals) and players must complete specific weapon challenges to unlock those camos.
Gone are the long list of emblems and calling cards that are unlocked through gameplay accomplishments. Players now activate multiplayer challenge missions that reward weapon blueprints and other cosmetics. These challenges task players to get certain kills with specific equipment or complete difficult tasks themed to the mission. As seasons roll on, these challenges will cycle out for new offerings.
While Activision and Infinity Ward have not released the battle pass-style system as of writing, it has been spoken of multiple times as only rewarding cosmetic upgrades and nothing that would affect gameplay. As it stands, monetization in Modern Warfare is being handled eloquently, with no season passes and no loot boxes. Rather, the systems in place are meant to entice players to keep coming back for new rewards that supplement their player profile. Will it remain this way? Who knows, but I’m hopeful.
Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer, much like it’s campaign is gripping and engaging. Few games feel better than Call of Duty and Modern Warfare‘s overhaul has taken the best parts of this FPS and given them to players in a modern setting. I want to come back to it every day and improve my skill. There is less of a initial skill gap because Infinity Ward has focused all their efforts on making the shooting feel as fluid as possible, an extension of the player. And now, the community no longer has to be split with season passes, which can only serve to strengthen the player base.
Co-op in Modern Warfare is an interesting diversion that is a distant relative to the Zombies modes featured in previous entries. Fans of Spec-Ops in previous Modern Warfare games will be happy to see the return of this mode split into two parts (or three if you are on PlayStation 4). Classic Special Ops implements your skills with weapons and killstreaks in curated maps designed to be frequently replayed. They are entertaining, quick bursts of challenge that are obviously best when played with friends.
Where Spec-Ops is meant to shine is in its massive cooperative operations that plop up to four players down into huge maps that rival Ground War maps in size. During these operations, players are given missions to accomplish that require constant movement throughout the map. Whether taking out VIPs, capturing points, or holding ground, this version of Spec-Ops is meant to keep players on their toes at all times.
Character classes can be selected from that have passive perks and active skills meant to benefit the team. Medics can revive downed teammates, Heavies can instantly give the team armor, while other classes can equip a unique weapon or item. Players are encouraged to diversify their roles and loadouts to ensure maximum combat efficiency.
The problem, however, is that Spec-Ops operations are insanely difficult to an almost unfair degree. I will partially blame some of the difficulty on not playing these modes with a dedicated team of friends who communicate well with each other. But in my time with this mode, few changes in strategies worked. There is no rhyme or reason to where enemies spawn from and usually when pushing through objectives, they will swarm on players like a flood. Not only are these AI opponents insanely accurate, they can take a beating.
Eventually my team ran out of ammunition because progress was stalled by the massive amount of enemies and the requirement of shooting down four enemy tanks across a field. Peeking out of cover meant certain death but was necessary to fix rocket launcher sights on them. Because there is no end to the enemies and no set spawn location from them, I would frequently see a couple soldiers spawn out of nowhere and rush my team’s location. Trying to separate from the pack would sometimes work but usually resulted in a solo member being quickly downed.
I think Spec-Ops has a lot of potential, especially for Call of Duty players looking for a cooperative PvE experience. As it stands now, some of the difficultly spikes need to be ironed out or the mechanics need to be tutorialized better. Especially essential tips like purchasing life-saving killstreaks before a match that could potentially turn the tide. Spec-Ops is meant to be played in short to medium bursts and I think the best players will crack the code soon, hopefully the rest of us can catch up.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a callback to when the franchise began its rapid climb into the eye of nearly every gamer. When the credits roll, it’s apparent that Infinity Ward is teasing a complete reboot of this particular wing of Call of Duty. However, there is something new and unique about Modern Warfare. The bold direction of the story left me wanting more. I was on the edge of my seat wondering where I would be taken next, or how the narrative would awe me again.
The gritty realism of war is here in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It translates into an overhauled multiplayer that extends from a classic formula while remaining pure Call of Duty. The game feels so good, so natural to play. I’m overjoyed that this is progression, not regression. Without a doubt Modern Warfare is a triumph and one of the best shooters on the market.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro at a review event where travel accommodations were provided by the publisher. A retail code was also provided for the purposes of this review.
tags: activision , call of duty , Call of Duty Modern Warfare , Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Review , Infinity War , PS4 Game Review