It’s a peculiar quirk that Call of Duty, that most persistent of franchises, sticking around for years on end, always offering brutally quick online firefights, longs so clearly to be politically relevant.
Core developers Infinity Ward, in particular, seem to feel a draw towards commentary on the state of the world, paired with a knack for controversy that rears its head over and over. The journey from Modern Warfare 2 ‘No Russian’ to Modern Warfare‘s child soldiers is a curious one given the heat the team has taken at each turn.
After a few years pushing further and further into a science fiction future, Call of Duty is back to an approximation of current geopolitics, then. We’re in the familiar territory of naughty Russians and morally grey rebels from fictional middle-eastern countries.
In 2019, though, the cinematics and acting are undeniably kicked up a notch, with the same old story of stolen weapons and deniable operations punctuated by convincing enough dialogue and impressive facial animation. You play as a range of goodies, from British rookie Sgt Garrick to Farah, a freedom fighter whose traumatic past you experience in chunks.
Infinity Ward are practised hands, and swap the pace up frequently, between more bombastic shoot-ups, slower stealth missions and nearly on-rails flashbacks. The latter sequences are horrendous, featuring chemical weapon attacks, civilian casualties, and no real control over the story’s failure to justify its brutality.
Modern Warfare deals in some truly foul deeds, with child murder, torture and war crimes all present and correct. While it’s easy to assume that these are intended as warnings about the dangers of extremism, the game’s central message, that the good guys must sometimes get their hands dirty too, is a baffling contradiction.
Child soldiers = bad; waterboarding = bad; using a terrorist’s young family as hostages in interrogations = …good? If you’re American and/or British and the story says it’s morally redeemable. This is the logic at play, and it’s frankly upsetting to think of the xenophobic conclusions that millions of players will draw as they close out the seven-hour story.
Meanwhile, the script’s conviction that we all remember the first two Modern Warfare games in detail, their protagonists and baddies, is another amusing side-note. Expect origin stories for characters you don’t remember forgetting.
Still, the shooting itself is hard to fault. It’s twitchy, responsive and sounds absolutely, authentically deafening. In places, too, there are taut and satisfying set-pieces, in particular a few room-by-room night vision house clearances that nail the feel of terrifyingly abrupt contemporary warfare.
Then there’s multiplayer – an arena that hasn’t changed a great deal since the noughties, undoing all the wall-jumping, grapple-hoisting additions of recent games in favour of older-school CoD fare. It’s as brutal as ever, and as powerful in its compulsive draw.
You won’t really care about the unlocks, but you’ll want more of them. You’ll rage at the almost absurdly complex map layouts, the insane lanes of fire and frustrating asymmetry, but you’ll keep coming back. It’s quick-fire stuff, and for every one-sided loss that ruins your mood, you’ll earn a big win that stokes the fire.
This nothing new though, and where Modern Warfare falls down is on whether it feels truly warranted, much like the actions shown in its campaign. It ends up failing to treat war, and the experiences of soldiers are civilians, with the depth and rigour that is required and deserved. This is non-essential discourse from a franchise struggling to be essential.