After the ‘sprint to the point of falling over’ arms race of every Call of Duty since Black Ops 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is back. It’s ditched exosuits, jump packs, robots and anything more sci-fi than a set of night vision goggles and is going to remind you why the Modern Warfare name still means something with its secret weapon: ...a four story London townhouse and [counts bodies] about eight people to shoot. Oh, and Captain Price.
What the hell kind of name is that?
First though, that name: this is Modern Warfare. That’s all, no number, because this is a reboot not a sequel, with developer Infinity Ward citing the way that James Bond regularly restarts with a new actor. Like Bond it's still everything you know/love about the series, according to studio narrative director Taylor Kurosaki, adjusted “for the time you live in” compared to the 2007 original. The reason is in two parts: firstly, what Modern Warfare means has changed in the last 12 years, and secondly, as Kurosaki explains, “by the end of Modern Warfare 3 nukes had gone off, the Russians had invaded the US and, frankly for us as storytellers, there were no relatable stakes left for us to craft a story around.”
Reimagining what made the original stand out in an updated context means a battlefield with even more blurred lines and murkier grey areas than ever. So, where the original had you executing sleeping men in the level Crew Expendable, before later confirming they were terrorists, this has you double-tapping people sat around a kitchen table in a London house. It's all part of an operation against an al-Qaeda cell, lead by someone called the Wolf, following a massive van bomb in Piccadilly Circus.
It might sound oddly low key compared to the bombast and booms of recent Call of Duty games but it uses the mundanity of its everyday setting - someone’s home - to create a set piece that is ‘hold your breath’ intense, as Captain Price and his team clear the building room by room, floor by floor, through the buzzy green glow of night vision goggles. There’s almost a horror feel to its close threat as things play out. The corridors press in as soldiers cluster at the bottom of the stairs, listening to hushed shouts and clattering from the floors above indicating an alerted enemy preparing.
There’s an intimacy and brutal method to how Captain Price and his team deal with this, as your unnamed character creeps from door to door, dropping everyone they encounter with a rattle of silenced ‘phuts’. This might be a confirmed terrorist cell but there’s still something uncomfortable about shooting ordinary looking men and women in very ordinary looking rooms. Especially when they panic, or cry out for help - forcing a moment’s hesitation until you realise it’s a distraction as they reach for a gun. At one point a woman pulls a baby from a cot and holds it up; it’s unclear whether to protect the child or herself (a few seconds earlier you clearly hear the phrase ‘use the child’ in response to a panicked ‘what are we going to do?’ from above).
If that sounds questionable it’s because that’s exactly what Infinity Ward is going for: the idea that war isn’t as clear cut or as obvious as good and bad guys anymore. “If we were going to make a game called Modern Warfare we had to actually represent what we see as modern warfare today," explains Kurosaki. “What does that mean in 2019? The battlefield is blurrier than ever, the enemies don’t wear uniforms.” In the reveal trailer Captain Price intones that, "the rules have changed. War isn't black or white. It's grey. There's a fine line between right and wrong and somewhere, in the shadows, they send us in” and that sense of finding ‘the line’ seems to be the focus. Campaign gameplay director Jacob Minkoff picks this concept up: “if we’re going to tell a story about characters finding their line and being pushed past [it], feeling like things are morally grey and they’re uncomfortable with it, then we need to make the player, on the stick, in gameplay, feel uncomfortable”.
There’s talk during a presentation that ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’ and while the Modern Warfare story isn’t entirely revealed it’s clear that it’s grey all over the place, with a campaign that’s 50% played as a Tier 1 operators and 50% played as a Middle Eastern freedom fighter. There’s a fictional middle eastern country called Ursekstan, besieged by a Russian general called Barkov fighting terrorists based there. However, his attempts to control the situation have definitely overstepped the mark. That includes brutal attacks on towns with a nerve gas that’s ultimately stolen by the London al-Qaeda cell, and eventually tracked to the London Townhouse level by someone called Sergeant Garrick (possibly the Tier 1 playable character).
The greyness becomes even clearer during a 20 year flashback level to one of the Russian attacks on Ursekstan, where we first meet two key characters, freedom fighter leaders Farah and Haider, as children. In time they’ll become leaders of the rebel you’ll fight both as, and alongside with Captain Price. But when you first meet them, or Farah at least, she’s buried under rubble, hammering battered sheet metal to attract the attention of rescuers. Kurosaki describes Barkov as “a general that has the correct intentions but has gone off the rails in his effort to get what he wants” and, after Farah is pulled from the rubble and reunited with her father, it becomes clear just how far past the line Barkov has gone. Playing as the girl, trying to get home with your father, you see men and women shot in the streets while nerve gas finishes off the survivors and animals.
There’s little safety at home. Farah is reunited with her brother but their father is killed by a Russian soldier checking door to door. The following sequence sees Farah and Haider ultimately kill the soldier with a screwdriver, using air vents to get behind him and repeatedly stab him in the legs (the only part Farah can reach as a child) until they finally overcome him and cut his throat. Like the Townhouse, it’s uncomfortable but for entirely different reasons as you’re playing as an eight-year-old girl fighting for her life. The two ultimately escape, and set the scene for their rise to become freedom fighter commanders who will eventually work with Price. That’s something that will involve another character called Colonel Norris. Currently we know nothing about him, although allusions to Modern Warfare 2’s General Shepherd suggest he’s not on the good side of the line.
This Tier 1 soldier and freedom fighters combo, and the high/low tech difference between the two, seems to be core to the gameplay, with Minkoff using a diagram to display the four combinations it creates for you vs them. Namely Tier 1 vs Tier 1, Tier 1 vs freedom fighters, freedom fighters vs Tier 1, freedom fighters vs freedom fighters. Tier 1 have tech and training, while freedom fighters have numbers and ambush tactics using their familiarity with the surroundings. While sniper and vehicle sections are alluded to, the bulk of the gameplay variation appears to build on the idea of your Tier 1 or freedom fighter character going up against a contemporary or superior force.
There’s a lot to unpack from what adds up to maybe 15 minutes of gameplay. And that’s before mentioning the Piccadilly Circus attack, which has only been revealed in a trailer style burst of flickering images: a huge bomb blast in crowded London, bodies in the street, and what appears to be terrorists gunning through survivors. While it might sound controversial, like the days of No Russian Call of Duty, there’s one interesting caveat: Jacob Minkoff and Taylor Kurosaki, along with several ex-Infinity Warders who’ve returned specifically to reboot Modern Warfare, are Naughty Dog alumni having worked on several Uncharted games and The Last of Us. This might be an Infinity Ward game, but there’s a Naughty Dog heart pumping its blood. An interesting point to back up the stern story beats revealed so far.
It means that while what’s been shown could easily hit headlines initially out of context, Minkoff and Kurosaki seem to be bringing some of Naughty Dog’s storytelling skills to play. “Naughty Dog has always focused on equal development of story and gameplay at the same time,” explains Minkoff. “Gameplay influences story, and story influences gameplay, and you iterate back and forth. Whereas the old school Infinity Ward method was ‘make the coolest gameplay you can and figure out how to stitch it together with a story’”. If what’s been shown off feels uncomfortable then that’s the point, explains Kurosaki. “It’s not like ‘ah, we think the player’s going to feel this, so we’re going to say some line’. No, it’s about how you feel on the stick. It’s about having your emotional state be in parity with the character you’re playing as. That comes from design. You can’t just tell people how to feel, they organically feel if you motivate them in the right way through gameplay.” Minkoff continues this idea: “That is what you’re seeing in the Townhouse mission. That character you’re playing is eventually going to ask the question: ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ That means that if he’s going to ask that question in the story, you as the player has to be saying am I doing the right thing?”
“Modern Warfare has always been relevant, ripped from the headlines, authentic,” concludes Kurosaki. “At least at the genesis of the series. What do the words ‘modern warfare’ mean, and what does that mean in 2019?” he asks. War probably hasn’t changed all that much since the 2007 original, but an awareness of the human cost, on both sides, has. “If we were going to make a game called Modern Warfare we have to represent modern warfare today,” Kurosaki explains. “And that extends to seeing a civilian on the news who’s apartment’s been caught in an airstrike and what that means to that person's family, that persons community. Covering that side of it, as well as the Tier 1 operator side of it is what modern warfare means.”
The final cherry on top of this is that there’s a “new engine”. Whether that’s a ‘from the ground up’ new, or a modified version of Infinity Ward’s IW Engine isn’t clear, but levels look astonishingly good either way. The Townhouse starts with what looks like a CGI cutscene as soldiers prepare, and it’s only after the gun comes on screen you realise you're playing. I think I might of said ‘are you joking?’ out loud at that point. Multiple times, other journalists at the studio questioned what it was running on (the answer was “PS4” every time). One of the biggest contributions to this visual leap is heavy use of photogrammetry, with the studio scanning just about everything in the name of realism: rubble, walls, bodies (developers playing dead), old mattresses, even entire coastlines (parts of a level called Highway is built from photodata captured using drones). Someone lost a car in the California wildfires but the damage looked cool so they brought the door in to scan. It means the environments and details are built with at a level usually reserved for high-resolution face scans.
Perhaps the best thing though is that this is a single player focused game, not only at a time when single-player stories seem in short supply, but also from a collection of some of the best talent in that space. The mix of original Modern Warfare devs and Naughty Dog people is about as good a pedigree as you can get for crafting an exciting narrative. The original might be 12 years old but it’s still something that changed the shape of gaming in a way few things achieve (“we were copying Modern Warfare,” says Minkoff when recalling his time on Uncharted 2’s set pieces). 12 years is a long time though, so a reboot makes sense. What I’ve seen has captured the essence of the original perfectly without copying it, transposing that sense of thrill and action into a modern timeframe. Minkoff has promised it won’t be “a greatest hits of things we’ve done in the past” while Kurosaki adds that “we want to be as innovative with this game as Modern Warfare was in 2007”. As Price would say, let’s do this.